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Accountability in Islam

Local people help Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers unload food parcels from trucks in the main square of Bludan, Syria, at an impoverished warehouse donated by a local businessman Ibrahim Malla/Syrian Arab Red Crescent

DUBAI, 4 July 2012 (IRIN) - The rights-based framework may only have been formally adopted by the international humanitarian and development community in the past decade; but the concept that people in need have a right to assistance has existed in the Muslim world since the birth of Islam.

“When we [in the international community] started thinking differently about relief, and talking about a rights-based approach, it was very easy to equate and put this within the Islamic perspective,” said Khaled Khalifa, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the Gulf Region. “It was there, but we didn’t know about it.”

Despite an increased focus on accountability in recent years and a growing role for aid agencies from the Muslim world in mainstream humanitarian aid operations, few analysts or academics - neither in humanitarian thought nor in Islamic jurisprudence - have asked the question: What does accountability look like in the Islamic context?

The answer can be contradictory.

On the one hand, the Muslim Holy book, the Koran refers to the “known right” of the petitioner and the deprived to the wealth of observant Muslims: “Give to your relatives, to the poor and to the traveller their right, and do not spend wastefully [on yourself],” it says in verse 26, surah 17.

Islamic scripture requires Muslims to give 2.5 percent of their wealth in `zakat’, or mandatory alms, to specific categories of people in need.

“`Zakat’ is not charity,” says Tariq Cheema, president of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists (WCMP). “`Zakat’ is an obligation. `Zakat’ is a mandatory discharge of duty. It’s not your money. It belongs to the poor.”

As such, billions of dollars are spent each year in helping those in need.

On the other hand, aid in the Muslim world is understood to have more than one purpose.

Fulfilling a religious obligation

Part of it is fulfilling a religious obligation, which means that Muslims should see themselves as first and foremost accountable to God. This can lead to what Marie Juul Petersen, a researcher in politics and development at the Danish Institute for International Studies, calls “the invisibility of the recipient”.

“The provision of aid is a way to gain religious rewards and a place in Paradise,” she wrote in her PhD thesis, For humanity or for the umma?, a study of four transnational Muslim NGOs’ ideologies of aid. “If the purpose of aid is to ensure rewards for the donor, the recipient easily becomes irrelevant as anything but an instrument to obtain these rewards…

“What the donor gives is not important; what is important is the intention. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in the frequently mentioned saying, ‘If you save one person it is as if you saved all of humankind.’ It is not important whether you save one or 100 people, but that you save - in other words, it is not the result of the action, but the action itself (and the underlying intention) that matters.”

Some Muslim NGOs complain of the challenges of raising funds for certain activities, because some donors give based on what they believe they will be rewarded for in heaven - building mosques or sponsoring orphans - rather than what may be most needed on the ground.

“Even though donors are becoming more aware of the need to donate toward sustainable development projects, a great deal of raising awareness is still required, especially amongst the first generation of immigrants in the EU and America, about the obligations Islam places on its adherence to help community and eradicating poverty,” said Inlia Aziz, of MuslimAid, a UK-based international NGO.

During many humanitarian crises in the Muslim world - from Somalia to Syria - some Muslim donors have simply sent whatever they have to offer, instead of assessing the true needs of people affected.

“If you are doing charity simply to fulfil your own requirement, then accountability is not there,” Cheema told IRIN. “Accountability is going to come when you are thinking from the perspective of the beneficiary.”

But increasingly, civil society within the Muslim world is realizing the potential of `zakat’ being spent more effectively and calling for a more needs-based and sustainable approach.

Strengthening the `ummah’

Another perceived purpose of aid in the Muslim world, according to Juul Petersen, is strengthening the `ummah’, or global Muslim community, “as a response to problems of spiritual poverty” - meaning that recipients of Muslim aid are primarily Muslim.

Some see nothing wrong with this approach, pointing to other examples of the same: Australian aid focuses on the Pacific region; Belgium focuses on the Great Lakes; increasingly, other donors are targeting their aid by reducing the number of recipients and the scope of work.

“A number of donors’ aid allocation is based on historical, regional, religious, cultural and language ties - should Arab donors be any different?” asks Kerry Smith, programme officer with Development Initiatives, a research and advocacy organization. “Aren’t they best placed to understand the needs of Muslim countries in their region?”

Some Muslim aid workers believe this solidarity between the “sons of the ummah” makes them more accountable, because of their close ties to the people they are trying to help.

“[Other aid workers] don’t have the same feeling of family as we have, that the orphans are a part of our family, that it’s about humanity, family, about making the orphans feel important. For them, it’s routine, it’s just a job they need to do, it’s about finishing work to get home to your own family,” one employee of the Kuwait-based International Islamic Charitable Organization told Juul Petersen.

But the approach has also garnered criticism from secular, Western NGOs, claiming that they discriminate among recipients, thus violating principles of universalism and neutrality so tied to accountability.

In any case, many of the Muslim aid agencies working in the world’s major emergency zones have long worked in the international system and have adopted mainstream development practices. But that too raises questions of accountability.

According to a study of Islamic Relief’s work in Bangladesh, religious leaders in a refugee camp complained that the NGO was not meeting their religious needs because it had not built enough religious schools, mosques and graveyards.

“We can live without food but we can’t live without our religion,” the refugees reportedly said.

For more stories on humanitarian accountability, please visit our In-Depth


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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