How can Zakat help Syrian Refugees?

The ongoing Syrian Civil War is pegged to be the largest humanitarian disaster since the Cold War. A recent New York Times article quoted United Nations Organizations officials making an appeal for an unprecedented $5bn towards relief and rehabilitation, even as the fighting goes on. Given that most of the victims of the crisis are Muslim (ironically, so are the perpetrators), the question that one can logically ask is: can the neighboring Muslim countries as well as those with a large Muslim population help fix the humanitarian crisis? What role can religious mobilization play in humanitarian rehabilitation? At first glance, there seems to be tremendous potential for this sort of mobilization. Geopolitics aside, I argue that humanitarian responses coming from individual and civil society, faith-based groups are perhaps the most effective way to deal with long-term aid for Syria and particularly helpful, when the government aid dries up.

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Consider this: Annually around US$200 billion and $1 trillion are spent in “mandatory” alms and voluntary charity across the Muslim world, according to a report from the IRIN, the United Nations News wire . This is more than 15 times the combined annual global humanitarian aid from all countries. This staggering amount of money is spent largely during the month of Ramadhan, but some of it during the whole year. While giving patterns vary across countries, racial and ethnic divisions among Muslims, who are ethnically and racially as diverse as the entire humanity; certain patterns are clearly visible: there is a clear preference to give to ‘near and dear ‘ones, i.e., poor relatives or neighbors. In fact Muslim scholars recommend that this be the case. While zakat and sadaqa (voluntary arms) are not strictly conceptualized as tools of social justice, they can be interpreted as such. The Qur’an calls charity a process of ‘cleansing one’s wealth’. And this motif is visible among most donors, around the world. There is a growing mobilization globally, to give to causes and humanitarian initiatives such as Syria, Palestine, Sudan etc. The success of Islamic Relief, Hizmet Movement and other civil society groups is testament to this growth in the Muslim FBO sector. While this sector offers a lot of potential, there are obvious challenges too.
The challenge of utilizing zakat for humanitarian development in Syria are many. While several organizations such as Islamic Relief, Helping Hands, Hizmet, Red Cross, UNHCR, Save the Children and several others are working in Syria to ameliorate the suffering of vulnerable populations, the demand is far too great; for these organizations to fulfill the needs on their own. This calamity needs concerted and coordinated actions on all fronts – government, nongovernment, faith-based and individual. The big challenge in a coordinated global humanitarian action involving zakat is obvious: the logistics of it is simply too complicated. While there are no centralized ways to donate zakat money and each individual or family usually decides on how this money should be disbursed, there is a growing awareness among groups and national leaders on the need to streamline it. One way to do this is to coordinate donations through civil society organizations, as it happens in the Western world and emerging economies, where there is a growing culture of nonprofits. Among those countries where this is not possible, some states do collect zakat money. In fact the Gulf countries even have zakat ministries that care of zakat collection.
Jonathan Benthall, one of the pioneers of study of global Islamic humanitarian movement has written in his book The Charitable Crescent that the global movement to utilize zakat and help fellow Muslims started after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Bosnian War consolidated it. Given the fears of this money flowing into militant hands, several governments have clamped down and made it hard for the flow of zakat money, he says.

Other researchers such as John Alterman have called this an ‘exaggerated fear’, arguing that despite the doomsday predictions, only a very small number of these nonprofits indulge in illegal activities and that we ignore or sideline their potential for doing good at our own peril. Several organizations have spoken about the difficulties, both real and perceived, of channeling their zakat money towards the Middle East. The hurdles that have been put in place, both as a result of monitoring systems set up by the U.S. and E.U. for monitoring ‘terrorist funding’ often conflate funding for civil society organizations. This is a real danger that is facing this sector. The dominant narrative of ‘terror funding’ may perhaps be an inflated fear of a phenomenon that has genesis more from geopolitical developments and actors rather than through civil society organizations. Both Alterman and Benthall point out that this is a fact we must consider, before we conflate the two. A report from ISPU in 2009 titled Charitable Giving Among Muslims: Ten Years after 9/11 argued that the actions of the U.S. government to shut down and investigate several Muslim charities had had a detrimental effect on charitable giving.

The report goes on to suggest several policy recommendations, that would remove the current hurdles in place. The situation today is not looking good. As of today, the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) has received just 10 percent of its needed amount . As donor fatigue sets in and there is greater despondency among aid workers and donors, the critical question that all those involved in this must ask is: Are we utilizing the solution, right in our backyard? Are we being too cautious, in the face of a great need and not letting home-grown solutions cater to home-grown problems?
Going forward, the challenges in a post-conflict situation would be many. Education, housing, healthcare would only be the starting points for the millions of those displaced, both internally and out of Syria. While the U.N., army of civil society organizations and faith-based organizations gather resources and work through this difficult crisis, one thing is clear: all segments of society must come together, irrespective of faith- affiliation, geographic and national boundaries, to help the victims of Syrian War.


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