GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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The al-Khoei Foundation and the Politics of Transnational Charity in Shi‘ism
Paper Proposal Text :
Shi‘i charity derives from the legal duty of Shi‘i believers to pay a religious tithe (khums) to their marja‘ (source of emulation; plur. maraji‘), equalling one fifth of their annual income after the deduction of expenses. In turn, maraji‘ allocate funds for religious propagation, education, welfare, and humanitarian relief assistance. Traditionally, they have relied on their network of representatives (wukala’; sing. wakil) to fulfil their philanthropic mission among Shi‘i communities worldwide. In 1989, the then most-widely-followed marja‘ of the time, Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khu’i (1899 – 1992), created an institution to centralise the management of his large religious assets – an initiative that had no precedent in the history of the marja‘iyya. The project was named the Imam al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation.

The study of the projects and activities of the al-Khoei Foundation provides a good illustration of the institutionalisation of Shi‘i charity through the 1990s until the present day. Relying on evidence-based information to contextualise transnational networks of patronage according to time and place, the approach to the topic will integrate a state variable in the discussion. If, historically, the Shi‘i marja‘iyya’s system of khums collection and redistribution is said to have allowed the clerical leadership to remain financially autonomous from states and ruling elites, the situation seems less clear if one considers that the implementation of charitable projects on the ground may be affected by governmental policies, first of all because of state control over territories. States may accept and even sponsor the distribution of clerical charity within its borders, either because they can benefit from it or because they are indifferent to it. Alternatively, they may oppose clerical attempts to connect with the Shi‘a through patronage. The role of Iran, the sole Shi‘i state, bears also special importance in that its own transnational activism can impact on the distribution of Shi‘i charity by non-state clerical actors not only at home but also abroad. In this context, the charitable performance of the al-Khoei Foundation has been caught up in politics, either domestic or international. By analysing the foundation’s response to the opportunities and constraints of specific localities, the discussion seeks to provide insights on the politics of Shi‘i charity in Sunni-ruled countries.

Headquartered in London, the al-Khoei Foundation has established branches and run religious and educational institutes since the late 1980s in the UK, France, the US, Canada, Pakistan, India, Thailand, and, for a short period, Malaysia. Regime change in Iraq in 2003 has allowed it to operate in the country. The foundation has also provided emergency humanitarian aid to victims of war and natural disasters in the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian sub-continent. More recently, it has engaged in small human development projects to tap into international sources of funding. As this overview suggests, the Arab world, let alone the conservative Gulf monarchies, did not become the site for large-scale projects. The importance of Shi‘i communities in the region cannot be overlook (an estimated 70% in Bahrain, 25% in Kuwait, 10% in Saudi Arabia, as well as smaller minorities in Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates), particularly since the wealthiest segments among them have contributed to the transnationalisation of Shi‘i charity through the allocation of their religious tithes to the above projects. Locally, the marja‘iyya of Ayatollah Khu’i looked after the welfare of its Arab co-religionists in a traditional – informal – way, not by developing a visible institutional presence which, it was thought, would meet resistance from Sunni governments. One exception to which the paper will pay attention was the shared interests between the al-Khoei Foundation and the Jordanian crown to develop a joint project in the mid-1990s to restore a shrine in the town of Karak.

A complementing facet to the al-Khoei Foundation’s philanthropic work has been its position as defender of Shi‘i rights worldwide. It has strived to act as an intermediary between the people and their governments, privileging a mediating and non-confrontational approach to the latter. This allowed it to earn credibility in the international community of states. In so doing, it has combined the marja‘iyya traditional modes of communication through informal channels with heads of states, with NGO-type lobbying strategies – in 1998 the foundation has obtained general consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council ECOSOC. In addition to the situation of Iraq’s Shi‘i population and religious institutions under Saddam Husayn’s regime, it has raised international attention to Shi‘i and Muslim human rights issues in various countries. Less known to the public was the foundation’s mediation between the ruling family and its opposition in Bahrain in the early 2000s.

The multi-faceted work of the al-Khoei Foundation has been coupled with a large degree of pragmatism and capacity to adapt its modes of operation to circumstances often imposed from above. Because its patronage has been transnational, moreover, one could argue that the multi-sited geography of Shi‘ism has offered a multitude of places to fulfil its mission, allowing it to escape hostile environments and focus activities elsewhere when necessary to compensate for the loss incurred.