London, UK – Austerity policies that have worsened poverty in the UK are fuelling a fundamental shift in the activity of Muslim philanthropic organisations for whom charity, increasingly, begins at home. The traditional focus on giving to international causes is now being matched by growing attention to helping the needy within Britain itself.
One outcome of this pioneering change – which also reflects how a younger generation of charity leaders interpret Islamic obligations – is that the recipients are increasingly likely to be non-Muslims.
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“We are finding that we are getting a lot more requests for food drives that support food banks,” said Sughra Ahmed, president of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB). “While there are regular activities collecting non-perishable items, we’re now being asked much more now by food banks if we can support them over and above what we are already doing, especially during Ramadan.”
Muslims are encouraged to give without shouting about it - you are giving because you want to give. So they are not very good at talking about how much they give and where they give to.
Suleman Nagdi, spokesman for the Federation of Muslim Organisations (FMO), said there has been a noticeable rise in demand for the help provided by his Leicester-based group.
“There is certainly a movement towards more domestic activity – I have been involved in this for a number of years and I see a growing focus based on the mindset that ‘charity begins at home,'” he said. “Let’s not forget there are many people here locally who are in need of support.”
Poverty has grown in the UK since austerity policies aimed at tackling the country’s deficit were imposed in 2010 resulting in what charities say is growing hardship, reflected among other things in the dramatic expansion of food banks. Muslim charity leaders say demand for their services has risen accordingly, sharpening a trend towards greater local giving.
This has been particularly apparent during Ramadan, when most Muslims tend to pay their zakat – a pillar of Islam that requires the obligatory giving of a proportion of one’s wealth for those who can afford it.
Historically most zakat funds have gone abroad, but Abdurahman Sharif, operations manager at the Muslim Charities Forum (MCF), which represents Islamic NGOs in the UK, said international Muslim aid agencies have also been turning their attention to Britain.
“The largest proportion of funds still go to international assistance, but actually austerity has affected the UK in particular, and there is a phenomenon whereby international organisations are now also focusing on projects and initiatives in Britain,” Sharif said.
Ramadan generates considerable charitable activity and the FMO is particularly busy during the fasting month when its Ramadan radio station runs “pledge days” for local charities that in the past have collected up to $850,000.
Other Muslim charities that exemplify a growing focus on domestic giving include the ISB and the National Zakat Foundation (NZF).
“Our focus and our outlook is definitely British, it is about improving society within Britain – we are encouraging Muslims when they make donations to try and consider an organisation like ours whose focus is here,” said Ahmed of the ISB.
The ISB’s work includes support for efforts to tackle homelessness in the UK and running soup kitchens for rough sleepers. Its popular 2012 “Charity Begins at Home” campaign encouraged fundraising for mainstream organisations such as The Children’s Society. The NZF was created just two years ago specifically to address British needs and has grown rapidly, expecting income from public donations this year to be about $3.5m.
“One of the classical principles of zakat is local distribution. So historically that was actually always the starting point: you collect within a country and distribute within that country,” said Iqbal Nasim, head of the NZF. “We feel that within that spirit we are bringing the idea back home, literally.”
A key feature of Muslim charitable giving in the UK is that a growing number of recipients will ultimately be non-Muslims or people of no faith. Nagdi said that while the charities that directly receive FMO-coordinated donations are often Muslim, many of the people ultimately receiving the help they provide will be non-Muslims. FMO has, for example, collected toys for a local hospital and given money to a hospice in Leicester. During this Ramadan it organised a food drive to help stock food banks in the city.
“This aid will go through registered charities that work directly also with the homeless and the ones in need of help which, predominantly to be quite honest, are not Muslim,” said Nagdi. “But that doesn’t matter because the idea is to help each and everyone irrespective of whether they are people of belief or non-belief.”
The Al-Mizan Trust is an example of a Muslim charity that supports vulnerable people living in poverty across the UK regardless of their faith or cultural background. Muslim charities were also praised for stepping in to help non-Muslim communities within the UK earlier this year by launching appeals and relief efforts for victims of serious flooding in the Midlands and southern England.
Debate among scholars
This growing domestic focus is informing a debate among Islamic scholars about charity giving because traditionally zakat has been seen as largely destined for Muslim recipients. The NZF, which uses zakat donations exclusively within the UK, distributes these through grants to those in need, and while 70 percent heads for the Muslim community, the remainder supports faith-sensitive housing projects delivered in partnership with the St Mungo’s Broadway charity.
“What we are doing is quite groundbreaking in that we are taking a very classical tradition of obligatory giving and applying that in a minority community context. That has posed a lot of questions for Muslim scholars in this country,” said Nasim.
“People do sometimes ask me questions about this, but I think that they are starting to realise that people need to be helped in this country regardless of faith,” said Sharif of the MCF.
Ahmed of the ISB believes there should be no dilemmas for Muslims about who should be the recipients when it comes to categories of giving such as sadaqah – or voluntary donations. She says that while some people are encouraged to think that zakat is only applicable in a Muslim context, “the vast majority of British Muslims understand that it is applicable wherever there is need and that is the only criteria – if you can identify a need”.
Yet recipients aside, there is a consensus that raising awareness within mainstream society about the scale of Muslim giving would be in everyone’s interests. A poll of religious groups last year showed that Muslims in Britain now give more annually to charity per capita – almost $633 each – than any other faith group. Income generated by the MCF’s member organisations this year could hit $300m. Moreover, Muslim donations in the British Isles have a long history – during the Irish famine, for example, the Ottomans sent the equivalent of $1m in cash and three shiploads of food.
“Muslims are encouraged to give without shouting about it – you are giving because you want to give,” Ahmed said. “So they are not very good at talking about how much they give and where they give to.”