How Islamic charitable giving during Ramadan provides a vital social safety net

A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 23 April 2021

How Islamic charitable giving during Ramadan provides a vital social safety net

A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Zakat schemes help ease suffering in Muslim-majority countries as the COVID-19 crisis deepens economic hardship
  • Donor agencies, including UNHCR, are tapping into Islamic charitable giving to help fund their response in conflict zones 

BERNE, Switzerland: Charitable giving is part and parcel of the holy month of Ramadan for any Muslim who can afford it. Zakat, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, is levied on the property of those who meet minimum wealth standards (nisab).

In most Muslim-majority countries, zakat is voluntary, but in six (Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan Libya and Yemen) it is collected by the state.

When the state is well organized and zakat is applied systematically, it has the potential to become a fiscal policy instrument at the macroeconomic level, enhancing institutional capability in the social and welfare sectors. At the microeconomic level, its allocation to the needy serves income (re)distribution, reducing overall indebtedness alongside it.

However, in many countries the state lacks the institutional capability to perform this function, and in others zakat duties are performed on a voluntary basis.

Dr. Sami Al-Suwailem, chief economist of the Islamic Development Bank’s (IsDB) Islamic Research and Training Institute, says where the prevalent zakat channels are well organized and enjoy public trust, they can work well to alleviate poverty. Where this is not the case, informal philanthropic schemes automatically take precedence.

An IsDB study on charitable Islamic finance in North Africa found that “worsening social inequality and the governments’ need for additional financial resources in the region have created great opportunities for the zakah and waqf institutions” — a trend which is supported by civil society advocacy.

Well-developed laws pertaining to zakah and charitable giving are furthermore seen as an enabling factor for the sector and its ecosystem. These observations are general in nature and apply well beyond North Africa, going hand in hand with the greater need for charitable donations as poverty levels increase.

Some observers fear that zakat schemes can be opaque, lacking transparency. Al-Suwailem puts great store in blockchain and fintech applications to bring more transparency to the sector, enable more straightforward administration of charitable donations, and render the money transfer to recipients more efficient. These technologies are also helpful in raising additional finance.

The average wealth or income level in a country matters a great deal, because it will determine how much charitable giving comes from within and what comes from abroad. In a country such as Bangladesh, it would be impossible to raise sufficient funds, because the socioeconomic segment that meets nisab standards is too small to meet the huge requirements for social spending. This is where internationally active charities come in.

Indonesian women display their coupons as they queue to receive ‘zakat,’ a donation to the poor by wealthy Muslims, during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jakarta. (AFP/File Photo)

Multilateral organizations such as the UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP and IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) have recently started to tap into the generosity of Islamic charitable giving in an organized fashion. Indeed, these organizations play a vital role in many countries where the state has ceased to function due to conflict.

In those countries, charitable giving is one of the very few ways of distributing food, health care, shelter and income to the destitute.

The UNHCR has been able to instrumentalize zakat giving for its purposes. The numbers of zakat beneficiaries rose from 34,440 in the period 2016-2018 to 1.03 million in 2020, which represents a multiple of nearly 30 times within just four years.

The purpose of zakat is to support the truly needy. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased inequalities between rich and poor within countries and also between countries. Nowhere is that more evident than in the poorest segments of the population and in the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries, which lack institutional capabilities, be it in the health care, finance or any other sector.

In its report “COVID-19 and Islamic Finance” the IsDB has recommended that zakat, waqf and other methods of Islamic social finance should be coordinated with the fiscal efforts of governments to provide a social safety net. They had the potential to play an increasing role when governments started to unwind their COVID-19-related spending programs.


* 25% OIC member states’ share of the global population.

* 54% Share of displaced people hosted by OIC member states.

Source: UNHCR

These countries are where institutions that are able to deliver zakat to the end user, be it in-country or at the international level, become very important. In order to understand the needs, we should look at the suffering and how populations in Muslim-majority countries are affected.

Refugees and displaced people rank very high on that agenda. They make up roughly 1 percent of the world’s population. According to the UNHCR, OIC member states are host to 43 million, or 54 percent, of the world’s displaced people. This stands against their share in the global population of 25 percent.

The league table for “people of concern” (refugees and internally displaced people) is led by Syria, followed by Turkey and Yemen. Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia are in places 5, 6 and 7 while Iraq and Bangladesh rank number 9 and 10.

A Muslim man offers ‘zakat,’ given to poor people during Ramadan, to an indigent man living under a plastic cover along the railway-line in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, on April 23, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

We can see similar trends looking at food security: Zero Hunger is after all the UN SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) number 2. Yemen tops that list with 15.9 million people facing food insecurity or outright hunger. All in all, five of the top 10 countries are OIC member states.

