Jehangir Malik: 'We are faith-based, faith-driven aid workers'

The Muslim Aid chief executive talks to Stephen Cook about the charity's current difficulties and his hopes for the future

Jehangir Malik
Jehangir Malik

When Jehangir Malik took up the job of chief executive of Muslim Aid in September, he was well aware that a statutory inquiry opened by the Charity Commission three years earlier was still open. He saw it as a cloud hanging over the charity and considered that his main priority was to bring it to a conclusion.

What he wasn't expecting was an announcement by the commission four weeks after he started work that the charity had not by itself been able to improve its governance and financial management, and it was appointing an interim manager to lead the process.

This means that the governance of the charity has now been temporarily taken away from the trustees and put in the hands of the interim manager, Michael King, from the legal firm Stone King. He will lead a team of four other lawyers, who will be paid out of the charity's funds at an undisclosed hourly rate and are expecting to complete the work in four to six months.

'Positive step'

Malik, who has been trying in his early weeks to assemble an accurate picture of the charity's affairs after a period of high staff turnover and fragmented record-keeping, does not dissent from the commission's view that the appointment is "a necessary but positive step". He says: "This is progress, a conclusion is in view and I look forward to working with all concerned. In the meantime, I can categorically say that the subject of the inquiry does not have anything to do with the funding of terrorism, fraud or the misappropriation of funds."

He says setting up more robust systems and controls can be a painful diversion of resources from Muslim Aid's humanitarian activities, but he accepts it is necessary. "Risks do arise, because we're working in some areas with broken-down infrastructure and no strong civil society, and it's not easy to send financial monitoring and audit teams into, say, Yemen, Baghdad or Syria.

"In times of intense conflict, access is restricted, but funding flows are higher and therefore risks are higher, so we have to have a policy framework that minimises the risk and potential loss."

Serious incident report

The current inquiry grew out of an incident in 2013 when Muslim Aid filed a serious incident report after discovering "non-compliance with some operational aspects in two field offices".

Malik says: "It was a positive sign of maturity and transparency that we captured these incidents and reported them, and they were resolved. But once the commission comes in things starts snowballing, the remit starts getting wider and there are a good number of areas we are being asked to improve on."

The commission also became involved in 2010 after stories about Muslim Aid appeared in The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, but found no evidence that the charity had funded any proscribed organisation and gave "a public assurance that public allegations of links between the charity and terrorism are unsubstantiated".

All told, it's clear that Malik faces serious challenges in the coming months. But he has spent his entire career working in Muslim charities and seems better placed than most to overcome them.

Making it harder for us to function is a disservice to the humanitarian ideals we are so proud of

Jehangir Malik

He was studying law at the University of Wolverhampton when the civil war in Bosnia first made him aware of humanitarian catastrophe. "I was in my early twenties and I was shocked to see these bloody, brutal, genocidal events taking place on our doorstep in Europe," he says.

The plight of Bosnian Muslims prompted him to volunteer for Islamic Relief, collecting donations from mosques and community organisations to be sent out in aid convoys.

Before long he was working for the charity full time and the planned career in law was set aside. He spent 23 years with Birmingham-based Islamic Relief, the last six as UK director, before the move to Muslim Aid, which has its headquarters in London's East End.

He talks passionately about the expansion and achievements of both charities, which were founded in the mid-1980s in response to the famine in the Horn of Africa. The well-documented generosity of British Muslims has fuelled the steady rise in their income and the range of countries where they work, and Islamic Relief is now one of the 13 charities in the Disasters Emergency Committee.

"Both organisations use the same Koranic verse that says if you save a life, you save the whole of humanity," he says. "They encompass Sunni and Shia Muslims and everything in between, and their operations on the ground do their level best not to be pulled and pushed by politics and sectarian divides.

"In the two and a half decades I have been engaged, the work has been purely humanitarian in nature, responding to the most desperate and difficult circumstances around the globe. I'm very proud of the communities and individuals who are part of that, and I'm very proud of our teams on the ground, which work in very difficult, life-threatening circumstances."

Climate of suspicion

But Malik also talks regretfully about the climate of suspicion that can affect Muslim charities because of the fallout of 9/11, the civil war in Syria and the rise of the so-called Islamic state. Matters aren't helped, in Malik's view, by the coverage in parts of the media, some "unhelpful" talk by the regulator and the refusal of certain banks to service some Muslim charities.

"In the current politicised, polarised climate, when people like me and other aid workers go on assessment or fact-finding missions, I fear that the person innocently doing their job at border control or when we step onto a flight sees the badge 'aid worker' and may be thinking 'aid worker - or terrorist?'

"It's really very sad that such a person, through no fault of their own, faces this decision on whether to judge me and my colleagues. And I guess the only answer is that we continue to do what we are mandated to do and hope that our work can demonstrate that we are faith-based, faith-driven aid workers. I hope we can get back to a world that is less judgmental."

Malik says that public confidence is fundamental to his charity's ability to operate and agrees "100 per cent" that the commission has to ensure that confidence in charities is maintained or restored. "I just hope over time the balance is coming right between hard regulatory talk and support for the sector to improve its governance and compliance," he says. "I hope the pendulum is moving back to the middle. But some of the talk has been unhelpful and has chimed with some media commentators spotlighting this notion that Muslim charities seem sinister in some way."

His strongest criticism is for "unaccountable, largely unfettered elements of the press that feel they can say what they want and smear organisations like Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief". The allegations are often baseless, he says, and do not square with the scrutiny the charities incur in their partnerships with United Nations agencies, the European Union and other international bodies.

"But we don't want to spend donors' money on law suits to fight attacks on the reputation of our organisations. We feel the money would be better spent on what it was intended for. Maybe we're easy targets in the current climate, but I'm not going to allow that to cloud our judgement and our core purpose of helping those in desperate need."

Perceived injustice

The well-documented refusal of some banks to service some Muslim charities for fear of incurring fines in connection with proscribed organisations is another perceived injustice. Malik says HSBC won't work with Muslim Aid, but the charity has a close relationship with Lloyds Bank, which is "very content" with everything it does.

"When banks start what they call de-risking, they say: 'You're not worth it financially. We're not saying you're bad guys, but you're not worth our risk. Sorry, but that's the end of it.' And there hasn't been much support from HMRC and government, so there's little tangible progress.

"If we remove the ability of organisations like Muslim Aid to function, other organisations will fill that vacuum, and they won't have the 30 years of learning, accountability and internal organisation that we have. Making it harder for us to function is a disservice to the humanitarian ideals we are so proud of and which I heard being publicly proclaimed at the Conservative Party conference."

Looking to the future, Malik plans to match internal organisational development with a five-year strategy that has greater input from Muslim Aid's 14 country directors. "We want people on the ground to be at the centre of the food chain rather than the end of it," he says.

"We want to be less north-to-south, to have regular contact with teams on the ground about what's working and what's not and to hold an annual gathering in one of the regions to share information and knowledge."

Malik also sees Muslim Aid, with its base in the UK's strong civil society, as "perfectly poised" to form a bridge between the established international aid community it has been working with for nearly three decades and the increased humanitarian effort he sees in the Middle East.

"There's a phenomenal opportunity to connect both worlds with our experience and the infrastructure we have built up," he says.

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