Please note: The views presented below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Rhodes College.
This submitted statement is intended to provide a brief overview of Islamic charities. It explains that while Islamic radicals have used specific charities to funnel money, they have had little success using these organizations for a broader revolutionary movement.
What Do Islamic Charities Do?
Islamic charities provide basic goods and services to communities in a manner deemed consistent with the values and teachings of Islam. This includes medical services through local clinics and hospitals, K-12 schools, universities and colleges, orphanages, vocational training centers, subsidies for poor families, and other grassroots activities. Islamic charities also collect donations to help Muslims outside their own country in places such as the Palestinian territories, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir. These kinds of donations have created problems for law enforcement in the war on terrorism because of the difficulty of determining whether money collected for a particular cause (helping the Palestinians rebuild their cities after the recent Israeli incursions, for example) is actually used for the originally specified purpose. Muslim governments are very good at preventing charities from raising money to overthrow them, but they are far less effective in making sure that money is not "redirected" once it leaves the country.
In some cases, Islamic charities have explicitly raised money for causes that threaten current U.S. government policy. Many Muslims, for example, especially those in the Middle East, view movements such as Hamas and Hizballah as national liberation movements, not terrorist organizations. As a result, Islamic charities have solicited funds for what they term "resistance to the Israeli occupation."
But Hamas and Hizballah are fundamentally different from al-Qaeda. They are nationalist Islamic movements that operate hospitals and schools, oversee charities, and run in local elections. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is a transnational revolutionary movement. Few Islamic charities publicly call for donations to groups like al-Qaeda. Even al-Qaeda fronts do not openly request money for violent activities. Instead, they seek donations for general charitable calls and only later siphon the money to terrorist operations.
The vast majority of Islamic charities, however, represent moderate Islamic interests and seek to implement the Quranic injunction to help others in need. In a sense, Islamic charities provide Muslims with an opportunity to put into practice the commands of God and fulfill their duties as Muslims. It is also seen as a way of demonstrating that "Islam is the solution" (a common Islamist campaign slogan) to a myriad of widespread social ills. Islamic charities provide a visible example of how Islam can be put to work to improve society and alleviate socioeconomic stagnation in the Muslim world.
What is "Islamic" about an Islamic Charity?
Although there are thousands of charities that call themselves "Islamic," we need to be careful not to conceptualize all self-proclaimed Islamic charities as part of a shared vision of religious activism. In Muslim societies, usage of the term "Islamic" connotes certain positive characteristics, such as honesty, social justice, and righteousness. As a result, state and societal actors frequently appropriate it to foster a sense of legitimacy. Regimes in the Muslim world, for example, wrap themselves in the symbols of Islam in an attempt to augment their right to rule, while powerful social forces frequently use Islam as a means of demonstrating cultural authenticity. In both cases, the actual level of religiousness often falls short of the rhetoric and symbolism.
Using the term "Islamic" to describe a charitable organization brings several benefits to the organizer and sponsors. First, potential donors and beneficiaries often assume that because the institution is Islamic, it will treat them fairly, avoid corruption, and provide an effective remedy for social, economic, or medical distress. Simply calling a charity "Islamic" can thus bring immediate community support for the project and organization.
Second, an "Islamic" charity enjoys the benefits of broader religious networks. Other Islamic institutions will frequently refer people to Islamic, as opposed to secular, charitable societies, and certain donors are more likely to give to Islamic causes in general, including Islamic charitable operations. In addition, Islamic charities frequently, though not always, maintain relationships with local mosques, which function as central social institutions in communities and neighborhoods. In some cases, the charity is physically located in the mosque and therefore enjoys access to prime neighborhood real estate where heavy traffic and community centrality ensure a steady flow of financial support. In other instances, Islamic charities are located near a neighborhood mosque and draw some of the same benefits. At a minimum, most Islamic charities enjoy some kind of relationship with mosques by the very nature of their supposed religious qualities.
