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What’s Unsaid | Faith as a way forward

‘No one is asking whether the system itself needs to change.’

What's Unsaid podcast teaser picture with a portrait photo in black and white of Amjad Mohamed Saleem, development and peacebuilding entrepreneur, research fellow at Universiti Malaya, and manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). To his left we see his name with his title. These elements are placed over a radial gradient background. The colour at the centre is a purplish blue and the colour outside is green. On the top is the title of the podcast: What’s Unsaid

Viewed from Western aid capitals, the international humanitarian system is overwhelmingly secular. “The expression, ‘you know, we don't do faith’ is still very, very much apparent”, says Amjad Mohamed Saleem, a development and peacebuilding entrepreneur, describing it as “a shame, because faith is a lived experience of communities across the world”. 

In our latest What’s Unsaid episode, Mohamed Saleem, also a manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), urges the aid community to acknowledge “there's an element of moral authority that faith leaders have” and explains how “they can effectively open doors to the communities.”

While “faith leaders and faith institutions are often first responders,” Mohamed Saleem tells What’s Unsaid host Obi Anyadike that they’re not “the panacea to all problems”, especially as faith can be seen as exclusive and skewed.

Secular aid organisations can also be weighed down by the baggage of politics and colonisation. “The aid industry is the grandchild of the colonial missionaries,” he says. “The whole language has just been about tinkering with the existing system. No one is asking whether the system itself needs to change.”

Mohamed Saleem describes working in the aid sector as a person of faith as  a “dynamic struggle”.

Engagement with faith leaders, he feels, is the way forward: “Sitting and talking to them gives them a sense of agency that you actually value what they're saying.” Beyond that, he wonders if faith institutions, with their own sources of social finance like zakat and sadaqa, might be able to “articulate what an alternative system looks like”.

What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by The New Humanitarian’s Ali Latifi and Obi Anyadike.

Guest: Amjad Mohamed Saleem, development and peacebuilding entrepreneur, research fellow at Universiti Malaya, and manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). 

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Transcript | Faith as a way forward

Obi Anyadike: 

 

Today on What’s Unsaid: Faith as a way forward.

 

Viewed from Western aid capitals, the international humanitarian system is overwhelmingly secular. But for much of the rest of the world, people’s lived realities are very different. Faith-based organisations are often the first and last responders to crises. They hold the community’s trust, and act as its connective tissue.

 

Marilee Pierce Dunker: 

 

Many times, the miracles go unseen, or sometimes the prayers seem to be unanswered, and that’s the moment where our faith kicks in. That’s where we have to become determined. That’s where we, the army that God is raising up, amongst our donors, and our sponsors, and in our staff, and all around the world, it’s an army of faith. It’s an army that says I’m going to pray, believing.

 

Anyadike: 

 

That was Marilee Pierce Dunker, the daughter of World Vision's founder – one of the world’s largest faith-based organisations. Her evangelical remarks might strike some as disconcerting. But faith can also be emancipatory. In the Global South, faith actors are localisation in action. Zia Salik, deputy director of Islamic Relief, told us about their work addressing FGM in Mali.

 

Zia Salik: 

 

It was only when we actually engaged the faith leaders in this community, specifically the Imams to get them on board, and for them to portray the message of the importance of the work that was happening in a language that was relevant to the people, taking the faith angle into the perspective of the entire conversation. That's when there was a breakthrough.

 

Anyadike: 

 

Well before that much-hyped term decolonisation became fashionable again, this bottom-up approach is what it can look like.

 

This is What’s Unsaid. A bi-weekly podcast by The New Humanitarian where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable conversations around the world’s conflicts and disasters. My name is Obi Anyadike, staff editor at The New Humanitarian.

 

On today’s episode: Faith as a way forward.

 

With us today is Amjad Mohamed Saleem, development and peace building entrepreneur, a research fellow at Universiti Malaya and Manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or IFRC. Amjad, thanks for joining us. 

Mohamed Saleem:

Thank you for having me, Obi. 

Anyadike:

So, there have been huge changes in the aid world in recent years, has there been an evolution in the way faith-based organisations are perceived? 

Mohamed Saleem: 

It's a good question. I think yes and no. I think we're still, in 2024, talking about why it's important to have faith actors at the table, right? I think we're still in that position whereby many faith organisations are still trying to get a seat at the table, and trying to justify why faith is important. Often at country level, you find the expression, ‘you know, we don't do faith’ is still very, very much apparent, which is a shame, because, faith is a lived experience of communities across the world, and if we don't acknowledge that, then, you know, we do communities a disservice.

