I walked into Alliance’s Breakfast Club on Muslim Philanthropy not knowing what to expect. On the one hand, I have many years of experience funding from within the context of religious and cultural heritage – for the past eight years I have headed up two grant programmes at a Jewish family foundation which focus on exactly that – on the other hand, the issues that stand to benefit most from considered Muslim philanthropy are a world away from my usual portfolio of grants to memory institutions and centres of higher education.
What I never could have predicted, and what surprises me still, are the resonances I found in the words of the panel’s esteemed speakers. From Fozia Irfan, Chief Executive of the Bedfordshire and Luton Community Foundation, tracing the evolution of communal philanthropy from migrant to established status, to Huda Jawad of SAFE Communities calling for the redistribution of power away from male-only Muslim community charity boards, and Shenaz Bunglawala, Assistant Director of the Aziz Foundation, arguing for philanthropy’s potential to transform wider British society’s perceptions of Muslim communities, I heard deep echoes with my own experiences working in Jewish philanthropy.
Of course, this is hardly surprising. Despite contemporary discord, Muslim and Jewish communities have always had far more in common with one another than they have had differences. It only stands to reason that their philanthropic activities, as expressions of values and traditions, would likewise bear similarities. I’m far from the first to point out that Zakat, the Muslim imperative to give without identifying one’s self as the donor, bears more than a passing likeness to the Jewish tradition of Tzedakah. As a side note, the Rothschild family’s philanthropic practice of giving anonymously arises from precisely this Jewish precept.
To highlight these similarities and leave it at that, though, would be to flatten the rich and complex diversity that exists both within the communities themselves and with regards to their respective histories and struggles. Still, I can’t help but feel that our trajectories run in parallel: from refugee and migrant to citizen, from insular to worldly, from generosity motivated by spirituality to generosity to spur systematic changes and lasting improvements.
If there is one lesson to be learned from modern Jewish history, though, it may be that not all development is advancement. Within the Jewish community, there remains deep ambivalence about the path our philanthropy has taken from immediate welfare assistance to transnational crisis relief to the funding of permanent communal infrastructure and then outwards toward wider humanitarian, research and cultural causes. Many are left asking who will fund our local synagogues and community centres with major Jewish funders turning their sights instead toward worthy but much broader institutions and initiatives. Perhaps Muslim philanthropy can avoid these zero-sum games as it moves further into the mainstream in the future.
All that said, though, the resonances I observed struck me more forcefully this week than they ordinarily would have. It happened that the Alliance breakfast took place less than a week after I attended an anti-terrorism workshop, which carried many of the usual undertones we’ve come to expect in the Prevent era. My week bookended by these two meetings, I saw clearly the roles played by trust and fear in sculpting our communal landscapes. With fear as the presiding climate, terrain becomes prickly, difficult and unforgiving. When trust presides, when communities are engaged honestly and openly about their needs, the ground can become fertile and our positive initiatives begin to take root.
I wish the panellists every success with their endeavours; not only are their communities and grantees the better for them: we all are.
Robin Nobel is Senior Grant Programmes Manager at the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe