Global Policy Forum

Islamic Civil Organizations


By Elham Hassan

Yemen Observer
October 29, 2005

Almost four years on from September 11, Islamic NGOs still face accusations of involvement in terrorism. Post-September 11, many Muslim charities say they operate in a climate of fear and suspicion that borders on persecution. About 30 Islamic NGOs have been blacklisted by the United States to date on suspicion of serving as fronts for extremist groups. The crackdown comes at a time when Islamic NGOs are as active as ever in predominantly Muslim areas such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and tsunami-hit Aceh in Indonesia.

The new climate has affected Muslim charities in the Arab world too, as countries such as Saudi Arabia seek to prove to Western allies that they will not tolerate any undercover funding for armed groups working against the West. Muslims feel that western NGOs work as devices of their governments to make military progress in the Islamic world. In response to these concerns, the British charity Islamic Relief is spearheading a drive to set up a new body aimed at helping Muslim aid agencies become more professional and make their accounts transparent, while building links with non-Islamic humanitarian organizations.

Islamic Relief (IR) is an international relief and development charity, which aims to alleviate the suffering of the world's poorest people. It is an independent Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), founded, in the UK in 1984 by Dr Hany El Banna. Islamic Relief proposes the creation of an Islamic-led entity described as a "humanitarian forum" aimed at building bridges and helping smaller NGOs sign up to the kinds of global standards that are taken for granted by many international non-Muslim charities at a meeting on June 29, 2005 in London that was attended by high-level representatives of Muslim charities, international NGOs, U.N. organizations and governments.

The IR Yemen office organized a seminar on building partnership between Muslim NGOs and the international community through formation of the international humanitarian forum last Sunday. The opening session was attended by the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Ahmad Sofan, who said that the development process in Yemen needed efforts from both government and society and an active role from civil organizations.

"Yemen welcomes the work of foundations and organizations which participate positively in efforts to combat poverty through charitable and humanitarian works," Sofan said. The number of civil organizations in Yemen, he continued, has increased vastly from 800 after unification to 4300 organizations working in various development fields." "This seminar will remove misunderstandings about the role of Arab and Muslim organizations and improve the work between civil and international organizations," Sofan added. Michel Gifford, the British ambassador, said that the seminar sought to address the divisions and misunderstandings between communities. " I am proud that a British NGO is taking concrete steps to build bridges between the Muslim world and others - in particular the emphasis in the seminar today on integrating Muslim NGOs into the international community by focusing on capacity building, partnership and promotion of good regulation and transparency."

He pointed out that the United Kingdom is home to two million Muslims. 15 million Muslims live in the European Union as a whole. "British Muslims make a vital and a vibrant contribution to every aspect of life in Britain and are leaders in political, business and the arts. We make clear distinction between extremist individuals and the faith they claim to be associated with or represent." "We need to address the mistrust and division which terrorism and extremism seeks to create," the ambassador continued. "Our weapon must be the opposite to theirs - a strengthening of our common values and understanding. Together, we must speak louder and clearer that terrorism does not equate to Islam or any other faith or human values and that they have no legitimacy in the eyes of the civilized world. Mainstream Islamic voices need to counter the misinterpretation of Islam by extremists."

Waqf refers to the gift of money, property or other items to charity. It is a form of continuous charity. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) regarded Waqf as one of the best forms of charity. The Waqf is comparable to Western concepts of charitable trusts or endowments. "Islamic Relief hopes to improve Islamic NGOs to become more professional and transparency in their work," Khaled Al-Mulad, resident representative of the Islamic Relief Yemen office, said. He said that the partnership between Yemeni foundations is necessary to create useful relations with international foundations and donors according to Islamic and humanitarian values. "We hope to cooperate to build social foundations to participate in the development process and carry out charitable work to those who deserve it," he added.

The participants recommended a restructuring of priorities and that instead of providing food aid to the poor giving them small and continuous projects that provide them with employment. They stressed the need for the organization to be independent and the need for government participation in charitable work. Partnership between local organizations and donors should be based on respect for religious and cultural heritage in each country, they said, reiterating that the humanitarian forum should be for all humanity irrespective of faith or religion.

The "humanitarian forum" has a planned lifespan of three to five years – long enough to bring Muslim NGOs into the mainstream. A group of Muslim business representatives in the World Economic Forum have offered funding, while Islamic Relief said the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and the British Red Cross had already agreed to sit on the steering committee.

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