After Arab Spring, Challenges for Islamic NGOs

Children in Yemen reading pamphlets about an Islamic Relief program to improve access to education
Children in Yemen reading pamphlets about an Islamic Relief program to improve access to education (Photo:

Pronter-friendly version here. Amjad Saleem is a political analyst and thematic expert for the World Humanitarian Summit. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21. Follow him on Twitter: @corporatesufi

Egypt’s revolution and the wider unrest following the Arab Spring produced a backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood in several countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates. Caught in that were several leading Islamic charities, groups that had emerged into the mainstream international development world in the previous decade despite facing their own challenges from the West following the events of 2001.

In early November the UAE Government released its terror watch list. There were few surprises on the list, which included the likes of organisations like Al Shabab and Al Qaeda. What did raise a few eyebrows was the inclusion of several civil rights organisations, think tanks, and charities based in the US and UK.

The highest profile was Islamic Relief, the world’s largest Muslim Humanitarian Organisation, headquartered in Birmingham, UK. The ‘proscription’ prompted the British Government to ask for details on the proscription, whilst Islamic Relief subsequently released the results of an ‘audit’ which it claimed proved any innocence of wrong doing. Though not directly done in response to the UAE ruling, the audit arguably made it harder for anyone to be suspicious about the activities of the organisation and also cleared doubts raised by the Israeli government about its activities in Palestine.

The ruling signifies a change in the whole narrative regarding the Arab Spring moving from the realm of political and religious ideology to the realm of charity and civil society. How and why did these few organisations end up on such a list? The former may be easier to articulate whilst the latter is perhaps more up to speculation.

More important is the ramifications with regard to the politicisation of humanitarian action and the future of the international humanitarian system. Pressure on the charities had been building for a while. Several of the British charities had been part of the UK Government’s review of Muslim Brotherhood activities in the UK, conducted at the start of 2014. The review itself was controversial, rumored to have been done at the behest of the governments of UAE and Saudi Arabia. Relations between both governments and the Muslim Brotherhood worsened. The final report is yet to be published, but leaked transcripts show little for proscription. but its felt that the UK government is under pressure from its gulf partners to act strongly on the report.

Adding the charities to the UAE terror list, some suspect, was specifically designed to prompt greater British action. The most important point is that Islamic Relief has no direct link to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is an apolitical International Humanitarian Organisation with a good track record of working with various western governments in responding to some of the most acute humanitarian disasters.

The ruling fails to distinguish between the affiliations of individuals and the vision & mission of the organisation. Though there may be individuals linked to some of these organisations who have sympathy for the Brotherhood, or a wider sympathy for the ideology of the Brotherhood (like a lot of UK based organisations and charities), this does not mean organisations like Islamic Relief are Muslim Brotherhood or even close to be equated with the likes of Al Qaeda. This is almost akin to accusing a UN organisation of being communist because a few of its members may be sympathetic to the principles of communism.

By labelling Islamic Relief, the UAE government has politicised even further the humanitarian sphere. It appears to be deliberately bringing Islamic Relief into the ideologically and geopolitically challenged sphere around the Arab Spring. It sends a signal as to what supposed ideological leanings are acceptable or unacceptable. This further complicates an already difficult scenario for Muslim charities. What effectively amounts to a proscription of Islamic Relief, adds a new chapter to the challenges facing Muslim charities. That is especially true for those based in Western countries who have already suffered from an increasingly securitised agenda post 9/11.

Counter-terrorism laws & other measures have already had a significant impact on humanitarian action (Humanitarian Policy Brief 2011), particularly provisions criminalising the transfer of resources to terrorist-linked groups or individuals. Those restrictions are irrespective of the humanitarian character of such actions or the absence of any intention to support terrorist acts. Thus there are ramifications for not only fundraising and disbursement but has actually led to a scenario of conditional humanitarian funding from donor governments, based on assurances that it is not benefiting listed individuals or organisations, and that greater security checks are being placed on local partners and implementing actors.

Unfortunately, the co-option of humanitarian actors into counter- terrorism efforts directed against one party to a conflict can undermine the principles of impartiality and neutrality. Counter-terrorism laws and other measures have also increased operating costs, slowed down administrative functions and operational response, curtailed funding and undermined humanitarian partnerships. They have also prevented access and altered the quality and coordination of assistance.

