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Helping Muslims or Contributing to Society? Insights into the Paradoxes of Islamic Social Work for the Excluded

Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 9)

Abstract

In various European countries, Islamic social services have specifically targeted disadvantaged groups, including a high proportion of Muslims. This situation gives rise to a paradox: while Islamic organisations insist on impartiality and aim to benefit people regardless of their religious belonging, most of their investment addresses de facto Muslim communities. This paradox could firstly be explained by the overrepresentation of Muslims within excluded groups. While Islamic NGOs justify the delivery of most of their aid to Muslim countries by emergencies linked to geopolitical contexts, grassroots Islamic associations explain their focus on Muslim beneficiaries as being due to their underprivileged situation. In parallel, local authorities and statutory agencies, including those working in prisons, have begun to consider the need for Muslim protagonists to be involved in addressing specific issues and reaching particular groups. In this process, both individual Muslim social workers and Islamic organisations are increasingly expected to contribute their presumed cultural skills. This positioning causes tension within the authorities and statutory agencies, as they promote a neutral vision of social work while paradoxically fostering religious and cultural approaches for pragmatic reasons. Based on case studies of Islamic welfare organisations in Switzerland and France, this chapter aims to address the paradox of Muslims claiming to contribute to the common good while essentially providing their own ‘community’ with aid. It discusses the current challenges for Islamic bodies who try to position themselves in a ‘universalist’ social work approach, while they concretely implement community-based social services which seem to prioritise Muslims.

Keywords

  • Charity
  • Islam
  • Muslim organisations
  • Social work
  • Welfare

Introduction

In the United Kingdom, it is argued that “social work now becomes simply one of a range of professional and occupational groups addressing the needs of the sector.” (Hardwick & Worsley, 2007, 46) Henceforth, social work integrates informal services as well as organised welfare provision, and it involves both public and private bodies, among which faith-based organisations play an important role (Keller, 2016; Jawad, 2012). This community-based social work also applies to Muslims in North America and Western European countries, who have collectively organised themselves to provide both Muslims and non-Muslims with social welfare services, including material aid, education and counselling (Warden, 2013; Barylo, 2017). This social activism ‘in the name of Islam’ is manifold, differing from one context and set of stakeholders to another. However, some trends in the contemporary plural societies of the ‘West’ define it as a common and transnational phenomenon known as “Islamic social work” (Warden, 2013). Over the last decade, this phenomenon has significantly expanded in several Western European countries. In line with the definition of a faith-based organisation as “a social service agency which explicitly identifies with a religious tradition” (Crisp, 2014, 11), Islamic social work can be presented as a community-based involvement linked to Islam, either through religious references or the background of its staff. It involves an approach based on identity, which can be grounded in either religious or cultural features (Soulet, 2014). While it can be partisan and community-oriented by specifically targeting Muslims, it also regularly addresses the needs of non-Muslim recipients and claims impartiality and neutrality. In this regard, Islamic social work in Europe often aims to reach the wider society beyond community boundaries. Still, the issue of the partial or impartial orientation of this kind of social engagement remains largely unexplored. The research of Marie Juul Petersen (2014) is an important contribution in this field regarding the question of Muslim NGOs, but her conclusions are essentially limited to Islamic organisations providing humanitarian aid outside Europe.

Islamic Social Work in Plural Societies

Historically, Islamic social work has been linked to broader Islamic activism in society, often connected to the Muslim Brotherhood movement (Davis & Robinson, 2012). In this regard, it is crucial to understand the ideological and transnational rationale behind the social engagement of certain Islamic organisations (Kepel, 1987), which sociological studies on Islamic social work in Europe have often failed to do. These have often focused on local, concrete aspects, and unfortunately ignored ideological and theological links to religious movements (Borell & Gerdner, 2011; Barylo, 2017). Moreover, in Western European societies, in which Muslims are a minority, public engagement in the name of Islam certainly differentiates itself from the activism of Islamic movements within Muslim majority countries. Hence, the theses developed through research studies in Arab societies and other Muslim majority contexts cannot be applied to the European context, demonstrating the necessity of conducting new investigations instead of extrapolating the results of research from remote contexts.

In Western European countries, characterised by plural and non-Muslim majority societies, three phases can be identified to explain the rise of community-based engagement in social work. Firstly, a number of Islamic transnational movements have initiated direct or indirect social activism through their association networks, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Kepel, 1987) and the Tabligh, even though the principal role of the latter remains restricted to proselytism (Arslan & Marlière, 2014). Secondly, numerous mosques and Islamic centres have begun to engage locally in counselling, welfare services, education and prevention of social problems. Unofficially, with no stated strategy, some of their members have become informal ‘social workers’ and counsellors, whose contributions have been deemed to compete with the statutory agencies, especially in distressed and segregated neighbourhoods (Bouzar, 2001). At this level, the counselling or welfare participation of these Muslims could be seen as a side effect of Islamic education, as Imams and Muslim leaders deliver religious talks which encourage young people to abandon delinquent behaviour deemed to be contrary to Islamic values (Barbey, 2007). Thirdly, independent Islamic associations specifically dedicated to social work have recently been created in various countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Switzerland. These are characterised by their autonomy from religious organisations and their focus on the practice of social work rather than religious discourses. Most of them cannot be ascribed to a specific theological current of Islam. This third phase constitutes an important shift in Islamic social work, today mostly embedded in these grassroots associations. Such Islamic organisations remain under-researched, although the monograph of Rosalind Warden (2013) and the case studies of William Barylo (2017) on grassroots Islamic associations which provide welfare services are valuable contributions: further in-depth research and reflection on this subject is required.

