Aid workers of Islam

Article published on June 5, 2007
community published
Article published on June 5, 2007
Islamic humanitarian organisations have only come into the spotlight following September 11th when they were suspected of having lent their support to Al Qaida and other terror groups. But a closer look at this highly intransparent sector shows that reality is much more complex than it is often perceived.

After 09/11/2001 Islamic humanitarian organisation came into the focus of European and American security services as they were suspected of having served finance terrorism. In the United States in the months following the attacks most Islamic relief organisations were banned, their offices closed down and their accounts frozen. But many of these bans remained controversial as the accusations could often not be confirmed.

If the case of some organisations as the Al Kifah Refugee Center in New York, which in the 1980s had closely cooperated with Osama bin Laden to recruit volunteers for Afghanistan, left few doubts, in the case of the Global Relief Foundation (GRF) or the Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA) contacts with terror groups could never be proven. Rabih Haddah, the director of GDF, for instance was expelled to Lebanon after 18 months in jail without having ever been put on trial.

Security services also took steps against several organisations in Europe. In summer 2002 the headquarters of the Al Aqsa Foundation in Germany were closed down under the accusation that the organisation had collected money for Hamas. But the ban stayed an exception in Europe. Many organisations as the Comité de Bienfaissance et de Secours aux Palestiniens in France or the Palestinian Relief and Development Fund in Great Britain were accused of having collaborated with Hamas but managed to escape a ban.

The difficulty was that Hamas - as other Islamist movements - was a political party and a military group, but also maintained a network of humanitarian institutions. On the one hand it was therefore unclear whether money donated for schools and hospitals – or at least officially destined for this purpose – would not be used for suicide attacks. On the other hand it was impossible to simply negate the humanitarian purpose of the charitable institutions of Hamas.

Even though in Europe most Islamic aid organisations escaped a ban they non the less faced increasing pressure from authorities to distance themselves from islamist movements, lay open their financial transactions and refrain from missionary activities. It can therefore be said that the attacks of 09/11 started or accelerated a process which led many organisations to distance themselves from their militant origins and to move closer to the western humanitarian model.

Most Islamic humanitarian organisations were founded in the 1980s to support the Jihad in Afghanistan. The financial and ideological mobilisation against soviet occupation was especially strong among Muslims in Europe, write Jérôme Bellion Jourdan and Jonathan Benthall in ‚The Charitable Crescent’ - a classic on the Islamic aid sector, in which they analyse its origins, evolution and aims.

Many organisations, which at the time were distributing aid in Afghanistan, understood their engagement as a contribution to the Jihad against the infidels. Therefore in the beginning humanitarian aid was often not clearly separated from military support. But as they were common allies in the fight against the soviets this did not keep Arab and European states from financing them. Only the end of the war in 1989 led to a rupture with the donors, which – now that they did not need their help any more – saw them as a potential danger.

Among the organisations founded in the 1980s are Muslim Aid (London) and Islamic Relief (Birmingham). They are today the most important Islamic aid organisations in Europe and their development is representative of the whole sector. Muslim Aid was founded by a group of Muslim dignitaries and for many years directed by Yusuf Islam, alias Cat Stevens. Muslim Aid is more conservative than Islamic Relief, which already in the 1990s began to distance itself from its militant origins.

There are several reasons for the progressive modernisation of Islamic Relief. First, the expansion of its activities – the organisation today has sections in ten states and projects in twenty countries – obliged the organisation to reform its internal structure and its working method. As projects became ever more complex it became necessary to replace the volunteers who had led the organisation in the beginning by professionals, whose attitude was less militant and more pragmatic.

Second, as Abdel Rahman Ghandour writes in his book ‚Jihad humanitaire’, the hope to find access to public funds led the organisation to adapt itself to the demands of the institutional donors. First contacts were made with western institutions and relief organisations, which up to then had been perceived less as a partner than as a threat. Today Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid are members of several western councils.

Third, public and political pressure after 09/11 led many organisations to realize that it would be necessary to distance themselves from islamist groups and give up their missionary activities so as to escape inquiries of the security services. Today Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid have moved a long way from their origins. Non-the less religion continues to play a central role for both of them. Inspite of their claim to help all those in need without regard to religion they only intervene in Muslim countries.

There still remains the suspicion that the Islamic aid sector has only adapted its discourse but not its practices. This accusation remains difficult to refute, but in its generality is clearly unfounded and unjust. As unreasonable as it would be to deny the involvement of Islamic relief organisations in terror and violence and to negate their role in the propagation of a radical form of Islam, as unjust it would be to doubt the sincerity of Muslims to help those in distress.