The pragmatics of performance: putting ‘faith’ in aid in the Sahrawi refugee camps
Since the 1970s, Sahrawi refugees have depended upon humanitarian assistance and political support offered by a variety of secular and faith-based non-governmental organizations. In this article I explore the ways in which Sahrawi refugees’ political representatives (the Polisario Front) have mobilized religiously-related claims to maximize diverse short- and long-term benefits both inside and outside the camps. In light of the contemporary geopolitical context, including localized concerns regarding ‘Islamism’ and ‘terrorism’ in North Africa, I argue that notions of ‘secularism’ and ‘religious tolerance’ have been invoked during interactions with different non-Sahrawi audiences to demonstrate the ‘ideal’ nature of the Sahrawi camps. In particular, the presence and activism of American evangelical humanitarians are invoked by the Polisario Front to demonstrate the ‘ideal’ nature of the camps as spaces of ‘religious tolerance’ and ‘inter-faith dialogue’. However, the presence of evangelical humanitarians equally has the potential to create an irreconcilable rupture not only with other, non-evangelical donors (including ‘secular’ Spanish ‘Friends of the Sahrawi’), but also between the Polisario and the very refugees which this organization purports to represent. I conclude the article by arguing that rather than creating a dialogic process between refugees and both secular- and faith-based humanitarians, maintaining the appearance of ‘religious tolerance’ is ultimately founded upon a system of repress-entation which purposefully centralizes certain groups, identifiers and dynamics whilst simultaneously displacing and marginalizing the potential for debate and contestation.