GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
The Islamic Charities Project (formerly Montreux Initiative)
Paper Proposal Text :
An account will be given of the history of the Montreux Initiative – later relaunched as the Islamic Charities Project – since its inception in 2005. This was sponsored by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), Political Division IV, and administered by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (GIIDS), Geneva.

The proposal arose in the framework of a decision by the FDFA in 2004 to ‘make “religio-political conflicts” a new sector of activity of its peace promotion activities; in other words conflicts where the mix of religious and political factors is a determining factor. In this sphere of activity there is a special, albeit not exclusive, emphasis on Islam and the Middle East’. At about this time, an open letter was being circulated by the President of the UK-based Islamic Relief Worldwide, Dr Hany El Banna, in the context of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders for West-Islamic World Dialogue. This drew attention to the serious difficulties being experienced by bona fide Islamic charities since 9/11, especially the apparently draconian blacklisting of charities by the US Government and other authorities, without realistic rights of defence or appeal. The overreaction against Islamic charities had, he argued, a number of adverse effects: blockages in the flow of aid to beneficiaries; a reduction in donations; recourse by donors to transactions outside the purview of banking regulators; suspicions directed against bona fide charities; aggravated pressure on the resources of the few Islamic charities still able to operate normally; and disruption to local economies, resulting in scapegoating of local staff. The solution, he wrote, was effective regulation and monitoring.

I was invited to write a feasibility study in January 2005 for a project to help bona fide Islamic charities overcome unjustified obstacles that faced them since 11th September 2001. The FDFA decided to implement the project, and meetings were held with a core team of experts representing both Muslim and non-Muslim humanitarian traditions. (I was retained as an adviser.) The project was named after the Swiss lakeside town of Montreux, where the first meeting was held. Subsequent meetings were held in Britain, Turkey and Qatar as well as Switzerland. A decision was made to try to persuade Islamic charities who faced obstacles or potential obstacles to embark on a process of self-regulation, to be endorsed by an independent validating institution, with a group of eminent internationally accepted personalities as trustees; and thus to provide evidence that these charities were compliant with international codes of accountability, transparency and good governance. At the same time, recommendations were formulated to governments as to how Islamic charities should be treated fairly, on a par with other charities. It was agreed that the Montreux Initiative shuild proceed on a low-key basis without media exposure.

At the end of 2005, some seventeen Islamic charities agreed in principle to the ‘Montreux conclusions’ at a meeting in Istanbul. Shortly afterwards, however, the Montreux Initiative encountered political turbulence and it was not possible to achieve the objectives as originally formulated. In two ways, however, progress was made. First, two (soon to be three) working papers were published by the GIIDS relating to the Palestinian zakat committees, questioning the adverse view of their role (before the West Bank/Gaza split in 2007) that was dominant in Israeli and US government and judicial circles; and consideration has also been given by the FDFA to the possibility of assisting the Palestinians in a programme to depoliticize the zakat committees, representing as they do such an important part of the Islamic religious and humanitarian tradition. Second, steps have been taken to try to change the conversation in Washington, DC, complementing the work of advocacy groups such as the Charity and Security Network, which has strongly argued that misplaced efforts to counter terrorism may actually foment more terrorism, and that security and humanitarian considerations are not necessarily in conflict.

Recently, the Montreux Initiative was relaunched as the Islamic Charities Project, and in succession to the GIIDS a new Swiss host institution has been appointed by the FDFA: the Centre for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. Meanwhile, part of the Montreux Initiative’s role has been taken over by the Humanitarian Forum, based in London, founded by Dr Hany El Banna, and there is no need to duplicate it.

Since the regional theme of this Workshop in Cambridge is the Gulf, I will focus in my paper on the particular difficulties experienced in the relationship between the Montreux Initiative and Gulf-based charities. By way of background, I will recall the history of the Afghan war of the 1980s, when Western and Gulf-based organizations were united in supporting the mujahideen in order to bring down the Soviet empire. It will be shown that US regulation of its overseas aid charities at that time was lax, and did not set a rigorous example.

Without breaching any confidences (since the Montreux Initiative has always observed Chatham House rules) I will suggest that the difficulties in the relationship were two-way. For instance, the Gulf charities were suspicious of the proposal that they should provide accounting and other information to a European institution, and argued that validation by this independent body would probably not solve their problems – because some European charities that satisfied all the requirements of their national charity regulators were nonetheless still designated by the US Treasury as ‘terrorist groups’. These Gulf charities were hoping for a more positive reaction from Western governments than the Swiss initiative was able to elicit. On the other side, it was felt, for instance, that the tradition of discretion and secrecy, especially in Saudi-Arabia, was still very strong.

I will conclude by discussing how far the Montreux Initiative/Islamic Charities Project has realized the aim of confidence building as a pilot project in ‘diapraxis’, i.e. practical action as opposed to abstract dialogue, which is a specially innovative part of the FDFA’s policies.