Third, calling a charity "Islamic" implies that it is rooted in the indigenous societies of the Muslim world and offers a model of socioeconomic development based on authentic, non-Western models. Up until about the mid-1900s, many charities in the Muslim world were run by non-Muslims, frequently foreign Christian missionaries. Given experiences of colonialism, there was impetus to establish charities run by the indigenous population, and Islamic charities fit these aspirations. Today, in a political climate where the West, particularly the U.S., and its various global projects (economic neo-liberalism, democracy, human rights, the war on terrorism) are viewed with suspicion in the Muslim world, using the term Islamic to describe organizational activities is a way of establishing culturally accepted anti-imperialist credentials within a legitimate religious framework. It demonstrates that the charity is organically linked to the society it serves, in contradistinction to western non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are often seen as part of a western project of neocolonialism. The fact that many indigenous NGO leaders in the Middle East have cheered governmental attempts to limit foreign financial contributions to charities is indicative of an overall resentment of western interference in domestic affairs. Islamic charities thrive in such an environment.
The result of these incentives is that many people adopt an Islamic tenor because it is an effective mechanism to support charitable activities, which means that not all Islamic charities are equally Islamic. In some instances, individuals use the term "Islamic" like an advertising gimmick to attract attention and support. In one example, an organizer in Aqaba in southern Jordan formed an Islamic charity under dubious circumstances. He was a well known alcoholic whose personal behavior hardly emulated well accepted religious norms of propriety. There was nothing particularly religious about his organization.
Despite this less savory example, most Islamic charities are formed by groups of friends who share a common concern about local neighborhood conditions or helping the poor. The founders and volunteers at these organizations are not necessarily conservative religious Muslims; many are simply driven by a general concern with helping others and charity. Islamic charities formed by such groups are often as much spaces for social gatherings as centers for the distribution of charity. They provide an opportunity for friends and neighbors to reinvigorate social ties while providing a service to the community.
Still other Islamic charities are affiliated with organized Islamic movements. Movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Islah in Yemen have extensive networks of charitable organizations. These are large scale, moderate, non-violent movements that operate schools, welfare centers, vocational training centers, orphanages, and an assortment of other grassroots activities. Whereas Islamic charities formed by ordinary groups of people from local neighborhoods are often charities with an Islamic face ("Islamic lite," if you will), charities formed by Islamic movements are tied to the mission of the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, for example, uses its charities to provide jobs and other patronage benefits for its members, mobilize support in society for elections, and propagate the movement message about the need to establish religious change in society and the state. (It is important to note that connections between Islamic movements and charities are not always formal, organizational linkages; in many instances the charities are run and staffed by movement members acting as individuals rather than as representatives of the movement. In such cases, there are separate administrative structures, but the spirit and mission generally remain the same.)
This indicates that Islamic charities are not homogenous and can differ dramatically. I have visited Islamic charities where the members dressed in blue jeans and tee-shirts, did not have the traditional Islamic beard, played ping-pong, and rarely discussed religion. At other organizations, the members had well manicured, thick beards, wore traditional Islamic thobes, and were deeply immersed in religious study. Islamic charities are characterized by an immense diversity that should be appreciated when investigating possible ties between charitable activities and terrorism.
To determine what makes Islamic charities particularly "Islamic," we need to also examine their actual activities. In point of fact, the charity work at most Islamic and secular organizations is basically the same. When asked what makes their activities Islamic, most organizers at Islamic charities answer in terms of the intentions of those who volunteer. They are inspired by the mores of Islam, which require that people help one another and provide charity to the community. While these are certainly noble reasons, they do not differ from the motives of those who volunteer at secular or non-Islamic charities. It is therefore typically the volunteersí own view of their actions and identity that defines them as engaged in particularly Islamic charity. The exception is Islamic cultural work, which tends to directly address Islamic beliefs, history, and sources. Purely charitable activities, however, do not have a unique Islamic character in most cases (there are always exceptions to this, especially at organizations operated by Islamic movements).
