This study examines how the notions of benevolent acts, welfare issues and social justice are conceived by Indonesian Muslims, and investigates the multiplicity of roles played by Islamic charitable associations in carrying out social welfare activities both in rural or urban areas.

By relating three main issues (welfare, dakwah and politics), this study discusses whether charity activism can generate social mobility among low income households as the targeted beneficiaries, and whether Islamic charitable associations are able to promote collective social change instead of simply strengthening middle class networks or serving certain religious denominations. In particular, this dissertation also attempts to answer the following questions: How do Muslims conceive religious charity in the context of the interplay between the state, society and the market; and what sorts of social, religious, and political justifications lie behind their social, religious and political activism? How do Islamic charitable associations approach the perceived problems (welfare, religious, and political issues) among Indonesian societies; and to what extent are they able (or not able) to provide viable ‘social security’ to the poor as a means of realising the public good in a pluralistic society?

In order to engage with the above research questions, an empirical investigation through a series of fieldwork visits was conducted at various times between mid-2008 and early 2011 in such places as Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Banda Aceh, and Nias Island.

Since the 1980s, many Muslim countries, including Indonesia, have experienced an unprecedented development in civil society movements and increasing economic growth, changes which have affected the social and economic relations within society as a whole. The rise of an affluent Muslim middle class with a new spiritual and social awareness has been instrumental in shaping Islamic social and political activism in general, and has aided a proliferation of Islamic institutions, ranging from educational institutions to charitable associations. Moreover, after the fall of Soeharto, a range of Musim NGOs, including such charities as DD, RZI, DPU-DT, AAP, and BSMI (some of which were established in the 1990s) became more conspicuously present and expanded the range of their activities. Their expansion was supported by a general turn to religion and an increased interest in the modalities of Islamic almsgiving and benevolent acts. The associations established their reputation by efficiently running social services and successfully carrying out relief operations in Indonesia and abroad. Hence, Islamic charities become increasingly popular among Indonesian Muslims, and the types of Islamic social-welfare activities have been materialised in different forms, ranging from the relief of the poor in urban areas to supporting dakwah and political activities.

To draw a broader picture of Islamic charities and social activism in post-New Order Indonesia, this study investigates four types of charitable activities: health provision for the poor in urban slums; development projects that are oriented towards female teenager coming from low income households, dakwah activities in the outer islands, as well as aid for Palestinians.

The spawning of charitable clinics sponsored by Islamic charitable associations signifies Muslims’ efforts to translate the notion of benevolent acts into religiously-inspired good social practices. Health provision for the poor seems to have become an alternative strategy for Islamic charities to distributing aid to underprivileged groups, and at the same time, a means of promoting public welfare at the community level. Charitable clinics hint at the potential role that Islamic charitable associations might play in the relief of the poor, especially in the health sector. They have been active for years and play a pivotal role in stress reduction among poorer families, while at the same time attempting to bring the capital held by both individuals and private institutions down to the grassroots level. This study argues that while Islamic charitable institutions work with the grassroots and middle-class groups, Islamic institutions are not sufficiently critical of the state’s failure to provide social security, unlike some ‘secular’ or traditionalist Muslim NGOs. They speak little of the need for structural change by, for example, organising an advocacy movement for health reform. Some Islamic charitable associations have also attempted to address women issues. The severe problem of poverty, which has put women in an unfavourable position, as some of them become the victims of human trafficking, has stimulated Islamic charitable associations to provide development projects that are oriented towards women.

The objectives of the development projects for women are to prevent lower-skilled and poorly educated female teenagers from leaving to work as housemaids overseas, as well as to protect them from the harmful effects of human trafficking. Providing provisional job-oriented activities may also prevent disadvantaged teenagers and female school leavers from entering into early marriage in their villages. Nevertheless, this study finds that promoting gender equality, changing ‘patriarchal culture’, criticising government gender biased structural policies, or encouraging the authorities to provide a better and well-educated work force, are apparently not part of the Islamic charities’ main agendas, nor even their foremost objectives. Another case concerns the spread of dakwah activities in the outer island which are supported by Islamic charitable associations.

