ISSUE 38 June 2007
Humanitarian Exchange Magazine
Islamic charities and the ‘War on Terror’: dispelling the myths
In the public mind, Islamic charity organisations have become little more than funding fronts for terrorism and jihad. Yet, despite allegations in television programmes, books and investigative reports in the UK, very little evidence has actually been forthcoming linking agencies or their staff with terrorist activity. Since 1998, the British government’s Charity Commission has conducted only 20 inquiries into suspected links with terrorism, ten of which have been dropped. One has led to the closure of a Tamil organisation linked to the LTTE in Sri Lanka. At the same time, the 1,000-plus Islamic charities and trusts in the UK have been exposed to extraordinary levels of scrutiny under anti-terror legislation.
The history of charitable giving in the Muslim world
The principles of charitable giving and compassion are enshrined in Islamic teaching through the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. In Islamic theology, humankind is seen as a trustee of all the world’s God-given resources. Only through following ‘divine guidance’ can a functioning social and global system be established and maintained. In Islamic teaching, this system is based on the optimal utilisation of the resources God has endowed to mankind, and their equitable use and distribution.
The redistribution of wealth in the form of charitable giving is an obligation on every believer. The basic mechanism for this is Zakah (obligatory charity), which became a mandatory act of worship at the time when the Islamic state was established by the Prophet Muhammad in 622. Many Qur’anic verses deal with the topic. The word Zakah is derived from the verb ‘zaka’, which means to grow and improve. Zakahmust be given by every Muslim, and is calculated at a rate of 2.5% of any disposable wealth above a minimum amount at the end of each year. According to the Qur’an:
Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and the needy, and for those employed to collect [Zakah] and for bringing hearts together and for freeing captives and for those in debt and in the way of Allah and for the traveller – an obligation imposed by God and God is Knowing and Wise(Qur’an, 9:60).
Today, this could perhaps be translated into the following expenditure headings:
- poverty reduction;
- administrative overheads for civil servants dealing with public welfare;
- peace-building and community cohesion;
- promotion of freedom, basic human rights and civil liberties;
- personal insolvency settlements;
- public work, including security and defence; and
- supporting the homeless, refugees and migrants.
Voluntary charity – in Arabic Sadaqah, meaning to give away and realising one’s faith by action – is also strongly encouraged. It is based on many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, such as ‘Charity is due upon a person on every day that the sun rises’. Charity here goes beyond material support to encompass any voluntary act, even the offering of a smile (a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad). It is regarded as an individual devotion given directly to the beneficiary, without the need for state administration or mediation.
Other Islamic teachings stress particular seasons for giving, such as during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims are expected to feed the destitute whilst fasting themselves. A special contribution has to be made at the end of the fasting month, called Zakat al-Fitr, an amount of food or the monetary equivalent to feed one person in need. Similarly, during the Hajj (pilgrimage) season, Muslims are expected to sacrifice a cow, goat or camel to feed the needy, called Qurbani.
In some countries – Pakistan, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, for example – the collection of Zakah is organised by the state. In other cases, it is collected by Islamic charities. These private organisations have become a substitute for the state welfare system in the Muslim world, replacing the traditionally government-controlled ‘alms store’ (in Arabic Bait al-Mal), the institution responsible for collecting and distributing charitable assets. Donation boxes are often found in mosques and community centres, and donations can also be deposited at the offices of Islamic charities and charity shops. Donors prefer to stay anonymous in the belief that it is better to give alms discreetly than to publicise one’s philanthropy. As a consequence, Islamic NGOs lack the systems of accountability and transparency commonplace among Western agencies. This has made it difficult for them to counter accusations that their funds are being used inappropriately.
Islamic charities after 9/11: threats and opportunities
The importance of charitable giving in the Muslim World should not be underestimated. According to the Saudi government, its aid to the developing world, both through unilateral and bilateral funds, places it among the largest donors in the world, with disbursements of $48 billion between 1975 and 1987. With aid levels at $4 billion a year, Saudi Arabia is the second-largest donor after the United States. However, under US pressure the Saudi government has clamped down on public fundraising activities, including banning charity collection boxes in mosques and closing down some leading charities. In July 2003, the Saudi Ministry of Information announced that all NGOs had been barred from sending funds abroad.
The ultimate cost of measures such as these is borne by beneficiaries. In Somalia, for instance, the local branch of the Saudi charity the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (AHIF) was designated a terrorist entity by the US Office for Foreign Assets Control in 2004, prompting the Saudi government to close the organisation down. The designation of AHIF Somalia appears to have been based largely on circumstantial evidence, including salary payments to individuals allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda. But the closure of the charity has led directly to the closure of a number of orphanages supported or run by AHIF in Somalia. In another case, in the Palestinian Territories, the US government in 2003 cited the British charity Interpal as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organisation’ on the grounds that it supported Hamas activities. In 1996, the Charity Commission had carried out an inquiry into allegations that some of Interpal’s funds had been channelled to Hamas, but no evidence of inappropriate activity was found. Following the US government finding, the Charity Commission froze Interpal’s bank accounts while it carried out another investigation. The US authorities failed to provide any evidence to support their allegations, and the inquiry was closed on 24 September 2003. Although Interpal’s accounts were released, its humanitarian work in the Palestinian Territories was undoubtedly disrupted, and donor confidence in the organisation may have been undermined.
