Wednesday 2 July 2014

Islamic Charities. Support them, don't wreck them.

It’s the start of the Holy month of Ramadan and this is the key time for Muslim charities to fundraise. Yesterday I met the CEOs of Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, the 2 biggest Islamic charities in the UK, together with the head of the Muslim Charities Forum. The issues they raised disturbed me.

This is the time when Muslims obey the injunctions of the Koran to give.

"O you who believe, you shall give to charity from the good things you earnt and from what we have produced for you from the earth."

Indeed there is a more formal injunction on a Muslim to pay what is termed as "obligatory charity" in the Koran, know as the zakat. Although the exact amount is not defined in the Koran, the Muslim practice is to give 2.5% of income. 

It’s exactly like the idea of the Government's giving pledge but set at a higher level; not 1% but 2.5%. An example to us all.

The Islamic charitable tradition is a noble one, and around the Islamic world one sees ancient institutions of learning and healing, refuges for the poor and disposed.

One of the greatest of the mosques of Istanbul is the Suleymaniye, the foundation of Suleyman the Magnificent. This has a hospital, primary school, madrasa, a medical college and public kitchens serving food for the poor, which  surround the Mosque.

Similarly one of my favourite smaller mosques in Istanbul, the Rustem Pasha (the interior is covered with fabulous Iznik tiles), has a small stone pillar; on which believers are commanded to leave gifts of food and clothes for the poor, which must be left anonymously.

Of course the current media debate hardly dwells on this tradition. We must not forget the Muslim community in the UK now numbers 3 million.

They are a settled and valuable part of community life in many parts of our country.

They came to talk about their real fears on the recent actions by the Charity Commission, happening against the background of a worsening of community cohesion for Muslims who feel under threat from the rhetoric of some  politicians and parts of the media.

Of course the Commission must be able to examine and deal with complaints; it’s their role to do so. And in the turbulent world we live in, we are aware of terrorist threats from many parts of the globe. But if that raises perceptions of a bias then that is in itself a problem. A perception is neither true or false - it's a perception, but damage can be done to charitable giving through bad perceptions.

So let's recall that noble Islamic  tradition of charitable giving and support it . The Koran makes clear the duty of all believers to support the poor, particularly during Ramadan.

How worrying therefore that the Charity Commission announces publicly that it has launched a Statutory Inquiry into Muslim Aid. An Inquiry launched after they themselves had informed the Commission of 2 instances of problems. This has had a devastating effect on their potential for fundraising now. Before even the results of the Inquiry are known, they are now under a cloud of suspicion. This also has ramifications for their day-to-day business in making charitable payments around the world. How ironic that against the background of the most terrible suffering of the civilian population in Syria, it has become so difficult for Muslim charities to provide humanitarian aid. 

But the problem goes wider than this. I'm told by my colleagues there is a perception that the Charity Commission are targeting Muslim charities in a disproportionate way. It certainly appears that way. It is an issue I will now be taking up with the Commission.

I know from my council experience in Brixton that if a community builds up a perception that they are unfairly targeted and discriminated against, this in itself can lead to alienation which then drives people away from civic participation. And worse.

As my colleagues pointed out, they have been working hard to develop a sense of civic duty and community cohesion in the Muslim community. It would be perverse if the actions of the Commission were seen to undermine that.

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