The operation of Islamic charitable associations in Nias Island, located on the western coast of Sumatra, has partly resulted in the spread of dakwah activities in this non-Muslim majority Island and the increase in number of madrasah and mushalla/mosque. In practice, there are two kinds of dakwah: dakwah among Muslims and dakwah among non-Muslims. The former, dakwah among Muslims, can mean the process of Islamisation in society, while the latter bears some resemblance to Christian missionary activities in non-Christian populations. Some Islamic charitable associations, such as AAP, DDII and AMCF landed in Nias shortly after the 2005 earthquake hit this region. The objectives of these charities are to support dakwah activities by sending young da’i (preachers) to assist the communities, including Muslim converts, in studying Islam, and to support the construction or reconstruction of the places of worship. This research suggests that Islamic charities and other faith-based charities are challenged how negotiate between serving the Muslim community through dakwah, and serving humanity at large through social welfare activities.

The last case relates to the engagement of Islamic charitable associations and solidarity groups with relief projects in support of Palestinians. For many Islamic charitable associations and Muslim relief NGOs, the notion of Islamic solidarity remains an essential factor in their international exposure. The conflicts in such places as Palestine/Israel, Bosnia and Afghanistan have appealed to feelings of Muslim solidarity and given rise to solidarity movements among Muslims all over the world, including Indonesia. Alongside the involvement of Indonesian Muslim relief NGOs in providing assistance to victims of conflict, Muslim solidarity groups in Indonesia have also mobilised public sources, justifying this with ideas of protecting and helping their oppressed fellow Muslims in other parts of the world.

The extent to which Islamic charities are set up and operate in response to political crises in the international arena also signifies Muslim concerns about the meaning of justice (al-‘adala) and the concept of the unity of Islamic society (umma). From the overall discussion of Islamic charities and social activism in contemporary Indonesia, this study proposes the following main conclusions.

First, there have been contending views among Indonesian Muslims about how the perceived problems, such as welfare, poverty, and social injustice, should be resolved. Islamic charities, with their engagement with social enterprises in the communities, tend to confine their activities to short-term relief actions, and reluctantly penetrate the political sphere in order to empower the underprivileged to claim back their social, economic, and political rights, and to restore their self-reliance to reach their social and economic goals. Islamic charities flourishing in post New Order Indonesia have emerged as a new popular pattern of social activism, the vey antithesis, both discursively and practically, of development and advocacy NGOs at large, which primarily promote collective and structural change.

Second, earlier studies of Muslim charitable activities have noted that welfare associations are typically middle class institutions which sthrengthen middle class network and which are, in a sense, more meaningfull to the ‘givers’ than to the recipeints. Although observers have suggested that charity activism seems to have advanced middle-class interests ahead of those of the poor, or has become a tool for establishing patronage socially, economically and even politically, this does not mean that the poor are always alienated. As the religious views and political affiliations of the members of the Muslim middle classes vary greatly, ranging from ‘rightist Islamists’ to ‘leftist social activists’, the characteristics of Islamic charitable associations are also shaped by the dynamic interactions among their members. This, in turn, leads to the ability (or perhaps inability) to combine charitable acts with development-oriented projects, or even with activities that promote structural change.

Third, religious and cultural proximity remains essential to the formation of Islamic social enterprises and the types of beneficiaries. Most Islamic charities have originated from dakwah (religious dissemination) movements or from a wide range of politically-oriented Islamic solidarity groups. This origin has shaped not only the types of discourse and activities within Islamic charitable associations, but also has determined the categories of beneficiaries to be served. This research found that while under the framework of dakwah, Islamic charities have been able to reformulate notions of brotherhood, solidarity, mutual help, and even social justice, as a means of strengthening the welfare of the Islamic community, they still tend to restrict their work to narrowly defined deserving beneficiaries belonging to the same religion or even denomination within their religion. Therefore, Islamic charities are now challenged how to make their social services beneficial to a wider range of stakeholders in Indonesia, as a culturally and religiously diverse country.

Finally, the interplay between religion and politics has influenced the nature of Islamic charities in Indonesia and shaped the relations of Islamic charities among themselves and with others (non-Muslim charities or secular NGOs). This research suggests that sharing similar religious values and having similar identities do not always result in cooperation, partly because the fragmented political orientations have put the existing associations to compete with each other instead of establishing strategic partnerships for long-term welfare projects.