Religious Humanitarianism and the Global Politics of Secularism - Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun

Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun (2011)

Chapter 9. Religious Humanitarianism and the Global Politics of Secularism

Cecelia Lynch

The director of a Christian transnational humanitarian organization asserts that the “development model” is more rooted in Gospel teachings than the “charity model.” A new wave of Muslim NGO activists from Somalia, Iraq, and Palestine call themselves secular, and some Iraqi Muslims reject the labels of “Sunni” and “Shi’a.” Up to 80 percent of people in some African countries practice “traditional religion,” often along with Christianity or Islam, although debate continues about whether such practices constitute “religion” or some other category of ritualized beliefs.

How do we make sense of these and other examples within existing religious/secular categories? What are the parameters of our “secular age” within the “desecularization of the world”? 1 This question might be posed in the inverse by many authors in this book, in order to ask about the parameters of desecularization within our secular age. Given the constitutive nature of my argument, however, I note the interchangeability of the question.

This chapter questions the boundaries between the secular and the religious in international affairs. In particular, it assesses how these categories work to produce assumptions about the nature of religious and secular beliefs and actions and whether they provide adequate conceptual space to capture the kinds of practices and understandings of contemporary religious humanitarians. The boundaries between the religious and the secular are often assumed to be fixed, although the contributions to this book demonstrate that they are anything but. I draw on in-depth interviews of activists from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on humanitarianism broadly conceived in Central and East Africa, the Middle East, Geneva, New York, and Southern California, to analyze the implications of contemporary religious/secular intersections for international affairs.2 The interpretations and actions that result are often construed as inherently “religious” or inherently “secular.” I argue, however, that religious ethics and action in a secular world, or secular ethics and action in a religious world, are constitutive constructs.3 They rework each other constantly, but the intersection of local contexts with global discourses and practices, including those of the “war on terror” and the liberal market, produces trends that can be identified and analyzed.

The “global war on terror” (GWOT), for example, conditions religious/secular boundaries in local contexts, and vice versa. Western policy makers assert that the rise of radical forms of Islam necessitated the GWOT; critics assert that the war on terror exacerbated the rise of radical Islam. Meanwhile, mosques remain important arenas for the articulation of ethics and the provision of social welfare in ways that do not necessarily fit the categories of either “radical” or “moderate.” As a counterpoint, GWOT practices shape the discourses of Muslim humanitarian NGO activists who seek validation and funding from Western donors.

Liberal market economic practices also condition how religious actors conceptualize their work, as well as which issues they prioritize. Both religious and secular NGOs use a globalized “NGO-speak” to articulate their objectives, assess results, and seek donor funding. Moreover, discourses of economic efficiency pushed by donor communities in health-related humanitarian fields must be taken into account to understand the hierarchy of issues that faith-based NGOs (also called FBOs) seek to address.

Finally, the religious/secular binary is problematic in dealing with the varieties of syncretism produced by the intersection of “traditional” and “world” religions. Weberian predictions that traditions based on “magic” would give way to “rationalized” world religions have not come to pass. Instead, technology and science intersect with human rights and tradition to create enduring yet dynamic relationships between local and world religions. These relationships continue to highlight the unstable nature of distinctions among religious traditions, with important implications for the religious/secular binary.

The Nature of the Secular and the Religious

Binaries such as sacred/profane, transcendence/immanence, private/public, premodern/modern, and illiberal/liberal all grasp at distinctions between the religious and the secular. José Casanova traces one use of the term “secular” to refer to those clerics who “left the cloister to return to the ‘world’ and its temptations” and “secularization” as the legal procedure in medieval canon law by which they did so. He notes that “secularization” also refers to the historical process by which the emergent state appropriated the massive wealth of the church following the Reformation.4 Talal Asad traces the terms “secularism” and “secularist” to mid-nineteenth-century free thinkers attempting to avoid the charge of “infidel” in predominantly Christian England.5 Thus, the nature of the secular, seen through these processes, refers to stances produced by yet taken against the formidable background of Christian institutions, thought, and expectations and to the emergent distinctions between public and private social, economic, and political categories.

Asad has also famously highlighted the conditions of possibility for the category of “religion,” situating it within the historical shifts that concretized the spheres of public and private during the Enlightenment.6 But Casanova also reminds us that the line between the “City of God” and the “City of Man,” or the duality of the spiritual and the temporal, remained ambiguous and flexible throughout the pre-modern era.7 In the context of contemporary politics, Salvatore and LeVine et al. show that the categories of “public sphere” and “Islamic law,” thought to be paradigmatic illustrations of the secular and the religious, respectively, constitute a range of public/private social forms in Muslim-majority societies.8

We are left, then, with questions about the foundations and ongoing constitution of the secular and religious, both historically and today. Some scholars argue that secularism is most productively viewed as a modern extension of Christianity, others that it is more symbiotically tied to different logics and mechanisms of liberal modernity.9 Others broaden the scope conditions of what constitutes both the secular and the religious. The concept of “multiple modernities” has been taken up by a number of scholars, and several note a “theopolitical range” of secular/religious possibility.10 Movement on this range underlies multiple possibilities of ethics and action, as well as a wide range of theological stances toward “otherness,” from exclusivity to pluralism and syncretism.11

Each of these conceptualizations is helpful for challenging the simplistic dichotomies in the field of international relations that rest on essentialized understandings of religious and secular identities, interests, motivations, and actions. These dichotomies tend to promote the view that all religious belief and action is exclusivist and that a unified secularism represents the normative standard for global ethics and action. However, the question remains whether we can legitimately refer to some practices and ethics as “religious” and others as “secular,” both historically and in the present. Charles Taylor adopts and refines a classical separation between the religious as “transcendent” and the secular as “immanent,” in order to argue that what characterizes and distinguishes our secular age from previous ones is the condition in which transcendent modes of belief represent one option among many (at least in Western society). Moreover, as opposed to previous eras, belief in the transcendent, in something beyond human flourishing, is no longer the default option.12 Yet others draw attention to the shifting and contingent nature of the religious and the secular, whether or not they subscribe to Taylor’s historical narrative.13

