A Discussion with Fadlullah Wilmot, Country Director, Muslim Aid Bangladesh

November 11, 2009

Background: This discussion took place as part of preparations for a consultation on faith and development in Southeast Asia, held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia December 14-15, 2009. The consultation, an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Luce Foundation and the University of Cambodia, took stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith. It also explored policy implications that emerged from their interactions with development organizations. The interview was conducted by telephone between Fadlullah Wilmot and Michael Bodakowski. In this interview Fadlullah Wilmot reviews the links between his career and his faith, focusing on his long experience (and especially how Aceh shaped his views about poverty) in Indonesia, Malaysia, and current challenges in Bangladesh. A major turning point was the 2004 tsunami which prompted a career shift to Muslim Aid. He reflects on the forces shaping fundamentalism and on contemporary challenges arising from the global economic crisis and climate change.

Can you tell us about your journey to your present position, and how you were inspired to do the work you are doing?

I was born in England, but I migrated with my parents as a kid, so all of my education has been in Australia. After graduating from the University of Tasmania and teaching for a few years, I joined Australia Volunteers Abroad (AVA). While I was at university I had become a Muslim through my friendship with students from Asia. I first visited Indonesia in 1967. AVA sent me to Aceh in Indonesia where I taught at the University of Syiah Kuala. Then I met my wife and we got married in 1972.

I was interested in Aceh and its history and I formed a friendship with the leader of the independence struggle there who was also an Ulama Teunku, Muhammad Dawud Beureuh. While in Acheh I learnt Indonesian and Acehnese. I moved back to Australia after completing my contract with AVA. My wife wanted to stay in Aceh, close to her family, but because of the conflict there, we settled down in Malaysia where we lived for many years. Since independence Aceh had been in continuous state of conflict with the central government due to the unfair exploitation of its natural resources and a sort of cultural and political imperialism by the central government. Living and working in Asia made me aware of how much poverty affects people and the quality of their lives.

In Malaysia, I worked with several different institutions. One of the most interesting and challenging was my stint at the International Islamic University which was founded in 1985 as an attempt to equip students with the best of both Islamic and modern knowledge. As head of the Rector’s office I worked with the Rector and academic staff to revamp the system from a British-based term system to one using credit hours and semesters with double majors. We also built two new campuses. We provided scholarships for poor students from all over the Muslim world.

Then I retired from the University and went into business for a while with some friends. The business involved Indonesia and Aceh, so I was able to maintain my contacts there. Then I was asked if I could teach about management, and after a while I began teaching management to executives as a qualified trainer from the British Institute of Leadership and Management.

I was sort of semi-retired at that time, but on Boxing Day 2004 a destructive tsunami hit Aceh. I knew the then CEO of Muslim Aid, who asked me to go there on a volunteer basis to help alleviate the suffering of the people of Aceh, because about 350,000 died in the tsunami, including about 200 relatives of my wife, among them two nephews. I went to Aceh and started doing some relief and rehabilitation work there, and slowly it became a full time occupation, and then it became a 7/24, so I took it up full time.

While I was in Aceh, we set up the office there; originally with me and a driver but later it expanded and we were able to contribute to providing housing for the victims and later got involved in disaster risk reduction, and capacity building for local NGOs; we did microcredit activities, as well as a flood mitigation project for the Central Business District of the capital of the province, Banda Aceh. When I was in Aceh, the earthquake in Yogyakarta struck and we did immediate emergency relief work there and later got involved in rehabilitation work, both shelters and livelihoods and later working with the ultra poor and orphans in Yogyakarta together and worked on community-based disaster risk reduction. We then got involved in Jakarta helping the victims of the worst floods for many years. In 2007, in March and September there were two earthquakes in west Sumatra where we provided emergency relief and rehabilitation. Basically the office in Indonesia expanded from two men with a rented vehicle to an organisation of 100 staff with ten offices all over the country.

I was in Aceh for about three years, when I was transferred to Bangladesh by Muslim Aid. Here, I have over 700 staff with 75 offices around the country. In Bangladesh, we are involved in interest free microcredit, SME development, livelihood recovery from disasters, economic empowerment, and also helping women from the slums—giving them training and then the tools they need to earn a living. We also have four small vocational training institutes providing poor youth with marketable skills such as driving; so a former rickshaw driver can becomes a chauffeur, engine repair, air conditioner and refrigerator repair, electrical wiring, mobile phone repair, tailoring, and computer skills—all sorts of useful vocation trades.

Then we have about 100 small schools for kids that drop out of school. Presently about 50 percent of kids drop out of school in Bangladesh, mainly due to poverty. These kids get a chance to rejoin the formal education system and they are provided with something very important: self confidence. We are also giving scholarships to orphans so they can complete their education, and stipends for poor and disabled kids for university, college, or high school. We have four hospitals dealing with women and children. As Bangladesh is very disaster-prone we have a huge emergency and relief operation; now, unfortunately, Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, is also the one most affected by climate change. We have been rebuilding houses, wells, and latrines, as well as providing immediate medical and water supplies to people who have endured cyclones and floods. We help them to restore their livelihoods so that they can return to their normal lives.