Anyadike: 

Right. And I've seen Waseem Ahmad, the CEO of the faith-based organisation, Islamic Relief, describe faith actors as a ‘software of localization.’ Is that something you'd agree with? And could you explain a little bit more?

Mohamed Saleem:

Yeah, I mean, I always go back to my experience when I was working in Sri Lanka for a faith organisation, and this was in 2006, when the conflict first started. And I remember being told by the president of the Methodist church, ‘NGOs, you know at the first sign of any problems, you withdraw because of security but, you know, we as faith leaders are there with our flock during times of hardship,’ and so I think that Waseem talking about software is right, because faith leaders and faith institutions are often first responders. And we need to recognize that and recognize the role that they have to play in that. But we often don't do that. So I think it's important for us to recalibrate that conversation.

Anyadike:

And part of that is a trust and confidence of the community in those, I guess you call them traditional leaders, but it's more than that, it seems. Could you explain it a bit more? 

Mohamed Saleem: 

Yeah. I mean, I think in many parts of the world, there's an element of moral authority that faith leaders have, so if you really want to get into communities, to get community mobilisation, faith leaders are often the people that you would go to, so that they understand what you're doing, and they can effectively open the doors to the communities. Because there's nothing worse than trying to establish a program in communities and you have a faith leader at the sermon sort of talking against you, right, because that will automatically put you at odds with the community. So, in many parts of the world, temples, mosques, churches, they're often seen as places of sanctuary. It's important to kind of recognize that role that is there. I mean, it's also important to say that, we're not talking about faith institutions, faith leaders as the panacea to all the problems, because just as they have solutions, you know, we've seen that there can be tensions there.

Anyadike:

Right. The idea from mainstream aid agencies that we don't do religion, I mean, part of that seems to be a feeling that secular aid is kind of rational or scientific based, or maybe even that religion is divisive, that it doesn't help it can hinder. How would you respond to that?

Mohamed Saleem:

It's interesting, because for me, the whole secularisation debate, it's really the concept that separation of religion from public space, right. So, when we talk about secularisation, I think we are coming from a position that was adopted, particularly in the West, where there were challenges between the faith and the non-faith kind of space. And I think that is informing the way that we do things. We have to start from a framing that faith is a lived experience in people's lives.

Anyadike:

Right, but on that point though, I mean the obvious question or concern people have is that faith organisations can be perceived as excluding minorities, women, people of diverse sexual orientation, is that fair?

Mohamed Saleem: 

That is fair. That is a fair criticism, that faith can be seen to be exclusive. That they don't fully understand neutrality, or impartiality, or independence, and this is why it's very difficult for organisations to engage with faith. But the reality is, most of these organisations that sort of say we don't do faith, actually recognize that in many parts of the world, they will have to go through the local imams, and the priests, and everything else. So, a lot of this exclusion comes from an understanding of what faith leaders are expected to do, and not to do, and to develop a language that they also understand. So, in many parts of the world, when you talk about for example, gender based violence, often the language that we use is also very sort of Western international centric, without actually understanding that when we translate these words into local languages, there's actually either no meaning, or the meaning is completely skewed, right? So, it's important for us to get to a language that helps faith leaders understand their role, because faith leaders are never going to condone gender based violence. They get it. But sometimes when you just bring it up there, they're already thinking about a certain perception that they've had.

Anyadike: 

So, is that the problem of the baggage that some secular aid organisations come with, which is freighted with politics and colonisation and all sorts of other negative perceptions?

Mohamed Saleem: 

Absolutely. I mean, let's also not forget that the whole industry that we work in - the aid industry is - the grandchild of the colonial missionaries, right, is what we have inherited as the aid industry, coming with a perception that people on the ground don't have the agency to do things for themselves. They don't have the solutions. But actually, if you help them to actually get a literacy of where we are coming from with our humanitarian principles and everything else, I think, obviously, there are those who are very firm in what they believe, and sometimes it's very difficult to get through to them. But the majority of local faith leaders actually understand, once you have that conversation with them, right. I mean, the problem is, we never, we kind of, we never want to engage in that, because we're coming with a set agenda. Just from sitting and talking to them, gives them a sense of agency that you actually value what they're saying. We're not coming with any paternalistic notion of taking away your agency. We're not coming in to disrupt your system, to kind of damage your culture. 

