In the name of Allah: Islamic relief organizations in Great Britain

London and Birmingham are the home base of big islamic organizations like Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief. Founded in the eighties they are today established professional relief organizations who can offer help overseas with projects worth millions. Their ideology is based on the ethics of the Koran, their fundraising on methods of experienced marketeers. Humanitarian aid is no longer the exclusive field of operations of the West. Would this be cause for concern, or is it on the contrary an improvement for the humanitarian branch? MO* checked the facts in Great Britain.
“Deposit 20 pounds and have ten people savour an Iftar- meal.” The poster on the East London Mosque in Whitechapel is clear about it: Allah will greatly reward the generous. Two houses further down a giant poster is displayed on a window, inviting people to donate for hungry orphans in Pakistan.
At the exit of the mosque two boys in a white prayer outfit await the worshippers with a collecting-box. Coins and notes drop in. In East London Ramadan clearly means something more than mere fast: the area looks like one big advertising space for charity. “Ramadan is more than fasting”, says Abdul Jolik Miah, head of fundraising for Muslim Aid.
“For muslims it’s a period of fysical and mental purification, of prayer and sharing with those who are in need. The Ramadan emphasizes sadaqa, the charitable aspect of islam. For us it is the busiest period for fundraising.” Quite so: it takes a lot of trouble to fix an appointment with fasting fundraisers. Miah is on the phone continuously. Muslim Aid is the second largest British-Islamic aid organization. The doors to their offices above the East London Mosque are swing open all the time. A feverish busyness prevails. It’s a fine balance for the volunteers and employees of the ngo between observing the religious precepts and fundraising.
During Ramadan the numerous islamic relief organizations and mosque societies in Great Britain especially hope to scoop the zakaat. This is the yearly alms muslims who can afford it give to poor people. Zakaat is the third pillar of islam; the Koran mentions it as a duty to muslims, as opposed to sadaqa which is voluntary. The donation has its roots in the principle of social redistribution and of purification: by sharing wealth, the muslims free themselves of greed and egoism. Zakaat is traditionally given during Ramadan. With near to two million muslims living in Britain, it is a golden month for all kinds of charitable institutions.
Missionary aid
In recent years a number of islamic countries were struck by major disasters, such as the tsunami and the earthquake in Pakistan. Many British-Asian muslims felt the need to offer direct help through their own channels. Multiple small relief organizations were founded, in the shadow of the big established islamic humanitarian institutions Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid and Muslim Hands. The first two have 20 years experience in the humanitarian field.
Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid were both founded in the eighties to offer relief during the great famines in the Horn of Africa. In the same period another humanitarian trend appeared within the worldwide muslim community. The Russian invasion in Afghanistan in 1979 gave way to a broad islamic movement of solidarity. It involved military as well as humanitarian support for their fellow believers.
The Islamic African Relief Agency (IARA) founded in 1981 in Khartoum was one of the first of islamic relief organizations to cross the path of western humanitarian organizations. Their aim was missionary: da’wa or invitation to islam by way of non-political, social action. For two decades it was a thin line between charitable work focused on medical relief on the one hand and jihad onj the other, says French politologist Jérôme Bellion-Jourdan. “In 1992 this changed. Civil war started in Afghanistan with the mujahdeen’s invasion of Kaboel. In 1993 an Afghan terrorist attacked the WTC-towers in New York. It forced the islamic relief organizations to make a clear distinction between humanitarian actions and actions that supported da’wa and jihad. Thus began the broadening and professionalisation of islamic help organizations.”
The Charity Commission, an independent controller of the British relief organizations, listed 1352 islamic relief organizations in Great Britain, with a collective income of 330 million euros. To this already 253 mosques also registered. Joanna Saunders of the Charity Commission commented however that both numbers are old, and that there are probably much more islamic organizations and mosque societies now.
Islamic Relief
Islamic Relief was founded in 1984 by doctor Hany-El Banna, a British muslim with Egyptian roots. “He wanted his yearly zakaat to be abiding thanks to a more structural and institutional humanitarian approach, in the first place in favour of muslims in hungry Africa”, says Mohammed Kroessein, associate in the Research & Policy Unit at the headquarters of Islamic Relief in Birmingham.
“Together with a number of fellow students he built the foundations of a relief organization. Its basis was and still is to act according to the doctrine of Islam. This alone makes us different from organizations of migrants who mainly send remittances to their homecountries.” 150 people work at the headquarters of Islamic Relief, worldwide 2500. The organization raised funds worth 60.75 million pounds and is present in 30 countries.
It is indeed the only international organization to have a department in both Belgium and the Netherlands. Islamic Relief is not only the biggest islamic humanitarian organization in Great Britain, but probably the most western-oriented. It was one of the first to endorse the Code of Conduct of the Red Cross, Muslim Hands and Muslim Aid following suit. Islamic Relief participates in a consultative and research group of the Charity Commission about British religious communities, maintains partnerships with the United Nations and the WFO, and used to cooperate regularly with secular western organizations like Oxfam. “We also confer regularly with DFID, the British Department of International Development. We try to mediate between the government and the smaller -non-professional- islamic relief organizations.
Muslims for muslims
Islamic Relief’s main actions consist of aid after nature disasters or direct assistance in conflict regions, like the Lebanon, Darfur, the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Jonathan Benthall together with Bellion-Jourdan studied islamic relief work. In the resulting book The Charitable Crescent he claims that according to some tradional views in islam, zakaat must only be offered to fellow muslims. Nowadays more liberal muslim circles denounce this view.
From the start Islamic Relief put their funds and projects at the disposal of non-muslims in Africa. Not so Muslim Aid, initially. Founded in 1985 by Yusuf Islam, alias Cat Stevens, the ngo mainly assisted muslim communities in the 50 countries where it is present. This year however the organization started cooperating with UMCOR, the humantarian organization of the United Methodist Church. “Our islamic starting point does not make us less mainstream than other humanitarian organizations”, says Abdul Jolil Miah of Muslim Aid.
“Our focus is to offer humanitarian aid based on a religious conviction. Compare us to UMCOR or Christian Aid, who based their terms of mission on biblical ethics.” Already in 2004 Muslim Aid collaborated with a protestant organization on Sri Lanka. “We were the last ngo’s in the field when violence broke loose between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army. We understood we had a complementary relation.” And yet, they remain predominantly focused on muslim communities, as it would be mainly demanded by their traditional rank and file. Muslim Aid depend completely on their donors. It is important to meet their requirements. If donors insist their zakaat be spent in countries with which they have an affiliation, the organization will respect this.
In good books/ being one up
Reports of research on islamic aid regularly mention that sharing the same belief system is an advantage to humanitarian relief actions with a local focus. For instance Islamic ngo’s would be in a better position to anticipate to the cultural needs of muslim women. “Right, ” says Miah of Muslim Aid, “it sure helps to be an islamic ngo in certain muslim regions. In Sudan Christian Aid, Oxfam and the UN-relief organizations had trouble to become accepted by the militias and local communities. Given our communal belief system, we can assess certain cultural and religious sensitivities more aptly, even when we don’t share the same ethnic traditions.”
Jonathan Benthall and Jérôme Bellion-Jourdan agree on certain advantages, but add some nuances as well: “Universalism doesn’t always work. No more than secularism can one claim religion as a universal matter. For example: Ottoman soldiers considered the International Committee of the Red Cross as a crusaders’ organization. Afghan men denied Doctors Without Borders medical access to female patients. Islamic Relief from their side faced Albanese muslims who preferred going to the discotheque rather than to congregations in the mosque.”
British Islam
“Islam is peace. I am proud to be a British muslim” The message on the gigantic banner on the doubledecker in Kensington High street isn’t exactly common. The bus advert is part of the Islamispeace-campaign, an initiative of young muslims throughout the country. “After the attacks of terrorists abusing islam, the image of muslims in the media was severly damaged. The need to act grew. Our response has to be a positive message.” says the spokesman of the Islamispeace-campaign.
“It was time to come out, we invite non-believers and people of a different religion to mutual understanding and to true debate.” With the campaign -formally released in October 07- the initiators also want to inform, to create insight into the muslim community. “The post-9/11 syndrome only deepened the misunderstanding and dichotomy between muslims and non-muslims.” says Mohammed Kroessin. “The western public opinion is hardly aware of the humanitarian character of islam, yet the muslimworld delivers an undeniably important contribution when it comes to charity. For example: with budgets of 4 billion US dollars per year Saudi Arabia is the second biggest donor after the US. Alas, fear and extreme war on terror shut off the revenues of a number of relief organizations. Instigated by the US, the Saudi Ministry of Information declared in 2003 that Saudi ngo’s could no longer send funds abroad.”
Already in the nineties islamic humanitarian organizations were subject to criticism. Western governements increasingly tied in islamic aid, islamism and terrorism. In Pakistan workers of islamic ngo’s were arrested, people at the top were accused of financing terrorist groups, and local departments -of Muslim Aid too- were closed down.
After 9/11 the British state security kept an even more suspicious eye on the islamic organizations. The attacks in the London metropolitan in 2005 and hampered attacks such as the ones in Glasgow and London further sharpened the public allegations against muslims: often they were all taken for islamists. Books like Alms for Jihad published by Cambridge University Press (removed from circulation) and recently The Islamist by Ed Husain further led people to openly mistrust the good intentions of muslims and their organizations.