The UNHCR report highlighted the adverse effect of COVID-19 on food security in countries affected by the crisis of refugees and internally displaced people. In Syria the number of people struggling for survival increased by 1.4 million, bringing the total to 9.3 million.

In Pakistan, those suffering from food insecurity rose by 2.45 million people to 42.5 million. In Yemen, 9.6 million people potentially face starvation and 11.2 percent of all children in Bangladesh are severely malnourished. These numbers are shocking.

The countries listed above have neither the institutional capability nor sufficient ability to generate tax revenues or charitable donations in-country. They will rely on multilateral aid from organizations such as UN agencies and multilateral development institutions to finance part of the social expenditure required. However, given the enormous hardship and need, charitable donations become pivotal to lessen the suffering.

A displaced Yemeni family are pictured next to their makeshift shelter on a street in the Yemeni coastal city of Hodeidah. (AFP/File Photo)

The uses and sources of zakat funds at the UNHCR are telling: Yemen receives 55 percent of the organization’s zakat money, followed by Bangladesh and Lebanon — all countries where there is a huge need for funds from whatever source.

The UNHCR receives 97 percent of its zakat funds from the MENA region and 3 percent from elsewhere. This makes sense given the religious composition in the Middle East, which is predominantly Muslim, as well as its culture. MENA countries also have the ecosystems of charities that raise funds via zakat and other avenues of social Islamic finance.

Eighty seven percent of funds are received from institutional partners and philanthropists, and 13 percent are raised through digital channels. We can expect digital giving to become more prominent in the future.

The above information leaves us with four key takeaways:

* The needs for charitable funds are high in many Muslim-majority countries, particularly among less developed ones, for example, Bangladesh, and regions in conflict such as Yemen or Syria.

* The global refugee crisis is a case in point as OIC countries are disproportionately affected.

* Charitable Islamic finance is an important sector providing funds to development and potentially the redistribution of income on a regional basis.

* With the COVID-19 pandemic worsening inequalities both between countries and within them, the need for charitable funding has increased, necessitating the cooperation between state, multilateral and charitable actors.

Several donor agencies, including the UNHCR, have started to tap into the zakat system to widen their access to funding, which is a growing trend.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the pressing need to fund the poorest in the weakest countries. Indeed, the needs are so great, we should all give generously.


* Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources

In Pakistan’s largest date producing region, Middle Eastern varieties bear fruit

In Pakistan’s largest date producing region, Middle Eastern varieties bear fruit
Updated 3 min 11 sec ago

In Pakistan’s largest date producing region, Middle Eastern varieties bear fruit

In Pakistan’s largest date producing region, Middle Eastern varieties bear fruit
  • Experiment conducted by a 70-year-old date grower in Khairpur shows Arabian varieties of dates offer better yield
  • Growing Arabian dates could help farmers harvest their crops before seasonal monsoon rains destroy them

KHAIRPUR: Five years ago, 70-year-old Ghulam Qasim Jiskani, a farmer in Khairpur, Pakistan’s largest date-producing region, experimented with Middle Eastern varieties of the fruit to see if he could increase his yield.

Today, he is spearheading a successful campaign to produce Arabian dates at home.

Pakistan is one of the top date producers and exporters in the world, with annual date production of more than 535,000 tons, according to data from the Trade Development Authority.

The main region for date cultivation is Khairpur district in southern Sindh province, Jiskani’s hometown.

On his farmland in Kot Diji village, Jiskani has planted date palm varieties that are grown in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Morocco.

“It can be a game-changer for the area’s date production and export,” Jiskani told Arab News last week, saying by planting foreign varieties of the fruit, Pakistani farmers could earn up to 15 times more from their harvest.

“I brought 400 tissues of 15 date palm varieties from Dubai five years ago,” he said.

“These trees are now laden with fruit and I plan to market the yield in July when they are ready for harvest. My experiment has been successful.”

Jiskani’s plantation covers two acres of land, but as his Arabian varieties of dates have grown so well on the land, he now plans to dedicate three more acres to the fruit and hopes other growers will follow suit.

Jiskani believes that with the Arabian varieties, local growers would be able not only to tap into domestic demand but also boost Pakistan’s date exports.

“Pakistani date farmers also have a good chance to penetrate the international market with their yield,” he said.

“With that in mind, we are striving to replace local varieties with foreign ones.”

Local farmers have already developed interest in growing the foreign varieties.

“After Jiskani’s experiment, a significant number of Khairpur’s date farmers want the government to facilitate the procurement of foreign palm tissues at feasible rates,” Mushtaq Soomro, a senior official at the Sindh Agriculture Extension Department, told Arab News.

