When is a call for alms a call to arms?

September 5, 2003

Muslim charities provide extensive humanitarian aid but, writes Jonathan Benthall, critics accuse some of straying into terrorist territory.

Birmingham-based Islamic Relief was one of the few aid agencies working in Baghdad when Saddam Hussein's regime faced its final crisis. On March 2003, head of emergency relief Mostapha Osman and other staff were arrested, imprisoned and interrogated under torture, before being released on April 11. Channel 4 News covered the story, but the mainstream British press ignored it. One reason might have been that the charity, always discreet in its media relations, decided not to milk a story damaging to the Baghdad regime because many of its supporters opposed the war. In any case, Osman soon returned to his job and led an Islamic Relief aid convoy to Iraq.

The agency is just one of a growing number of Muslim aid organisations raising questions about the nature of humanitarianism and its interpretation by non-western agencies.

After Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, founded in 1985 by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), a convert to Islam, is the most prominent in the UK. But while Islamic Relief has adopted a liberal interpretation of Koranic rules governing the distribution of zakat (tithes), allowing them to be given to those most in need, irrespective of religion, Muslim Aid follows a more conservative theological reading that restricts zakat benefits to Muslims.

Likewise, while Islamic Relief joined forces with a number of other leading UK aid agencies in September 2002 to warn against the humanitarian consequences of a war against Iraq, Muslim Aid addressed its own constituency more directly, protesting that the war lacked legitimacy.

Despite different approaches, Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid have adopted the full range of conventional fundraising techniques alongside their specific Islamic traditions - zakat, one of the five pillars of the religion, sadaqa (optional alms-giving) and waqf (the Muslim equivalent of charitable trusts).

Fundraising is concentrated on Ramadan. The bigger agencies follow the standard procedures necessary to secure British government and European Union funding, while all the Muslim charities share some other characteristics. Mosques and mosque schools provide a centre for their welfare work; projects to help refugees and orphans are given priority; and special attention is accorded to distributing halal meat and children's clothes at the time of religious festivals.

Some large Muslim agencies, such as the International Islamic Relief Organization, based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, are in effect organs of national governments. During the Afghan conflict of the 1980s and the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, international Islamic charities became vehicles for confrontation with western influences and for competition between rival versions of Islam.

Quite distinct from these are the radical Islamist organisations that provide extensive welfare and emergency services as part of wider programmes that also embrace political activity - sometimes shading into political violence. Hizbullah, the Shia organisation in Lebanon, and Hamas, the Sunni movement in the Palestinian territories, both owe much of their political following to extensive networks of hospitals and schools.

Because most of these organisations raise funds internationally, allegations of abuse of charitable status have been flung at them since the 1980s - but with increased severity since 9/11. The more rigid schools of Islamic thought claim that there should be no distinction between charitable aid, proselytising activity, political activism and military campaigning. It is likely that Osama bin Laden funded mixed programmes of military and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan in the 1990s, although links of this kind are hard to verify. Yet the theologians who back Islamic Relief in the UK see jihad as primarily a commitment to lead a better life, which includes compassion for the disadvantaged.

The US government's campaign against the funding of "terrorism" has been weakened by its refusal to distinguish between international networks of the al-Qaida type, radically hostile to western powers, and local movements such as Hamas and Hizbullah, widely viewed by Arab opinion as legitimate movements of national resistance. But on the other hand, it is hard for aid agencies in one of the countries most strongly criticised, Saudi Arabia, to refute these abuse allegations since the principles of transparency and public accountability, so insistent in the wider non-governmental organisation world, are virtually absent.

Thirty national societies within the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement - some of them, as in Iran, major institutions - use the crescent rather than the cross in their names and insignia. The movement has always aimed to be strictly non-confessional, but these groups have inevitably acquired a Muslim flavour.