In sum, the four main areas then, where we are working in Bangladesh are: health, education, emergency relief, and economic empowerment.

Can you speak a little more about climate change? Since we are approaching the climate change summit in Copenhagen, it is very much on the international agenda. How do you see NGOs tackling the climate change issue, especially faith-inspired NGOs?

Faith-based organizations are looking at the whole issue from the point of view that they are trustees of this world, and that the present generation has to hand it on as a better place than they inherited it. They should not leave this earth in a worse position that they inherited it in. It is a huge responsibility to people of faith to tell the world that it is the responsibility of humanity is to deal with this issue from a moral standpoint. It is not only an economic issue. The poorest people who emit maybe only 1 percent of emissions, like the people of Africa and Bangladesh, will be the 100 million most affected. So those most affected will be those that have produced the least emissions.

How is Muslim Aid placed to address the problem of climate change?

There are three things that have to be done:

1) Advocacy on poverty and climate change: we have to draw the attention of the rich world to this impending disaster, because it is they who have caused it for the past 200 years. There is a huge responsibility on the developed world to deal with the causes and impact of climate change.

2) The developed world has to provide the funds to enable those affected by climate change to deal with it: in Bangladesh for example, one island off the coast has already lost 4.5 km of land due to rising sea levels. Saline intrusion is coming even closer to Dhaka. The impacts of climate change are already hitting us. No matter what we decide in Copenhagen it will take time for anything to come into effect so some help must be provided to help mitigate the impact on the affected communities.

3) Assistance must be given to developing countries to build coping mechanisms. In these countries there are enormous sources of resilience and local knowledge, and these have to be enhanced. Community-based disaster risk reduction and community-based adaptation to climate change are important.

How has faith inspired your work and how does Islam lend itself to social development?

Islam, as I understand it, means working for the good of the whole of humanity, and this is why I am also serving humanity. Muslim Aid is a faith driven organization, because we are driven by our faith to serve other human beings. We serve all human beings, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. It is a Muslim’s duty to give assistance and help and show compassion and love for all other humans and living beings on this planet.

There is a verse of the Qur’an, which is a sort of definition of whether you have faith or not: “Have you seen those who give the lie to religion? It is those that do not care for the orphan or the poor, beware, their prayers will take them to Hell." So basically, if you do not put your faith into action, even if you are praying regularly, then it means nothing to God. And there is another verse that says it is not in righteousness that you bow down in prayer, but it is in helping the poor and oppressed. This is the whole basis of faith, doing things for the rest of humanity. In the Qur’an the ideas of having faith and good deeds are almost always mentioned together. The whole basis of Islam is justice.

Belief is inextricably linked with doing good. There is no faith if one does not do good in this world.

Can you talk about the role of religious extremism in Indonesia, and how faith-based organizations are confronting the issue, especially from a development perspective?

Actually, we are completely non-political, so we don’t get involved in political issues. We stand up against violence. We emphasize that Islam is a religion of peace. In Indonesia our main efforts are directed towards the victims of natural disasters and poverty.

In many cases, not only in Indonesia, but in many places in the Muslim world, people who have become extreme are often not those who were educated in a religious atmosphere. If you look at many of the leaders of extremist groups, they are not from a religious educational background but hard-line Islamic schools in Java have been involved in the spread of extremist ideas in Indonesia as have some elements in the security forces for political reasons. President Abdul Rahman Wahid had to deal with an unholy alliance of fundamentalist jihadists, Islamist generals and people close to the Suharto family who were involved in Christian Muslim clashes in order to prevent reform in Indonesia.

I think faith-based organisations working to deal with the root causes of poverty will provide an antidote to extremist views. Providing an education that will enable students to obtain skills to provide gainful employment and develop an open-minded attitude can also help prevent the development of an extremist mind set. Fanaticism and bigotry stem from selectivity in religious teachings, taking verses and concepts out of context and rejecting pluralism. Although most of the field operatives of extremist and terrorist groups in Indonesia are people from lower socioeconomic classes, many leaders come from the upper middle class. The simplistic extremist ideology based on hatred and the cult of death does seem attractive to the disenfranchised and poor people who become recruits to be indoctrinated into accepting extremist views.

Unfortunately you find examples of this extremism in all faiths. I remember a researcher asking children in an elementary school about killing others—these young children said was it right for people of their religion to kill women and children of other faiths in the name of god. 80 percent said yes, it is OK. But when the scenario was changed and it was a different people being killed by a Chinese general they said it was wrong.