Islamic social work development in Western European countries has generally had two main starting points. Firstly, mosques and Muslim associations aimed to provide their own members with social care and counselling in line with their cultural and religious values and principles. For instance, they wanted Muslim women to be able to access social workers who would take into account their religious and cultural perspectives, in order to help them avoid possible prejudices in public institutions. While a need for cultural sensitivity has been highlighted in social work literature (Jawad, 2012; Ashencaen Crabtree et al., 2008), as well as a need for spiritual awareness in practice (Loue, 2017), an approach which promotes integrationist or assimilationist views assumes that migrants and their offspring will abandon their cultural and religious background as they become integrated in the country (Hajjat, 2012). This type of approach shows a continued reluctance to integrate cultural and religious references into social work (Bouamama, 2002, 37). Secondly, the engagement of Muslims in aid and social work is a logical extension of Islamic activism (Hamid, 2016). In this regard, many would argue that according to mainstream contemporary Islamic teachings, Muslims have to serve humankind and contribute positively to their environment, which means helping both Muslims and non-Muslims (Dean & Khan, 1997; Krafess, 2005). For this reason, some mosques have launched social services and Muslims have set up independent associations which deliver a large set of social services (Warden, 2013; Banfi, 2015; Barylo, 2017). In parallel, social work practitioners in Western Europe and North America increasingly integrate cultural, religious and spiritual aspects to their approach. It is assumed that cultural and religious belonging of the recipients needs to be understood and taken into account by professionals. Recently, the issue of ‘Islamist radicalisation’ has also highlighted an institutional need to integrate Muslim partners into social work (Sèze, 2015).

By definition, Islamic social work involves service providers who explicitly or implicitly identify with Islam. Depending on the Islamic centre or organisation, a wide range of services are delivered such as material aid, consultation, mediation, counselling and education. Sometimes, religious elements are combined with welfare provision: for instance, Muslim providers may pray along with the beneficiaries or distribute religious books to them. In many other cases, religious discourses and practices are strictly separated from welfare services. Furthermore, as in any other religion, the definition of target groups varies from one organisation to another: some focus on co-religionists, while others offer services to anyone, regardless of their cultural or religious background. In this regard, a predominant question linked to Islamic social work in Western societies concerns the dichotomy between two positions. On the one hand, Muslim organisations claim to contribute to the whole of society, regardless of religious or community concerns. On the other hand, Muslims are prioritised in receiving their aid, through a social work approach which can be considered as partisan and community-based. This paradox makes up a central question of my research: why do Islamic organisations which claim to deliver welfare services universally focus on Muslims in many instances?

The treatment of this question requires reflections on the study of empirical cases involving Islamic social work organisations in plural and non-Muslim majority societies. In my research, France and Switzerland are taken as examples.

Methodology

The paper is based on a combination of various sets of data. Firstly, my doctoral research (Brodard, 2020) focuses on Islamic organisations which provide social welfare services both to Muslims and non-Muslims in Switzerland. Access to these associations was possible using an ethnographic approach, which focused on gathering information beyond the official discourses of the interviewed stakeholders. In addition to semi-structured interviews, I conducted participant observation as well as informal interviews with leaders, volunteers and stakeholders. In sensitive fields often characterised by mistrust towards external observers, informal interviews were generally essential to obtain in-depth data, even if this often limited the possibility of recording interviews (Kaufmann, 2016). In this regard, anthropologists generally admit that concrete circumstances related to sensitive fields may force the researcher to go beyond classical methodology (Boumaza & Campana, 2007, 9). Hence, participant observation allowed me to follow volunteers and managers during internal meetings, outdoor events and social welfare activities. Secondly, I drew on my previous professional experience in statutory social work agencies in Switzerland, principally in prisons, as a further source of data. This gave access to implicit information related to institutional strategies and practices, which could hardly have been explored otherwise. It also allowed me to conduct numerous informal interviews with detainees and the prison staff. This aspect refers to what some researchers have called “observant participation”, instead of participant observation, insisting on the predominance of participation in contexts which imply the researcher’s intensive involvement (Wacquant, 2010, 117; Soulé, 2007, 129–130). Thirdly, the peripheral case studies I conducted in France and in the United Kingdom (Brodard, 2019, 2020) enriched my analysis of the Swiss case. This kind of “multi-sited ethnography” (Marcus, 1995) allowed me to consider Islamic social work in non-Muslim majority societies from a transnational perspective, which is often necessary to perceive common issues linked to the problematic of this paper. Indeed, the global and transnational aspects of the subject require an expansion of the geographical and temporal boundaries of ethnographic research (Mueller, 2019, 29). In this respect, the researcher can benefit from long-term accumulated data collected through different personal or professional experiences (Burgat, 2016, 27–46; Truong, 2018, 81).

Based on this transversal approach the problematic will be explored through three case studies, highlighting the justifications of the organisations which prioritise Muslims while claiming to serve the common good. These cases will then lead to a discussion of this apparent dichotomy between discourse and practice.

Three Fields of Intervention: Prisons, Homelessness and ‘Radicalisation’

Among Islamic social work initiatives in Western Europe, various cases illustrate the apparent dichotomy between a rhetoric of impartiality and neutrality in social work and a prioritisation of co-religionists in aid and welfare, more specifically in the field of social exclusion and resocialisation. Firstly, social services for prisoners show that Islamic organisations provide general welfare aid for any inmate regardless of religious affiliation, but also offer specific services to Muslims. Secondly, Islamic welfare organisations involved in social round-ups to help the homeless in Paris promote the values of neutrality and impartiality, while in practice they focus on neighbourhoods and areas where a majority of Muslim migrants gather. Thirdly, some Islamic associations have developed an intracultural approach to social work: their staff use their cultural or religious background to target specific groups and to address issues related to Islam, Muslims or ethnic communities. The following sections will develop on each of these three aspects, coalescing in the third section into a transversal analysis.

Engagement of Islamic Organisations in Prisons: Social Work and Religious Services

Prisons in several Western European countries are currently widely recognised as having a significant number of Muslim detainees. In Switzerland, some prisons count between 40% and 50% of Muslims (Canton de Vaud, 2016, 75), while they make up only about 5.5% of the local population (Tunger-Zanetti & Purdie, 2020, 625). In France, even higher rates can be found in the prisons of Parisian suburbs (Khosrokhavar, 2016; Micheron, 2020). British prisons also count a disproportionate percentage of Muslim inmates, although fewer than in France and Switzerland (Beckford et al., 2005, 97–98). Sociologically, this situation can be explained by the fact that Muslims are over-represented in socially excluded areas such as deprived neighbourhoods or vulnerable groups, including illegal migrants. In recent years, the strong presence of Islam in prisons has raised concerns related to security issues and violent extremism. In contrast to the North American context, where Islam in prisons has also been highlighted as a means of rehabilitation (Ling, 2017; Al Jazeera English, 2009), apprehension about ‘the Muslim question’ in European prisons has essentially been embedded in security concerns and questions regarding the mitigation of violent extremism (Khosrokhavar, 2016). However, this concern aside, Islam in prison is also approached pragmatically, from the point of view of managing the prison system: here, the objective is to maintain peace as far as possible and to avoid any conflicts (Beckford, 2015). In this regard, Muslim representatives such as chaplains or associations are welcome to provide services in many prisons. However, their actions are restricted by conditions which vary between prisons and national contexts and have therefore to be negotiated.

In France, the Islamic association LIFE was active in prisons, delivering Islamic books and offering correspondence between volunteers and inmates. At the time, the main idea was to assist and support Muslim inmates, until its access to prisons was finally denied. Nevertheless, the NGO Secours Islamique France (SIF, Islamic Relief France) was still acting in French prisons 10 years later, without facing any institutional opposition. In parallel, Imams visit many French prisons as Muslim chaplains. Their role as a potential way of countering violent extremism has been highlighted (Birt, 2006). In the United Kingdom, the role of Muslim chaplains is particularly encouraged through civil society organisations, such as the Feltham Community Chaplaincy Trust (Beckford, 2015, 26). In addition, Muslim associations provide ex-detainees with welfare services and moral support upon their release from detention (Irfan, 2022). In Switzerland, despite a very high proportion of Muslim inmates, the role of Muslim protagonists in supporting detainees or ex-offenders remains more subtle and discreet. The Service d’Aide Sociale Islamique (SASI, Islamic Social Assistance Service) is one of the rare Muslim organisations which have been involved in this field, albeit in a subdued manner. In parallel, Muslim chaplains also offer their services in various prisons across the country.

SASI provides a wide range of welfare services including soup kitchens, food pantries for the needy, roaming food distributions in the streets to address the needs of the homeless, as well as French courses, counselling and informal solidarity actions. In all its projects, SASI insists on its impartiality and neutrality. It claims to be apolitical and religiously neutral, and that it delivers aid to anyone regardless of their religious or cultural affiliations. Indeed, there are many non-Muslims among its beneficiaries and no evidence of partiality has so far been reported in its various actions and projects. However, SASI originates from the social service of the Islamic Centre of Geneva (Centre Islamique de Genève), which is ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood movement and previously focused its social engagement toward its own members (Banfi, 2013). Due to this history, SASI’s modest involvement in prisons remains linked to the Islamic centre and mainly focuses on informal social services for ex-prisoners.

In 2015, the main prison of the Canton of Geneva was lacking clothes to distribute to needy detainees. Having learned of this issue, the SASI leader decided to organise the distribution of clothes in the prison, which was carried out by prison staff without regard for the religious or cultural affiliations of the recipients. This ad hoc action illustrates an engagement with a social purpose which addresses the needs of both Muslims and non-Muslims. During the same period, SASI was contacted by some detainees from the same prison to provide religious books, prayer timetables, carpets and other religious items. The responses to these requests from a social work organisation shows the frequent intersection between religious and social services in Islamic organisations. A third illustration of SASI’s engagement in the prison context concerns a case in which ex-detainees requested emergency aid. Upon their release from detention, some former prisoners of Muslim background went to SASI to ask for food, phone calls, money, or a place to sleep. Some of them also requested advice and support. For instance, a man who came from Guinea but was resident in Portugal explained to SASI’s leader that according to a judicial decision, he was supposed to leave the country right away, but that he had no money to pay for his bus trip back home. SASI agreed to grant him financial aid. It is noteworthy that only Muslims or people with a Muslim background would go to SASI to request support. Non-Muslim ex-detainees could have requested and benefited from the same welfare service, but it never happened. Firstly, SASI was then based in an Islamic centre. Secondly, the information that SASI would offer support may have only circulated amongst Muslims in the prison. Finally, non-Muslims may have thought that they could not access such services, and nobody explained otherwise to them. This trend therefore illustrates the fact that an Islamic social work organisation may aim or at least claim to provide welfare services to the whole society regardless of religious affiliations of the beneficiaries, but in practice, it attracts or targets almost exclusively Muslims. To some extent, this case resonates with a SIF project during the month of Ramadan prisons around Paris. The humanitarian NGO delivers meals for Iftar to detainees, composed of dates and other traditional dishes. Apparently, this action was implemented to support Muslim detainees who were fasting while being incarcerated. However, the meals were officially addressed to anyone on a volunteer basis, regardless of the recipient’s religion. This approach highlights an ambivalent position which combines a universal and neutral approach and appearance and a social practice de facto oriented towards Muslims and a religious motivation. Similar logics have been noticed in Muslim associations engaged in round-ups to feed the homeless in France.

Within Swiss prisons, detainees have access to both social work services and chaplaincy, which are independent from each other. Social work statutory organisations provide welfare services including administrative assistance, translation, facilitating contact with the family and lawyers, ‘psychological’ support and counselling. In most prisons, the inmates also have access to chaplains, who are mostly Christian. Either Catholic or Protestant chaplains meet detainees regardless of religious affiliation. Confidentially, the detainees do not only talk about topics related to religion or spirituality, but on whatever questions they wish to address. Therefore, institutional social workers’ services and chaplains’ contributions sometimes overlap. In some cases, for instance, chaplains counsel detainees on social and administrative issues, in parallel with the social workers. At the same time, social workers increasingly address ‘religious’ topics with Muslim detainees, which is explained by the ‘prevention of radicalisation’ which became a priority, particularly during the months following the 2015 terrorist attacks in France. Hence, the difference between institutional social work and chaplaincy services is not always clear, and both occasionally tend to address the same issues. In Switzerland, question of integration is central in public debates (Gianni, 2016) and influences expectations of Muslim chaplains in prisons. However, they do not provide services in all Swiss prisons. In the country’s biggest prison, Muslim inmates, who represent more than half of the prison population (FNS, 2011), only have access to Christian chaplains, whom most of them accept to meet. An Imam only comes to conduct Friday prayers, and prisoners do not have any direct access to him. However, in the Cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, and Zurich, the Imam has extended access to the prison and to inmates. On a volunteer basis, he frequently meets inmates and provides them with religious guidance, as well as moral and social support. Since the ‘jihadist’ attacks in Europe, public authorities have expressed an increasing interest in collaborating with Imams and Muslim chaplains (Birt, 2006, 72). In Switzerland, this trend has been particularly noticeable since the French terrorist attacks of 2015.

To conclude, the involvement of Islamic organisations in European prisons remains uncertain and not very organised. Whereas many acknowledge the need for an Islamic presence in prisons, more particularly in the field of chaplaincy and in the prevention of violent extremism, most of the community-based engagement is still sporadic and lacks professionalism.

Muslim Associations Providing Aid to the Homeless in Paris

Since 2008, many new independent associations have been created by Muslims, mainly focused on providing meals and other items to the homeless in Paris and its suburbs. Their leaders claim to act ‘for the sake of God’, to help people in need. They provide aid regardless of religious and ethnical affiliations and seem not to have hidden objectives behind their welfare services. In practice, they serve meals to homeless people in specific areas of Paris in which a lot of (illegal) migrants are concentrated. Most beneficiaries come from predominantly Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan. Others are from North and West African countries. However, there are also French, Roma and Eastern European people who benefit from these aid organisations.