In this chapter, I am interested in how religious humanitarian actors today engage with these categories in different parts of the world, in ways that may or may not align with the options as seen by Taylor and others. In particular, what work do claims about the religious and the secular accomplish when people employ them to describe the ethical imperatives that compel them to act? I want to acknowledge the power of “liberal secularism,” in its Enlightenment, market, and statist manifestations, to shape the understandings and actions of contemporary religious humanitarians. Nonetheless, I also want to keep open the possibility of new forms of agency and ethics that might instantiate types of religious/secular inclusion that are problematic for liberal categories. To address these issues, I take a first cut at analyzing phenomena I encountered through research in Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, Jordan, the West Bank, New York, and Geneva, paying attention to the construction of the religious and the secular in the midst of intersections among global-market and war-on-terror discourses and transnational and local humanitarian configurations of the religious and the secular.

Challenging the Religious/Secular Binary:Humanitarian NGOs

Humanitarianism in both its secular and religious guises has a long history. The intersection of religious and secular humanitarianism can be traced to the creation of European missions during the eras of colonization of the Americas, Asia, and Africa. In these cases, conversion went hand-in-hand with “secular” conquest and colonization, encompassing wide-ranging efforts to institutionalize (the colonizers’) methods of health care, education, mineral extraction, and agricultural techniques. Those—usually religious—actors operating from a humanitarian sensibility believed that such “modern” techniques would ameliorate the living conditions of local peoples. Some, like the Dominican bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, questioned the unintended effects of their actions or probed more deeply into the ethics of otherness; others internalized the belief that political, as well as social and economic control, was a just, natural, and/or necessary component of the evolution and progress of peoples. Likewise, political authorities and colonial governors used religious justifications in combination with balance-of-power logics to legitimize their conquest and control.

In the nineteenth century, however, a new form of humanitarianism emerged that attempted to shed an intimate connection with power politics and focus instead on the apolitical amelioration of suffering. Originating during the Crimean War with the work of Florence Nightingale and then Henri Dunant, this new species of humanitarian most often held religious sensibilities (which informed and motivated their actions) but promoted a “selfless” vocation of service to victims of battle, famine, and disease. Dunant created the nonsectarian International Committee of the Red Cross, still the primary nongovernmental provider of assistance all over the world today. Despite the intentionally apolitical character of the ICRC, however, even this form of humanitarianism required an international legal framework that still rests on a minimum degree of cooperation with governments.14 Moreover, in an acknowledgment that religion plays a role in even “secular” humanitarian structures, in 1929, the ICRC split into two networks, the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, to reflect dissatisfaction in former Ottoman territories with the symbolism of the cross. Debate about whether the ICRC can adopt a new, universal symbol that does not carry political, cultural, and religious connotations continues (see, for example, “The Emblem Debate” on the International Federation’s Web site).15

Religious humanitarians today view themselves by and large as apolitical providers of succor, following in the footsteps of Dunant, even while they continually debate—along with secular humanitarians—the pragmatic consequences of their attempts not to take sides in conflicts. They are intimately concerned with “human flourishing” under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable—famine, genocide, systematic rape, disease, and the hopelessness generated by institutionalized oppression and poverty. And they differ considerably with regard to whether they encourage aid recipients to adopt their religious and cultural sensibilities along with material forms of aid.

Religious humanitarian organizations also operate in a context in which civil society organizations writ large have become an indispensable component of global governance mechanisms.16 Scholars increasingly point out that the discourses and practices of global economic and political liberalism enable and even necessitate NGO growth and inclusion in providing health care, development services, disaster relief, and conflict-resolution procedures, especially after the end of the Cold War, in conjunction with the retreat of the state in all of these domains.17 Third World states, as a result, sometimes welcome and often institutionalize or legalize the role of NGOs operating in their territories. Both Kenya and Cameroon, for example, created legal mechanisms to regulate and coordinate NGOs in 1990,18 reflecting the rapid proliferation of NGOs at that time, as well as questions about the state’s capacity to manage them.

The Multiple Effects of the War on Terror

In the field of international relations, the contemporary fascination with religion is intimately tied to ever-present concerns about the causes of violence. Consequently, studies attempting to evaluate the “rise of radical Islam” continue to proliferate. One response to the single-minded preoccupation with this religious tradition is to highlight the Muslim leaders and social groups that do not fit “extremist” labels and categorize (and promote) them as “moderate.”19 Another is to demonstrate that violence can (but need not) emanate from adherents of any religion.20 Digging into the worldviews promoted by religious adherents, in this view, yields multiple modernities.21

Complementing this research is comparative and ethnographic work on individual Islamic religious organizations and NGOs.22 Clark, for example, shows the middle-class character of Islamic social welfare in her study of Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen. Sparre and Petersen trace the relationship between new youth organizations and older organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in providing solutions to poverty, including micro-finance, education, charity, and development. Both types of work respond to the politicization of Islam by delving deeply into nationally based and explicitly Islamic networks of aid. Sparre and Petersen, for example, find “a fluid continuum between the extreme poles of radical Islamist ideologies and liberal-secular versions of personal religiosity.”

