Muslim charities: A question of identity

Charities associated with Islam have suffered from a poor image recently, but what exactly is a 'Muslim charity'? Sam Burne James canvasses opinion; Charity Commission chair William Shawcross gives his view and we meet the founder of Islamic Relief

The Islamic Cultural Centre in London's Regent's Park
The Islamic Cultural Centre in London's Regent's Park

According to a poll by ICM Research that received international media attention in 2013, Muslims were the UK's most generous faith group, giving an average of £371 per head to charity in 2012 – more than members of any other faith groups.

A year on, much of the media and public focus on Islam and philanthropy is less positive. There have been arrests over allegations of fraudulent fundraising with terrorist links, and people have travelled to Syria on charitable missions only to become involved in bloodshed in different ways – the murdered volunteer Alan Henning and the suicide bomber Abdul Waheed Majeed both went there with aid convoys.

A number of charities with Islamic or Muslim objects or activities have been the subject of Charity Commission investigations, and the bank accounts of several such charities and not-for-profits have been shut after banks judged them to be risky.

In media coverage of all these events, the phrase "Muslim charities" has come up repeatedly. The term is sometimes used by the charities themselves, but it has no legal, commission-imposed or otherwise-agreed definition. The commission's Faith and Social Cohesion Unit, which worked to engage with and encourage mosques and other places of worship to register as charities, did use this term – but the unit is now a distant memory after its funding ended in 2010.

Mohammad Shakir, communications officer at the Muslim Charities Forum, which has 10 members – all aid agencies – says there are probably 2,000 charities, including unregistered groups, that could in one way or another be classified as Muslim. Along with aid groups, the other main categories are mosques and charities that, although not religious in themselves, have Islamic or Muslim roots. There is substantial overlap between these, Shakir says. "Mosques are places for communities to congregate as well as for prayer," he says. "To say that mosques only advance religion isn't right."

Simon Jenner, a manager at the infrastructure body Voluntary Action LeicesterShire, says many so-called Muslim charities are actually rooted in particular ethnic or national groups – Pakistanis or Somalis, for example – rather than Islam generically. The name of the group often features in an organisation's name, which Jenner says might put off other beneficiaries that they try to attract. "The difficulty in talking about BME groups is that people – especially in younger generations – wouldn't necessarily identify themselves in that way, saying 'I'm a black man' or 'I'm an Asian woman'," he says.

Khalid Sofi, a partner at the law firm Johns & Saggar in London, specialises in Muslim charities. Apart from ensuring that investments are Sharia-compliant, he says, it is cultural, rather than legal, factors that make the category necessary. Sofi says the principles of Islam and charity law are closely aligned. "They are so complementary," he says. "If you follow the principles of charity law, they fall within the faith's teachings – to be transparent, with no discrimination, that money is taken on trust and that trustees do not get paid."

Muslim charities lack central organisation, he says: "There aren't the structures you see in other faith groups or sectors," he says. "We have more than 2,000 mosques, community groups and other charities that are not properly represented. I feel that needs to be done."

Such structures do exist at local level. Ibrahim Kala, manager of the Bolton Council of Mosques, says one of his main jobs, alongside promoting good governance, is encouraging cross-community integration and the provision of youth or recreation services as part of the work of members. But this is not always feasible, he says. "The problem with mosques is that most of them are in places that aren't purpose-built – for example, they are in disused mills, play centres or terraced housing that has been knocked through," he says. "So in some cases they are places of worship and that's how they remain. All these other things happen, but not as much as they ought to."

Kala says charitable giving is always part of the life of mosques. They might raise money for their own running costs, or other causes – he mentions a number of funds established by Muslims across Greater Manchester for the support of the family of Alan Henning, who was a Salford resident.

Zakat, the obligatory annual donation of 2.5 per cent of the assets of Muslims above a certain wealth threshold, is one of the faith's five fundamental pillars. Despite common misconceptions, it is not obligatory to pay zakat during the fasting month of Ramadan, although many Muslims do. Furthermore, zakat is only a small part of the charitable donations made by many Muslims. At Birmingham Central Mosque, for example, charity collections and other work with the wider community take place (see case study).

