Weekly Insights and Analysis

Alms to Advocacy

October 14, 2009

By John Brownlee

Two billion dollars a year. Ever since the U.S. economy soured over a year ago, we have been bombarded with figures in the hundreds of billions and in the trillions – numbers most of us cannot really comprehend except in the most abstract ways. Compared to these figures, two billion doesn’t really seem like a whole lot. But put in more concrete terms, in Indonesia it is enough to send three million children to school or to build 14,000 local health clinics.

Two billion dollars is also how much Muslims in Indonesia give each year through various forms of Islamic philanthropy.

The vast majority of this giving goes toward direct forms of charity, usually donations of money, food, and clothing to the poor, or volunteer work to provide social services. Recently, however, Indonesia has seen a small but growing trend toward addressing not only the immediate needs of the poor but also larger social and governmental structures that can help reduce poverty in a broader, more systemic fashion.

For many non-Muslims, the attention paid by the media toward issues like shariah law and jihad can overshadow what most Muslims take to be Islam’s core teachings. One of these core teachings is the concept of social justice. In the seventh century, Islam was revolutionary in its stance that all human beings were equal, deserving of equal treatment, and possessing basic human rights. Through the Qur’an, Islam introduced specific mechanisms, such as tithes to be used for the poor and marginalized, which constituted one of the world’s earliest systems of social security.

But a growing number of Indonesian Muslims say they are concerned that the way Islamic philanthropy has traditionally operated only helps to treat the symptoms of social injustice, rather than helping society become genuinely more just.

Raja Juli Antoni is the director of the Ma’arif Institute for Culture and Humanity, an organization with close ties to the longstanding and influential Indonesian Muslim organization Muhammadiyah. He explains that, “Islam instructs its followers to engage in good works and to avoid and prevent that which is bad and evil. This is not only an injunction to follow the rituals of prayer and avoid sin, but also extends toward creating a just and fair society.”

The Ma’arif Institute is one of a growing number of Muslim organizations working on improving services for the poor and marginalized through government advocacy. Raja added, “Our work in the Ma’arif Institute, and in Muhammadiyah as a whole, is aiming to change government policies and budgets to benefit the poor in a way that is sustainable. If you spend your resources on direct handouts, you’re maybe helping a few people for a short while. But if you can change the system and make government accountable, you improve more lives for the long term.”

Lakpesdam NU, the think tank of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), is also working on policy and budget advocacy. Its director, Lilis Husna, sees one of their main tasks as translating Islamic principles of social justice into practical ways to bring them about. “Islamic concepts about philanthropy need solid tools, mechanisms, and institutions to be effective. Individuals and NGOs can help, but the government must also be lobbied to play its role in alleviating poverty.”

Together, NU and Muhammadiyah lay claim to a following of 70 million. Already both organizations, along with other smaller Islamic groups, have begun to set up local centers that give the poor a voice in government decision-making and, by doing so, have already changed a number of local policies and regulations for the better.

With more and more Muslim organizations working toward making government respond to needs of the poor, and a 2-billion-dollars-a-year commitment to the poor on the part of Indonesian Muslims, there’s much reason to be hopeful for the prospects of social justice in Indonesia.

John Brownlee is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Islam and Development in the Foundation’s Indonesia office.

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions, Economic Opportunity


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