In countries such as the US, every year, secular liberals donate billions of dollars to charitable activities that seek to improve the quality of life of groups in need, such as those with limited income, physical disabilities, victims of abuse, orphans, and so on. By definition, for these seculars, the pursuit of a reward in the afterlife or the compulsion to adhere to a religious edict are not the drivers of this behaviour.
While for some liberals, it might be an attempt to gain advantageous social approval, for the most part, I am confident that it is a genuine sense of altruism directed toward the receiving party. When they see a homeless person or a child with a chronic illness, they experience discomfort stemming from their empathy, thereby motivating to act. The result is donations of money, goods and even time in the form of volunteering.
While seculars might not admit it openly, many feel a sense of scorn toward donors who are driven by their religious stipulations. This is the result of a compound perception.
First, educated secular liberals tolerate religious beliefs, but they think that they are a trite indulgence that is equivalent to believing in the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas, and it is, therefore, irresponsible to let such fantasies constitute the framework for helping those in need.
Second, a religious person donating to the poor is in some sense being ‘selfish’, since their choice is driven by the desire to escape the pain of hellfire, and secure passage to paradise. This is to be contrasted to the ‘purer’ sense of altruism that secular liberals feel that they possess.
As a result, secular liberals generally do not feel the need to use religious principles to inform their own charitable behaviour. To them, using texts such as the Bible as a guide is either daft, corrupting, or both.
I am a practicing Muslim who has lived in the West for most of my life, and who has spent a lot of it interacting with secular liberals who operate in elite circles. I am also a long-time active researcher in the field of charitable contributions, allowing me to supplement my casual observations with robust, scientific analysis. This experience has allowed me to identify how secular liberals would benefit from appreciating Islamic principles of charity.
The key area concerns protecting the dignity of the recipient of charitable assistance. When secular liberals engage in charitable activity, it is not only acceptable, but actively desirable, to make the beneficiary publicly express their gratitude. A common illustration arises during disaster relief, when aid arrives and the media thrust a camera in the face of the hapless recipient, asking them to explain just how appreciative they are of the donors’ actions.
Yet, it goes well beyond this, with secular non-profit organisations publishing prospectuses and brochures that include in-depth interviews with beneficiaries, including their personal pictures and their names. In other words, this is a systematic component of the cycle of charity, and not a spontaneous emotional act when earthquake victims are airlifted to safety.
Islam strictly prohibits this kind of behaviour, because it is harmful to the dignity of the recipient of charitable aid. It is basically a way of ‘rubbing their faces in it’, even if that isn’t actually the intention. Muslims are horrified by the prospect of a TV crew going to a homeless shelter, interviewing people about how lucky they feel to have a warm meal and safe residence.
It is human nature to want to stand on your own feet. Sometimes, circumstances conspire against us, or we make mistakes, resulting in our needing help; that help should come discreetly, as maintaining your self-respect is an important part of the rehabilitation process. If you are forced to declare your status as a weak victim to the world, escaping your plight becomes more difficult.
One reason why secular liberals are so keen to violate this maxim is that not all are pure altruists. Some have what social scientists call ‘impure altruists’, or ‘warm glow altruists’, meaning that an essential component of the enjoyment they feel when helping others is having their donation affirmed and acknowledged, and preferably even broadcast to help them cultivate a reputation as being ‘nice people’.
The widespread ignorance of this ostensibly Islamic principle is reflected in the academic literature on charitable contributions. While I have seen innumerable papers written on how charitable behaviour is affected by parameters such as the publicity of the donor, the cost of giving, the contact between the donor and the recipient, and so on; I have never come across a study of how the recipient’s well-being is impacted by a lack of discreetness in their receiving the donation. I honestly think it just doesn’t occur to scholars that this might be important, reinforcing the view that impure altruism is an important driver of charitable activity in secular Western countries.
Hollywood actor and Parkinson’s Disease sufferer Michael J Fox once quipped: “One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalised and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.” These profound words apply strongly to the area of charity: while secular liberals do not realise it, their indiscreet treatment of recipients contributes to those who are in need surrendering their dignity. They would do well to open their mind to what they can learn from Islam.
The writer is Studies and Research director at Derasat