Broadly speaking, some 80% of the beneficiaries are Muslims; in some locations it is even more. Nonetheless, the Muslim associations do not specifically target Muslims. They explain that they try to meet the needs of the most vulnerable population, and that the latter is often composed of migrants coming from Muslim countries. Many of these organisations adapt their welfare services during the month of Ramadan by providing meals at the times when practicing Muslims are supposed to eat. Distributions are thus organised at sunset, which, in the summertime, is particularly late. They also increase the frequency of their social round-ups (i.e. once weekly during the year and once to twice daily during the month of Ramadan). As both these features show an adaptation of welfare programs to the religious needs of Muslims, they could be seen by some as community-based approaches taking into account the specific needs of practicing Muslims. However, the prioritisation of Muslims is here simply justified by their visible presence in areas of exclusion. An Islamic Relief representative in Switzerland gave a similar explanation when he was asked why the NGO mainly operates in Muslim countries. He responded that in the current world, Muslims were those who suffered the most and who were greatly afflicted by poverty, social issues and humanitarian crises. Islamic NGOs as well as grassroots associations commonly use this argument to justify their focus on Muslim recipients instead of on other communities. Nevertheless, the Secours Islamique France (SIF), the NGO which was launched following the split with Islamic Relief Worldwide, advertises its neutrality and impartiality. In 2010, its campaign in the Paris metro highlighted the following announcement: “La souffrance n’a ni origine, ni religion, ni genre. La solidarité non plus. Œuvrons ensemble pour un monde solidaire.” (“Suffering has no origin, no religion, no gender. Neither does solidarity. Let us work together for a world of solidarity.”) In this way, Islamic organisations can promote a discourse of universal approach of social work and aid, while concretely prioritising Muslims, arguing that they are more disadvantaged and affected by social issues.

Beyond the homelessness issue, Islamic associations in France have focused on youth in segregated urban areas (Kokoreff, 2009), for instance the Jeunes Musulmans de France JMF in France, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood (De Lavergne, 2003), and other more independent associations (Kapko, 2007). Often combining social services with religious education, they explain their investment in specific urban areas simultaneously by their underprivileged status and their high Muslim population.

Intracultural Social Work to Tackle ‘Radicalisation’ among Young Muslims

In a small town of the United Kingdom, Kumon Y’All, a Muslim charity, aims to facilitate mutual understanding between young Muslims and other inhabitants and institutions, in order to prevent both violent extremism and racism. To do so, it gives young Muslims a hub in which they can express their views in a safe space. Founded in Savile Town, an area of Dewsbury which is inhabited by a predominantly Muslim population from a Pakistani background, the charity’s objective is to promote peace and social cohesion between neighbourhood youngsters and populations in other locations, while preventing both racism against Muslims and violent extremism linked to Islam. Furthermore, Kumon Y’All implements social projects which mostly aim to build bridges between communities, namely between Muslims from the Indian subcontinent and the local ‘White’ British. For instance, it has organised football matches between the army and local young people in order to enhance mutual understanding. Finally, this intracultural activism is supposed to prevent violent extremism by accompanying young Muslims in their quest for a balance between their cultural background and their British identity. Furthermore, the association seeks to foster counter-discourses against religious ‘radicalisation’ by talking freely about Islam, an issue that a non-Muslim organisation could not tackle.

This type of social work approach can also be found in Switzerland with Tasamouh, an association launched by a Muslim woman in order to tackle violent extremism among youth. Tasamouh was created as a project in 2016 to address the religious ‘radicalisation’ of young Muslims in the city of Biel/Bienne. The association members meet with youths who show signs of ‘radicalisation’ or, more frequently, who simply suffer from identity crises. Mediation and counselling sessions with these youngsters often include their family. Furthermore, they provide counselling and guidance to other social work agencies. Although Tasamouh was designed to focus on ‘radicalisation’, its concrete social work then also began to address social issues such as addiction, violence and family problems. In most of its cases, there is no relation to religious extremism or Islam, even if many recipients face identity challenges due to their cross-cultural background.

Both Kumon Y’All in the United Kingdom and Tasamouh in Switzerland promote a community-based and intracultural approach, in which the cultural and religious commonalities between the staff of the association and its beneficiaries are supposed to lead to a greater relevance of counselling, mediation and social work. This approach matches with what has been either called intra-ethnic social work (Jovelin, 2002) or intracultural practice (Shulman, 2011), which refers to social workers sharing a common cultural or ethnic background with their clients or recipients. In the American context, Lawrence Shulman has widened the concept of intracultural practice to include, for example, the sharing of a similar minority status, such as the same sexual orientation (Shulman, 2011, 326). While some point out the benefit and added value of this approach, others argue that it can lead to various issues, including a lack of distance between practitioners and clients (Yan, 2008). Nevertheless, this approach remains significant not only in Anglo-Saxon societies but also European countries, although in French-speaking contexts, community-based actions are often considered with suspicion.

