Tunisia's Evolving Islamic Charitable Sector and Its Model of Social Mobilization

By Ester Sigillò | PhD Candidate in Political Science - Scuola Normale Superiore | Sep 15, 2016
Tunisia's Evolving Islamic Charitable Sector and Its Model of Social Mobilization

This essay is part of a series that examines the genesis, evolution, mobilization tools and processes, impacts and limitations of informal civil society in political transitions, that is, loose groupings of like-minded individuals—those that are unofficial, unregistered, or unregulated—in the MENA and Southeast Asia. Read more ...


After the fall of the authoritarian regime in 2011, new forms of civic engagement have flourished in Tunisia under the label of “civil society.” Besides the Neo Destourian[1] and RCDist associations that had developed respectively under the political hegemony of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, a great number of new associations has stemmed from those social movements that had been in opposition to the two authoritarian regimes. In particular, favored by the new context of socio-political liberalization, charitable organizations (al-jam’iyat al-khayriyya) with “religious reference”[2]—as distinct from secular, professional and internationalized urban NGOs—have emerged as new mobilizing agencies

Traditionally, the literature on civil society in the Arab World has paid little attention to this sector of associational life. More recently, however, the topic of Islamic philanthropy, as a specific type of civic mobilization, has become a subject of academic debate. Indeed, new scholarship on Islamic activism through a social-movement lens has offered thought-provoking insights. In particular, some scholars have highlighted the capacity of associations with a religious orientation to contribute to the development of the social infrastructure.[3] Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, some studies have treated these specific forms of civic engagement as agencies of a “social counter-power,”[4] while others have emphasized the success of horizontal linkages in an effort to understand the revolutionary process.[5]

This essay discusses the evolution of Islamic charities in Tunisia since 2011 as new actors of associational life.[6] In particular, I investigate to what extent they represent an alternative model of social mobilization by addressing the following questions: How do these charities frame their work? How do they relate to their constituencies? How can their discourse be read in relation to the broader debate on the construction of a civil society in post-revolutionary Tunisia? Thus, this essay investigates the possibility of charities’ grassroots horizontal network as a model of civic engagement. This acquires more relevance in a changing socio-political scenario characterized by a high politicization of civil society actors and a substantial flow of foreign aid—factors which, themselves, generate new internal and external hierarchies.

Re-emerging Grassroots Charity

In the aftermath of the revolution, the opening of socio-political space allowed religious actors to take the stage after several years of severe repression. In particular, Islamic charities began conducting themselves as collective grassroots organizations. Yet, as forms of traditional mobilization, their experience as such is not a specific by-product of the Tunisian revolution, but they re-emerged in the post-revolutionary public space as a familiar continuation of earlier social welfare activities.[7]

Under Habib Bourghiba (1956-1987) and Zine El Abidine (1987-2011) Ben Ali, the Tunisian government’s social welfare policies were part of a sophisticated instrument of co-optation. Economic liberalization under authoritarianism included the state’s withdrawal from the provision of social services to low-income people, thereby widening the gap between rich and poor. In this context, mosques began to fill the void created by the diminution of the state’s welfare provision. The Movement of Islamic Tendency (Ḥarakat al-Ittijāh al-Islāmī)—the precursor of the Ennahda Party—became actively involved in poor urban areas, delivering social services that the government did not provide while developing informal social networks. However, this is not meant to suggest that all of the Islamic charities that emerged after the revolution were politicized. The majority of charity volunteers acknowledged in interviews: “we are not Islamist, then we are not political.” This is particular relevant in the light of the diffused general opinion that nowadays wants Ennahda running a vast network of charitable organizations.[8]

After the Tunisian revolution, the Libyan crisis played a crucial role in the institutionalization of Islamic charities.

After the Tunisian revolution, the Libyan crisis played a crucial role in the institutionalization of Islamic charities. The massive influx of refugees at the Ras Ajdir border crossing in the southern region of Medenine led to the formation of several informal groups, which provided humanitarian assistance before and after the arrival of international aid. According to the president of Tunisia Charity, this first-hand experience in collaborative civic engagement helped participants establish structured horizontal ties, which in turn ultimately led them to consider founding an association with a specific identity and goals.[9] Indeed, in the context of widespread revolutionary enthusiasm, this initial interaction among local informal movements undertaking social welfare activities and their contact with professionalized international NGOs present in the field, triggered a process of formalization of charities with religious orientation throughout the country.

