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June 8, 2014

Muslim Philanthropy

Reuel S. Amdur

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Ouida Loeffelholz summed up a day-long Ottawa conference on Muslim philanthropy, held on June 3, by noting three themes: why Muslims give, what techniques can encourage giving, and what the upcoming generation of Muslims is doing in the field of charity. The conference was one in a series sponsored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, a series entitled Diversity to Inclusion.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s address was a high point in the day.  Author of I Shall Not Hate, in which he spoke of the horror of losing three daughters and a niece to Israeli tank shells during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, he spoke of his deep Muslim faith which made him forego thoughts of revenge.  His “revenge” consists in his funding and operating the Daughters for Life Foundation, which promotes education for girls throughout the Middle East.  He made it a point to emphasize the inclusiveness of this undertaking, serving girls who are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Druze.  As he put it, “Resilience and tolerance are greater than revenge.”  And as a Palestinian, he remarked, “Instead of walls of separation, we need to build bridges of understanding.” 

Ihsaan Gardee provided a sobering perspective on the ability of his organization, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), to raise funds.  It began when the Council wrote to Stephen Harper with a concern about his having Rabbi Daniel Korobkin along on his trip to the Middle East.  Korobkin had given a warm welcoming introduction to anti-Muslim extremist Pamela Geller at a Jewish Defense League (JDL) talk in Toronto.  The American Jewish Anti-Defamation League criticized Geller’s group Stop Islamization of America.  “Consistently vilifying the Islamic faith under the guise of fighting radical Islam, the group has introduced a growing number of Americans to its conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda.”  As for the JDL, which sponsored the talk, the FBI identifies it as a terrorist organization.  It has killed and wounded a number of people in the United States. 

In response to the NCCM, Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald told Sun News, “We will not take seriously criticism from an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas.”  The consequences of this accusation are serious.  It can deter people from contributing or being otherwise involved with the organization.  As well, NCCM must exercise due diligence when accepting contributions.  NCCM is now suing MacDonald and Harper for defamation.

Inclusivity was one of the themes of the day.  Muslims do and should give to general charities, argued activist Safaa Fouda.  And Sheherazad Hirji, a member of the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada, noted that there are non-Muslims on its board.  The Foundation provides services to Muslims and non-Muslims. 

In a talk on a middle way between business and charity, Karim Harji, of Purpose Capital, spoke of intentionality in investment, investment not only considering risk and return but also social impact, making society better.  He saw the purposeful investor as one who is prepared to take a smaller profit in order to benefit society.  As an example of such an investment he mentioned Turnaround Couriers in Toronto, a bicycle courier service that encourages the social development of the young bicyclists. 

Muneer Nasir, President of the Olive Tree Foundation, said that most Muslims do make charitable donations, often anonymously, since zakat is one of the pillars of the faith.

While the day was full of informative presentations, one thing was missing: a discussion of the role of philanthropy and the philanthropic spirit in our welfare state.  The voluntary sector makes but a miniscule contribution to the overall functioning of the welfare state.  Even in support for international aid, it plays a secondary role.  There are also regressive ways in which government uses the voluntary sector.  Thus, in Ottawa there are municipal homeless shelters where workers are paid at reasonable rates.  At the same time, local government promotes voluntary shelters that pay a pittance.  Ottawa prefers an increase in such services as an alternative to increasing its own shelters because it is cheaper.  Recently there was a public notice by Ottawa’s Salvation Army about the need to fill a social work position with someone having education and experience with the mentally ill, the homeless, and the addicted.  The pay rate: $17 an hour. 

And is Islam’s pillar of zakat satisfied when someone votes for a Mike Harris or a Tim Hudak, politicians who want to deprive welfare recipients of anything resembling decent income, even if that Muslim puts a couple cans of food in the food bank collection?  Does the meaning of zakat in the welfare state mean something different from what it meant in Mohammed’s time?  And what is the relationship between zakat and taxes which support the welfare state?  Is the commitment to zakat consistent with fighting for lower taxes?

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