Giving and humanitarianism within Islam

We summarise Engy Abdelkader‘s article on humanitarian Islam, which examines the role of giving within Muslim religion and traditions – and the failure of the news media to capture this.

By Carolina Are

Engy Abdelkader is based at Rutgers University. Her recent research focuses on American Muslims in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. In particular, it looks at their charitable responses in the wake of these attacks, and philanthropic initiatives inspired by orthodox Islamic teachings. She argues that these reactions stand in stark contrast to the media narratives perpetuated about so called “radical Islam”. Indeed, humanitarian initiatives created by Muslims in response to violence frequently “support religious freedom, counter violent extremism, and facilitate inter-religious understanding.”

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Muslim Americans: An Inaccurate Depiction

Previous research has documented the ‘outsider’ status of Muslims within American society. A study at the University of Delaware, for example, showed that 71 percent of Americans view Muslims as more “them” than “us.” This has important repercussions. For instance, recent Federal Bureau of Investigations (“FBI”) reports confirm that anti-Muslim hate crimes involving physical assaults have surpassed 2001 levels. Abdelkader argues that part of this might be caused by the depictions of Muslim Americans, which often veer towards the extremist/terrorist scenario:

“Depictions of Muslims almost exclusively as the violent terrorist in reports by some news media outlets— arguably the most influential information source for Americans on Muslims—also reinforce negative associations in absence of alternative, more representative portrayals of the minority faith community as a whole. Similarly, stereotypical depictions in popular culture also obscure public understanding while depriving Muslim Americans of accurate representation. Additionally, U.S. foreign military interventions abroad also contribute to the psychological profile of Muslims as an enemy in the public imagination.”

For Abdelkader, this depiction of Muslims, focusing on the minority involved in criminal and terrorist activity, neglects the positive and productive role that is often played by ordinary Muslims – their  religious lives, perspective, political values and contributions.

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Indeed, Pew Research Center data from 2007 showed that American Muslims were “largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate” and “are American in their outlook, values, and attitudes.”

Giving: American Muslims’ Reaction to Negative Media Coverage

The emergence of Muslim charitable organisations has been controversial, with some accused of facilitating terrorism. Abdelkader quotes a statement by U.S. Senator Michael B. Enzi, for example, who commented that: “We cannot allow charitable organizations to paint themselves as tools of goodwill when they are nothing more than facilitators of evil.”

However, Abdelkader argues that humanitarianism is more representative of Islam than the violence depicted in the media, quoting the Muslims United for Victims of Pulse Shooting, a faith-based support group founded after the shooting in Orlando’s Pulse night club, as an example of this. The attack, which occurred during the first week of Ramadan, was carried out by Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old from Fort Pierce. A member of the group explained its creation by saying:

“Our faith is our guidance to be the best human beings we can possibly be, and in a moment like this, our faith calls on us to support and mourn with the families of the victims, to act in whatever way we can to manifest the light and togetherness of community, rather than division and hate.”
Other examples include the Muslims United for San Bernardino Families group, used by Abdelkader to argue that the Qur’an, regarded as the literal word of God and authoritative source for Muslims seeking moral—and legal— guidance, orders to: “Repel evil by that which is better,” meaning humanitarianism, rather than radical violence, is a key characteristic of the Muslim faith. In fact, Abdelkader argues that zakat – a mandatory two percent tithe on one’s wealth – is one of the pillars of Muslim faith, referenced repeatedly in Qur’anic injunctions ruling that every Muslim who has a minimum amount of wealth has to pay zakat, showing how the practice of helping others is crucial to Islam.

Media and Stereotypes’ Influence On Donations and Community Integration

A lack of knowledge of Islam as a culture and stereotypes broadcast both through public beliefs and mainstream media can have an impact on people’s lives both in the Global North and in the Global South. Calling for better community representation and for harder charity work, this research study highlights the negative and misleading narratives in the public sphere.

Read Humanitarian Islam by Engy Abdelkader in the Pace International Law Review, Spring 2018, Vol. 30 Issue 2.