Suspicions around the role of established Islamic charities have also altered the way Muslims give to charity. Since they are obliged by their faith to give, they are forced into informal means of discharging their Zakah, often through donations to unrecognised ‘charities’ and fundraisers at local mosques and community centres. The Saudi NGO World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) has seen a 40% drop in its fundraising income since 9/11; its Secretary-General, Saleh Wohaibi, attributes this fall to ‘fear of Muslims falling foul of strict US efforts to monitor terror funding’. But this switch away from established charities may have further weakened the transparency and accountability of charitable donations. Ironically, attempts to close down or control formal charities may have had precisely the opposite effect by forcing charitable giving into less regulated channels.
The terrorist threat is real, yet Islamic charities are not guilty by default. Nonetheless, both the lack of support for Islamic charities to help them address their shortcomings in transparency and accountability and the rhetoric about their funding for terrorism continues – apart from a small number of notable exceptions. The Humanitarian Forum, for example, the brainchild of the British charity Islamic Relief, was initiated in June 2004 to help foster partnerships and facilitate closer cooperation between Western humanitarian organisations and NGOs in Muslim-majority countries. Islamic Relief, which has been unaffected by the drop in funding experienced by other British Muslim charities, consulted a wide spectrum of international and Muslim NGOs. This highlighted the need for action and proactive change within the Islamic charity sector, with external help where necessary. The Forum’s goal is to support Muslim NGOs in joint capacity-building, advocating for a legal framework for greater transparency, promoting humanitarian principles and standards and improving communication and cooperation within the international humanitarian community. A similar project, the ‘Montreux Initiative’, was launched in January 2005 by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. This aims to promote cooperation in removing unjustified obstacles for Islamic charities as a contribution towards confidence-building between the Islamic world and ‘the West’.
In the United States, a number of Saudi-initiated charity organisations have come together to form the Friends of Charities Association (FOCA), which was established in January 2004. FOCA’s members stress their commitment to the principle of transparency and accountability. FOCA’s Transparency Project seeks to assure donors, government and the international community that Islamic charities have nothing to hide, and will work to address any deficiencies or problem areas that are exposed. Like other similar initiatives, FOCA focuses on building agency capacity.
The way forward
The way forward is to enable a more open and informed debate about the Muslim charity sector: Islamic NGOs must be seen as partners, not enemies, in combating both terror and the roots of terrorism. To do this job effectively, their vilification must end, and they must be helped to better engage with the mainstream humanitarian community, since their contribution to relief and development is considerable. Any further fallout from the ill-directed ‘War on Terror’ will only make the problem more deep-rooted, whilst the victims of today’s greatest evil, poverty, remain unaided.
Political economist Mohammed R. Kroessin works with Islamic Relief’s Research & Policy Unit. He has been involved in faith-based organisations and policy development for a number of years. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Council of Voluntary Organisations, Security and Civil Society: The Impact of Counter-Terrorism Measures and Civil Society Organisations, 2007, www.ncvo-vol.org.uk.
K. Ahmad, Economic Development in an Islamic Framework(Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1978).
Y. Al-Qardawi, Fiqh az-Zakat: A Comparative Study(London: Dar Al Taqwa, 1999).
J. Bellion-Jourdan, ‘Islamic Relief Organizations: Between “Islamism” and “Humanitarianism”’, ISIM Newsletter, no. 5, 2000.
J. Benthall, ‘The Qur’an’s Call to Alms: Zakat, the Muslim Tradition of Alms-Giving’, ISIM Newsletter, no. 1, 1998.
J. Benthall, Humanitarianism, Islam and 11 September, HPG Briefing Paper 11, 2003.
J. Benthall, ‘Humanitarianism and Islam After 11 September’, in Joanna Macrae and Adele Harmer (eds), Humanitarian Action and the ‘Global War on Terror’: A Review of Trends and Issues, HPG Report 14, 2003.
J. Benthall and J. Bellion-Jourdan, The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World(London/New York: I. B. Tauris, 2003).
J. M. Burr and R. O. Collins, Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). A.-R. Ghandour, ‘Humanitarianism, Islam and the West: Contest or Co-operation?’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 25, 2003.
Featured in this issue
- Editors Introduction: Disaster Risk Reduction
- Disaster reduction terminology: a common-sense approach
- The Hyogo Framework for Action: reclaiming ownership?
- Christian Aid and disaster risk reduction
- Preparedness for community-driven responses to disasters in Kenya: lessons from a mixed response to drought in 2006
- Working with vulnerable communities to assess and reduce disaster risk
- Effective response reduces risk
- Justifying the cost of disaster risk reduction: a summary of cost–benefit analysis
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