Last month I attended my third biennial Global Donors Forum of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists in Istanbul. Through the serendipity of seating arrangements at the gala dinner I witnessed an act of jihad. Al-Waleed Bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud was honoured for his announcement in 2015 that he would donate his entire fortune to charity at an unspecified date. In March 2016 Forbes listed Al-Waleed as the 41st richest man in the world and estimated the fortune he promised to charity to be US$17.6 billion. His daughter attended to accept the award on his behalf.
Immediately after the ceremony, the man sitting on my right, a Muslim from Florida, rushed up to the head table to speak to the daughter. After an intense conversation, he returned to our table. The man sitting on my left, an academic from Pakistan, then congratulated him on performing an act of jihad. When I asked him how or why what I had just witnessed was jihad, the academic cited a Hadith of the Prophet Mohammad that “the best Jihad is the word of Justice in front of the oppressive sultan”.
The American Muslim had reminded Al Waleed’s daughter that her father was the second biggest shareholder of Fox News. He then argued that Fox News was the single largest purveyor of anti-Islamic rhetoric in the United States. He challenged the propriety of a Muslim not only being silent, but profiting financially, from what he considered to be promulgating hate speech.
On reflection, I realized that what I would have characterized as “speaking truth to power” was instead characterized as “jihad” based upon an academic’s knowledge of Mohammad’s hadiths.
In January I had been in Iraq where the jihad encountered was much more violent. On my previous trip I heard car bombs exploding within earshot. This time there were concrete blast walls throughout Najaf and no cars were allowed in the vicinity of my hotel out of fear of car bombs. People with homemade wooden carts carried my suitcase the several blocks from the road to the hotel.
My porter was a 22 year old Shiite originally from Mosul. When Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) took control of Mosul, a Sunni neighbour with whom his father had a quarrel, identified him as a Shia to ISIL and accused him of wrongdoing. ISIL beheaded his father and mother in front of him and his two sisters. They fled to Najaf and he was now trying to earn money to support his sisters. Stories of this nature are tragically common in Iraq today.
I went with colleagues who performed their Maghrib evening prayers (salah) at the Imam Ali Mosque. During the half hour I spent there on an ordinary Wednesday evening in January, the coffins of at least a dozen persons killed while fighting ISIL were brought in. I was told that it is normal for dozens to be killed daily.
In recent years I have spent time in Iraq and neighbouring countries, discussing both the practice and theology of charity with religious and government officials. The highlight of my January visit to Najaf was a personal meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sistani. The security in going in to meet Ayatollah Sistani is intense because he has a multi-million dollar bounty on his head from Sunni extremists. I was accorded the privilege of a private meeting with the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq because of work I have done helping Canadians support charitable activities in Iraq. However, the content of our meeting was certainly not about the legal subtleties of charity law. As this 88 year old cleric exhorted me on religious issues, I was moved to think that had I been in a similar meeting with my missionary father when he was of the same age, the focus would similarly been on the listener’s soul rather than the law.
My travels in the region have helped me understand the tragic consequences of the on-going strife. Operating charitable programs in such troubled regions is terribly dangerous. However, it is not the physical danger which inhibits charitable activities from abroad as much as the concern that charitable money supplied by Canadian individuals and organizations might be used to fund terrorism. Consequently, the areas of greatest need have been abandoned by foreign charities out of fear that they might unintentionally transgress some rule of engagement in the “war on terror”.
Unfortunately, ISIL and Al Qaeda have not abandoned these regions – and are pro-active in providing their own charitable services. For example, they destroy charitable institutions such as government funded hospitals. Thereafter, persons injured by their violence have no alternative other than to turn to the terrorists for medical assistance. Who among us would refuse to take our sick or wounded children to a terrorist who can offer medical treatment. Because original and external charities are unable to offer desperately needed services, the residents become dependent on whomever does provide even the most rudimentary assistance. We need to find ways to carry on international charitable activities in regions where terrorists operate. Failure to do so is contributing to our losing the “battle for hearts and minds” these regions and even contributes to the self-radicalization of Muslim youth in Canada.
Categories: Charity, Religion