“If they start cultivating today, 40 percent of the region’s date cultivation will transform, and we will see the exotic varieties of the fruit covering much of this land.”

One of the reasons for the growing interest was climate.

“Monsoon in Pakistan arrives in June and persists for a few months,” Soomro said.

“This is also the harvesting season for locally produced dates. Rainfall on the ready-to-rip crops is destructive, however. To get away from possible losses, growers opt for dried dates, though they are comparatively less lucrative for them. By growing the Middle Eastern varieties, though, date famers are hoping for a more exotic early monsoon crop.”

One problem with dried dates from Kahirpur is that their main export destination is India.

“For the past four years or so, however, direct trade of dried dates between India and Pakistan is on a halt, which has resulted in significant losses for local farmers,” Jiskani said. He added that another advantage of the Arabian dates was their longer shelf life and the fact that with higher fiber component they were also healthier.

Rustam Phulpoto, a representative of Khairpur’s KHajjoor Market, said by sticking to its native date types, Pakistan was not focusing on the value addition that the foreign varieties bring.

“This lack of value addition not only makes us import more but also limits our exports as well,” he told Arab News.

Under the Sindh administration’s Agriculture Growth Project 2015-2020, the government was required to import 3,000 exotic date tissues and provide them to local farmers at 70 percent subsidized rates. But that did not happen.

Jiskani, who was the focal person for the project from the growers’ side, thinks the failure was due to internal departmental rifts.

“The government should establish a laboratory for plant tissue culture or facilitate the initiative through public-private partnership,” he said.

“The growers are interested in this, but they lack the required investment.”

Myanmar shadow government’s militia gains popular support to fight military junta

Myanmar shadow government’s militia gains popular support to fight military junta
This handout photo taken on May 7, 2021 shows protesters holding up signs supporting the "People's Defence Force" during a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei. (AFP)
Updated 14 min 57 sec ago

Myanmar shadow government’s militia gains popular support to fight military junta

Myanmar shadow government’s militia gains popular support to fight military junta
  • People’s Defense Force is precursor to planned Federal Union Army aimed at bringing together armed anti-junta groups
  • Self-defense groups set up across country in wake of attacks, arrests, night raids by military

YANGON: A newly formed armed militia under Myanmar’s shadow government is gaining the support of community self-defense groups and ethnic armies against the military junta that seized control of the country more than three months ago.

Since the coup on Feb. 1, the junta has killed at least 772 civilians during nationwide protests against the army takeover and violence.

The National Unity Government (NUG), the shadow government of former lawmakers of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) who were ousted by the junta, announced on Wednesday the formation of the People’s Defense Force (PDF), a precursor to the planned Federal Union Army that would bring together all groups involved in armed resistance.

The move has already been welcomed by community self-defense groups which have emerged throughout the country in the wake of constant attacks, arrests, and night raids by the military.

Zayar Win, from one of the self-defense groups in Yangon, told Arab News that in Myanmar’s largest city alone, there would be many hundreds or even thousands of people ready to take up arms.

“They are linked with each other but require leadership. With PDF leadership, I think a strong force would quickly emerge. As long as the regime is in power, there will be endless suffering of people. So, taking the military dictatorship to an end is the first priority,” he said.

Working as a construction engineer in Yangon, he used to operate a philanthropic organization that helped vulnerable groups when the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit the country. In April, the organization stopped its charity work and focused on supporting and fundraising for the anti-junta resistance, including those that produced explosives to attack the military.

“Sadly, we have postponed helping poor people, and shifted our focus to supporting those who are fighting the military,” he added.

Many of the civilians engaged in self-defense groups have been trained by militants from the country’s ethnic groups which also oppose the junta regime.

The Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest insurgent group fighting for the greater autonomy of the eastern Karen State that borders Thailand, and the Kachin Independence Army in the northern Kachin State and northeastern Shan State that border China, have been active supporters of anti-junta resistance.

The KNU provides military training and shelter to hundreds of dissidents and protesters who have fled army persecution.

“There are many hundreds of people receiving combat training here,” a spokesperson for the KNU’s Brigade 5 told Arab News on Thursday. “There were also many people who finished training here and returned to their places of origin waiting for this moment. The PDF would be growing very fast.”

While ethnic groups support the formation of the PDF, it is not yet clear if all of them would be willing to fight under one banner, as although opposed to the current regime, ethnic minorities do not entirely trust the shadow government whose members had alienated them when they were in power.

The KNU, however, might be willing to join the fight against the common enemy, the Tatmadaw — the armed forces of Myanmar. Since late March, the group has killed more than 200 government troops in a series of clashes.