Anyadike:

And at the global level, having a seat at the table, what would that look like? If we're trying to look again at this kind of aid architecture? What would faith organisations bring to the table? And what would they be asking for?

Mohamed Saleem:

First and foremost, coming to the table, faith organisations, I think, just want to be heard, right? At the international level as well, some of the big faith organisations project an identity that enables donors to feel like they're comfortable to work with, right. There's almost been a little bit of a compromise of who they are as faith organisations. So, many of the big faith entities, when it comes to dealing with - at the international level, at the UN everything - yes, they represent faith communities, but they don't overtly talk about their faith in those settings. 

Anyadike:

So, they're in a sense, indistinguishable from secular aid agencies? 

Mohamed Saleem:

Yeah. So, some of the big faith organisations, for example, will make it very, very clear that they don't work with their communities in building religious institutions, because they don't want to be seen to be proselytising, whatever. But when you build a church or a mosque or a temple as part of your community outreach, that creates the sense of belonging, a sense of security for communities, helps them to find spaces to coalesce. If you, as a faith organisation are reluctant to do that, because you think that you're going to be held under a higher level of scrutiny, because you're a faith institution doing that, then I think we should be having an opportunity for these faith organisations to be able to sit with all of their whole identity, right? I mean, they can't be picking and choosing that when they sit in this space, they have to appear as a secular organisation, because they can't be seen otherwise. But when they go to another space, they're obviously, in their religious sort of identity, because they're able to kind of speak that language. I mean… 

Anyadike:

Just to be clear though, that idea of expressing your identity, is that the same as proselytising? Or is there a way we can draw a very narrow line or navigate that line? 

Mohamed Saleem:

And I think that's where the concern is, right? That if we express identity, would we be accused of proselytising? If, for example, a Muslim charity, like Islamic Relief, or Muslim aid, if they go and build a mosque, because the community that they're working with has wanted it, would they be accused of that? And I think that's a legitimate concern. But I think there needs to be a recognition of those tensions. And there needs to be a way of articulating itself to actually address those tensions instead of shying away from feeling that if we do this, we might be accused of that. And, I've been in situations where I've seen certain agencies when they're giving out aid, there's a Bible in it and whatever. I mean, that's clear where the line can be crossed, right. 

Anyadike: 

So, should there be some kind of guidelines, some kind of like ‘Do No Harm’ guidelines?

Mohamed Saleem:

I mean, I think that each of these organisations already have a set of guidelines that they work on. I think that, yes, guidelines are important, but I think it's more the spaces for that better literacy. And it's an ongoing process as well, right? Because you can't sort of assume that it's part of a training, it has to be better mobilising of what are some of the principles on the ground? What part of that ‘do no harm’ understanding has to be how do we bring that faith lens into it? And what does do no harm mean from a faith perspective? 

Anyadike:

Right. Onto the money, there are alternative separate streams of money that faith organisations can pull on, but also there's zakat. Zakat seems really interesting though. You know, aid agencies in the West have to shake the tin whereas, in the Muslim world, faith organisations or communities have a built in kind of giving mechanism. Is that useful and interesting?

Mohamed Saleem:

It is, I mean, I think, you know, Islamic social financing has different aspects, so zakat of course, is the two and a half percent of your net income that is mandatory for everyone on on a yearly basis, but equally people give, particularly during the month of Ramadan right, is when people feel that the blessings are more. And so I think that there’s opportunity, sometimes I feel, and this is me being self-critical as a Muslim, I don't think we, as a Muslim community fully understand how to utilise this in a way that makes sense. I think we're still struggling with some very basic understandings of mapping the humanitarian needs with what zakat and other forms the Islamic social financing can do, and I think it's not just about the quantitative aspect of the money, right? Yes, it's just the money's there. But it's how people give, the spirit in which they give, I think that's important. And, in a very sort of hard nosed secular world, it's very difficult to tell people like, you know, if you feel like you've done a sin, you will give something just to kind of help you get out of that, right. At least you've paid your dues. That type of conversation is very difficult to have in a secular world, but you know, it makes total sense for people of faith, that they will give and they will expect that to be provided to communities. So, I think there's an opportunity for us to rethink this, and to be seen as a complement to what other other donors are doing, which then means that you can start to shift the narrative a little bit about how we look at localization, how we look at decolonizing, how we change the business model of how we're operating. If we're sort of saying that the business model of the international aid sector at the moment is broken, it needs to be changed, it needs to move away from how it's been operating into something different. I think faith institutions have a role to catalyse that conversation, because they can already offer alternatives, because they're not dependent fully on what is the international aid and donor market.