Yet another possible phenomenon shaped by the intersection of GWOT discourses (along with liberal donor imperatives, discussed below) with local practices is illustrated by the NGO workers from very different Muslim-majority societies in the midst of ongoing, violent conflict (Palestine, Iraq, Somalia) who self-identify as secular. In my research, I expected to find Muslim NGO activists who could describe a range of ways in which their understandings of Islam motivated their humanitarian actions. I did hear some of these explanations, but on a more consistent basis, I heard activists who described themselves first as secular and second (or sometimes a distant third) as Muslim and who more often than not backed away from the opportunity to link their ethical motivations to religious sensibilities. This was true, in differing ways, of NGO workers in local humanitarian assistance (development, human rights, and advocacy) groups operating in Palestine, Iraq, and Somalia. It was also in contrast with representatives of the local Christian NGOs operating in Palestine and the local and transnational Christian and Islamic NGOs operating in all three contexts. NGO representatives from Palestine, Iraq, and Somalia operate within and against the constraints placed on them by the war on terror. NGOs from Somalia also attempt to attract the support of Western donor agencies, while the United States must support Iraqi NGOs as part of its war strategy. In partial contrast, Palestinian NGOs enjoy the support of “progressive” religious organizations, especially in Christian churches, in the United States and Europe (and to a lesser extent, Israel). I relate three examples of how these global/local intersections shape “secularized” identities, drawn from interviews with NGO activists in each of these societies.

In Nairobi, I met representatives of a dozen Somali NGOs (ten men and two women) as they sat around a conference table in a UN office. I was introduced to them after they had spent a long day together discussing their problems in achieving their goals and debating how to get Western donors to take them seriously.23 As a result, by the time I entered the room, they had had time to vent their frustrations about how to provide aid in the midst of the renewed fighting at home, as well as their struggles with donors abroad.

A Web search before my arrival in East Africa revealed a list of more than 850 local Somali NGOs affiliated with the East Africa UN office. Each town had an affiliated youth group, women’s committee, business organization, farmers’ collective, and educational organization. The people I met all represented organizations founded between 1991 and 2007, itself a sign of the globalizing force of the NGO phenomenon. After I described my research project, several people in the room demanded to know what was in the research for them. How would it help them get money to do their work? They were unanimous in arguing that strengthening civil-society groups was imperative to foster peace and democracy, but they complained that nobody wanted to entrust them with the task. They argued that even UN agency workers refused to enter areas outside Mogadishu (for example, in the Juba province of the southwestern region, which borders Kenya), even though people in the room from that region said that travel there was safe at the time (when I returned in 2008, some of the same people provided very different assessments of safety). No NGO representatives in the room identified themselves or their organizations as Muslim during the initial introductions, even though Islam is the religion of 97 percent of the Somali population.

Although at first, people seemed reluctant to discuss the impact of religion on their work, some eventually began to relate pervasive fears of Islam to their reluctance. As one man put it, what would happen if he appeared before UN agencies or Western aid organizations in clothing that identified him as Muslim? He said it would send the wrong message to potential donors, who would assume that he was a “radical” and therefore dangerous.

A few days later, down the hall from the Somali NGO meeting, two representatives from European NGOs (one actually a “GONGO,” or government-supported NGO) who worked in Somalia discussed the ongoing warfare and the technical requirements of coordinating and delivering aid. They also acknowledged their lack of trust in local “briefcase NGOs,” which, they feared, might disappear after receiving donor money. In still other interviews, local representatives of two transnational Evangelical Christian organizations said separately that their organizations were looking for ways to work in Somalia. Funding was not a problem for either of these groups, as each possessed an extensive donor base through corporations, Western governments, and their faith-based constituencies. However, both admitted that their presence would likely not be welcomed, given the overwhelming Muslim majority in Somali society. Evangelical Christians, therefore, do not face the same obstacles to legitimacy vis-à-vis Western donors (or GWOT discourses) confronted by Somali NGOs, although they do face the obstacle of religious difference in the local Somali context.

Iraqi society, in contrast with Somali society, has long been acclaimed for its high level of education and its “secular” character before 2003, including under the regime of Saddam Hussein. In Iraq, as in other countries, NGOs have proliferated in recent years, particularly since the U.S. invasion. Approximately twenty Iraqi human-rights, women’s-rights, health, and development NGO representatives attended a December 2007 conference in Amman to create an “Arab nonviolence network” (additional Arab participants came from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan). In addition to attending the conference and observing the proceedings, I interviewed six of the Iraqi representatives. Outside of the conference, I also interviewed the public-relations officer of a consortium of transnational NGOs operating in Iraq (with headquarters in Amman) and several other transnational NGOs and IGOs working in Iraq or assisting with Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

Postoccupation anxieties about religion in Iraq, constructed in tandem with GWOT discourses, emphasize sectarian divisions between Shi’as and Sunnis as a major cause of bloodshed. These anxieties, as well as “solutions” in the form of dividing the country into autonomous regions, do, in fact, work to essentialize religious identities, mimicking the processes narrated by David Campbell in his analysis of Bosnia during the 1990s.24 Dynamics at the Amman conference, however, demonstrated Iraqi NGO representatives’ resistance to religious categorization.

One of the most interesting moments of the conference came early on, during the introductions. One man identified himself as a member of the Mahdi movement (under the umbrella of Shi’a leader Moqtada al Sadr). At that point, an imam from Syria challenged the legitimacy of his participation, asking if he genuinely considered himself to be nonviolent. The first man responded that the Mahdi movement had taken the lead in promoting a cease-fire during the summer of 2007 and that advocates of nonviolence in the movement such as himself should be supported in order to maintain it.

The man sitting next to me then stood up. He had already introduced himself as the director of a human-rights NGO, but now he identified himself as Sunni to add legitimacy to his point. He protested the challenge to his compatriot, saying that he was tired of being divided by others; his colleague had every right to be there; they were all Iraqis. All of the Iraqi NGO representatives at the conference, selected to represent every part of the country, spontaneously and loudly clapped.

