Ringfencing the Islamic Cause? Muslim Youth and Philanthropy in Indonesia

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Indonesians are top in the world for charitable giving. However, one recent survey suggests that young Muslim donors might be more inclined to give to their fellow Muslims than to any other type of cause.

For the fifth consecutive year, Indonesia has ranked as the world’s most generous country in terms of philanthropy. The Charities Aid Foundation’s 2022 World Giving Index (WGI) gave Indonesia a total score of 68 per cent, measuring three aspects of giving behaviour: one’s readiness to help a stranger in need, donating to charities, and volunteering one’s time to organisations.

As the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia’s giving culture is clearly influenced by Islam, in that this religion has concepts like zakat (almsgiving), sadaqah (voluntary charity), infaq (donation), and waqf (endowment). This pervasive culture is prevalent among both adults and youth. Many Indonesian Muslims have been donating, for instance, to help their fellow Muslims in Palestine and this has increased given the developments there since October 7. While Muslims often consider Islam to be a religion for humanity, the Indonesian Muslim youths in the author’s recent survey tend to ‘ringfence’ the Islamic cause by donating mainly to Islamic humanitarian concerns.

While religious giving — defined as philanthropy driven by religious values or teachings, to religious communities or organisations or for religious causes — has existed since Islam first arrived in Indonesia, the privatisation and institutionalisation of religious charities have rapidly evolved in tandem with Indonesia’s political changes. The end of the Suharto era in 1998 was a turning point when Islamic charitable activities were institutionalised as Islamic philanthropy. Since Reformasi, state and non-state Islamic philanthropic institutions focusing on long-term charitable initiatives have emerged.

Another development is the expansion of digital technology, where donating has become easier and more convenient for Indonesians who use online platforms to give. One March 2022 survey showed that 69 per cent of 952 respondents (aged 26-40 years) frequently donated more than 2.5 per cent of their income online. (Editor’s note: 2.5 per cent of income is the required amount for one’s zakat obligation.) The convenience of cashless payments, the accessibility of online donation information, and the credibility of online donation agencies might explain why young people prefer making online donations.

Different types of online donation platforms have emerged in Indonesia. Some, like Rumah Amal Salman, focus on religious giving. Established in 2007, this online platform is affiliated with the dakwah (propagation) movements on campuses (dakwah kampus), as in the case of the Salman Mosque at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). In line with the orientation of this mosque, Rumah Amal Salman is geared more towards religious giving, that is, fundraising by and for Muslim communities.

Not all donation platforms focus on religious giving. For example, Kitabisa (“We can”), a leading online donation platform established by Indonesian youth in 2013, facilitates online fundraising and donations for religious giving such as zakat for Muslim communities but also for non-religious causes including medical and humanitarian causes, and disaster relief.

Which charitable causes are Indonesia’s youth more inclined to support? Between October and November 2023, the author conducted a 119-question survey of 566 Muslim students (242 male, 324 female) at one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic universities. A slice of the results shows the respondents’ overwhelming preference for religious-based giving behaviours, especially to organisations or recipients which share the donor’s religion. Meanwhile, their inclination to donate to non-religious causes or institutions was lower.  

Although 94.35 per cent of the respondents felt comfortable helping those from different religions, their frequency of charitable giving to those of other religions remains lower.

As shown in Figure 1, where donation to different causes is measured against frequency of donation, female and male Muslim youth have similar proclivities in their giving behaviour. On average, the survey respondents donate more frequently to Muslim organisations or communities and to their fellow Muslims in need than to non-Muslim causes or recipients, or to non-religious causes including politics.

Figure 1. Muslim University Students’ Charitable Giving by Gender

Data Source: Halimatusa’diyah, 2023
Note: Confidence interval 95% with a margin of error at 3%.
Proportional stratified random sampling using 4-point Likert scale.

Although 94.35 per cent of the respondents felt comfortable helping those from different religions, their frequency of charitable giving to those of other religions remains lower.

In this author’s view, a reason for the students’ responses could be their thinking that while it is permissible for Muslims to donate to people of other religions, giving to Muslims should come first. This thinking is driven by a sense of belonging to the Ummah (global Islamic community). The ummah represents a single body and if any part of it is unwell, the entire body suffers, according to the Prophet’s sayings.

The survey showed that at least for the group surveyed, Indonesian Muslim youth’s generosity is defined by religious barriers. This generosity fosters social cohesion and care among Muslims. Yet, generosity that bridges different religious groups remains limited: giving to non-religious causes and inter-religious civic activities are important for forming inclusive relationships among different religious groups in Indonesia.

Religion plays a predominant role in Indonesian society, including for its youth. Ninety-eight per cent of Indonesians (in a different survey by Pew) say that religion is very important in their lives and 79.3 per cent of youth often consider religious teachings or values when making important decisions.

In Islam, giving is not limited to religious causes. If Islam is committed to the notion of a religion for humanity, then Islamic philanthropy must address non-religious causes or recipients such as victims of sexual violence and environmental and humanitarian causes and should extend to non-Muslims. It is important for religious leaders to actively advocate humanist Islamic values such as the concepts of hablum minannas (a good relationship with fellow human beings) and ta’awun (helping one another), both of which are forms of social piety that highlight the importance of humans helping each other, including those from other religions.

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