Monday, December 13, 2004

Beacon No. 14: The Zakat Racket


The December 3 Wall Street Journal featured an article on a recent uptick in the Islamic world's donations to Western charities. This is remarkable because before 9/11, Muslims had given this zakat—donations to the poor that are one of the pillars of Islam—primarily to Muslim charities:

As humanitarian crises multiply across the globe, straining Western contributions, relief organizations are moving in on a source of money that has eluded them in recent years: the Islamic world. Muslim governments and individuals have long been generous donors to charity, heeding the Islamic obligation to give a portion of annual savings to the poor. Most of their giving has flowed through Islamic charities that fund their own projects, or directly from one government to another. Relatively little has gone to the international organizations that do the bulk of the feeding, housing and healing in crises around the world.

Last year, the World Food Program, a United Nations agency that's the world's largest humanitarian organization, fed 1044 million people. A full 57 million of those were in Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC, countries. Yet less than 2% of the WFP's $2.6 billion came from these countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the leading agency caring for displaced people, received less than $4 million from Arab donors in a budget of nearly $1 billion. Of the $3.1 billion raised since 1988 by the global coalition to eradicate polio, less than $3 million has come from OIC states, even though most remaining cases of polio occur in predominantly Muslim countries.

Here's where 9/11, and the inability of Muslim charities to handle all the big problems, comes in:

Now, these organizations' appeals are getting a better reception in the Islamic world, and they cite three main reasons. Investigations into terrorist financing after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. have brought more scrutiny on donations to Islamic charities. In response, donors are looking for more globally respected recipients. Arab governments believe that greater contributions to multinational humanitarian efforts can improve their image in the West. And they see that their charities alone can't relieve the massive humanitarian crises in their own regions, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Palestinian territories and West Africa.

Transparency in Muslim charities has long been a concern among those wanting assurances that their money does good, as well as governments wanting to keep tabs on cash flows to terrorists. The article quotes a Dubai-based businessman who began donating to the WFP out of transparency concerns: "After 9/11, people are scared to give because they don't know where the money goes. … But if you give to the WFP, you're protected. You know where the money went. I saw it for myself," the businessman said, citing firsthand experience with food-distribution drives in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

So recently, the Journal says, Malaysia coughs up $1 million for polio eradication, a Saudi group kicks in $6.3 million for WFP feeding programs in the West Bank, a UAE foundation gives UNHCR $200,000 to supply clean water for Sudanese refugees, and so on.

With donations like these increasing, the Muslim world's hard power—a direct voice in the spending decisions Western charities make—will multiply, while their donations' new visibility outside the Muslim world will add to Muslim soft power.

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