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Sacred Aid and Humanitarianism

By Michael Barnett


The relationship between the religious and secular worlds is an enduring global mystery. Many of the most popular and powerful political movements in the world have religious agendas, use religious imagery, and call for reintroducing religious law into public life. Domestic tensions and conflicts that once seemed to have a primarily ethnic, national, or tribal character now begin to show the markings of religion. Religion is making itself felt in every dimension of a world once imagined as solidly secular.

World Vision, a faith-based organization, delivers portable toilets to a school during a crisis. – Photo: Wikipedia

World Vision, a faith-based organization, delivers portable toilets to a school during a crisis. – Photo: Wikipedia

Religious discourses and organizations helped to establish humanitarianism in the early nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, many religious organizations were beginning to work with secular organizations and use secularized international legal principles and international institutions to further their goals.

After World War II, Western governments became the chief funders of humanitarian action and increasingly favored secular agencies such as CARE. Once-avowedly religious organizations such as World Vision International and Catholic Relief Services downplayed their religious identity. Religion might have been instrumental to the establishment of humanitarianism, but it had passed the torch to secularism. Yet this storyline overlooks the enduring power and presence of religion.

One reason religious-based action is getting more attention is because humanitarianism is undergoing its third wave of globalization. In the first wave, Western aid agencies began spreading to the far corners of the world, leading to new kinds of cross-cultural encounters. In the second wave, there was an explosion of agencies, largely coming from the West and frequently working in conflict zones in the global South, triggering an attempt by aid agencies to identify common standards and vocabularies. During this wave, secular agencies had a decided advantage in the race for funding because most major donor states and faith-based organizations were equally wary of each other.

The third wave has been fueled by growth in both transnational religious activism and humanitarian agencies from outside the West. In the past two decades, a globalizing Christianity and Islam have created new kinds of networks and associations that are designed to deepen and extend their place in the world. And both donor governments and faith-based agencies developed warmer relations, leading to a rise in official assistance headed to religious organizations.

The humanitarian sector is also wondering what association, if any, exists between religion and violence. Religion and aid delivery can be a highly combustible mix. Most Western aid is now directed to societies in which the majority population or the single largest group is Muslim: Somalia, Bosnia and Herzogivona, Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria. Although most local populations are likely grateful for the assistance, humanitarian relief nevertheless arrives against the backdrop of a long history of mistrust between Christianity and Islam, caused in part by a legacy of Christian missionary work in Muslim societies, Western intervention, and episodes of acute violence that are conventionally interpreted as caused by religion.Aid agencies often acknowledge that they want to save not only lives but societies, which means exposing local populations to human rights and other values associated with the West and Christianity.

Volunteers from AmeriCorp, a government-funded agency, pile debris from a yard into their truck to take to a pick-up location. – Photo: Wikipedia, Marvin Nauman/FEMA

Volunteers from AmeriCorp, a government-funded agency, pile debris from a yard into their truck to take to a pick-up location. – Photo: Wikipedia, Marvin Nauman/FEMA

Christian aid agencies are not the only ones growing in their reach. In response to emergencies and the desire to help their fellow Muslims in faraway lands, Arab and Islamic societies have been developing new institutions to deliver relief and address what they believe are the “root causes” of chronic poverty and despair. In the same way Muslim societies worry that Western powers are using aid agencies as a Trojan horse, Western governments worry that Muslim governments are using aid to radicalize societies.

Recognition that aid agencies coming from different religious and cultural traditions might have contrasting views on the purpose of aid and the principles that should guide its delivery, and that many aid agencies are treated as foot soldiers of broader cultural and rival communities, has led to several initiatives designed to promote greater mutual understanding and lower the chances of violence and conflict.

Perhaps the best known  are the Humanitarian Forum and the Islamic Charities Project. The International Committee of the Red Cross has led an effort to bring together international humanitarian law and Islamic law. There has been a surge of interest in cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration. We have no evidence of the impact of these initiatives, but the strong interest in their continuation suggests that the humanitarian community recognizes there is considerable need for interfaith understanding.

The secular and religious in the worlds of humanitarianism are exhibiting the countervailing trends of creating and maintaining difference, building and barricading bridges, and emulating and rebelling against one another. Secularization of humanitarianism involves the process by which elements of the everyday and the profane insinuate themselves and become integrated into humanitarianism, thus challenging its sacred standing. Secularization is evident in the growing role of states and commercial enterprises, the centrality of fundraising, encroachment of earthly matters such as governance, process of bureaucratization and professionalization, and the kinds of evidence that are required to demonstrate effectiveness.

Sanctification of humanitarianism means creation of the sacred, establishment and protection of a space that is viewed as pure and separate from the profane. Sanctification is evident in the insistence on a space free of politics, and in the calling of a humanitarian ethic that acts first and asks questions later, insists that motives must be innocent and altruistic, and guards against a world in which interests and instruments trump values and ethics. Secularization and sanctification are enduring aspects of humanitarianism, evolving in historically dynamic ways, shaping its trends, practices, and tensions.

We can see how secularization and sanctification shape one another by treating each as multilayered, multidimensional, and nonlinear. Secularization proceeds in distinctive ways in public and private life and in changing forms and scope of authority relations; it creates functional differentiation in society and alters patterns of religious practice, belief, and worship, as it advances and retreats.

Sanctification is also multilayered, multidimensional, and nonlinear, and leaves its mark in many ways. Rather than reducing the religious or the secular to a single dimension, such as organizational identity, we are interested in the multiple and multilevel processes that are responsible for producing secularization and sanctification in different areas of humanitarian action. Secularization and sanctification processes are messy, involved in a constant process of trespassing and policing, and they are changing as they engage the “other.”

These are structural forces that are in motion, propelled and arrested by broader political, cultural, economic, and sociological trends. There is nothing natural about the religious or the secular worlds; they are social constructs and produced through human imagination and practice.

The theme of secularization and sanctification offers a novel lens for examining humanitarianism – and the study of contemporary world politics. It encourages us to add to the subtraction thesis – to consider the kinds of relationships that exist between the religious and the secular. It warns against treating secularization and sanctification as unidimensional and emphasizes their varying dimensions, layerings, and run-offs. It joins with other scholars who insist on seeing secularization and sanctification not only as historical processes but also as strategies deployed by actors to further their agendas. And, perhaps most provocatively, it argues against the dominant line in international relations theory – that the only kind of faith is religious faith – as it posits a transcendental in the secular.

This essay is excerpted from the introduction to Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism (Oxford, 2012), edited by Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein.