Islamic Charities in Indonesia

A review of Islamic Charities and Social Activism: Welfare, Dakwah and Politics in Indonesia, by Hilman Latief.

Hilman Latief’s dissertation offers a deep insight into a key pillar of Muslim societies, almsgiving. Focussing on the largest Muslim country in the world and his own home country, Indonesia, Latief goes well beyond a normative or legalistic analysis of zakat, sadaqa and waqf, investigating notions of solidarity, brotherhood and the ummah, thus articulating the social practice of giving as reflective of, and as intrinsically connected to, three aspects of religious activism: welfare, da’wah and politics.

The chapters henceforth unfolds to support Latief’s main argument: beyond the most superficial motive of uplifting the poor and promoting development, Islamic charities’ activities are more deeply driven by religious, social and political reasons (p. 15). It is worth noting that this study is also committed to discovering the “multifarious networks and alliances by which ‘meaning’ and organizational trajectories … are constructed, reconstructed and contested”, as well as “to explain[ing] how Islamic charitable associations are involved in outreach programmes” (p. 16).

The dissertation is divided in eight chapters, which material spans from methodological considerations on the study of charities (Chapter 2) to a detailed description of Indonesia’s domestic socio-political context and the emergence of (religious) NGOs at the end of the century (Chapter 3, which makes the dissertation accessible to non-Indonesianists interested in the work for comparative purposes), and the internationalization of aid across the Muslim world (Chapter 7). What lies in between are three core chapters based on ethnographic research conducted in Java, Aceh and Nias Island (off the Western coast of Sumatra) with a spin-off to Hong Kong. These chapters offer detailed case-studies of how Indonesian Islamic charities provide medical support to the poor (Chapter 4), protect and advocate for the rights of women (including those working as foreign domestic workers; Chapter 5) and post-disaster relief operations (Chapter 6).

Following an introduction that delineates the breadth of the dissertation, its sources and methodology, in Chapter 2 Latief offers a comparative overview of religious charitable organizations. A brief inter-religious comparison is sided by a detailed explanation of various forms of almsgiving in the Islamic texts, and its relationship to broader concepts of solidarity. Latief’s main argument here is that, besides the strictly religious motivation, it is the draw of “altruistic behaviour” that fosters charitable work in general, thus contributing to the development of voluntary associations, private organizations and government agencies. A point that will be resumed in a later chapter is how in Indonesia – as in many other Muslim countries – the government has gone further than merely regulating charities, “attempt[ing] to control” them altogether (p. 26). Another distinction made here, and key to a thorough understanding of what is to come, relates to the association  of “charity” with short-term poverty relief versus the understanding of “philanthropy” as a long-term commitment towards development and empowerment (pp. 41-42). In fact, despite the fact that traditionally Islamic almsgiving would fit into the scope of charity, “in present-day practice, Islamic charitable associations have used the term ‘Islamic philanthropy’ to mean development-oriented social works … includ[ing] community-based zakat agencies, state-sponsored zakat bodies, Islamic humanitarian organizations and the like” (p. 42). Two further topics introduced in Chapter 2 are that of networking (both domestic and international), and the role of Indonesia’s newly emerged Muslim middle class, which in the post-Suharto era has internalised the “religious idiom on the necessity of giving” (p. 45).

Chapter 3, titled “Charities, the Public Good and Islamic Activism” operates as an umbrella to the four chapters that follow. It opens with an exhaustive overview of Indonesia’s social, political and economic setting in the second half of the 20th century, with a focus on the transition from the Suharto regime (1965-1998) to the democratic era (since 1998) which thus introduces the dynamics that allowed for the emergence of the middle class as well as Islamic charities (further developed later on in the chapter, when NGOs are discussed); with this section Latief has made the chapter highly accessible to those reading the dissertation for comparative purposes. With the context well laid out, the chapter moves on to address three topics further discussed in the following chapters: first is the development of intellectual discourses and state policies towards socio-economic inequality; here Latief focuses on the efforts of prominent Indonesian Muslim thinkers and political activists to re-examine Islamic principles in a way that would promote the public good along three key “normative concepts” : benevolent acts, public welfare, and social justice. This section covers the thought of Amien Rais, Moeslim Abdurrahman (to whom this dissertation is dedicated), Jalaluddin Rakhmat, Nurcholish Madjid, and Dawam Rahardjo, and assesses the impact of their “intellectualism” on the promotion of social change more generally (p. 90) and innovation in zakat practice in the specific (pp. 91-93). The second concern of Chapter 3 is to investigate the development of faith-based NGOs in historical and contemporary perspective, dedicating much attention to the working of Dompet Dhuafa, Rumah Zakat Indonesia, and Dompet Peduli Umat-Daarut Tauhid – three charitable organizations involved in the collection and re-distribution of zakat. An interesting point that Latief makes here first, and he further repeats as the argument gains strength, is that despite the fact that by their own nature these charities’ activities rest on the state’s failure in providing adequate welfare, these organizations are never critical of the state’s shortcomings (“unlike some ‘secular’ or traditionalist Muslim NGOs”, p. 166).