The development of intracultural approaches within these associations cannot be explained only by the views and preferences of their leaders. Rather, they are an echo of the current context of Western European countries. In Switzerland, as well as in other Western European countries, Islamic centres and organisations are often expected to address issues allegedly concerning Muslims and Islam. For instance, the British state incorporates Islamic organisations in its counter-terrorism strategies, as illustrated in the following extract from a report by the Islamic associations An-Nisa Society and Radical Middle Way: “some Muslim organisations did get funding, but most of this was geared towards countering extremism and was not designed for the meeting of the holistic needs of the community.” (An-Nisa Society & Radical Middle Way, 2012, 16) In this regard, some organisations try to position themselves as experts in preventing violent extremism. In addition, they promote specific projects focusing on target groups, including migrant Muslim women or young people from a North African background. In all these circumstances, Muslim organisations are likely to promote an intracultural approach to social work.

Finally, the intracultural approaches promoted by various Islamic organisations in Europe stem from a quest for added value, which could lead to funding and partnership opportunities. In this regard, they may rather be motivated by strategic concerns than ideological or religious views. However, the intracultural skills of Muslim organisations can also be instrumentalised by statutory institutions for their own agendas, related to tackling specific social issues and ‘integrating’ social groups. In such cases, the contribution of Muslim protagonists could be reduced to ‘pacification’ and mediation, which is a common risk identified in the intracultural practice of social work (Billion, 2008; Boucher, 2012).

The Reasons behind the Focus on Muslims: Ideologies or Strategies?

The few examples mentioned in the previous section show that several Islamic organisations providing social welfare services tend to claim they work with impartiality, adopting a universalist approach, while actually offering most of their services to Muslim people. These empirical illustrations present some interesting information in relation to the question mentioned in the introduction: why do Islamic organisations, that claim to deliver welfare services universally, focus on Muslims in many cases? Globally, various explanations can be identified.

As a prelude, it is important to note that ideological factors and religious norms can be used to justify divergent strategies and conducts, even though all may claim to be in line with ‘Islamic tradition’. Religious discourses regarding aid beneficiaries and welfare activities can promote both partial and neutral views. Concretely, Muslims can find references in religious literature that promote universal charity, but also legitimate community prioritisation or a preference for co-religionists (Topbaş, 2009). As it can go both ways, religious discourses are not always relevant to understanding the positions of Muslim protagonists. Rather, the construction of religious narratives often stems from the organisations’ strategies as well as the socio-political context (Petersen, 2014). In this regard, religious discourses may be used to legitimate a practice rather than to decide what can be done. Nevertheless, general views of Islam are also likely to orient a global approach to social welfare and religious work. According to their understanding of Islam, some Muslim activists favour proselytism and community-based social work, while others promote an impartial approach to aid. In parallel, some argue for altruistic welfare and aid without any underpinning strategic views, while others emphasise an additional agenda, through objectives such as proselytising Islam or empowering the ‘Muslim community’. Moreover, numerous Islamic organisations combine social welfare activities with religious work, which tends to enhance the focus on Muslims. On one hand, these organisations propose welfare services to tackle various issues and to meet the needs of recipients, regardless of religious affiliations. On the other, they respond to the religious needs of Muslim recipients by providing them with religious items or advice. This overlapping between religious services and social work often leads to special attention for Muslims and a higher concern for their needs. However, most Islamic social work organisations internally differentiate between the two kinds of engagements and do not generally proselytise people unless they express an interest in Islam, and social welfare services do not provide support in a certain area. Indeed, the overlap between engagements mainly reflects a lack of resources and functions accumulated by the same people and organisations, which do not usually have the means to separate the kinds of services they provide, as most are involved in both welfare and religious services at the same time.

Beyond these ideological and religious concerns, the overrepresentation of Muslims in excluded areas is mentioned by Muslim organisations as a reason why they focus on specific geographical areas or target groups (section “Overrepresentation of Muslims in Excluded Areas”). Moreover, the prioritisation of Muslim beneficiaries can be motivated by strategic considerations. In specific contexts, an intracultural approach to social work leads to better funding opportunities (section “Prioritising Muslims for Strategic Reasons”).