This incident occurred the day after an interview with two representatives of a Western-based, transnational Christian NGO (one from Sudan, the other from Jordan), who remarked that what they noticed in working with Iraqis was their insistence on not being divided by or labeled according to the religious categories of Shi’a and Sunni. In subsequent interviews with Iraqi NGO representatives at the Amman conference, I asked about the incident described above, as well as about the content of religious identities. One woman, who represented an educational NGO in south-central Iraq, said that her father was Sunni and her mother Shi’a. She followed her father’s tradition, but the categories had never been important to her or her family. Another woman, who founded an NGO in 2003 to work against the rise in domestic violence against women (caused, she said, by the fact that men had nothing to do after the invasion destroyed the possibility of employment), said that she was Shi’a but protested that people tended not to notice religious difference before the war. This sentiment was repeated by two other men who worked for human-rights NGOs in the north. A Kurdish man partially dissented but still noted that the primary issue for Iraqi Kurds such as himself was fair treatment and significant autonomy within (rather than outside of) Iraq.

These NGO representatives all identified themselves as Muslims but almost always as “secular Muslims.” All operated on the front lines of the alleged war on terror; several talked about family members and fellow NGO workers killed by both U.S. and opposition forces, and one described his multiple imprisonments by the U.S. occupational authorities. GWOT discourses thus affected their every move, but many were also heavily dependent on U.S. government funding for their organizations. At least one (who had been imprisoned by U.S. occupation authorities) was supported for a time by the Republican Party, and several were funded at the time of my interviews by the National Democratic Institute.

These Iraqi NGO representatives appeared to share several tacit understandings that shaped their constructions of the religious versus the secular. First, they were determined not to have their religious beliefs and practices defined or reified by others. Second, they claimed an “Iraqi” identity, while at the same time delegitimizing religious divisions. In so doing, they appeared to relegate their “religious” beliefs and practices to the private sphere, even as they struggled to cope with public manifestations and impositions of religious identity.

The Amman nonviolence network conference also included a large number of Palestinian NGO representatives. Palestinian activists are often equated with militant varieties of Islam, even though Palestine was historically a multireligious society. The Palestinian Christian population, however, which includes a variety of Orthodox, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Protestant sects, has declined precipitously in the past generation, now making up approximately 2 percent of Palestinian society. Sabeel, an ecumenical Christian NGO promoting liberation theology that is based outside of Jerusalem and supports a nonviolent alternative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, documents the decline in several of its publications.25

The Muslim Palestinian NGO representatives I spoke with at the Amman conference, along with others interviewed later in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, seemed uninterested in relating their activities (which included promoting human rights and documenting abuses, resisting the construction of the barrier wall, and setting up job opportunities in communal olive cultivation and traditional crafts) to religious motivations or Islamic principles. In Amman, the Palestinian cohort was the most adamant in insisting on the right to a tactical rather than an absolute or a principled definition of nonviolence. They argued consistently that in the context of occupation, they could not compel their co-activists to forgo strategies to which they were entitled under international humanitarian law. At the conference, Palestinian NGO representatives consistently appealed to international legal discourses regarding rights to resist foreign occupation and ethnic cleansing, leaving open the methods by which such resistance might take place.26

Later, in Bethlehem, I interviewed several members of an interfaith Palestinian NGO that promoted nonviolence. When I asked about their religious backgrounds, two (one a cofounder of the group) said that they were Muslim but asserted that there was little, if any, connection between their Islamic upbringing and their current NGO activities. They described their struggle against occupation in political, not religious, terms (although they did not support any particular political party). This was in contrast with another leader of the group, a Christian, who immediately linked his work for justice to Christian interpretations of nonviolence and resistance to oppression.

In each of these cases, the Somali, Iraqi, and Palestinian NGO activists claimed predominantly secular identities. “Yes, I’m a Muslim, but I’m secular,” was a statement made frequently by activists from all three regions. The work of the secular in these cases must be seen against the background of Western anxieties regarding Islam in the global war on terror. The secular also works in these cases to create spaces for appeals to Western donors on the part of Somalis (even though such appeals have not proven successful in most cases) and “progressive” Christian sympathizers on the part of Palestinians. Finally, it works to legitimize appeals to international legal norms. Yet there were also differences in these claims, depending on contextual factors and individual sentiments, as well as activists’ varying resistances to the global discourses on liberalism and terror. This combination of local interpretations of and resistances to the external imposition of identity leaves room for new secular/religious possibilities.

The Influence of Liberal Market Practices

Liberal market practices, as well as GWOT discourses, reconfigure secular/religious assumptions and boundaries. As a number of scholars argue, the Foucauldian concept of governmentality is useful for understanding the explosive rise of NGO humanitarian activities in the context of contemporary neoliberalism.27 Governmentality highlights how contemporary governance mechanisms interpellated by states and international organizations facilitate and even require the expansion of NGOs into “issues hitherto held to be the responsibility of authorized governmental agencies.”28 Increasingly, foreign aid is channeled through NGOs, including faith-based organizations. In turn, NGO-run clinics, schools, and community programs represent considerable percentages of health care, education, and other basic services. One analysis, for example, estimates that by 1999, NGOs in Kenya contributed three times the funds to rural water schemes as the World Bank and provided between 45 percent and 50 percent of all health-care services.29

According to the governmentality paradigm, however, such influence by NGOs does not translate into independence for civil-society actors, who must constantly demonstrate their worthiness to assume the functions previously allocated to the state, by carrying out their tasks “in accordance with the appropriate (or approved) model of action.”30 Approved models of action include results-oriented market discourses that value and prioritize accountability, efficiency, results, and “sustainability” (referring not to ecological sensitivity but to the ability to wean local programs from transnational sources of funding). States, international organizations, and NGOs, including FBOs, reproduce these discourses through their programming, marketing techniques, and annual reports.