The spokesperson said: “I personally view the PDF as the armed group representing the country’s majority Bamar ethnic people. And I personally see no hurdle in unifying the armed groups of different ethnic people to fight against our common enemy, the Tatmadaw.”

But KNU secretary-general, Saw Kwe Htoo Win, on Friday told Arab News: “There are still many issues we have to make clear before making the decision.”

In one ethnic state the decision has already been taken.

Members of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF), who with home-made rifles recently killed dozens of military personnel in the mountainous Chin State bordering India, said they would join the PDF.

“We welcome the formation of the PDF, and we would cooperate with them in fighting against the regime’s forces,” a CDF spokesman told Arab News.

He said that they would also engage with the Federal Union Army when it was formed.

“We, Chin people, just want a peaceful life. Once the revolution is over, we will return to our farmland,” he added.

New Delhi’s Sikh community opens oxygen station for COVID-19 patients

New Delhi’s Sikh community opens oxygen station for COVID-19 patients
Patients are seen at an 'oxygen langar' run by the Sikh community at Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Indrapuram, New Delhi. (AN photo)
Updated 28 min 27 sec ago

New Delhi’s Sikh community opens oxygen station for COVID-19 patients

New Delhi’s Sikh community opens oxygen station for COVID-19 patients
  • At least 700 people being cared for daily

NEW DELHI: New Delhi’s Sikh community has opened an oxygen station at its temple, saving thousands of lives, as hospitals in the capital continue to be overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.

Recent weeks have seen the city’s hospitals unable to help people due to a shortage of beds and oxygen supplies.

Since late April, India has been reporting the world’s highest daily tally of coronavirus cases.

It surpassed 414,000 new cases and 4,000 virus-related deaths on Friday. New Delhi is among the cities worst hit by the disease and has reported nearly 20,000 new cases and 400 COVID-19 deaths — many due to a shortage of hospital beds and oxygen supplies.

The oxygen station has been set up at Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in the suburban town of Indirapuram. It is based on the concept of langars, or free community kitchens, where Sikhs serve meals to all those in need, regardless of their religion or caste.

The lifesaving initiative started in the third week of April, helping 40 people every day. It has since expanded with 100 volunteers now caring for at least 700 patients daily.

“It all started when my father, a businessman with good contacts with local industries, started getting calls for help and oxygen support when the COVID-19 cases started escalating in the second week of April,” Gurpreet Singh Rummy, president of the gurdwara committee and founding member of Khalsa Help, told Arab News on Friday. “Initially we supported some individuals but later decided to mobilize all our resources and set up an ‘oxygen langar’ to help.”

The langar has already helped 12,000 people, he said.

Ravindra Ahuja, a 62 year-old-resident from the Ghaziabad neighborhood, was brought to the langar on Thursday night when his oxygen levels plummeted to 80. His family tried to admit him to a hospital, but no beds were available.

“We came here in despair when we did not see any hope in any hospital,” Ahuja’s brother Ravi told Arab News. “The langar was sent by God and it is really helping people like us.”

But Ahuja’s condition started to deteriorate, even as his family’s struggle was being recounted.

Dr. Gaurav Srivastva, one of the langar’s volunteers, asked the family to immediately find a hospital with a ventilator as the gurdwara’s facility did not have the specialist equipment to help.

“The problem is that we cannot do anything here except giving oxygen. I feel 70 percent of his lungs are damaged,” the doctor told Arab News. “What is happening is that the patients who could have been saved with timely medical intervention are dying because of the lack of medical support. Some patients move around different hospitals of Delhi from morning to evening looking for a bed and finally come here. Imagine a patient who travels the whole day in a tuk-tuk looking for a hospital and finally comes here. How can we save such a person?”

Health authorities warned the coronavirus situation was worsening across the country and that India’s medical infrastructure was unable to cope.

“The situation is worrisome, and the cases are increasing day by day. We are trying to improve the situation,” Dr. Rajni Kant, spokesperson for the Indian Council of Medical Research, told Arab News. “The sudden surge in cases has taken us by surprise, creating more pressures on an already inadequate medical infrastructure.”

Dr. Adarsh Pratap Singh, from the All India Institute of Medical Science, described the situation as “very alarming.”

“Data about the death and infection (rates) are not the real figure actually. The figure is much higher than what is shown,” he said. “We might be heading toward an unimaginable crisis. What the government should now do is to create field hospitals on a war footing to take care of the patients.”

