Giving a percentage of your wealth in alms as zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam, but giving has generally been ‘charitable’ in nature and has not tended to support human rights and social justice. Dr Nabil Qaddumi, a successful businessman and academic in the Arab region, is also an active donor and supporter of human rights.
Caroline Hartnell asked him what motivates his giving, whether the establishment of the Arab Human Rights Fund signals a change in attitudes to giving in the Arab world, and how to counter the suspicions that the label ‘Islamic giving’ often gives rise to in the West, following the launch of the so-called War on Terror.
Would you agree that organized giving in Islam, which has a very long history, has tended to be rather traditional? If so, is there a danger that such philanthropy will tend to support the status quo, rather than promoting change?
Though it’s true that Islamic giving is mainly charitable, I disagree with the traditional/conservative classification as there is a negative connotation behind the words. The question should be, does giving lead to a better, sustainable life or dependency? You have good examples of giving and bad ones. If it does not follow the Anglo-Saxon model, it does not mean it is bad; one needs to put it in the context of the local situation. In the 20th century, and especially after the 1950s, giving became mostly state-sponsored and patronizing, but formerly it was not uncommon to set up endowments for much-needed social services like schools and hospitals. Today, many philanthropists in the Arab world are doing the same thing, especially in education and health care.
However, with narrowness in the understanding of religion, fanatical behaviour on the increase, and a certain lack of democracy in the region, there is a real danger of its vast giving potential not being utilized in a way that will create opportunities for citizens and improve their well-being. In the July 2009 edition of The Economist, there was a report that revealed how bad the needs are in the region. At the same time, the increase in oil prices in 2008 created surpluses as large as all giving funds in the US; citizens in our region have the right to ask how that trickled down to help them out. In effect, I’m saying that the region is wealthy, but there has to be a dialogue on how people can be helped in a sustainable way. There is a vast amount of wealth, on the one hand, but on the other, there is a lot of poverty and injustice.
You’re a co-founder of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and the first donor to the Arab Human Rights Fund. Are these new funds symptomatic of changes in giving in the region?
Yes, these and other funds are a sign of change. Giving has traditionally focused on helping within the family, the tribe, the village and the community. The giving traditions are the same, but with the increase in education levels, the rise of individual wealth and exposure to the world through the media, the world is becoming a global village. Exposure to the deeds of international philanthropists has also brought a move towards organized, sustainable giving, in such domains as education, the environment and so on. People don’t want to just give – they want to know how their funds are being utilized: are these funds making any change in the lives of people? More people are asking these questions, so there is change taking place.
For me, any giving must have a sustainable impact on the people’s well-being. That is how I base my personal giving and involvement, through my roles in the Welfare Association, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, the Arab Human Rights Fund and the Hani Qaddumi Scholarship Foundation
Can I ask why you set up the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture?
Culture has mostly been state sponsored in our region and we would like to create a channel that would allow for the free expression of young, talented people in the areas of visual arts, music, film-making and literature. I and the other founders saw no such entity in the Arab world. Over the past three years we have given over 100 grants to young Arab artists and creative works all over the Arab region.
And why do you support the Arab Human Rights Fund?
Well, any fund that has as its principle the objective of providing a decent living for humans and equal opportunities, as the Arab Human Rights Fund does, is worth supporting.
Would it be fair to say that the fund doesn’t fit in with the traditional way of giving in the Arab region?
Yes, it’s not traditional at all; it is quite progressive and daring in our part of the world. But people shy away from terms like human rights and that’s why we need to explain it to them in ways that they relate to. For example, if we talk about social justice and social peace, we need to tell them that this is better established if society is fair to its citizens and all get equal chances – good education, good medical care, a good environment to live in, etc. It’s the same thing with the issue of the rule of law: if the rule of law prevails, then you will have a stable society, and you will have a peaceful, prosperous private sector that can do good business.
Explained in those terms, everybody would support activities related to social justice and human rights. Unfortunately, in the Arab world, the term ‘human rights’ used to have a political connotation and people shied away from it because of that, so you have to be more explicit in defining what you mean. If you take away the political context, people will be enthusiastic about getting involved. If there is a political context, they are usually reluctant. It is on this basis that I will encourage my colleagues to support programmes that will create opportunities for our fellow citizens and help reduce disparities in our society.
How do you think western fears that religious giving is financing for terrorism can be countered?
The Bush administration created a fear of Islamic giving after September 11; it is a racist approach to say the least, and unfortunately it led to stereotyping of Islam in the West. In the US, people are afraid to fund organizations that work in the Arab world, especially Palestine. But who has the right to define unilaterally what terrorism is and take draconian measures to confiscate funds and stigmatize giving to certain areas? This has significantly affected inflows of funds for development activities.
Fortunately, Obama is bringing more reason in taking a stand against Islamophobia and highlighting the positive aspects of Islam and Islamic giving.
The right approach is to ask where the funds are going, how beneficiaries are selected, and on what basis these funds are being spent. Givers’ fears can be removed when foundations in our region can answer those questions in a transparent way and ensure that proper due diligence is carried out, based on internationally agreed standards. That’s what we do at the Welfare Association.
Islamic giving has responded very efficiently and wisely to many of the crises that have hit our region in the past decade – for example, in Lebanon, Palestine and Sudan. In our region, Islamic giving is not looked upon as a means of financing terrorism or channelling terrorists’ money. It has actually done a lot of good.
Finally, what do you think of the idea of private social responsibility, on analogy with corporate social responsibility?
To me, private social responsibility is compassion that brings self-respect, and the right of all the world’s citizens to have the opportunity of a decent living. What drives my social responsibility is the desire to remove injustice and suffering from the lives of people such as the Palestinians; I try to channel my energy to bring about a measure of justice and decency to all those affected. We can talk about the words and terms, but we need to create a culture in which people think about how they can help bring change to the lives of others, what the best means are, what these people think of how they are being helped. We need to instil compassion for others from an early age for private social responsibility to succeed.
Dr Nabil Qaddumi is the founder and chairman of the international project management company PROJACS International, and Safwan Petroleum Technologies, specializing in the provision of oil and gas services. He is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Welfare Association, co-founder of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and among the first donors to the Arab Human Rights Fund. He has also founded, with his family, the Hani Qaddumi Scholarship Foundation, which supports distinguished and needy Palestinian students. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org