Polish humanitarian assistance packages in Libya (Photo: Polish Embassy, Cairo)
Polish humanitarian assistance packages in Libya (Photo: Polish Embassy, Cairo)

Another aspect of the securitised agenda has been the investigation and the shutting down of charities. For example, in the US without notice, and through the use of secret evidence and non-transparent procedures, the Department of the Treasury has closed six U.S.- based, American Muslim charities to date by designating them as terrorist organizations (CSN 2011). The consequences of designation include the seizure and freezing of all financial and tangible assets, as well as significant civil and criminal penalties (ACLU 2009). The federal government closed down a further seventh U.S.-based, American Muslim charity by declaring the charity to be “under investigation” and freezing all its assets.

Thus one of the consequences of this which leads to another challenge is that as Islamic charities have come under intense scrutiny, we see contributions to them and from them decrease.  In the midst of all this was a possible saving grace that financial support would stem from the Gulf countries. With the new list by the UAE government, this has now closed the door for that option and Islamic charities may be forced to rethink the ways to fundraise and disburse their funds. The rise of suspicions around the role of established Islamic charities has also altered the way Muslims (particularly in the West) will give to charity. Since they are obliged by their faith to give, they will increasingly be forced into informal means of discharging their Zakah, often through donations to unrecognised ‘charities’ and fundraisers at local mosques and community centres. “Ironically, attempts to close down or control formal charities may have had precisely the opposite effect by forcing charitable giving into less regulated channels.” (Kroessin 2007) Ultimately, the biggest irony in the securitization of aid debate (which has not been helped by the UAE ruling) and the increased pressure and scrutiny of Muslim charities is no doubt the fact that those who lose out most are the benefactors of the charity themselves. Excessive security crackdowns are counterproductive. The ultimate cost of measures such as these is borne by beneficiaries.

The ruling by the UAE government doesn’t serve anything apart from a political causes. It just further hinders the operations of organisations such as Islamic Relief who have used the UAE as a gateway and transit for the transfer of supply during complex emergencies. It will also further complicate their effectiveness and efficiency. The politicisation of the Islamic humanitarian sphere with the narrative arising from the Arab Spring ultimately poses problems.

By the virtue of this classification, it opens the door for many Islamic charities (including those from within the Gulf) to be labelled as well. This is because most Islamic charities will show a convergence on operations around Islamic education, Ramadan food aid, Qurban (and other programs which allow Muslim donors to fulfil their spiritual duties). The only difference is who the donors and supporters are of the different charities.

By placing Islamic global charities on such lists, it also casts aspersions on other non Muslim humanitarian partners who work with such organisations as well as the international humanitarian system that these organisations are plugged into. By virtue of guilt of association with said organisations means that many of these international organisations could be disqualified from engaging or operating within these regions.

By casting aspersions on the system it will mean that local and national charities from the region will have to respond in the absence of a ‘credible’ international humanitarian system that is tainted with its association with organisations on the list. Thus these local and national organisations have to dramatically scale up to adhere to internationally held Humanitarian Principles (Independence, Impartiality, Neutrality, Accountability) as well as IFRC codes of conduct and so on, if they have to credibly fill that gap. These standards commonly held within the international system go beyond what is acceptable in the Muslim world and pose all sorts of operational issues.

With the experience of many of the Gulf charities in places like Myanmar, Somalia and Syria, it appears that there is a long way to go before a similar standard of professionalism held by the likes of Islamic Relief is achieved. Faith identities will continue to be part of the picture, and faith-based organizations will continue to thrive as part of civil society.

Muslim charities such as Islamic Relief are not part of the problem but with the opportunities they offer can be part of the solution in not only addressing poverty and development but countering some of the radicalization narrative that governments like the UAE are worried about. In the complexities of the post 9/11 world, Islamic non-governmental organisations figure amongst the global casualties of the war of terror. This has also meant an effect on the beneficiaries of humanitarian and social welfare programmes which sets a vicious cycle of radicalisation, violence, conflict, humanitarian needs and so on.

There is hence a need to remain committed to engineering the software needed to work effectively in a range of situation. We need to create the very ‘ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become’. Engagement and partnership is needed with a variety of stakeholders including government / other (faith and non-faith) humanitarian actors / private sector and so on. A dialogue is needed between NGOs, UN agencies, humanitarian donors and governments such as the UAE in order to ensure that counter-terrorism objectives do not undermine humanitarian commitment.

This requires greater clarity from donor on the scope and applicability of counter terrorism laws and measures and the development of common principled positions among humanitarian actors. Governments can not be allowed to cast aspersions on reputable global charities without going through due process. The ostracising of Islamic NGOs previously from a Western context has meant a loss of contact with their Western counterparts, widening the gap between them. With the UAE ruling, this loss of contact could be made even worse.

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