We can only portray a positive image about what we do and represent Islam in the right way

Irshad Baqui, chief executive of the education and community services charity the Muath Trust

Both Mahmood and Kala of the Bolton Council of Mosques have worked with the security services. Mahmood says: "We are working with MI5 and the counter-terrorism police's Prevent team, organising events and trying to make young people understand that they shouldn't go to countries such as Syria - and to make parents aware that they should be keeping an eye on their children."

The risk of radicalisation is one that Muslim charities, and the commission as regulator, cannot afford to ignore. Neither Kala nor Mahmood report any complaints in the interactions they have had with the regulator. "The majority of those charities that were shut or investigated were doing something wrong," Mahmood says.

Irshad Baqui, chief executive of the education and community services charity the Muath Trust (see case study), which also runs a mosque, feels the same and wonders whether some charities "play the victim" when they come under scrutiny. "We've not had any issue whatsoever with the commission," he says. "We've fulfilled all our obligations."

Baqui says it can be difficult to manage both public perceptions and the grievances some Muslims might feel about their portrayal. "We can only portray a positive image about what we do and represent Islam in the right way," he says.

William Shawcross: 'We are not biased, but we cannot ignore the risks'

The chair of the Charity Commission says the regulator does listen to the concerns of the Muslim community

The public expects us to assess all concerns about charities fairly and robustly. This is what we do. Our risk framework, published on our website, sets out the criteria against which we assess concerns. These criteria have nothing to do with whether a charity is religious, or whether it supports a particular community or group. There is no bias or discrimination in our work.

Of course, we are aware of concerns about our investigatory work. We listen to charities, including those with links to Muslim communities. For example, I recently took part in a round table organised by the Muslim Charities Forum, where I heard from charities and reassured them about our work.

A vital part of our job is to raise awareness of the risks facing charities and to ensure that trustees understand their duties in managing them. At the moment, the risks for charities working in Syria are particularly serious – for the charities themselves and for others. We have publicly and urgently warned that all charities organising aid convoys should expect regulatory scrutiny. The purpose of this is to help charities protect their funds and their volunteers from potential abuse and to provide public reassurance so that donors continue to support those charities that do provide vital help in the region. Recent events show us all just how dangerous the conditions in Syria are.

Some of the charities we scrutinise have links to Muslim communities. We are not "targeting" charities on the basis of their links to the Muslim faith. But we cannot ignore the risks any charity faces just because it is associated with one community or another. That would be to renege on our duty as regulator and to fail the public whom we serve.

Interview: The father of Islamic Relief 

There may not be an obvious connection between the rock singer Bob Geldof and Dr Hany El-Banna, the chair of the Muslim Charities Forum

and founder of the aid charity Islamic Relief. What links them is that it was the east African famine of the 1980s – "the Band Aid era", as El-Banna puts it – that compelled both to enter the world of charity.

In 1983 El-Banna, a medical doctor from Cairo who had come to the UK for postgraduate studies, went to the London Central Mosque to ask a sheikh, formerly a student of El-Banna's father, for money to travel to a medical meeting in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, which was receiving refugees and was a hub for aid efforts. The cash was produced and the devastating scenes El-Banna subsequently witnessed moved him to action. "When you see it physically, it gives you a different idea of the depth of the problem," he says. "This is how I started as an individual to think about the role of us here in the UK."

The warmest donation

He started collecting funds even before he got back to the UK. "When I stopped in Cairo to visit my family, I raised the first donations of Egyptian pounds from my friends and family," El-Banna says. "The warmest donation I got was 20p from a child, a nine-year-old boy. It was his chocolate money. That's the bedtime story, if you like – there was no planning, no organisation; some people put the money on the table and we started from there."

A mosaic of Britain has to be filled by different communities

Dr Hany El-Banna, chair of the Muslim Charities Forum and founder of Islamic Relief

Islamic Relief was born. Back in Birmingham, he pounded the streets, leafleting homes, shops, community centres and mosques, collecting donations. "There was a gap in the market – the Muslim sector," he says. "I wanted to fill this gap because a mosaic of Britain has to be filled by different communities."

