This article first appeared in the January/February 2013 edition of Monthly Developments Magazine:
For many, the term “faith-based” conjures up images of conservative religious individuals preaching and converting as many as they can to their particular beliefs. As a result, some donors are still skeptical of giving to faith-based NGOs; and some young people won’t even consider working for a faith-based organization for fear they would be stereotyped.
But there is also increasing recognition of the benefits of faith-based organizations. And as part of this shift, donors and governments are working to understand the vital role faith—as a whole—plays in communities and their development.
So what is it really like to work for a faith-based NGO? Is it any different from a secular organization and should those with nonreligious beliefs even consider such opportunities? And, most importantly, is it a viable avenue for promising career prospects for young people?
A few months ago, I left a market research job to join Islamic Relief, a faith-based NGO. My manager at the time responded to my notice with, “That is the perfect fit for you.” On the other hand, one of my friends warned me that working for an organization with the term “Islam” in its name would seriously dampen any future career prospects—both within and outside the development sector.
For me, I didn’t really see the supposed big difference. Yes, it would be faith-based but it was still a U.K.-based organization. In reality, how different could it be?
The organization I joined, Islamic Relief, is the world’s largest independent Muslim NGO and it operates in over 40 countries. I decided to take the position for two main reasons: first, because it is an NGO committed to alleviating the suffering of some of the world’s poorest communities; and second, the Islamic element to it meant that I wouldn’t have to compromise my religious practice and beliefs in order to pursue a career in the field I wanted.
Almost five months into the job, it would be misleading if I didn’t say that I am still adjusting to the culture and operational differences compared to secular organizations.
The working environment of the organization—as expressed through those who work here—spans the entire range from very conservative to the very nonconservative. In other words, while we have those, for example, who will not sit at a lunch table or shake hands with anyone from the opposite gender, the important thing is that nothing is imposed upon everyone. As long as behavior sits within the common bounds of decency, the general rule is for each to their own.
I consider myself a practising Muslim. But having grown up in a Western country, I have always been exposed to diverse and non-faith-based environments. On my first day, I struggled to stop the usual “good mornings” I always walked into work with and to replace it with the Islamic greeting “As salaamu alikum” (peace be upon you) that everyone uses instead.
Even all work emails start with a shorter abbreviation “Salaams” so that now I sometimes even have to stop myself from repeating the greeting when typing personal emails.
As Muslims are required to pray five times a day, the call to prayer surrounds the building at varying times, prompting those who want to pray to head towards the various prayer rooms available.
While some may find the modest interaction between males and females deterring, one of the real benefits of this is the mutual respect it generates. I think it also lessens the pressure some female workers feel in workplaces to dress up for the benefit of male colleagues or bosses. And, in that sense, Islam is entirely compatible with serious feminism.
Family life is also encouraged at Islamic Relief. It is perfectly normal to walk in and find employees’ children sitting at desks; whereas in most secular organizations, the idea of children in the workplace is usually frowned upon.
From my experiences in the U.K. and the Caribbean, religion is often a taboo subject in the workplace. If religion is important to an individual, the ability to discuss this openly or just randomly say “I need to go pray” can be very appealing and it can be a great relief to not be thought of as weird.
For some, the cultural differences may be a barrier to entering an Islamic NGO. However, there are plenty of non-Muslims who have chosen a career within Islamic Relief, and they are obviously free to practice their own beliefs. What is great is that no one is overjudgemental. The organization has a diverse set of people from varying religious and ethnic backgrounds who are all valued both for their personal piety and their professional contributions.
Faith and development
Some of the world’s poorest communities are primarily faith-based. And Muslim communities are often more welcoming towards aid agencies that operate using principles the community also uses. As a result, leading Islamic NGOs can be a critical part of the solution to changing community perceptions of what I call “pseudo-religious” issues (such as female genital cutting, child marriage and honor killings) that communities may accept but that are not in adherence with Islamic beliefs. I am very much looking forward to countering some of these deeply oppressive cultural practices from a real faith perspective.
Of course, no organization comes without its challenges and internal politics. Faith has always had an intense but uneasy relationship with postwar secular notions of development. As faith-based organizations, we find ourselves questioning whether religion should simply be a personal inspiration for the work we undertake—or should things go further and manifest themselves in our projects and fundraising work? How explicit should our beliefs be within the subculture of the organization? And then there is the slightly unfair issue of making sure that we are always viewed as being completely impartial in conflict situations—whereas secular organizations never seem to be accused of supporting their own ideologies and perhaps being naturally partial in similar situations.
Nevertheless, I have come to realize that faith can be a powerful tool for change— both at an individual and a social level. The motivation, compassion and capacity to seek change for the greater good and from seeking the pleasure of God is clearly evident in the volunteers, staff and field officers I have worked with during my time here. That is not to say that secular organizations are not also driven to make a difference towards a greater purpose.
For me, however, this is probably my first full-time paid employment that I’m actually enjoying. The fact that it is faith- based is probably one important element in the equation. But, it is still early days. Ask me to write this same piece 12 months later and my perception of faith-based NGOs might have changed altogether—but I hope I won’t have been poorer for the experience as a whole.
Copyright Reyhana Patel. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.