Framing the Difference

Islamic charities constructed their identity and built their reputation by differentiating themselves from their secular counterparts. But as their popularity among the most disadvantaged segments of the population grew, as did their ability to develop rapidly and to expand networks throughout the country, they elicited strong a counter-reaction from established secular associations. The latter adopted an anti-Islamic discourse that warned the public of the existence of a hidden project to Islamize Tunisian society. This fear was also shared by new leftist associations seeking local and international legitimacy after the revolution.

The polarization of leftist-secular and Islamic associations has been evident especially in Tunis and Sfax, the country’s two largest, most developed cities but where there continue to exist vast peripheral zones that have been neglected by the state and international donors. It is here that religious charities have made their mark, promoting themselves as new social welfare “subsidiary institutions” that alone among the various organizations dispensing services to the public have fully earned their beneficiaries’ trust.[10] The charities’ original work is, indeed, rooted in local needs and means. They are characterized by community-based and self-help activities that are mainly financed by the redistribution of locally collected alms (zakat) and other forms of donation (sadaqat).

Initially, the religious charities had weak, informal structures, as compared with their secular counterparts

Initially, the religious charities had weak, informal structures, as compared with their secular counterparts. Moreover, when they first started to provide services in peripheral zones, their activities went generally unnoticed by the international donor community. Indeed, the majority of charities interviewed reported that their initial activities were deployed largely in marginalized areas, in contrast with government welfare policies, which were “continuing to privilege only selected areas on the basis of specific economic interests.”[11]

For Islamic charities, the local became an important asset—in opposition to the internationalization of NGOs.[12] They avoided the lexicon employed by secular associations, considering it a reflection of the mainstream neo-liberal conception of civil society framed by international donors. They associate internationalization with the creation of a relationship of dependence upon donors, which in turn undermines the trust that should exist between those providing services and their beneficiaries. Indeed, the prevalent discourse of Islamic charities refers to their capacity to remain faithful to the poor, as opposed to their secular counterparts, which have worked to develop strong international ties and have “received a clear mandate from international donors to develop the country.”[13]

In organizing their activities, religious associations have established among themselves a division of labor aimed at ensuring that they are accountable to the poor and serve local needs. In some cases, they have created shared databases in order so as to avoid duplicative interventions. In turn, this manner of organization has enabled Islamic charities to establish organic links with their constituencies more quickly and more efficiently than other associations. Indeed, Islamic charities easily build horizontal ties, develop resources and tailor their assistance as specific conditions warrant. Their informal structure does not mean that they operate in isolation. On the contrary, they are self-embedded in an informal social network characterized by strong kinship ties, which strengthen social participation and/or recruitment. In mobilizing volunteers, they usually do not rely on formal hiring procedures but rather on informal ties of loyalty and trust. These tightknit personal bonds, which constitute the very identity of these associations, are highly conducive to norms of reciprocity, and thus to the development of social capital.[14]

In some cases, especially in those areas of the country where the secular/religious cleavage is more emphasized within the social fabric, we witness the attempt to create more formal ties among Islamic associations. This is the case with respect to Sfax, where the willingness to create a tighter Islamic bloc has proved to be greater. As a matter of fact, over the past two-three years, we have been conducting an experiment: forging formal partnerships among with about 30 associations, including da’wa and Qur’anic studies associations and social welfare charities. After experiencing an initial setback due to bureaucratic and political barriers, we have adopted a more cautious strategy, primarily aimed at developing a smaller network consisting only of a few leading charitable associations, and, in a second stage, extending the partnership to other types of religious associations.[15]

The Evolution of Islamic Charities: More Professionalization against Less Piety?

Since the revolution, Islamic charities have continued to evolve. Whereas previously they had found it necessary to differentiate themselves from other social actors, more recently they have sought to normalize their status as “agents of civil society.” In particular, they have developed new discourses and have begun to compete with secular NGOs in order to attract international legitimacy. A strong impetus for this change has been the targeting of Islamic charities by the government by means of coercive policies instituted in the aftermath of the political assassinations and terrorist attacks that have shaken Tunisia since the summer 2013.