El-Banna remained the president of Islamic Relief, an honorary position, until he stepped down in 2008. In the meantime, Islamic Relief has grown into an organisation with an annual income of more than £100m. It is one of the 13 members of the Disasters Emergency Committee and one of 10 members of the Muslim Charities Forum. As Islamic Relief has matured, and since the forum was founded in 2008, part of his work has been to ensure that Muslim charities have a broader outlook than their own communities of Muslim beneficiaries.

Charity is at the heart of Islam, El-Banna says, and it goes beyond just zakat, the charitable levy on the savings of all eligible Muslims, which is one of the faith's five pillars. He illustrates the ecumenical nature of Islamic charity with the Koranic story of a Jewish prostitute who gave water to a thirsty dog she came across on a hot day. "For this act, god forgave her for her sins," he says. "This act of charity is universal, not only for Muslims but also for others.

"We should not work exclusively for Muslims. In 1990, after the Iran earthquake, there was a big debate: will the Sunni give to the Shia? But after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, 22 Muslim charities responded to exclusively non-Muslim peoples - this is the shift."

Shift to cross-community work

Some of the same charities used their resources to help victims of the floods in the UK in recent years. El-Banna says that the shift to cross-community work will continue and is the only way forward, especially in the face of periodic waves of Islamophobia. "Don't open the gate when somebody is breaking down the door, but open it to welcome people at a peaceful time," he says. "Islamic Relief in the US was not affected by the clampdown on Muslim charities after the events of 11 September 2001, because for 10 years before that it was opening its doors."

Openness is one thing, but it is no substitute for good governance, he acknowledges. "Before the Charity Commission comes to regulate you, you have to regulate yourself," he says. "And finance is the biggest issue for any charity: if you don't regulate it, you're done. You might get saved once or twice – but once you're done, you're done."

Despite some murmurings about the commission's attitude to Muslim charities, El-Banna's only quarrel with the regulator is its decision to go public whenever a statutory inquiry is opened. Aside from this, his international perspective leads him to defend the commission's role firmly. "We don't want the Charity Commission to become part of the Home Office," he says. "This is happening elsewhere - when you go to other countries, you find that the man in the ministry is not a charitable man; instead, he is a military man or a security man. That should never happen in the UK."

Of greater concern to El-Banna is the "knee-jerk regulation" by the banking sector that has resulted in some Muslim charities having their bank accounts closed down. He acknowledges that some of this can be traced to the pressure put on the banks by government policy, but he is critical of the lack of information charities have been given about why this has happened.

"When you put your neck on the line for someone who is dying, you don't want to find someone on the 57th floor of some Manhattan building saying 'no'," he says. It's certainly hard to imagine Geldof putting up with that.


The Muath Trust

The Birmingham-based Muath Trust has objects specifying that its work be directed to those with Yemeni origins, but is not restricted to them. The charity's name refers to the first teacher sent by the prophet Muhammad to Yemen.

Birmingham is home to the largest Yemeni community in the UK - about 10,000 people. But the charity has always made a point of not confining itself to that group, according to Irshad Baqui, its chief executive.

The Muath Trust was created in 1990 and registered with the Charity Commission in 2003. Baqui says that it was initially set up to provide Islamic "supplementary schools" for the religious education of children, but has since taken on a much broader range of both activities and beneficiaries. It now provides numerous education, training and vocational courses, a day nursery, older people's services, recreational and sporting activities, including five football teams, and a mosque that was established in 2006. The day nursery is "guided by an Islamic ethos", Baqui says, but also follows the national curriculum. The various courses are attended by a wide cross-section of the community. "On some courses, the majority of people are non-Muslims," he says. "We don't say they are only for Muslims; they are open to everyone."

The charity's 2013 income of just over £1m came from a mixture of sources including the local council, other public agencies and fees paid for some courses. For Baqui, the trust's breadth of activities is more remarkable than the diversity of its beneficiaries. "Some charities have only a mosque or only do vocational training," he says. "We have a number of things under one roof.