Prison ‘exacerbated’ risk London Bridge terrorist posed to public: Inquest

Usman Khan (L), 28, killed Saskia Jones, and Jack Merritt, in a knife attack in central London in 2019, just 11 months after he was released early from jail. (AP/Reuters/File Photos)
Usman Khan (L), 28, killed Saskia Jones, and Jack Merritt, in a knife attack in central London in 2019, just 11 months after he was released early from jail. (AP/Reuters/File Photos)
Updated 07 May 2021

Prison ‘exacerbated’ risk London Bridge terrorist posed to public: Inquest

Usman Khan (L), 28, killed Saskia Jones, and Jack Merritt, in a knife attack in central London in 2019, just 11 months after he was released early from jail. (AP/Reuters/File Photos)
  • Usman Khan, 28, killed 2 people in deadly knife attack in central London
  • 2019 attack among number of incidents that pushed UK to introduce stricter counter-terrorism measures in jails

LONDON: A psychologist warned that prison had made a terrorist more dangerous to the public than when he was first jailed, an inquest heard.

Usman Khan, 28, killed Saskia Jones, and Jack Merritt, in a knife attack in central London in 2019, just 11 months after he was released early from jail.

Khan had been imprisoned since 2010 for planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange and had associated with terrorists and radicalized other inmates while behind bars, the court investigating the deaths of Jones, 23, and Merritt, 25, was told.

Security officials believed Khan was a senior figure in an extremist gang while in jail. He had also been found in possession of terrorism and Daesh-related materials in his cell.

Ieva Cechaviciute, a psychologist who assessed Khan’s risk to the public while he was still in jail, said she had been “very worried” about his release.

The court was shown a report, produced by Cechaviciute, that warned seven months before his release that he continued to pose a threat to the public.

“Khan has made little progress while in prison, he doesn’t understand his own risk and being in prison has made him a greater risk than before by elevating his profile. He still refuses to accept responsibility for his crime,” minutes from a meeting said.

Imprisonment, Cechaviciute said, had “exacerbated” the risk that Khan posed, because of his violent and extremist behavior, as well as the “company he was keeping.”

“He didn’t have any convictions for violence, but he was becoming quite aggressive and there were assaults committed by him or him organizing them (inside jail). I saw that in addition to the offence he committed before, he could be violent himself,” she added.

Records showed that Khan had complied with deradicalization programs, and other staff have previously told the court that he appeared to have reformed while in jail and posed little threat to the public.

Cechaviciute and other psychologists had previously warned that his participation in these programs could have been “superficial.”

She told the court: “He was saying the right things, but it did not necessarily represent his behavior … it was quite clear to me that he has not disengaged with extremist ideology.

“It was strong in his head and the best we could hope for was him to desist from offending rather than disengaging from the ideology.”

Khan’s engagements with deradicalization programs, she added, were not “necessarily an indication of reduction in risk,” because he could be “trying to create a positive image of himself.”

Her report rated Khan as a medium risk for terrorist engagement, intent, and capability while inside prison — but predicted that it would rise to “high” when he was released.

Khan’s role in the deadly London Bridge terror attack caused controversy in the UK because of his recent release from prison after completing deradicalization programs.

Since the attack, the British government has introduced stricter counter-terrorism measures for known offenders.

The new Counterterrorism and Sentencing Act “completely ends the prospect of early release for anyone convicted of a serious terror offence” as well as significantly increases the amount of monitoring recently released terrorists are subjected to.

The inquest into the 2019 attack continues.

Greece to reopen beaches, museums after long lockdown

Greece to reopen beaches, museums after long lockdown
Updated 07 May 2021

Greece to reopen beaches, museums after long lockdown

Greece to reopen beaches, museums after long lockdown
  • Museums are to reopen on May 14, a day before Greece officially launches its travel season
  • Government began in early April to relax lockdown restrictions originally imposed in November

ATHENS: Greece will reopen private beaches on Saturday and museums next week, health officials said Friday as the tourism-dependent country gears up for a May 15 travel restart.
Museums are to reopen on May 14 — a day before Greece officially launches its travel season — followed by reduced-capacity outdoor cinemas on May 21 and theaters on May 28.
The government began in early April to relax lockdown restrictions originally imposed in November by reopening most retail shops except malls.
This was followed by high schools reopening a week later, and by outdoor restaurants and cafes on May 3.
However, tourism operators do not expect major travel arrivals before July.
Last month quarantine restrictions were lifted for vaccinated or tested travelers from the EU and a small number of other countries including Britain and the United States.
The third wave of the pandemic hit Greece hard with the majority of the country’s more than 10,000 virus deaths occurring over the last few months.
The country has recorded over 350,000 cases of coronavirus in a population of 10.8 million.
Over 3.4 million vaccinations have been carried out, and over a million people have received their second dose.