Can a Nonhumanitarian Ethics Address Economic Inequality?

Revolution, often affected through battered souls ambushed by endless hardship, has taken on a romantic flavor in history classes. The possibility and promises of change through democracy dominates contemporary thinking. We are often taught that affecting upheaval in today’s world requires ideological commitment and hardy political maneuvering. 

But need revolution be so grand? Maybe change is seeded in the acts so familiar to us in everyday life: cooking, family, food, laughter, and, for religious confessionalists, divinity. It’s possible that massive structural problems can also be fought through tiny, capillary acts that are, in a word, boring – but nonetheless revolutionary. In her captivating new ethnography Giving to God, anthropologist Amira Mittermaier pushes us in such a direction. She offers a rich account of a post-revolutionary Egypt in which mundane encounters with and for the divine invigorate an ethics of charity that challenge our understanding of economic inequality and poverty. 

For many of Mittermaier’s interlocutors, addressing poverty is not about building toward a better future or even attending to the distressed Other. It is about God. How so? 

Because of haqq al-faqir: the divinely-ordained right of the beggar, rooted in the notion that the money more fortunate Muslims acquire is not because of any effort of their own. Rather, God has given it to them, and a slice of that money undeviatingly belongs to the poor. By being last in the line for sustenance, haqq al-faqir treats the poor as first. 

But more importantly, what exactly is Mittermaier challenging through a concept so banal as haqq al-faqir

Imperfect Solutions

For decades, thinking about poverty in governments and universities across the world has largely fallen into two buckets: neoliberalism, which treats the market as the main distributor of social goods and emphasizes an ethic of hard work, and generally disregards structural deficiencies that may make it difficult for a person to achieve some amount of economic security; and social welfarism, which calls on the state (rather than the market) to create, distribute, and administer programs like unemployment compensation, disability benefits, and maternal leave to address those same deficiencies. The former relies on self-help, while the latter on self-righteous compassion.

Even though progressive academics and activists in the West have adamantly advocated for social welfarism and distributive equality, market fundamentalism has nonetheless come to dominate many parts of the developing world. No more evident is the reliance on the market than in post-Soviet Central Asia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, young American economists like Jeffrey Sachs jumped at the chance to advise and implement what they believed to be the cure to indigence under decades of Soviet rule. They chose to package healthcare, education, and other social goods and services as commodities to be sold. 

The “freedom” of the market was all the rage in the mid-1990s (it still is), but it came at enormous costs. In Blind Spot: How Neoliberalism Infiltrated Global Health, physician-anthropologist Salmaan Keshavjee provides a heart-wrenching account of a small Shia Ismaili population in rural Tajikistan that was as much subject to the whims of harsh Himalaya winters as it was to a new set of sensibilities promoted in the language of choice and efficiency. Asked to pay for medical care, which was tied to a revolving drug fund, the Ismailis who needed the greatest access to healthcare were often the ones who were the least able to pay for it. (1) 

Where these indigents sought to be patients, the market insisted on treating them as customers. Neither the woefully ineffective Soviet public healthcare nor its more ideologically robust neoliberal successors – which often came in the form of NGOs and governmental bodies like USAID – were able to provide them the relief they needed. Instead, these foreign organizations primarily sought to halt the growth of communism and totalitarianism – which for them meant the implementation of market-oriented policies fated to awaken Ismailis from their communist-induced coma. For Muslims in other parts of the world, that coma was apparently a result of 1200 years of living under “Sharia,” and later ineffective (or “failed”) secularized political rule. 

Over twenty years later after Keshavjee’s accounts, academics across the world continue to canvass distributive socialism as the solution to neoliberalism in how nations should deal with healthcare, poverty, and economic inequality. In her forthcoming book In the Shadow of Justice, historian Katerina Forrester argues that  mid-twentieth century American and British liberals conceived of a new vision of liberal political philosophy and egalitarianism that was rooted in the necessity of the state – which came to dominate political and academic dialogue on inequality and civil rights. (2)

However, while those like Sachs were convinced, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, that “there is no alternative” to the overwhelming logic of market-based efficiency, many of the thinkers Forrester discusses also (it appears) believe the same: there is no alternative to liberalism and the state’s role in ensuring equality. Only the state can assure human flourishing, address historical inequities, and take mankind to the prosperous highlands democracy’s most fervent supporters have been preaching about for so long. 

Unseating Compassion and Worldly Pursuits

For its most insightful critics, social welfarism is effective insofar as it is an anthropocentric form of remedy. It is decidedly compassion-driven, an approach to poverty Mittermaier disrupts because compassion “is never evenly distributed” nor does it “extend to everyone.” As such, compassion is “unreliable” and tends to disregard those who are too different from us. (3) 

Consider Mittermaier’s observations of Shaykh Mahmoud, a Sufi dervish. He expresses apparent ingratitude for the food, money, and shelter an Egyptian woman, Nura, gives him – communicating a poignant reminder of the difficulty in extracting oneself from the logic of give-and-take. He does not think there is a need for the recipient to prove her worthiness or be grateful, and there is no reason the giver should feel pride in giving because “All gifts come from God and are given to God.” For Mahmoud, “we are all poor and dependent.” (3)

The glorious culmination of history that capitalism and socialism have preached has yet to reach the shores of the developing world – and, frankly, in this era of fuming economic inequality, these programs have not delivered the promised worldly fortune to Euro-America either (or, at least, not to large parts of it). Confessionalists, palpitating with attention to divine commandment as the rest of world scratches its head in bewilderment at their obsession with an increasingly peculiar way of life, often struggle to justify and embody the practices and rituals that they believe lead to salvation. 

