Insights and Analysis

U.S.-Islamic World Forum Examines Role of Muslim Leaders

April 13, 2011

By Robin Bush

Many people naturally see religious leaders as spiritual guides, and are familiar with the charity work conducted by religious organizations. In Muslim countries, there is also familiarity with a political role for Muslim leaders. But there has been very little attention given to the potential (or the reality) of the role that Muslim leaders can and do play in development more broadly – especially at the policy level, and especially related to issues of governance.

On April 12, at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington, D.C. –  a forum which gathers the likes of Fareed Zakaria, Mohammed Abdullah Mutib Al Rumaihi, Zbigniew Brzesinski, Imam Mohammed Magid, John Kerry, Madeleine Albright, and Rashad Hussain, all discussing and debating issues critical to the Arab and Muslim worlds  – I moderated a roundtable on “the Role of Religious Leaders in Development: Case Studies from Asia.” The panel, organized by The Asia Foundation, included Salahuddin Aminuzzaman, professor of Public Administration, University of Dhaka; Yasmin Busran-Lao, executive director, Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation; and Khaldun Malek, University of Malaya.

Yasmin Busran Lao, from the Philippines, pointed out: “Development outcomes are determined by the kind of politics that one finds on the ground.” For religious leaders that want to have an impact on development, this often means inevitable engagement in politics, whether at a national or sub-national level.  If we think about development policy, not just service delivery or charity, but efforts to help governments improve policies for the well-being of their citizens – whether it is a policy to provide free education or to reduce maternal mortality – we can see that Muslim leaders have a strategic advantage because they often wield political influence and have large constituencies that are politically powerful.

In Indonesia, for example, Muslim leaders have been effective advocates for pro-poor budgeting at the district level – when district-heads are resistant to pro-poor campaigns by NGOs, Muslim leaders can deploy the political weight of their constituencies toward increasing budget allocations for health and education.

Muslim leaders can also engage effectively in development through their influence within the community. Muslim leaders are trusted, and are often consulted on a wide range of issues – not just religious issues – by people in their communities. So when a cleric or ulama issues messages – whether it is to encourage families to send their girls to school or in support of family planning, these messages often have a lot more weight than if they are issued by a government body or NGO.

Professor Aminuzzaman, from the University of Dhaka, described a program called Leaders of Influence, supported by The Asia Foundation, in which imams in Dhaka are exposed to a range of development programs (fish breeding, women’s health, HIV/AIDs, for example) so that their routine messages to the communities they serve (whether through Friday prayers or other routine meetings) can reinforce development efforts to improve the lives of rural Bangladeshis.

There are, however, limitations to the roles religious leaders can play. As societies modernize, there has been an expectation that the role of clerics and ulama will become increasingly marginalized. However, in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, which have maintained high degrees of religiosity despite rapid modernization, we see these leaders continue to be important.  Survey data commissioned by The Asia Foundation in Indonesia shows a declining number of people who say they consult religious leaders on political issues – from 60 percent in 1999 down to 18 percent in 2011. However, the numbers are still high, 44 percent, for those who consult ulama on social and community (including development) issues.

The roundtable concluded that development cannot be divorced from politics, and that religious leaders are strategic and influential players in that interface between development and politics. And, while traditional “religious leaders” may be declining in influence, participants also noted that there is a new generation of religious leaders – who are often women or youth, often well-educated, and committed to modernization and development of their societies. Given this, it is all the more likely that religious leaders, traditional and non-traditional alike, will continue to find productive roles and avenues of influence to improve the physical, as well as spiritual, well-being of their communities.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected].



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