Anyadike:

Right, so you're slightly immune from the donor fatigue the government's perceived, because this is a different kind of stream, or does it also get affected by whatever's happening economically?

Mohamed Saleem:

Well, it's an interesting question, right? Because you would think that, but you know, within the Islamic faith, for example, there is a teaching that you know, even if you are struggling, you know, one of the ways you kind of get blessings is to actually give to those who have less than you. So, actually what we've found - and we saw this in 2008 during the financial crisis, we've been seeing this consecutively over the last few years, despite the economic downturn - is that the Muslim community is actually increasing its its charitable giving, because they fundamentally believe that, in the long run, it's going to help them. And when we talk about the long run, we're not talking about this world, right, we're talking about the hereafter, which again, is something that people of faith will hold very strongly to, so it's very difficult to rationalise that.

Anyadike: 

Yeah. Religion is seen sort of intrinsically as conservative, maybe mistakenly so. I'm thinking of liberation theology, spearheading social change? Are there other examples of transformative change that faith based organisations trigger? What's out there that you think have been good archetypes? 

Mohamed Saleem:

Yeah, I think, you've hit the nail on the head with liberation theology in the sense one of my most favourite examples, is some work that I've been continuing to support personally in Nigeria, where you have the imam and the pastor who are working in a country, in a situation where Muslim Christian tensions have been quite intense. And I think, you know, they continue to try and challenge people's understandings of what that looks like. I think a lot of my, where I draw hope, is actually from stories that don't actually make the news because they're not big enough, right, they’re localised stories, where communities, where faith leaders are coming together. In Sweden, in a place called Malmo, you know, the imam and the rabbi that are doing some great work to kind of address community tensions. So I think that's giving me hope that there's always these islands of peace. We often focus on ‘there is a conflict,’ and I think it's important for us to re-focus on those islands of peace.

Anyadike: 

As a person of faith within the aid industry, do you get fed up? Do you feel, having to justify yourself, or that's not a problem?

Mohamed Saleem:

It’s a good question, Obi. I think - let me put it this way - it's a dynamic struggle, right? There are some times where I feel Okay, you know, my faith doesn't affect where I'm working, but then there are other days where I feel actually, you know, there is a certain perception or certain misperception about faith and faith communities in the work that we do. And when we talk about it, there's often this immediate dismissal. And I often feel: Hang on. Why do you say that they won't understand, you know, have we ever actually talked to them? Have we actually engaged with them? Why are we reluctant to, at least even be seen, to be having a conversation with faith leaders? It's often, and this goes back to other conversations about how people of faith, we often self censor in these spaces, so that we were not seen to be arguing for a particular faith, particularly if we're from that faith. It continues to be a challenge. I think that, when we work in international spaces that we don't understand other communities, you know, when we talk about a lived experience, of community, you know, even myself and my colleagues who are people of faith, we have lived experiences about what it means to be Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Christian, or Orthodox Christian, or Jewish in these spaces yet, somehow, that is not recognized, right. So even things like the Christmas breaks and the Easter breaks are all given because that's part of what it is but, you know, then you have to take from your own time for your own religious holidays or it's not recognized. Now, this may be seen as a very small thing. But it really talks to that inclusivity of the community that you're working with, right. And so, when you have that, as someone who works in this sector, when, if they feel that they're not themselves recognized for the whole of their identity, and then that gets translated to then how we work with communities on the ground, where, you know, I've often been amazed that we've had meetings in certain parts of the world, we're expecting people say, from Middle East to come and we've forgotten that, it's the Eid. People in the Middle East are not going to be able to come for 10 days, but we still go ahead and have the training, or we have meetings on Fridays, when we know that part of the world, you know…so we're still grappling with just that very basic literacy and sensitivity. That's important for the people that work for us, if we're not able to kind of understand that, then how do we serve the people that we're supposed to serve? 

Anyadike: 

And the way you think about aid through the lens of your faith, is that evolving?

