The Danger with Faith-Based Humanitarianism

Published by Today's Zaman, 21 January 2013

Without a doubt, one of the least acknowledged heroes of global efforts to eradicate poverty and diseases, respond to emergencies and advance human rights and welfare are faith-based organizations and initiatives.

Faith-based groups are able to raise funds and mobilize effectively both in their home countries and internationally. Often, their workers are seen in some of the most dangerous places on earth, taking serious risks to their lives, trying to help people in places that traditional organizations or international bodies fail to reach. There is much to applaud in their work. However, just as the work of traditional mainstream charities has often unintended negative side effects, faith-based humanitarianism too has its demons.

While this is increasingly changing, most of the time, faith-based initiatives tend to bring help to and raise awareness of the suffering of their own co-religionists. Thus, Christian groups in the developed world seek to address the persecution of Christians abroad and often send aid to their co-religionists. This applies to all faith-groups, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

This is not necessarily wrong and truly understandable. None of us can address every issue in the world, and all of us choose issues and concerns that we are related to or have an interest in. Writers who support the concerns of writers in other countries, or academics seeking to protect scholars at risk, or feminist groups working on women's rights abroad all emerge from the same human starting point.
However, unless it is balanced and self-reflexive, faith-based initiatives that emerge from a single tradition and only seek to address the suffering of their own co-religionists can undermine not only the welfare of their own brethren abroad in the long run but also the entire sprit of humanitarianism.

For example, the last 10 years have seen an immense increase in persecution of Christians globally. A plethora of Christian groups that promote religious freedom abroad emerged, and almost all of them only address the suffering of Christians in the countries for which they advocate. Yet, all of the problems faced by Christians in a given country are only part of a larger problem that persecutes other minorities too, and only with a holistic approach can their suffering be ultimately addressed. By only raising the suffering of Christians, say in Iran, Christians de facto turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, for example, Baha'is in Iran who suffer much more than Christians. This poses some serious ethical questions about their work.

Most importantly, faith-based activism can easily contribute to the imagined “clash of civilizations” narratives and cement increasing prejudice among faith groups in the world. Take the example of the Turkish discovery of the suffering of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The Turkish public has only recently really heard about them and, by and large, only recently learned where the country is on the world map. When the depth of the suffering of Rohingyas became known, thanks to the efforts of the Turkish government, the Turkish public was rightfully outraged and Turkey rightfully has been working hard to help Muslims in Myanmar. 

All of this is noble and valuable.However, in the process of this interest and response, calls to help Rohingya Muslims repeated all of the fundamental mistakes of faith-based humanitarianism. In Myanmar, not only the Muslims but other ethno-religious minorities too continue to face ethnic cleansing, famine and serious human rights abuses. Christian peoples of Chin, Kachin and Karen fill up refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. Yet, none of the appeals for Myanmar in Turkey raised the issue of their suffering alongside the suffering of the Muslims.

More worryingly, the Rohingya issue often became portrayed in the “when Muslims suffer, the world is silent” narrative. In this case, it can be empirically proven wrong. For more than a decade, I have witnessed first-hand the work of a wide range of groups working on suffering of ethno-religious minorities in Myanmar, most of which were either Western or non-Muslim or were formed by other ethnic exiles from Myanmar. The UNHCR has campaigned for years to address the treatment of Rohingya refugees.

While it was tempting to slip into the usual “evil West” syndrome, hardly any Turkish commentator asked the painful question: Why is it that the Muslims of the world have only discovered the Rohingya now? Similarly, in almost all articles I have read in the Turkish press that lapsed into this “no one cares about Muslims” narrative, none really mentioned that one of the worst expressions of suffering of Rohingyas today is in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Such confused representations are often caused by a lack of knowledge of complex issues and awareness of the efforts of so many groups trying to do something. Yet, when faith-based humanitarianism slips into working only for their own brethren and into the narrative of “the world is against us,” it fuels dangerous misperceptions and prejudices. This does not help the suffering of their co-religionists in the long run, and empties their humanitarianism by reducing it to partisanship carried on the global stage.

The solution to this vulnerability of faith-based initiatives does not lie in secular humanism, but in faith traditions themselves. In all religions, we see strong theological mandates to love one's neighbor and help those in need, even when they are utter strangers. Thus, the problem with faith groups today is that they are often not faithful enough. They are vulnerable to give in to the all-too-human sentiments to care for “one of us” when they should be fixing their eyes on their Lord, who teaches them to love and help every human being, no matter who he or she is.