For example, donors and NGOs have created a globalized discourse that requires recipient organizations to mold their work into buzz-word categories such as “training,” “capacity-building,” and “partnership.” Training refers broadly to the merging of technical abilities and education, in the belief that such knowledge solves problems ranging from hunger to disease to conflict. Capacity-building refers to mobilizing this knowledge and material resources into self-sustaining and locally led programs. Partnership indicates both collaboration among different groups on a local level and creating solid NGO-donor-IGO (intergovernmental organization) relationships. The focus on partnership, however, also hints at the inefficiencies resulting when the ever-proliferating NGOs trip over one another’s work and their need to demonstrate outside donor support. The latter can paradoxically work against the goal of capacity-building, when local understandings of needs do not match donor priorities.

These discourses—interpellated by state governments as well as multilateral organizations—shape the conceptualizations and programmatic objectives of religious humanitarians, who fit their work into these categories in multiple ways. For example, almost every organization I encountered noted its work in training and capacity-building. These are intimately tied to metrics of progress and achievement in ways that both can be counted (numbers of trainings provided and how many people trained are parts of reports to donors) and are evident in the visual images used in NGO marketing techniques. Increasingly, pictures of starving children on NGO brochures have been replaced by smiling aid recipients receiving instruction in schools or immunizations in health clinics, producing crafts, or harvesting crops. Two U.S.-based NGO officials I traveled with in Cameroon took dozens of pictures at each aid-recipient location (in this case, clinics and hospitals),31 always trying to achieve the perfect shot of happy children, new mothers, or gleaming equipment in one of the sponsored programs, in the hopes that one of their photos would appear in the home office’s publicity brochures.32 Public-private partnerships—which blur the lines between state and nonstate, profit and nonprofit—have also become critical components of NGOs’ accountability and success stories. World Vision Kenya, for example, focuses on partnership in its 2005 Report, “Building Collaborative Bridges,” and states, “We worked with the government, churches, United Nations Agencies, other NGOs, FBOs, CBOs and communities. We do this for children. Our prayer for every child is to know life in all its fullness.” The report notes success in partnering with, among others, the Kenyan Parliamentary Committee for Orphaned and Vulnerable Children on child-welfare programs and Barclays Bank on malaria and HIV/AIDS programs.33

Accountability and assessments of the worthiness of programs are not unreasonable requirements. Combined with the competition for funding, however, they create a corresponding vulnerability to trends that can hinder the goals of any humanitarian NGO, perhaps particularly those promoted by faith-based groups. In Nairobi, after hearing interviewee after interviewee describe his or her group’s work using the same terminology, I observed to one representative that I was hearing a uniform, globalized NGO jargon that reflected market imperatives. He stopped his recitation of activities and agreed, reflecting that he was usually the person in his organization who protested against the constant pressure to fit the group’s programs and goals into categories created by outside donor agencies.

NGOs, including faith-based ones, both replicate and sometimes resist the terminology as well as questionable metrics driving donor-recipient relationships. However, they must also cope with the unintended effects of these discourses for their theologies of care. A major contemporary example is the way faith-based humanitarians cope with diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. Considerable resources continue to be expended on HIV/AIDS assistance and prevention programs, although worries about flat or diminished funding for global AIDS programs have increased under the Obama administration. Malaria eradication, on the other hand, has become a priority for many faith-based and secular groups and NGO networks such as the “Nothing But Nets” campaign. As a result, when I asked one Western Christian development NGO official in New York about the denomination’s HIV/AIDS programs, the (cynical) response was “Where have you been? Everyone is interested in malaria now.” Campaigns targeting malaria offer Westerners the opportunity of contributing (five dollars to fifteen dollars, depending on the organization) to buy a treated bed net for a recipient in sub-Saharan Africa, thereby “saving a life.”

When asked to explain the shift in emphasis, another New York Christian NGO director referred more positively to the logic of success, saying that malaria is “winnable.” Treatments for HIV/AIDS entail large start-up costs, as well as continued monthly visits, while treated bed nets appear to be a simple, inexpensive, and relatively available solution to a perceived crisis (although this belief is challenged by many health workers on the ground). Yet several Kenyan religious representatives appeared bemused by the new interest in malaria, one remarking, “It’s not as though we haven’t been dying of it forever.”

Given that market liberalism encourages clear (if questionable) metrics of programmatic development and success, theological differences about sexuality might also influence faith-based NGOs’ enthusiasm for programming to eradicate malaria. In addition to the “winnability” of malaria over HIV/AIDS (itself a questionable proposition, given the resistance in some communities to using bed nets, as well as the spread of virus-carrying mosquitoes to new areas through global climate changes), religious traditions are divided among themselves about the ethics of preventing HIV/AIDS, including abstinence versus the use of condoms. Faith-based NGOs all agree on the devastation wrought by AIDS on village structures, and religious organizations routinely set up services for “AIDS orphans,” even when they do not agree on theologically acceptable modes of prevention.

A major complaint of women’s-rights organizations is that men reject prophylactic devices, endangering themselves as well as women. But religiously based mores can reinforce this phenomenon. The Bush administration’s requirements that all funded programs abroad follow the “ABC” hierarchy of prevention and treatment (Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms if infected) in all of its HIV/AIDS-supported programs at home and abroad became notorious for discouraging condom promotion among many “secular” health NGOs. Yet the mainline religious denominations also have not resolved tensions regarding the ethics of HIV/AIDS prevention.

In Cameroon, for example, all clinics, as well as public signage in every village I visited, call on men (especially) to be tested for HIV and to obtain treatment if infected. But a clear hierarchy or even silence about preventive options is also common. For example, a Presbyterian hospital posted signs encouraging (a) condom use among married couples and (b) abstinence outside of marriage but (c) condom use in extramarital relations only if one could not refrain from extramarital sex. A Catholic hospital, however, posted signs calling exclusively for abstinence, even among married couples with one infected partner, and the hospitals’ German doctors confirmed that they were not allowed to promote condom use. The only place that openly encouraged condom distribution was the classroom (for “training”) of a women’s clinic in the capital city, where long rectangular shipping boxes had been affixed to the wall and rededicated as dispensers. In Nairobi, an interfaith group including Christian, Hindu, and Muslim representatives said that, operating on principles of consensus, it avoided open debate about the use of prophylactics because of Roman Catholic opposition.