"We are a Muslim-based and Islam-based charity, but we don't necessarily say we try to promote Islam. Often we are looked at as a BME charity rather than a Muslim one."

Birmingham Central Mosque

The mosque has a food bank

Alongside religious ministry, Imam Usman Mahmood of Birmingham Central Mosque is responsible for near-daily school visits to the mosque, a registered charity since 1969. Imam Usman says this is a key part of the mosque's work. "It's for people to understand what Islam is and what Muslims believe," he says. "People who come to the mosque often have a negative idea of Islam because of what is reported in the media."

The mosque has 6,000 regular worshippers, a famous visitor being the Nobel Laureate and female education activist Malala Yousafzai and her family. It works closely with MI5, police counter-terrorism units and the Charity Commission, and its trustees are vigilant about vetting external groups, including charities, that want to come to the mosque.

The mosque also hosts the Birmingham Pakistani Sports Forum, and started a food bank this summer. "Anyone from any community can come here and take food from us, as well as donate," Mahmood says. The mosque has worked with the blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan to sign worshippers up as bone marrow donors, and holds regular charity collections. "It's not just Muslim charities we help," he says. "It's also non-Muslim charities – so this mosque and other mosques nearby raised £83,000 for victims of the floods in the south earlier this year."

Syria Relief

Syria Relief was set up in September 2011 in response to the continuing civil war in Syria, which broke out in March of that year. It is a non-partisan, non-denominational organisation, although the majority of its supporters are Muslim. Its annual accounts for the year ending 28 February 2013 show its income was just short of £2.5m.

Ayman Jundi, a trustee and the general secretary of the charity, acknowledges the dangers and difficulties of working in Syria. He says: "Paramount in our minds is the safety and wellbeing of our staff and volunteers on the ground. They work in extremely challenging circumstances, risking their lives to help their communities. The way we approach physical risks and access restriction is by relying heavily on local knowledge and local expertise. All our staff and volunteers working inside Syria are local Syrians, who have a detailed and up-to-date knowledge of the fluid and constantly changing geo-political environment, and a clear understanding of the various dangers and risks."

Jundi says that in order to abide by the law and Charity Commission regulations, Syria Relief must provide unambiguous receipts and a clear "audit track" for all of its spending, including receipts for all items or services purchased.

He says: "In order to comply with the Charity Commission's requirements, we would normally refrain from distributing aid in areas that have not been able to provide us with the required feedback and appropriate documentation.

"This in itself creates a certain moral dilemma, because these areas are often the ones that are in the most dire need of aid."

As well as its formal compliance procedures, says Jundi, the charity has "a network of informal sources that can verify independently that aid had reached its intended targets, thus confirming the official documentation that we would later receive".

Ummah Welfare Trust

The bank HSBC sent a letter to the international aid charity the Ummah Welfare Trust in July, saying it was going to shut down eight of the charity's bank accounts on the grounds that its activities fell outside the bank's "risk appetite".

The charity registered with the commission in 1990. Although Islam does not feature among its objects, the word "ummah" means "nation" or "community" in Arabic and the charity's website says its work is "inspired by the Islamic teachings of empathy, generosity and selflessness".

The trust was dissatisfied by HSBC's vague explanation, but a spokesman for the bank said that he could not comment further on an individual customer, other than saying that such risk reviews were carried out regularly and took various considerations into account. The charity urged its supporters to lobby the bank by phone, email or Twitter, and to boycott HSBC if the decision was not reversed.

The accounts were then closed in late September. Muhammad Ahmad, a trustee of the charity, said: "The charity is continuing its operations as normal - we've been through this before with Barclays in 2008, so we have a policy of having more than one bank account. We've switched over to the other bank accounts; that's gone smoothly."

Attempts to open accounts with other banks, including Natwest, Lloyds TSB and RBS have been unsucessful, according to Ahmad. No explicit reasons were given, but Ahmad says the charity thinks these banks have taken note of HSBC's example and followed suit.

Thanks to the pressure of its supporters, says Ahmad, the charity has since secured a meeting with HSBC's chief executive. "We told the chief exec that this was only the first leg of the campaign because we don't want any other charity to suffer in a similar way," he said.

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