Could Islamic Charities Lead a Revolution?
Some scholars have argued that radical Islamists could use charitable organizations to inspire and lead a revolution. The typical argument posits that charities can be used as recruitment vehicles, fund raising devices, and centers for violence since they are socially situated to tap into the grievances and discontent of the poor. In other words, providing charity allows radicals to turn the "mobilization potential" of the disaffected, marginalized members of society (especially young men) into "actual mobilization." Certainly this is always a possibility, but it is unlikely for several reasons.
Established Islamic charities are tightly regulated by the state.
All Muslim countries have very strict legal and bureaucratic requirements that, in essence, prevent Islamic charities from being used for revolutionary purposes. The government must approve the purpose of the movement, its activities, its memberships, the board of directors, and any changes. Charities are generally required to report all facets of their operations to the government, including all financial transactions (and there are supposed to be audits to ascertain how money is spent). Informants, routine inspections, and surprise visits are used to ensure that all regulations are followed. And the government reserves the right to dissolve the organization, change its leadership, expel particular members, and reorganize the charity if it believes the organization is being used for any kind of "anti-government" or illegal activities. In other words, the government maintains tight control over registered Islamic charities.
Of course, regulation and oversight do break down. This is most likely to occur in large countries, such as Egypt, with thousands of Islamic charities. The sheer volume creates logistical difficulties, especially where the bureaucracy responsible for oversight is corrupt and inefficient. In smaller countries, such as Jordan, however, oversight is efficient and strict, and the chances of radicals creating an Islamic charity are low. Although a small handful might slip through the bureaucratic net, a massive network of radical Islamic charities would be difficult to miss.
An additional problem for oversight, again especially in large countries, is the assortment of illegal Islamic charities that operate without permits. Radicals are much more likely to establish informal charitable organizations since they can avoid the eyes of the bureaucracy. But these are difficult to expand since accumulated growth increases the probability of detection by state authorities. The more people you reach and involve, the greater the prospects that someone will inform the government.
A more likely scenario is that radicals will attempt to take over already established Islamic charities, rather than form their own. In a number of cases, radicals have launched campaigns to take over the board of directors at particular charitable societies. Most boards are elected democratically, but elections suffer from extremely low voter turn out. As a result, well organized, disciplined radicals have attempted to gain control through democratic means. In most cases that I am aware of, however, more moderate elements have succeeded in beating back the radical campaign. Governments, such as Egypt, have enacted laws requiring minimal voter turnout for board elections in an effort to prevent radicals from taking advantage of apathy. But the possibility still exists.
Some Islamic charities are tied to the state
To call Islamic charities "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs) is somewhat misleading. While Muslim governments might like to claim that the proliferation of Islamic charities is endemic of the freedom of association in society, regimes maintain strong relationships with some of these organizations. In particular, governments at times provide funding for Islamic charities, which gives the regime certain prerogatives and influence in the affairs of the various organizations. In communities where resources are scarce, this government funding can be essential for survival. Organizations that do not receive government money must scrounge for themselves, and some are very likely to limit their activities or close for financial reasons. Government favoritism is directed toward moderate, non-politicized, Islamic charities; and radicals have very little opportunity to tap into this resource.
Governments also help Islamic charities through non-financial incentives. Some may provide physical space to hold charitable events. Others co-sponsor programs and activities of mutual interests. And in many cases, well-connected individuals serve on the board of directors at Islamic charities. Because of the horrendous red tape that is notorious in many Muslim countries, registration or any changes that require governmental approval can take years to address. Well-connected individuals with contacts in the bureaucracy and government can be essential for an Islamic charity to bypass this inefficiency. Government or former government officials are therefore an enormous asset to Islamic charities, which do not hesitate to utilize all connections possible. Government ties to Islamic charities obviously serve as an obstacle for radicals seeking to expand their influence through charitable activities.