Heightened control
As part of the worldwide war on terrorism 160 countries have frozen terrorist assets worth 112 million US dollars. Government data show that in Great Britain 100 organizations and over 200 individuals in the UK have had their assets frozen, totalling over 100 million US dollars in the last 5 years. The confiscated money has been transferred to the Government of Afghanistan to fund its regeneration. The rest of the blocked money and goods allegedly used for terrorist action are worth 500,000 US dollars.
Within the scope the new Proceeds of Crime Act in 2002 the British government also set up a national Terrorist Finance Investigation Unit with respect to the financing of terror networks. In May 07 Great Britain published an advisory security report to fight financial networks of terrorists in the charity branch. “With this report we want to go about the aspect of security and war on terror, as well as protect the donors.” says Zoe Paxton of Home Affairs.
“We are convinced a link between terrorism and charity hardly exists. But as we drew up security plans for other sectors, we could not leave out the charitable sector. We noticed that in some fields extra control is necessary. Money happens to be the one motor for all terrorist activities, from propaganda to recruitment to attacks.” Especially the British Charity Commission plays an important part controlling and registering the funds circulating in the charitable sector. The past year the Commission finished 58 investigations concerning deliberate fraud or ‘suspicious activities’. “Our policy is open, anyone who wants can consult the report of these investigations on our website. Being an independent institution it is our duty to investigate serious allegations against registered organizations.” says Joanna Saunders of the Commision’s media-department. In Great Britain every charity with an income above 7500 euros must be registered at the Charity Commission.
No room for nuance
Being related to terrorism is a delicate matter for the islamic ngo’s, and they would rather not talk about it much. Some organizations indeed were falsely accused of financing terrorism, but we were not one of them, the bigger ngo’s respond unanimously. Interpal, a medium sized ngo running poverty projects in the Palestinian Territories, went through it twice though.
In 1996 The Sunday Telegraph launched heavy accusations against Interpal: the paper claimed the organization was run by Hamas itself and so financed suicide activists in Gaza and the Jordan Westbank. An investigation by the Charity Commission denied all of this. In 2003 however the Charity Commission itself, pressurized by the US, blocked Interpal’s funds and bank accounts and started an investigation. Interpal presumably received money from the Al-Aqsa Fund which itself was suspected of maintaining close connections with terrorist groups. Again neither of these accusations were substantiated.
“The anti-terror climate does not only polarize, it is also threatening the donors’ trust in islamic organizations.” says Shahid Bashir of Muslim Hands, Nottingham. Especially the media coverage about anti-terrorism annihilated any sense of nuance. More than often the authorities forget that humanitarian organizations just have to operate in local contexts, whether they be politically delicate or not, islamic territory or not. Projects in the Palestinian Territories, or the madrassas in Pakistan - the so-called training grounds for jihadis- are suspicious anyway.
In October 07 Bruno de Cordier wrote in MO* how the madrassas in Pakistan meet a social need. “The outside world gave the madrassas political meaning.”, says Bashir, “In the fifties however they were progressive schools: they instructed sciences and English, the language of the occupier.” What counts is the people, not the political colour.” he continues. “As long as a person is not corrupt and not a combatant, it doesn’t matter at all whether he is an adept of Hamas or Fatah.”
Help from islamists
The big islamic organizations sure see to it they publicly distance themselves from the Palestinian political situation and they avoid every connection to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the armed divisions of Hamas. Since Europe put Hamas on the list of terrorist groups, an apparant connection to these groups would put their relation to the public opinion at stakes. However public opinion hardly knows that Hamas also built strong social networks in Gaza.
Khaled Hroub wrote two books about Hamas’ little known charitable work. He criticizes the lack of pragmatism towards the organization. “Social work is central in Hamas’ ideological strategy, a tradition that goes back to the origins of the Muslimbrothers. To the Palestinians the charitable projects and organizations of Hamas are crucial safety nets, and certainly in the isolated Gaza often the sole alternative.
Many Palestinian social organizations are supported by Hamas, but operate under their own names. It is Hamas’ deliberate policy to create a distance between the movement and these organizations. If Europe wants to take political stance against Hamas, I understand even if i don’t approve of the way they do this. But when governments cut the financial artery to Palestinian relief organizations, they hit the population.” Hroub thinks it nonsense that western ngo’s too are led by their governments’ stance and so are against any connection with Hamas. “Aid is aid, even when it comes from islamists. You won’t make any improvements in constructing a society when you ignore people with different opinions. It is a noble idea that humanitarian help should keep out of politics. But a politics-free reality does not exist.”