The first sign of this new approach is the change in logistics. Many charitable associations born in marginalized peripheries of Tunis, such as Ettadhamen or Douar Hicher, now have their new headquarters situated in the modern affluent neighborhood of Les Berges du Lac, partially built by Gulf investors. The same happened in Sfax, where the new commercial part of the city (Sfax el Jadida) has been almost entirely covered by a vast network of Islamic social institutions, such as zakat and dawa associations, the association of Islamic economics, and religious charities. This change in logistics is closely related to the willingness of Islamic associations to expand their constituencies and the ambit of their activities into urban areas, which have been traditionally served by secular counterparts. This process might risk weakening grassroots ties, thus calling into question the original attempt by Islamic charities to differentiate themselves from other NGOs on the basis of their rootedness.[16]

The second element of change is linked to the urbanization of religious charities and a broader phenomenon, namely what could be referred to as a “gentrification” of Islamic movements.[17]  In Tunisia, evidence of this phenomenon can be found in the evolution of the Islamic social activism, where a cadre of middle-class professionals has emerged.[18] In fact, religious charities seem to have become pivotal actors in this process. Notably, presidents of religious associations belong to the new local bourgeoisie of developed cities: they are well-educated doctors, engineers, and professors who organized themselves in a changing context where traditional societal arrangements have significantly weakened.

The third element of change is the competition with secular associations to attract international funding. Initially, the majority of religious associations had chosen not to accept foreign funds. Some, though, did obtain financial support from Gulf-based charities, mainly from Qatari or Kuwaiti sources, which were attractive both because of their cultural affinities and because they do not present the technical barriers and conditionality that Western donors, especially faith-based organizations, do. However, the financial relationship between Tunisian religious charities and Gulf donors generated suspicion among Tunisian leftist-secular associations and their constituencies, triggering a campaign against the Islamic social bloc’s financial opacity.

More recently, information gathered from field interviews indicates that a new trend is underway. Several charities have reframed their relationship with foreign donors, adopting a more market-oriented approach: opening their doors to international opportunities and seeking to gain legitimacy from the West, especially from the United States. They have participated in international workshops and seminars so as to build their capacity and acquire best practices, thereby improving their prospects for competing for donors’ calls for grant proposals. Moreover, they have begun to establish foreign horizontal ties through external partnerships with foreign Islamic associations, especially in France, where they have more personal contacts.

This new market-oriented strategy has spurred other changes that go beyond a mere superficial restyling. As a matter of fact, several associations have started to reshape their work by adding areas of specialization other than charitable activities, such as implementing development projects and conducting research seminars and workshops. When asked about the reason for doing so, volunteers interviewed explained that it was a rational choice intended to “broaden and make more effective their impact.” This discourse reveals a strategy to obtain a renewed legitimacy, leaving behind the specificity relied to charities’ religious orientation.[19] Interviewees explained that the desire to broaden the range of activities to the development sector is specifically conceived to avoid creating a relationship of dependency between the charitable actor and its beneficiaries.[20] The aims of specializing in research are twofold: 1) to gain international legitimacy and 2) to broaden and deepen their normative influence on their local constituencies. Indeed some charities began to organize seminars and activities based on individual coaching and “positive thinking” for their beneficiaries, where pious principles are implicitly embedded, thus easily transmitted to society. Last but not least, this rebranding had had a striking impact on how charities present themselves to the public. Indeed, during interviews, several respondents to the question of their core identity, refrained from employing the terms “Islamic” and “religious,” referring to themselves as “… good Muslims in a Muslim country, that’s all.”

An Alternative Model of Social Mobilization?

To what extent can we refer to the Islamic charitable sector in post-revolutionary Tunisia as having become an alternative model of social mobilization? In the first months following the revolution, Islamic associations emerged as important actors in the charitable sector through their capacity to build horizontal networks marked by relationships of trust and solidarity, which in turn strengthened participation; and through differentiating themselves from their secular professionalized counterparts, which they framed as imprisoned in vertical hierarchies imposed by international donors.

The self-conception, structure, role and activities of Tunisian Islamic charities have evolved over the past two-to-three years.

However, the self-conception, structure, role and activities of Tunisian Islamic charities have evolved over the past two-to-three years have witnessed an evolution of . As this discussion has shown, the Tunisian charitable sector has developed into an urban middle-class network in which Islamic charities are embedded and in which they work as facilitators of social mobilization.

The initial data emerged from the field leads us to question to what extent this rebrand could undermine the core identity of Islamic charitable associations. According to interviewees’ responses, notwithstanding the transformation that Islamic charities appear to have undergone, they are keen to maintain their Muslim identity and to continue to inculcate Islamic values though by employing the same means as their secular counterparts in order to gain international legitimacy. Thus, in spite of their fashionable restyling, Islamic associations continue to operate as a well-rooted social bloc, primarily by expanding their informal network through the establishment of local organizations under the umbrella of an urban headquarters, and by continuing to develop the relationship of trust with their beneficiaries through follow-up with those families involved in their various activities.