Research conducted by Jerome Bellion-Jourdan and me over the past ten years focuses on the Arab-Islamic world and its relations with the West. The burgeoning history of charity has so far been too Eurocentric. A start has been made at broadening the discussion with such books as W. F. Ilchman et al 's Philanthropy in the World's Traditions . Next February, the Association Française des Sciences Sociales des Religions will host a comparative conference in Paris on faith-based NGOs - probably the first of its kind.

Until the late 1960s, Christian charities dominated international aid, so the growth of Muslim aid agencies throws up all sorts of questions, such as how much a legacy of Judaeo-Christianity underpins the supposedly universal humanitarianism that originated in the West and whether there is one humanitarian tradition or several, each moulded by its cultural past.

Though there are rough equivalents in Arabic for terms such as "charity" and "humanitarianism", they do not translate exactly. This should make us reflect on the words' elasticity rather than insist on their being precisely defined. Charity is a term of English law but also carries strong theological resonances from the New Testament. It is not favoured by aid professionals. Humanitarian is often no more than a synonym for compassionate, but it can also refer to short-term relief, as opposed to development aid - or more precisely to the Geneva Conventions. Both terms express a wish to demarcate a sphere of activity detached from the political arena. But while it is easy for social scientists to seek to unmask the self-interest behind ostensibly altruistic practices, we also need to recognise the power of the altruistic ideal affirmed by all the world religions.

A further question arises: to what extent is this ideal threatened by the decline of religious belief in many parts of the world, including most of Europe? Islamic apologists contend that their religion lays stress on generous giving and justice. An Islamic critique of the emerging international law of human rights, which derives from a number of turning-points in Euro-American political history, argues that modern western ideas of gender equality - at work, in politics and under the law - deprive women of their fundamental right to be kept free of the burdens and responsibilities that fall on men and to be the cornerstones of family life.

Either a "cultural exception" to universal human rights is claimed, or, more subtly, it is argued that these are too limited as regards women and that the Islamic concept of women's rights enables this limitation to be overcome. It follows that agencies concerned with helping Muslim refugee women, for example, should provide services consistent with this view of their rights.

The Islamic critique of universal human rights is often no more than an attempt by some Islamic governments to defend their policies on such issues as corporal punishment or restrictions on freedom of religion. However, some western governments make such blatantly selective use of the rhetoric of human rights for purposes of realpolitik that the Islamic alternative inevitably reaches an audience predisposed in its favour.

Similar debates are also pursued within the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, based in Geneva, which embodies widely accepted principles and laws that set out to restrain the conduct of hostilities. Islamic scholars addressed the "laws of war" long before Christian Europe, but these ideas draw their strength from a religious order that recognised no sharp line between spiritual and temporal matters and from a time when such practices as enslavement and plunder were considered integral to war.

In the West, by contrast, international humanitarian law has emerged from a movement of ideas rooted in 18th-century Enlightenment and 19th-century philanthropy. Nonetheless, there is much common ground between these two traditions. Both recognise the important principle of mutual respect between opposing armies and both share a commitment to the protection of non-combatants, to the banning of child soldiers and to the preservation of natural resources.

On other issues, there is less congruence between "international" and Islamic norms of conduct. In Central Asia, for example, hostage-taking, a violation of international humanitarian law, is rooted in local traditions of warfare. And the Bush administration might be pleased to know that on three occasions the Prophet Muhammad seems to have authorised pre-emptive war.

Few predicted 30 years ago that the politics of religion would loom over the start of our new century. This period has seen both the proliferation of NGOs and an intensification of the "Islamic resurgence". Islamic charities are often criticised in the West for mixing politics with humanitarianism. The charge cannot be denied, but we should bear in mind that in Muslim eyes the West, especially the US, has long done the same, and that the growth of Islamic charities was partly spurred by a decision to retaliate.

Jonathan Benthall is an honorary research fellow in the department of anthropology, University College London. The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World, co-written with Jérôme Bellion-Jourdan, is published by I. B. Tauris on September 18, £39.50.

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