Once a person starts to hold extremist views a reeducation process is needed. Indonesia has realized that detaining or even killing militants or extremists does not solve the problem. The effort to rehabilitate extremists and terrorists through the de-radicalization programme run by the National Police is a good initiative and needs to be extended to the whole traditional school system. In addition there is a need to deal with the children of extremist leaders who have been jailed or killed. The role of Sufism in Indonesia is often ignored but this peaceful group within Islam is important in dealing with the issue of extremism. In response to Laskar Jihad's atrocities, and to discredit the appeal of fundamentalist ideology, an Indonesian rock singer, Dhani, composed the best-selling album "Laskar Cinta" ("Warriors of Love"). Released in November 2004, it quickly rose to the top of the charts as millions of young Indonesians embraced its message of love, peace, and tolerance. The extremists used all sorts of tactics to attack Dhani as they do to any spiritual and progressive interpretation of Islam that threatens the appeal of their own extremist views.

What kinds of interfaith work does Muslim Aid do?

The Qur’an tells us to cooperate with everybody who wants to do good, whether they are Muslim, non-Muslim, people of faith or people of no faith—whoever it is. If they want to do good, we should work with them. In Indonesia, we worked with Christian groups, secular groups, Hindus, and Buddhists. There is no reason why a Muslim should discriminate. There is no basis for discriminating against a non-Muslim. In London, we had a common Ramadan approach with Oxfam, remembering that 23 million Muslims would be starving during Ramadan.

Actually in Sri Lanka, Muslim Aid built more houses for Hindu tsunami victims than it did for Muslim tsunami victims. I was very touched when three months ago I went to a village where we were helping to rebuild the houses of cyclone victims. When Hindus rebuild their houses they like to say a prayer, so we called the Brahman priest to say a prayer over the new houses. The Hindu villagers were so touched by this. One old lady of about 80 years old said to me, "You are a very good man." That really touched me because all the people saw my concern for them and saw that I loved them as fellow human beings. That is all I needed.

You mentioned the issue of statelessness related to your recent visit to see the Rohingya along the border with Burma. How can religion and faith-inspired organizations play a role in addressing this?

Well, I think faith-based people have to also take a critical look at the nation state. The nation state has a lot to answer for. It tends to force a false history, a false mono-culture on the people living in that state. There is a lack of capacity of the national state to accept diversity. Faith-based people should be pressing for all states to accept diversity and multiplicity of identities.

Faith-based people also need to be willing to live with contradictions, to live with compromises. I was in London last year and went to the British Library. There was an exhibition of the books of the three Abrahamic faiths. I bought two books there—one was about the last Mogul emperor of India, and one was about Muslims and Christians in Andalusia. What struck me very strongly, was, whenever people become uncompromising, whenever they become fundamentalist to the point where they don’t want to allow other varying ideas or opinions, the road to oppression, to discord, and to disharmony begins. Religious people have to be willing to accept that there are other points of view, that you have to be willing to make compromises, willing to accept contradictions….

But now, coming back to the issue of statelessness, I think as people of faith we need to understand the horrible dilemma that a person has if they don’t have a passport. It means that they don’t belong anywhere, so it is the responsibility of people who have religion to have compassion and to be accepting of these people and to work to ensure these people get their basic human rights. I am sure that the Buddha would never have behaved in the way that the rulers of Myanmar are behaving to the Muslims of Myanmar.

Where do you see development in Indonesia in the next 20 years? What do you envision for the future of Muslim Aid in this process?

That is a very interesting question. I think morality has to play a role in development. There has to be a moral standard. You see, we missed the bus on this whole financial crisis. These obscene obsessions with making the fast buck by bankers….we’ve missed it. This is a moral issue, and this is where I think Islam can teach something. This is why Islamic banks did not suffer to the same extent as others. Muslim banks believe that work has to be earned and you cannot make money playing with money. I think this whole financial architecture has to be looked at from a moral perspective. Development has to be viewed from the moral perspective, as does the environment from a moral perspective. This will change the way we live and the way we look at our economy. It is not a simplistic thing, but in America today, the richest country in the world, how can you have millions of kids going to bed hungry? How is it possible? And you have such a huge number of religious people there, with such enormous political influence. It is amazing to me that some ‘religious’ Americans are so concerned about the unborn child in somebody’s womb, but couldn’t care less the half million children in Iraq who died because of sanctions.

And just as an addition: I am always reminded when we are faced with problems that violence is never a solution. There was a recent book written by one of my students who looked at this whole concept of jihad, and said the Palestinians could have done much better by peaceful means than by violent means.

It is the work of faith-inspired development organizations that can help mitigate this violence and approach the problems from a different perspective.

When there was a tsunami in the Solomon Islands, I sent two of my guys from Indonesia there. The people there are all Christian, and they asked, “You’re a Muslim? How come you’re helping us?” Then the headlines appeared: "Muslim Aid volunteers show the compassionate face of Islam." It was really inspiring to me, to do something like that—to change peoples’ opinions by trying to help others a bit.

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