Overrepresentation of Muslims in Excluded Areas

A common narrative of Islamic organisations points to the fact that Muslims are overrepresented within excluded groups, such as illegal migrants and the homeless, asylum seekers, refugees, prisoners and unemployed youth from disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

For welfare organisations that focus on the alleviation of poverty and exclusion, homelessness is often the most obvious area of engagement. It represents the peak of poverty and exclusion and makes misery visible in many cities across Western European countries. The homeless population is heterogeneous and varies depending on the urban context. In Paris, illegal migrants are dominant among homeless groups in the northern areas of the city, and many of them are Muslims. Islamic organisations providing welfare services intervene in those areas and therefore reach mostly Muslims. However, they explain their focus on these areas by the significant social need for assistance and the high concentration of poverty, not by the religious or cultural identities of the recipients. While they provide aid to migrants and refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria, they also help non-Muslims, such as the Roma and other Europeans. The sole explanation given by these Muslim protagonists about the choice of the fields of intervention is the argument regarding social needs. Conversely, InTouch Foundation, a Muslim charity in Bradford in the United Kingdom, mostly addresses the needs of homeless people with a European background. In Geneva, the SASI serves a majority of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom originate from Muslim countries. Here as well, the rationale points to the social needs of beneficiaries and denies any community partisanship.

Furthermore, the overrepresentation of Muslims in excluded areas mainly concerns detainees in Western European prisons, which often count a percentage of Muslim inmates far superior to the general Muslim population. As a result, Islam is likely to be deemed as a problem or even a cause of this situation. However, this important gap can be explained by sociological factors and even legal aspects. In the Paris area, a dominant percentage of prisoners are youths from deprived housing projects in the region, which often bring together a predominance of people from North African and West African backgrounds. As a result, most of the inmates are Muslims as well (Khosrokhavar, 2016). In this context, some Islamic organisations have developed an interest in intervening in prisons and offering religious or social services to inmates.

Finally, numerous Islamic associations focus on youth from disadvantaged neighbourhoods, often affected by unemployment and inactivity. Especially in France, a significant proportion of the inhabitants in deprived housing projects are from a Muslim background. Over the last few decades, Islam has become a part of local suburban cultures. While some youths have been involved in Islamic practices, there are others who have simultaneously been exposed to religious discourses, without necessarily following their norms (Beaud & Amrani, 2004). In both cases, the proximity between Islam and the subculture of these neighbourhoods has created fertile ground for the affirmation of Muslim bodies’ leadership, including in social work (Bouzar, 2001). The overrepresentation of Muslims in excluded areas and segregated neighbourhoods can therefore be used as a justification for the focus of Islamic associations on specific groups and areas, especially in contexts where Muslims are particularly affected by exclusion and social issues.

Prioritising Muslims for Strategic Reasons

Far from ideological factors, the prioritisation of Muslims by Islamic welfare organisations is frequently driven by strategical considerations. Identity-based social work and intracultural approaches regularly lead to better funding opportunities and to partnerships being fostered by statutory organisations and civil society associations.

In the context of non-Muslim majority societies, Islamic bodies are often expected to deal with ‘their’ own issues and people. Concretely, some public institutions encourage Islamic organisations to get involved in the prevention of violent extremism. Moreover, some fund projects that target specific groups, such as Muslim migrant females or youngsters with a North African background. The underlying assumption is that Islamic organisations’ added value is specifically linked to the religious and cultural backgrounds of their staff, who are allegedly considered as being closer to the recipients and therefore more inclined to understand them and to communicate efficiently with them. The risk of such an assumption is an essentialisation of cultural, religious and ethnic features, by assigning a reified identity to the concerned parties. Paradoxically enough, these Muslim ‘social workers’ promoting an intracultural approach also aim to serve society as a whole and to extend their engagement to non-Muslims. Yet, for pragmatic reasons, they design projects targeting specific groups (i. e. migrant women, Muslim girls wearing ‘Islamic’ clothes, Syrian refugees, and so on) or specific issues (i. e. violent extremism linked to Islam or Islamophobia) as they know that they are more likely to be well-funded and to obtain a public and institutional recognition. Nevertheless, they also try to be recognised and accepted as ‘social workers’ for wider issues and therefore to compete with other bodies of mainstream social work, which is often much more difficult. Indeed, some public institutions and civil society organisations in Switzerland argue that the added value of Muslim organisations stands in their capacity to reach specific target groups and to develop relationships with them, whereas the state may be seen as illegitimate or at least viewed with suspicion. Moreover, it is argued that Muslim protagonists have the capacity to mobilise cultural and religious references to deal with specific sociocultural issues and even to counter extremist tendencies and narratives. To that extent, they are regarded as precious resources for the state. This is why the state occasionally instrumentalises their skills for its benefit, as several researchers have already remarked (Duret, 1996; Birt, 2006; Boucher, 2012). It can be argued that these partnerships foster a tendency for the state to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims by trying to identify reliable Islamic organisations – a tendency which would consequently lead to an exclusion of other Muslim stakeholders (Mamdani, 2002).

So far, most Islamic social work organisations seem to have failed to implement broader social services which would benefit the whole society, with a couple of exceptions in the area of food distribution. Instead, they focus on specific areas in order to build partnerships and to obtain funding, particularly in Switzerland (Brodard, 2019). In this regard, their intracultural approach and community-based social work practices are more influenced by strategical considerations than ideological or religious positions. In other words, Islamic social work organisations try to find their place among different welfare service providers by highlighting their cultural and religious competencies. By claiming such an added value, they wish to achieve greater recognition and inclusion.