Technocratic assistance models, emanating from liberal market discourses, thus shape religious (as well as secular) NGO priorities in significant ways. Moreover, humanitarian actors may subsume tensions in their religious sensibilities in order to focus on areas of “success.” But do we label the resulting actions, programs, and ethical sensibilities “secular” or, following Casanova’s helpful distinctions, view them as part of a process of “secularization”?34

The move from “charity” to “development” among many Christian NGOs, for example, indicates at first glance a potential secularizing trend which is complicated by further investigation. The head of a major Christian denomination’s humanitarian assistance organization said that the “charity model” was a post-World War II invention, implying that as an ethical framework for providing assistance, it no longer corresponded to material or theological needs. He explained that the charity model has difficulty in fulfilling the Gospel mandate to “heal” the world, instead promoting Band-Aid solutions to suffering. The tripartite work of his organization, in food security, primary health care, and disaster response, in contrast, resulted in a programmatic focus on long-term development. This development model, he asserted, was more in line with the Gospel understanding of Christian ministry and healing. Similarly, a study of the Mennonite Central Committee argues, “The MCC is successful in its contribution to development and empowerment in the 20 African countries in which it works because of its philosophical and programmatic focus on accountability, its holistic approach to basic rights, and a ‘listen and learn’ approach which embraces empowerment and social justice.”35 In these articulations, accountability, progress, and social justice are fused into a more or less unified ethic of care.

One reaction to these explanations is that discourses of liberalization have secularized interpretations of the Christian message. Another, which I believe is more accurate, is to view such faith-oriented claims as partially redefining assumed boundaries between the religious and the secular. In this view, “development as healing” becomes, along with other terms, an arena in which claims and meanings are articulated and contested, leading to the possibility of new types of actions and ethical understandings. I do not claim either an essentially religious or secular basis for these claims and meanings or that resulting claims, actions, and ethics are “better” or “worse” than previous ones.

Such redefinitions and reinterpretations are not a new feature of the constitutive nature of theological, political, economic, and social interactions. In twentieth-century Christianity alone, for example, liberation theologians of the 1970s shifted from liberal to Marxist categories to understand the relationship between politics and “sin.” In the process, they redefined the relationship between the immanent and the transcendent in order to argue and act in favor of liberation from oppression “in this world,” similar to the way contemporary religious humanitarians employ liberal human-rights categories to argue in favor of “dignity” and “justice” in development.36

We can see similar constitutive dynamics at work in discussions by NGO and religious representatives of the intersection of traditional and mainline religious practices.

“Traditional” and “World” Religions in a Secular Age

Many scholars note that Weberian notions of secularization have not come to pass. Weber’s thesis regarding the processes of rationalization produced by the mutual conditioning between economic logics and religious values, however, endures. Nevertheless, the continuing dynamic relationship between “world” and “traditional” religions begs additional questions about science, medicine, and the secular.

Third World (or postcolonial) Christianity has for some time been debating the merits of “inculturation,” “indigenization,” and “syncretism.” These terms are applicable to Christianity in the global North as well as the global South and among Anglo-European as well as Asian, African, Latin American, and other indigenous peoples. But questions about the legitimacy of indigenization and the appropriateness of syncretic beliefs have arisen primarily through the reactions of Anglo-European Christians to the practices of their counterparts in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Rather than understanding their own identities and practices as inevitably hybrid, Anglo-Europeans too often regard other regions as the sites of interaction between “pure” Christianity and “local cultures.”

Before arriving in west-central Africa, I had been conditioned by reading a variety of Third World liberation theologians and students of comparative politics to understand that many African Christians had come to a more or less comfortable synthesis of traditional and mainline denominational practices and beliefs, despite the criticisms of their Anglo-European counterparts, and that many African Muslims had done the same.37 For example, among the “people of the coast” (on the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya), religious NGO activists spoke of the historically hybrid nature of Swahili practices and beliefs, echoing the work of scholars with expertise in the region.38 In interviews in Cameroon, however, I found the people I met to be more conflicted in their everyday blending of traditional versus mainline beliefs and practices, and they approached their decisions about whether and how to combine rituals without reference to the thinking of theological syncretists.

All but one of the Cameroonians I talked to felt that the relatively peaceful multireligious and multiethnic character of the country (according to statistics, Cameroon is approximately 40 percent Christian, 20 percent to 30 percent Muslim, and 30 percent to 40 percent adherents of “traditional African religions,” although these statistics do not capture syncretic identities; Cameroon also has 252 linguistically distinct ethnic groups) was something they were proud of and believed the population as a whole wanted to support, especially because they saw the effects of violence in neighboring Congo to the south and Chad to the northeast, as well as farther west in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Yet this multireligious character was also layered with internal and external tensions.

In interviews with representatives of different groups belonging to an NGO consortium, the observations of two people stood out. One, a woman who worked on issues of women’s health, including programs to eradicate female circumcision, said that she had been raised in a mainline Protestant church and that her parents did not allow the immediate family to follow traditional practices in their home. She spoke of this as a “loss,” because in larger family and communal gatherings, she felt there were subjects that were avoided in her presence or ideas and topics that she simply did not have the experiential background to understand. The other, a man who was trained as a lawyer but who at the time of our interview directed an NGO consortium working to eradicate hunger, was Roman Catholic but said that he also followed traditional practices (in communal rituals, family celebrations, burial rites, and medicinal treatments). He reflected that his Catholic training made him feel guilty about engaging in traditional practices, but his family and communal traditions were important to him and would make him feel guilty if he stopped participating in them. He said that he had reached an uneasy compromise, which involved “drawing the line” at certain practices, such as bodily scarification. Such practices, he felt, represented a clear violation of Christian precepts regarding the sanctity of the body.

This sentiment of being caught in the middle was repeated many times by others in formal interviews and informal conversations. One woman, a professional living in the capital, Yaoundé, had recently been fêted by her local village, which awarded her the title of elder. She said that this title also came with responsibilities to look after younger women in the village. She was honored to be so named, but she also had to contend with her own sense of conflict and others’ disapproval in her mainline Protestant church, where she was an active member.

Some people claimed no contradiction between traditional and religious beliefs. One well-known imam and political figure said that he experienced no conflict; once one embraced Islam, one followed its teachings wholeheartedly, overriding any other beliefs or practices. Yet he had also just been involved in a leadership dispute regarding the chieftaincy of his village (and the government had tried to assassinate him two weeks before our interview, when he had returned to the village to act as power broker in the line of succession). Moreover, it was clear that he was concerned about conflicting interpretations within Islam itself, because he founded an Islamic studies institute in Cameroon to provide an alternative for young Muslim men who would otherwise travel to Egypt or Saudi Arabia, where they might become less tolerant of the pluralist nature of Cameroonian society.

An issue on which most interviewees were united (including Europeans living in Cameroon, as well as Cameroonian medical, religious, and NGO representatives) was in making a strong distinction between traditional healing and witchcraft. One priest said that the difference between witchcraft and healing was that the former dealt in revenge, not life. A Presbyterian hospital in Kumba, which was in the process of founding an AIDS clinic, posted handwritten signs stating, “AIDS is a reality and should not be linked to witchcraft.” Medical practitioners and NGO workers confronted problems of people refusing to be tested, blaming early death and seemingly unnatural sickness on being cursed or possessed and, in the worst-case scenario, having such beliefs result in revenge killings.

Conversely, most talked about traditional medicinal practices as potentially helpful; one European priest who had lived in Cameroon for forty years said that when the local hospital staff could not alleviate his kidney problem, they sent for a healer who used Ghanaian traditional methods to cure him. (Another doctor, in contrast, told of a local healer who hired a private hospital room at considerable expense so that the people of his village would not know that he was being treated there.)

Yet, as medical anthropologists have indicated, it is difficult to draw a clean line between “witchcraft” and “traditional healing,” and the elevation of the latter is part of a global trend to discipline local religious beliefs and market traditional herbs and medicines. For the purposes of the religious/secular binary, what is interesting are the claims regarding the dividing line between healing and witchcraft being made by the NGO, UN, and medical communities and their intersections with discourses of progress and science. Religious thinkers from Teilhard de Chardin to Albert Schweitzer, in addition to contemporary associations of traditional healers, have made claims regarding this intersection.

Associations of traditional religious healers have organized to gain legitimacy and participate in both local and transnational debates about HIV/AIDS and malaria. For example, PROMETRA, an NGO founded in Dakar, Senegal, that represents healers from twenty-two countries, is “dedicated to the preservation and restoration of African traditional medicine and indigenous science.” PROMETRA appeals to both discourses of modern science and African tradition in describing itself as “an institution of scientific and cultural research, medical practice and… an instrument for African integration and international relations. Our purpose is to preserve African traditional medicine, culture and indigenous science through research, education, advocacy and traditional medical practice.”39 PROMETRA has gained a hearing at the World Health Organization, which has held conferences on the role of traditional medicine in the fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria. One Cameroonian NGO director asserted that practitioners of traditional medicine held important reservoirs of knowledge but needed to be helped to “stabilize their products” regarding storage, education about toxicity, trials and responsiveness to treatment.40

Despite these trends, which link back to the influence of market logics on religious practices, local resistances to the disciplining of local traditions and practices remain. The European priest said that he did not believe witchcraft would ever be completely eradicated, another doctor said that many of the Cameroonian Catholic priests he knew had no moral qualms about combining “sorcery” with Christianity, and a village leader assembled the religious and political elites in an important meeting to discuss a recent case of sorcery and take steps to eradicate it. The constant self-questioning that takes place on the part of adherents of “world religions” such as Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam regarding the appropriateness and legitimacy of traditional practices and beliefs indicates that the boundaries between traditional and world religions, as well as those between religion and secularism writ large, are extremely fluid in many postcolonial societies.

The Dynamic Nature of the Religious and the Secular

This chapter focuses on the ways in which the religious/secular binary is disturbed by the engagement of contemporary religious humanitarians with global discourses of market liberalism and terror and local contexts, practices, and beliefs. The resulting intersections are dynamic, not static, demonstrating both the power of these global discourses and the sites of resistance and reformulation that occur when they are appropriated and potentially transformed at the local level. Trends in these transformations can be observed in new forms of “secularized” NGO identity in several Muslim-majority societies, the reconfiguration of humanitarian ethics from charity to development, and the appropriation and resistance of traditional practices to the globalizing discourses of science and “world religions.”

These trends do not settle questions about the religious/secular binary. Specifically, questions of modernization cannot today (nor could they in the past) be discussed in exclusively secular terms. Theologies evolve to cope with political conquest, liberalizing economies, and the junctures between individual and communal rights and practices. Similarly, humanitarian actions done in the name of charity, dignity, or the preservation of communal traditions cannot be deemed exclusively religious; likewise, proselytizing serves to advance market liberalism and participatory democracy, as well as to promote particular religious beliefs and practices. Rather than advancing a new model for social theory to account for an alleged point of separation between the religious and the secular, therefore, this chapter argues that the experiences of religious humanitarians point to new places to look for its continued destabilization.


1. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007); and Peter L. Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999).