Mohamed Saleem:

Yes, I mean, from my perspective, you know, this is why I’m quite passionate about the alternative space, particularly with, for example, Islamic social finance. I actually think that we haven't fully articulated or understood the power and potential of Islamic social finance to address some of the humanitarian development needs in countries, which then offers us a chance to complement the other industries, and the other sort of mainstream donor based work. I think that we're still in that position whereby, you know, we are using the same model of aid and for me, the whole development kind of space really speaks to continuing the colonial kind of idea of whilst we address inequalities of poverty and justice, we're still doing this from a lens of privilege, European privilege, and we're still doing this from a colonial legacy that civilising missions and humanitarian agencies from colonial powers still perpetuate. We're still talking about laws, policies, everything coming from a certain viewpoint. 

Anyadike:

Does that irritate you a little bit that secular aid speaks this language of localization and decolonization? 

Mohamed Saleem: 

It's begun to irritate me a little bit more now, because I think even the concept of decolonizing has been co-opted into this space. And it's, when we talk about decolonizing, now we're talking about DEI, right, though, you know, we're talking about equity inclusion, we're talking about, Okay, how many more people of colour can we have on leadership? And that's a very small part of the whole decolonizing debate, right? When we talk about decolonizing, we're talking about: Okay, what does power look like? What does knowledge look like? How are people thinking about how they taking action and having agency for themselves? Right now, you know, the whole language has just been about tinkering with the existing system. No one is asking whether the system itself needs to change. And I think this, for me is where faith organisations in particular, I would sort of, say, Muslim faith institutions, because of the fact that they are able to have that alternative source of…they can start to articulate what an alternative system looks like, where we revisit economies. We revisit political systems. We revisit societies and knowledge systems: power, privilege, all of those things that a true decolonizing debate needs to happen. How do they shift the focus and the business model? To be honest, the aid industry, we are not going to shift the business model because that means that we have to address our own business model, right? And to some extent, I don't think we're at that point yet. Because, you know, we perpetuate this power, right? From the global to the regional, but also from the regional to the national and then you know, at the national level, we have elites who perpetrate the same sort of power imbalance to people in local communities, but people in local communities actually know what they want. They know how to solve some of these issues. I remember that when the bombs fall, or when there's a flood, they know where to flee to. They're not waiting for us to tell them. They will do things by themselves. And so I think it's important that we are humble enough to actually listen to them. 

Anyadike:

Finally Amjad, are you confident, are you optimistic? Do you think we're at a crossroads and we're going to make the right choices?

Mohamed Saleem:

I think I have to remain optimistic. Because otherwise, you know, in this line of work that we do, if we're not optimistic for change to happen, then, you know, it'd be an extremely difficult time. But I think that the fact that we're still having these conversations, some people get irritated, ‘Oh my God, you know, still 2024, we're still having a conversation about the role of faith.’ But for me, I treat that as you know, at least it's still in people's mind that we still need to have that. I think that the change will come when there's someone bold enough to say ‘OK fine, I'm willing to try something different. I’m willing to experiment.’ The concept of experimenting or prototyping within the aid industry doesn't exist, right? Because you don't want to fail. Because failure can either be catastrophic, or actually you don't want to admit to your donors that you tried something and it failed. But actually, this is where I think there's something we can learn from the private sector and from the tech sector, that the only way we're getting things efficient and then innovating is because we're testing and then it's failing. And then we're tested again. And I think this is where we need to have that kind of conversation. So, I'm optimistic that I feel like there's still a lot to kind of talk about. But I also recognize that the current geopolitics within populism, within religious identity, all of that, poses a challenge to how we actually have this conversation. And that could lead to people being even more nervous about having conversations about faith, because there's a perception that you're taking a side or not. And I think we need to be honest enough to create those spaces for those conversations. Because, again, the reality is that people's lives in many countries or across the world, faith plays a huge role. And if we're not able to have those strong conversations, I think we are doing them a disservice.

Anyadike:

Amjad, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

Mohamed Saleem:

Thank you, Obi.

Anyadike:

 

Amjad Mohamed Saleem is a development and peace building entrepreneur, a research fellow at Universiti Malaya, and Manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or IFRC.

 

Please visit TheNewHumanitarian.org for ongoing reporting on humanitarian issues in crisis zones across the world. 

 

What are people afraid to talk about in today’s crises? What needs to be discussed openly? Let us know: send us an email: [email protected]. Or subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What’s Unsaid – our new podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths hosted by Ali Latifi and me, Obi Anyadike

 

This episode is produced and edited by Freddie Boswell, sound engineering by Mark Nieto, with original music by Whitney Patterson. Thanks for listening. 

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