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Addressing Anti-Muslim Misinformation in the Nonprofit World

Earlier this year my friend and colleague Ger FitzGerald published this report, “Mapping Anti-Muslim Discrimination and Information Manipulation, and its Impact on Humanitarian Aid and Development.” 

This important and needed report sheds light on efforts to discredit Muslim-led International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) through information manipulation. The report identifies various actors involved in this ecosystem, such as misinformation generators, legitimators, and funders.

FitzGerald reveals that over $30 million in funding was given by a group of 269 funders between 2016 - 2021 (p. 46). While this amount may seem relatively small compared to overall nonprofit sector funding, it can still disrupt the activities of Muslim-led INGOs and harm the people who rely on their assistance, such as those in need of food, water, and disaster support.

Further, the misinformation tactics employed, including low standards and selective reporting, make genuine oversight of Muslim-run organizations more difficult, not less.

FitzGerald’s report suggests that many funders who support these misinformation generators may do so without recognizing the end harm of their grantees’ work, or who may host Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) under a “cause neutral” policy. The report also offers a set of tools to aid funders who want to extricate themselves from this kind of grant making:

  1. Risk Assessment and Management: robust, transparent, and uniform due diligence processes;

  2. Aligning Core Values: policies that balance donor intent with commitment to justice;

  3. Engaged Philanthropy: giving aimed at promoting healthier public discourse and that gauges impact on beneficiaries; and

  4. Place-Based Giving: giving focused on local communities and with local partners.

These tools are most appropriate for those organizations who would recognize the misinformation attacks as causing harm and would want to change their funding patterns. And there probably is a subset of such funders in the total group.  

However, I rather suspect there is another subset of funders who sincerely share with their grantees a general distrust of Muslim-led organizations and of Muslims in general. I have worked in religious pluralism for a decade. Islamophobic ideas are rampant throughout American culture, as are many other kinds of faith-based hates and prejudices like antisemitism and white Christian Nationalist racial hate. All such prejudices feed a broader culture of hate crime, anti-democratic behavior, and loss of social cohesion in one way or another and are equally to be countered.

There are efforts to combat such hate in the funding world and elsewhere - efforts I certainly applaud ranging from gentle education as FitzGerald suggests or outright attack as some anti-hate activists practice. Part of the challenge of some of these strategies is that they can be replicated by other actors across the divide. (This is certainly true in other culture war issues such as pro- or anti- LGTBQIA support organizations being promoted or banned by DAF or other contribution-gathering organizations like office pooled funds.) Tit-for-tat efforts only escalate the conflict. 

I would like to offer an additional tool to this list, or really, an expansion of “engaged philanthropy” as described above: developing funder partnerships including these funders that focus on related shared issues such as reducing anti-semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes in the US, or promoting shared religious freedom. Funders have incredible opportunities to develop innovative and impactful collaborations.

In fact, the most lasting solutions to political and ideological divides are those based in unusual partnerships that take seriously underlying concerns while focusing on other shared goals and reducing tit-for-tat exchange.

This report from FitzGerald is an important contribution to our understanding of misinformation networks generally and Islamophobic ones in particular. The entanglements he lays out here are, frankly, depressing. But I have hope for a way out of such divides. 

That hope is grounded in a decade of work on religious pluralism, during which I have seen and nurtured exactly the kind of cross-divide partnerships I am here recommending. I’ve also come to appreciate the religiously, ethnically, and ideologically diverse funding in that realm. A study I released at the Aspen Institute in 2020 showed that funding from just 33 funders over the two previous years for the field of religious pluralism was at least 67M. That is more than double the 30M given to the Islamophobia network in five years.

At Cohesion Strategy, I continue to support grant makers and grantees in finding pluralistic solutions through research and strategy consulting. If you're seeking a way out of what feels like an intractable divide, please reach out.


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