Islamic charities compete with one another
It is a misnomer that there is a vast, coordinated, network of Islamic charities that could be utilized by radicals as an organizational matrix for revolution. Because of scarce resources, Islamic charities are more likely to compete with one another than cooperate. They are concerned about attracting beneficiaries, raising funds in competitive donor environments, getting support from local communities with little disposable income, and presenting themselves as the most effective Islamic charity in the area. Under these conditions, charities are frequently at odds with one another.
Where cooperation does take place, it is usually because a single Islamic movement controls several different Islamic charities. Such coordination simply represents the cooperation of different branches of the same movement or group. For Islamic charities with no Islamic movement affiliation, however, this kind of cooperation at the organizational level is rare (though it does occur). Any cooperation usually takes place at the individual, as opposed to organizational, level because individuals belong to more than one Islamic charity.
For these reasons, radicals would find it difficult to penetrate a critical mass of Islamic charities and create a large charity network that supports the cause of violence. Even if they succeed in penetrating a particular organization, this does not inevitably lead to broader access to other charities. And it would be difficult for radicals to take over the charitable organizations of moderate Islamic movements, which are frequently wary of cooperating with more radical fundamentalists, especially where this might endanger the movementís institutions because of state reprisals or crackdowns.
Islamic charities are based in middle class networks
Because of the operational needs of Islamic charities as organizations, most are rooted in middle class networks. To survive, Islamic charities need to raise funds and attract suitable employees, especially middle class professional such as doctors and teachers. As a result, most Islamic charities are located not in poor neighborhoods, which one might expect given their charity mission, but rather in middle class communities. The middle class can provide donations and building materials to the charity, offer in-kind services, generate the needed professionals to work at an organization, and pay at least moderate fees for service usage. This means that there is an important distinction between Islamic charities designed to help the poor and Islamic charities that are directed to meet the needs of the middle class. The latter tend to predominate and are primarily directed toward providing employment opportunities, low cost medical care, educational opportunities, and other services to the middle class.
Given that radicals have had little success in co-opting and recruiting the middle class en masse, its ability to penetrate middle class networks remains limited. Certainly, professionals from the middle class have joined militant organizations, but they are a minority and usually constitute the elite of the radical corps. The rank and file tend to instead come from the less educated strata of society.
Where they do support Islamism, middle class professionals typically prefer moderate Islamic groups and movements. Radicalism is usually not in their self-interest since the middle class would best benefit from a reform of the system rather than its overthrow. Middle class professionals want access to employment, an end to corruption, and better social services for society. Reform, not revolution, would most likely achieve this.
In addition, middle class professionals who work at Islamic charities often do so as secondary or tertiary jobs to augment their income from government employment. During the day, many work at the ministry of education, ministry of religion, or ministry of health, and later moonlight at Islamic charities. For some of these people, overthrowing the system would mean instant unemployment. They are therefore wary of the panacea offered by radicals.
This statement is meant to illustrate three basic points about Islamic charities: 1) while some Islamic charities do support violent Islamic groups or serve as fronts for al-Qaeda, the vast majority simply seek to alleviate the dire socioeconomic conditions of local societies; 2) Islamic charities reflect varying levels of religious adherence and should be understood as a diverse organizational community; and 3) radicals would have difficulty using Islamic charities as the basis for revolutionary activism. The consequence of such an argument is that the war on terrorism should refrain from generalizing about Islamic charities based upon outlier cases.
Suggested Reading on Islamic Charities
Clark, Janine. Islam, Social Welfare, and the Middle Class: Networks, Activism, and Charity in Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, November 2003.
Sullivan Denis J. Private Voluntary Organizations in Egypt: Islamic Development, Private Initiative, and State Control. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1994.
Wickham, Carrie Rosevsky. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
Wiktorowicz, Quintan. The Management of Islamic Activism: Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and State Power in Jordan (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001).
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