This article is one of a series on Muslim civil society in Britain.
As the number of Muslim charities registered with the Charity Commission demonstrates, UK Muslims are a generous community as well as one with strong connections to the developing world. However, the Muslim charity sector has been slow to move beyond simply giving money to engage in more sophisticated lobbying and campaigning work. Though there are signs things are changing, more needs to be done to ensure that Muslim civil society is fully involved in today’s pressing moral debates.
Though by no means cohesive and homogeneous, there is an important observation that can be made about British Muslim participation in public and political spheres: it is a trend of evolution and change. In politics, Labour was once nearly guaranteed the Muslim vote, a monopoly broken now by not only the emergence of parties such as Respect, but also by the rise of Muslim politicians in the Conservative party. Muslim civil society activism, which once primarily consisted of protests, such as over the 1988-89 Salman Rushdie affair, has evolved so that there are now multiple Muslim organisations, such as MCB, iEngage, and Quilliam Foundation, engaging with the government, politicians and policymakers on a diverse range of issues. Even on highly emotive and sensitive matters such as extremism or acts of violence, the response of the Muslim community has changed from being on the defensive to more sophisticated, unified and nuanced. These are all examples of a community that is exceedingly confident in both itself and its position in the wider British society.
“Even on emotive matters such as acts of violence, the response of the Muslim community has changed from being defensive to more sophisticated, unified and nuanced.”
MADE in Europe, a Muslim-led campaigning movement set up in 2009, is interested in the attitude of the Muslim civil society towards issues of global development, climate change and extreme poverty. There is no doubt that UK Muslims are a generous community with strong connections to the developing world. The large number of Muslim charities registered with the Charity Commission evidences this as well as recent research which claims that Muslims give more to charity than any other religious group.
There is more to charity, however, than just giving money. NGOs and other international development stakeholders concluded many decades ago that one of the most effective ways of bringing about lasting change to the lives of millions of deprived people is by affecting policymaking at the highest levels. Thus all big NGOs now have campaigns and advocacy departments actively lobbying governments, corporations and policymakers; even putting forward alternative policies on a range of issues.
However, the Muslim charity sector, and by extension Muslim civil society as a whole, has not caught up with this trend. Muslim charities, by and large, still operate on the old model of reacting to natural disasters and emergencies, providing aid, and implementing schemes for long-term development. Campaigning and advocacy remain an alien concept for most Muslim charities. A number of academics have commented on this trend that the priorities of Muslim charities are different from the mainstream charity sector. It should be noted though that Islamic tradition does emphasise the importance of the collective voice and coming together to campaign against injustice – for example: ‘Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong’ (Quran 3:104).
By not engaging in campaigning and advocacy, Muslim charities have failed to provide leadership to Muslim civil society on issues such as global tax evasion, climate change, or trade justice; issues that affect the lives of millions worldwide. Consequently, British Muslims have tended not to develop a more nuanced understanding of international development; their involvement is mostly confined to donating and raising funds for charities. There is very little by way of organising and formulating strategies on development issues, engaging with politicians and policymakers, or providing guidance to the Muslim public on how to lobby on these matters.
A prime example of this is the recent garment factory disasters in Bangladesh, particularly the collapse of the Rana Plaza Complex in April 2013, which saw mainstream charities hold Western retailers who used the Bangladeshi factories to account, vociferously campaigning for signatures to the ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’ – a legally binding agreement to maintain a set of minimum safety standards in Bangladeshi garment factories. The British Muslim public however – which includes a large number of people who trace their roots back to Bangladesh, or neighbouring India and Pakistan – was mainly silent on this subject. Muslim charities, apart from condemning the disasters, treated the whole issue as it had nothing to do with development. After all, this did not fit into any of their categories of expertise.
“By not engaging in campaigning, Muslim charities have failed to provide leadership to Muslim civil society on issues such as global tax evasion, climate change, or trade justice.”
However, there are some encouraging signs that change is taking place, though at a gradual pace. When MADE in Europe was set up it was the first and only Muslim development organisation working on organising British Muslims to campaign on issues of poverty and global development. Now, bigger charities such as Islamic Relief and Human Appeal International have set up their own campaigning departments.
MADE in Europe has itself run an extremely successful campaign on maternal health, aiming to get 30 per cent of UK-based Muslim development organisations committing to increased programme activity and budget resources for maternal health programmes. A movement was initiated which saw nearly 50 Muslim scholars publicly back the campaign, and hundreds of individual and collective campaign actions taken by the Muslim community. Through this engagement, Muslim charities realised how passionately the community felt on the issue, and as a result a significant number of them pledged to increase their maternal health programmes and budgets.
Another example is of the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign, a coalition campaign of over 200 charities, which ran through the first half of 2013 and lobbied the G8 to tackle the root causes of extreme poverty and hunger in the developing world. This was the first time that such a campaign saw real involvement from Muslim charities. Over a dozen Muslim charities not only signed up to the campaign, but also actively promoted it within the Muslim public by holding events, doing media stunts, engaging with faith based and diaspora media, involving Islamic scholars and organising Friday sermons in mosques on the issues raised by the IF campaign.
This still, however, remains a first step for Muslim charities in their transition towards incorporating campaigning and advocacy as part of their day to day work. Muslim civil society, not used to seeing campaigning and advocacy as development, gave a somewhat lukewarm response to the IF campaign. Charities now need to ensure that campaigning is a consistent part of their wider operations; only then can they get the Muslim public to understand the true value that such work brings to international development.
Mohammad Zaman is a Campaigns Manager at MADE in Europe, where he currently leads on Green Up My Community, a pan-European movement of young Muslims promoting environmental protection. He has previously worked on campaigns related to trade justice, food ethics and fair trade. For more info visit www.madeineurope.org.uk.
 Therese O’Toole et al., Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance (Bristol: University of Bristol, 2013).
 The Huffington Post UK, “Which Religion Gives The Most To Charity?”, 21 July 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/07/21/muslims-give-most_n_3630830.html.
 See Bentall J, The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World (2003); Khan A et al., Translating Faith into Development (2009); Kroessin M, Concepts of Development in ‘Islam’: A Review of Contemporary Literature and Practice (2008); Kroessin M, Mapping UK Muslim Development NGOs (Religions & Development Research Programme, University of Birmingham, 2009).
 See http://www.madeineurope.org.uk/campaign/aomf.