The specific activities of these charities are analysed in great detail in the following chapters. In Chapter 4 (“Health Provision for the Poor”), Latief explores the programmes conducted by the already mentioned DD, RZI, and DPU-DT as well as Muhammadiyah Hospitals. They all provide health services to the poor (with a focus on maternity and children), but Latief also underlines how these clinics’ are more broadly committed to poverty alleviation through, for example, the setting up of income-generating projects.

Similarly Chapter 5 (“Islamic Charities and the Protection of Underprivileged Women) is dedicated to religious NGOs’ programmes designed to address problems specifically affecting women. Here Latief goes at great length to explain the social context that creates gender-specific poverty, which often leads to various kinds of exploitation, and thus suggests that it is the very connection between poverty and exploitation that has “stimulated Islamic charitable associations to provide development projects” (p. 175) aimed at women’s empowerment, once again pointing at this operational shift from “charity” to “philanthropy”. It is worth noting that although much of Latief’s work is based in Indonesia, this chapter gives much attention to Indonesian women as Foreign Domestic Workers, specifically in Hong Kong.

An underlining argument already present albeit more subtly in the previous two chapters is brought to full bloom in Chapter 6 (“Islamic Charities and Dakwah in the Outer Islands”): religious charitable organizations are constantly negotiating between their mandate to universal solidarity and their religious activism, expressed through da’wah: poor Muslims who are treated in Islamic charitable clinics are invited to participate in religious gatherings; women in attendance are given headscarves to wear; FDWs in “secular” Hong Kong are exhorted to not forget their cultural (i.e. Islamic) origins. And in Chapter 6, which explores the role of Islamic charities in the context of post-disaster Nias, where Muslims are a minority, we see this argument further reinforced as Latief highlights how through exposure to “greater connection with new domestic and international Islamic associations, such as zakat agencies, dakwah associations, and certain international Islamic charitable foundations” (p. 222), Nias has experienced the channelling of charitable institutions’ resources in dakwah activities and education, and the building of new madrasas, mosques and  musholla (praying rooms).

Chapter 7, the last substantial chapter of the thesis, analyses the connection “between the culture of giving and the spread of Islamic solidarity movements in Indonesia’s post-New Order era” (p. 263) by focussing on Indonesian movements that had emerged in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the long-lasting Palestinian crisis. It is in this chapter that Latief brings to full circle the initial suggestion that charity is as connected to religiosity as it is involved with politics: “mobilization of Islamic aid in Indonesia for international relief is mainly contingent upon, and derived from, the emerging political discourse on the ideas of justice, the unity of the umma, and anti-imperialism” (p. 263).

Hilman Latief’s dissertation is the first complete study of this important “industry” in Indonesia. Due to its ramifications for domestic policies (healthcare, education, women’s rights), inter-faith relations (Muslim charities’ operations in Christian areas) and international relations (sending and receiving countries of FDWs, transnational Islamic networks), religious charities are a field useful for all Indonesianists to understand. For those with comparative interests, Latief does a very good job at making his work accessible to that readership; what is more, Latief engages profoundly with the religious foundations and arguments, but ultimately has produced a work that goes well beyond the field of religious activism, and which points to the transformation of these organizations’ goals increasingly towards relief and development projects.

Chiara Formichi
Department of Asian and International Studies
City University of Hong Kong

Primary Sources

– Fieldwork in Yogyakarta, Aceh and Nias Island
– Documents collected at Muhammadiyah, Dompet Dhuafa and other Islamic charitable organisations
– Dozens of interviews with theologians, preachers, intellectuals, political leaders, directors and administrative staff of zakat agencies, physicians, nurses, patients/beneficiaries, NGO activists (both Muslim and Christian) and former volunteers

Dissertation Information

University of Utrecht. 2012. 362 pp. Primary Advisor: Martin van Bruinessen.

Image: Image by author of aid collection for Palestine.

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