British muslims
Great Britain has an estimated 1.8 million muslims, three percent of the British population. London counts one million muslims, with a high concentration in East-London. Birmingham, counting 150.000 muslims, has the second largest muslim population. The majority of British muslims has Pakistani or Bengali roots. Other larger groups are from the Middle East or North-Africa.

Who collects zakaat?
Traditionally the islamic state organized the collection of zakaat. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia still do so. Jordan calls to make donations to the state, but without obligations. In the diaspora at first only the mosques collected the money to meet local needs. But the majority of muslims believe the local comminities are sufficiently protected by the social safety nets. So nowadays the zakaat funds have an overseas destination.

The traditional reading of the Koran says the zakaat consists of 2.5 percent of the income, but calculation can differ depending on islam tendency or local muslim community. “To the Pakistani community especially the gold that people possess is of importance”, says Ayesha Khan. According to the fundraiser of the British division of SOS Children’s Villages for Pakistan, delicate matter for shall not be spent on administrative costs, an opinion quite some traditional muslims agree with. The established British islamic ngo’s have a more liberal view on the use of zakaat. With the help of theologists, big ngo’s modernised the implementation of zakaat, thus the revenues can be spent on secretarial tasks.

Calculating zakaat
For this muslims can make use of a zakaat calculator, which can be found on most islamic websites and brochures. Zakaat is not applied on basic needs, such as housing, clothes and household. More liberal islam tendencies further claim there’s no need to include the family car and business furniture, but yielding property does count.

Zakaat al fitr
Muslims break the fast by giving zakaat al-fitr . The amount is the equivalent of two kilograms food. Accoring to a brochure of Muslim Aid, this would be 3 Pounds Sterling or 4.5 Euros per person.

During Bai-ram muslims slaughter a cow, goat or camel, of which they keep one part and offer two thirds to the less fortunate. Ever more muslims choose to substitute the slaughter with a donation to charity. Therefore the period around Qurbani is the second most important for fund revenues.

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