Finally, although this strategic stance has allowed Islamic organisations to access partnerships, funding opportunities and public recognition, it has also restricted their engagement in society beyond certain limited fields, thus preventing their confirmation as mainstream social work bodies. At this point, despite their claims of providing impartial and neutral social work, Islamic organisations have mainly invested in intracultural and community-based social services prioritising co-religionists. For many, their added value appears when they work on religious and cultural issues concerning Muslims and Islam. Most donations from public and private institutions fund projects which align with these specific areas, which indirectly encourages Islamic organisations to specialise in intracultural and community-based approaches to social work. Therefore, the paradox opposing the dominant norms of neutrality and impartiality to the intracultural perspective seems to stem, at least partially, from the intracultural approach promoted by a number of Islamic organisations in their quest for added value in their social engagement.

Conclusion

Over recent years, Islamic organisations in France and Switzerland have largely developed a narrative which insists on their impartiality and neutrality, resonating with the secularist system’s expectations, which consider faith-based activism in the public sphere with suspicion (Vincent, 1997). However, in practice, they still address most of their services to Muslim groups. The tension or contradiction results from social discourse, which on the one hand constructs Muslims as a problem, and on the other, sets high expectations for their social contribution. To overcome this apparent contradiction, some would highlight the fact that specific Muslim groups are more likely to be affected by social issues, which legitimates the focus on them and their prioritisation. This argument then justifies the investment of Muslim organisations in specific areas, predominantly inhabited by ‘poor’ Muslims, as well as in specific groups, such as Muslim female migrants or young people from segregated neighbourhoods. In this sense, the context clearly determines which groups are targeted and how community welfare services are oriented. By extension, it can be argued that Islamic social work also contributes to society even when it focuses on Muslim groups, insofar as they are considered more affected by social problems than the average population. In this regard, helping Muslim groups also means contributing to the wider society, as Muslims are part of this and frequently subject to social problems and exclusion. As Muslims are citizens of European countries, distinguishing between them and non-Muslims fosters a “solitarist approach to human identity” (Sen, 2006), in which religious affiliation constitutes the main feature. To avoid the reinforcement of these solitaristic religious identities, Islamic social work may still have to assume a universalist approach which goes beyond its own religious identity.

Furthermore, while in a broader sense religious and ideological narratives can promote both neutral and partial approaches to aid and welfare, the strategic perspectives of Islamic organisations have led them de facto to invest in intracultural social work, especially in Switzerland. Hence, the reasons and motivations behind community-based social work stem from strategic rather than ideological aspects (Brodard, 2020). The fact that many Islamic organisations claim to deliver welfare services to everyone regardless of their cultural and religious affiliation reflects their general views of social work in most cases and corresponds to their religious guidelines. The fact that in real terms they prioritise or favour Muslims in their social work remains a strategic matter, which is embedded in the social context and linked to opportunities for funding and partnership. On various occasions, focusing on Muslims has allowed Islamic organisations to claim they provide added value and to establish themselves as key stakeholders. However, if given the means, many of these organisations would be inclined to contribute to society as a whole and ultimately promote a neutral and impartial social work approach. Therefore, being limited to fixed cultural or religious identities as social workers seems to stem more from external allocation, both from statutory institutions and in public debates, than from the deliberate will of Muslim activists to inhabit religious and cultural narratives in their social work practice.

Finally, Islamic organisations insisting on impartiality and neutrality is certainly in line with external sociopolitical expectations: the deontology of social work, as well as the values promoted by the state, expect social welfare providers to help anybody, regardless of identity-based concerns. In this regard, it could be argued that Islamic organisations have internalised these norms according to the political context. This does not mean that Islamic organisations exclude non-Muslims from their social projects. Rather, it means that most of them have essentially developed projects designed to address specific needs of Muslims, and not designed their social services to actively include other social groups. This inclusion would have required a deeper reflection on approaches to the broader population and on strategies to reach non-Muslims. It can be assumed that the promotion of inclusive, wide-reaching social welfare activism which goes beyond community boundaries requires reflection and practices beyond the sole declarations of intent and discourses of openness. That said, the investment of Muslim organisations in social work has fostered their role as a bridge between the state and the service users. On one hand, they allow statutory organisations to access service users through mediation and accurate communication. On the other, they accompany service users in their integration process and enhance their relationship with the local society. In this regard, Muslim protagonists’ contribution to social work goes far beyond community empowerment to promote integration within specific target groups which the state has often failed to reach through its own projects.

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Brodard, B. (2022). Helping Muslims or Contributing to Society? Insights into the Paradoxes of Islamic Social Work for the Excluded. In: Schmid, H., Sheikhzadegan, A. (eds) Exploring Islamic Social Work. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 9. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-95880-0_2

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