2. I conducted interviews for a larger project on “Islamic and Inter-faith Religious Ethics in World Crises” in Cameroon (Southwest Province, including Buea, Mamfé, and Manyeman, plus the capital, Yaoundé, and the largest city, Douala) in December 2006 and January 2007; in Kenya (Nairobi, Masai Mara, and Mombasa) in June and July 2007 and August and September 2008; in Accra, Ghana, in July and August 2009; and in the Middle East (Jordan, Bethlehem, West Bank, and Jerusalem) in December 2007. Interviews were conducted in New York from November 2006 to March 2007, in Geneva in July 2008, and in Southern California from 2006 to 2009. Interviews with approximately 140 subjects have been conducted for this project (thus far), each lasting between forty-five minutes and two and a half hours. I thank the Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellowship for supporting this research.

3. Audie Klotz and Cecelia Lynch, Strategies for Research in Constructivist International Relations (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2007).

4. José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 12-13.

5. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), 23.

6. Talal Asad, Genealogies of the Sacred: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

7. Casanova, Public Religions.

8. Armando Salvatore and Mark Levine, eds., Religion, Social Practice, and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies (New York: Palgrave, 2005).

9. Neither of these views, however, sees secularism as an ahistorical ideal type. See, for example, Gil Anidjar, “Secularism,” Critical Inquiry 33 (Autumn 2006): 52-77; and Saba Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation,” Public Culture 18, no. 2 (2006): 323-347.

10. See S. N. Eisenstadt, ed., Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese and Other Interpretations (Leiden: Brill Academic, 2002); and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).

11. R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). Daniel Philpott, “Explaining the Political Ambivalence of Religion,” American Political Science Review 101, no. 3 (2007): 505-526. Cecelia Lynch, “Dogma, Praxis, and Religious Perspectives on Multiculturalism,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 29, no. 3 (2000): 741-759.

12. Taylor, A Secular Age.

13. Jonathan VanAntwerpen, “Reconciliation Reconceived: Religion, Secularism, and the Language of Transition,” in Will Kymlicka and Bashir Bashir, eds., The Politics of Reconciliation in Multicultural Societies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

14. Nicholas Onuf, “Humanitarian Intervention: The Early Years,” Florida Journal of International Law 16, no. 4 (December 2004): 753-787.

15. See “The Emblem Debate,”

16. Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998).

17. Mustapha Pasha and David Blaney, “Elusive Paradise: The Promise and Perils of Global Civil Society,” Alternatives 23, no. 2 (1998): 417-450. Cecelia Lynch, “Social Movements and the Problem of ‘Globalization,’” Alternatives 23, no. 2 (1998): 149-173. Cecelia Lynch, “Liberalism and the Contradictions of Global Civil Society,” in Antonio Franchaset, ed., The Ethics of Global Governance (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2009).

18. Rosemarie Muganda Onyando, “Are NGOs Essential for Kenya’s Development?” (1999),

19. Mahmood Mamdani articulates the “good” versus “bad” Muslim distinction for contemporary foreign policy in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (New York: Random House 2004).

20. Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press 2003).

21. S. N. Eisenstadt, “Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese and Other Interpretations,” in Timothy A. Byrnes and Peter J. Katzenstein, eds., Religion in an Expanding Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

22. Janine Clark, Islam, Charity, and Activism: Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004). Sara Lei Sparre and Marie Juul Petersen, “Islam and Civil Society: Case Studies from Jordan and Egypt,” Danish Institute for International Studies Report (October 2007): 13.

23. Author’s meeting with representatives in Nairobi, June 2007. The Somalia Aid Coordinating Body, facilitated by the UN, arranges meetings of donors, Western NGOs, and Somali NGOs, both individually and with one another.

24. David Campbell, National Deconstruction: Violence, Identity, and Justice in Bosnia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

25. See “Sabeel’s Statement on the Israeli Invasion of Gaza, June 28, 2006,” Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center,

26. Their appeals at the conference parallel the increasing recourse to international law in the brochures and documentation of Palestinian rights NGOs in the West.

27. James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006).

28. Ole Jacob Sending and Iver Neumann, “Governance to Governmentality: Analyzing NGOs, States, and Power,” International Studies Quarterly 50, no. 3 (2006): 651-672.

29. Onyando, “Are NGOs Essential?”

30. Graham Burchell, “Liberal Government and Techniques of the Self,” in Andrew Barry, Thomas Osborne, and Nikolas Rose, eds., Foucault and Political Reason, 29 (London: University College London; quoted in Sending and Neumann, “Governance to Governmentality,” 657.

31. These particular NGO representatives worked for a “nonsectarian” international NGO based in the United States, but all of the clinics and hospitals we visited were run by Catholic, Presbyterian, or other faith-based local groups or people adhering to one of these faith traditions.

32. However, they also took pictures of the boxes of expired medicine that had been stuck at the port for months before being released by local customs, the washed sterile gloves hanging out to dry in order to be reused in examinations and surgeries, and the bare bulbs hanging precariously over worn-out operating beds, in order to catalogue local needs and demonstrate them to superiors back in the United States.

33. World Vision Kenya, Building Collaborative Bridges (Nairobi: World Vision Kenya, 2005).

34. José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); José Casanova, “Rethinking Secularization: A Global Comparative Perspective,” Hedgehog Review (Spring-Summer 2006): 7-22.

35. Susan Dicklitch and Heather Rice, “The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Faith-Based NGO Aid to Africa,” Development in Practice 14, no. 5 (August 2004): 660-672.

36. See Cecelia Lynch, “Acting on Belief,” Ethics & International Affairs 14 (2000): 83-97.

37. Jean-Marc Ela, African Cry, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1986). Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Daughters of Anowa: African Women & Patriarchy (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1995). Emanuel Martey, African Theology: Inculturation and Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1996).

38. Susan F. Hirsch, Pronouncing and Persevering: Gender and the Discourses of Disputing in an African Islamic Court (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).


40. At the time of our interview, however, he had not yet gained Institutional Review Board approval for such projects.