The Islamic charitable sector continues to evolve and thus presents a fertile area for further research. At least two promising paths of inquiry come immediately to mind. The first concerns questions related to the trajectory of the Islamic charitable sector itself, and whether in light of the gentrification and specialization discussed here, it can maintain a semblance of unity. The second pertains to the Islamic charitable sector’s capacity to produce social and political change.

[1] The New Constitutional Liberal Party, commonly known as the Neo Destour, was founded by nationalist politicians during the period of the French Protectorate in 1934. In its early years, the party included prominent figures such as Habib Bourguiba. The Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the successor to Neo Destour, was the ruling party of Tunisia from indepedence (1956) until its dismantlement in 2011.

[2] Delimiting the boundaries of Islamic welfare activism is not an easy task. Here I will refer to the definition used by B. Challand, “A Nahda of Charitable Organizations? Health Service Provision and the Politics of Aid in Palestine,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40, 2 (2008): 227-247. Charities with religious reference are those associations that include explicit religious principles in their work ethos. Some can have a political project based on religious values (Islamist) and others not (Islamic). Charities under analysis function at the crossroads of various social welfare activities related to Islamic principles, such as offering winter shelter and help for orphans and elderly people, along with conducting cultural events related to Ramadan and festivities such as Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.  Therefore, the action of dawa (preaching) is implicit.

[3] Q. Wiktorowicz, Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003); J. Clark, Islam, Charity and Activism, Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004).

[4] F. Merone and E. Soli, “Tunisia: the Islamic associative system as a social counter-power,” Opendemocracy.net, October 22, 2013, accessed August 7, 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/evie-soli-fabio-merone/tuni....

[5] J. Chalcraft, “Horizontalism in Egyptian Revolutionary process,” Middle East Report (2012): 6-11.

[6] Data and quotes in this article are based on interviews to Islamic charities and participant observation of their activities carried out in Tunis, Sfax and Medenine from October 2015 to June 2016. Part of my fieldwork in Sfax was carried out in partnership with Damiano De Facci; several ideas expressed in this article stemmed from insightful discussions with him and Fabio Merone.

[7] Interview with a militant member of Ennahda and president of a charity in Sfax.

[8] This is also crucial in the light of the path of “secularization” undertaken by the party after the revolution. See F. Cavatorta and F. Merone, “Post-Islamism, ideological evolution and ‘la tunisianité’ of the Tunisian Islamist party al-Nahda,” Journal of Political Ideologies 20, 1 (2015): 27-41. Even in this case there is not direct evidence that all Islamic charities are allied to the party and its new trend.

[9] Interview with Sami Ben Youssef, President of Tunisia Charity since 2014.

[10] Interview with the president of a Sanabil al-Khair, charity based in the peripheral zone of Cité Ettadhamen, in Tunis.

[11] Interview with members of Irtika, a charity in Sidi Makhlouf, a marginalized area in the region of Medenine.

[12] Interview with the president of  Association de bienfaisance et donation, charity in Medenine.

[13] Interview with a member of Sfax Charity, in Sfax.

[14] R. Putnam, Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

[15] Interview with the president of Mouazara, charity based in Sfax.

[16] In Medenine, the Southern region bordering with Libya, this dynamic of professionalization is less evident as it is characterized by a more homogeneity of civic engagement. Indeed we refer to one of the most conservative region where rooted pious traditions have historically marked activities of social mobilization, thus competition between religious and seculars is not pronounced.

[17] J. Clark, op. cit.; and P. Haenni, L’Islam de marché. L’autre révolution conservatrice (Paris: Editions du Seuil et La République des Ideés, 2005); and O. Roy, L’Echec de l’Islam Politique (Paris: Le Seuil,  1992).

[18] Merone and Soli, op. cit.; and F. Merone and D. De Facci, “The New Islamic Middle Class and the Struggle for Hegemony in Tunisia,” Afriche e Orienti 1-2 (2015): 56-69.

[19] This restyling is especially interesting in light of the evolution of the Islamist party Ennahda, which, at its tenth Congress, decided to specialize as a civil political party by separating religion from politics. Thus, the rebranding seems to be a diffuse reformulation of the overall Tunisian Islamic system, rather than a phenomenon pertaining specifically or exclusively to a group of charities.

[20] Interview with a member of Marhama, charitable association  based in Tunis.