Destined to become a timeless addition to the anthropology of giving, Mittermaier’s book also acts as a twofold intellectual attack on the century long domination of French sociologist Marcel Mauss’s understanding of gift exchange. Mauss thought that such an exchange was an illuminating feature of social solidarity, characterized by an obligation to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. All these coercions were built into gift exchange, a system that is agonistic – one of deep play, of contest, of theatricalized combat, with a suppressed moment of violence to it. 

Mittermaier’s interlocutors apparently give no heed to an obligation to give or receive or reciprocate. “Christians help those in need out of love and in order to do good; [Muslims help] because God told them to do so,” says another one of Mittermaier’s interlocutors. (3)

Like Forrester’s Anglo-American anti-statists and egalitarians decades later, Maussians espoused a deep concern with British utilitarianism and the impoverishments of modern capitalism, particularly in light of economic inflation and labor militancy in interwar France. Humanitarianism was crucially important to post-Durkheimian French leftists in addressing these problems. 

But again, some confessionalists appear to demonstrably disagree with this approach. Many of Mittermaier’s conversants attend to the “most basic of bodily needs of humans” and – in flagrant rebellion against Ludwig Feuerbach’s proclamation that modernity had decentered God as the locus of human action – orient themselves away from humans and toward God. They “attend to the human while decentering the human.” Not taking the human too seriously, these confessionalists also “do not get caught up in programmatic visions of how to overthrow the current order of things.” Giving to God protects recipients of charity from what anthropologist Mary Douglas called charity’s “wounding” character – that is from being grateful and from having to reciprocate.

To the chagrin of those like Sachs or Forrester’s champions of egalitarianism, Mittermaier counsels some restraint about the people and spaces she studies: “Maybe, in the end, we need to resist the temptation of reading such spaces as a source of political inspiration. Maybe doing so is itself an act of violence that counteracts their radical potentiality. The very question of institutionalization…might in fact point to the limits of our political imagination.” (3)

Programmatic visions of society might not always be the only or the best answer to the problems created by free markets. Secular means of securing equality have ascended to the fore so quickly that they stun any other set of normative commitments attempting to do the same, and many Muslims have been left quivering in a deceptive brightness to which they have already grown unfamiliar. 

But here, one is then made to consider a troubling thought: What if poverty is not only necessary but desirable in furtherance of the giver’s eschatological aspirations? Can Muslims make peace with the possibility that the poor play an important role in building a relationship with God, and that eradicating poverty would close an avenue to salvation? Is that a moral balancing that is even worthy of contemplation in our neoliberal moment? As Mittermaier puts it: “They [her interlocuters] need the poor as their gate to paradise, and they justify suffering in this world through the prospect of an otherworldly reward for the poor.” (3)

Salvation Remade

Eschatology forces us to think beyond tried categories of the social and economic that have long dwarfed modes of thinking about Islam that were more indigenous to and understanding of its moral cosmology. The ethics of giving to God is “radical precisely because it disrupts a future-orientedness and instead stubbornly addresses need in the here and now…It is neither about economic growth nor about compassion toward, or the deservingness of, the poor. It is not even about human rights.” (3)

Haqq al-faqir thus challenges the potential of both the state and the market. Its code of obligation necessitates communication for and through invisible actors like God, running counter to the idea that “it is best to approach structural inequality and injustice through the register of political economy.” For Mittermaier, such an approach is too deeply committed to a secular universalism and the rights-bearing subjects it produces. 

Indeed, performing a duty in the name of God for the poor marks not only the absence of the state but a disregard for modern economic modes of production altogether. We cannot ignore that while the divine does – as those like Mauss and Durkheim observed long ago – manifest in powerfully social ways, God is also immaterial. If Nura and the Shaykh act on, for, and through the invisible pulse of God, then we must be willing to entertain a social physics that goes beyond the empirical.  

Muslims across the world live at a time and in places in which the opportunity to give for nonhumanitarian and nonethical reasons continues to provide the substance through which they are able sustain and generate ways of pleasing God. It also evades the commonsense of human rights advocates that celebrate the efforts of organizations like USAID. 

Giving is a contrivance for salvation but also a way to cope with the hardships of worldly life. While Egypt has undergone massive political upheaval in recent years – and its leaders have been able to enthrall swaths of people in their neoliberal fists – many average Egyptians have also refused to give up the confidentiality of and confidence in their own politics of confession. They have refused to, in the words of Eric Voegelin, “immanentize the eschaton” – to bring the heavens down to Earth. Suffering, redemption, and poverty become useful worries for the giver. On the other hand, with a palpable sense of relief, the poor may no longer need to bear the burden of gratitude towards other humans – only to God. 


Works Cited:

1. Keshavjee, Salmaan. Blind Spot: How Neoliberalism Infiltrated Global Health. Oakland, University of California Press, 2014.
2. Forrester, Katrina. In the Shadows of Justice. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2019.
3. Mittermaier, Amira. Giving to God: Islamic Charity in Revolutionary Times. Oakland, University of California Press, 2019.

Photo credit: Moon Dust by Natacha Einat

About the Author: Shahrukh Khan is a guest contributor. He is a JD candidate at Emory University School of Law. His interests include American law, history, and Punjabi culture. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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