A Discussion with Tariq Cheema, World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists

With: Tariq Cheema Berkley Center Profile

February 18, 2013

Background: This conversation (by Skype) between Dr. Cheema and Katherine Marshall focused on an ongoing review of religious roots and dimensions of philanthropy. The conversation focused on the history and mission of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists (which he founded), and on the principle characteristics of and challenges facing philanthropy by Muslims in the U.S. and around the world, today. Dr. Cheema highlights the importance of professionalizing giving, of broadening the spectrum of purposes of philanthropy, and of capacity building to support these goals.

You have just arrived in Pakistan, and obviously travel widely. Where are you based at present?

Our headquarters are in Chicago but we are just establishing a second headquarters in Doha, so much more of our work will in the future be handled from Qatar. I split my time between the two, and also my home country, Pakistan. Since our work involves a wide range of partnerships, I find myself on the road frequently. Life is indeed interesting!

How did your personal journey lead to your leadership of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists?

The impact of my parents and family and early experience were both critical. I was born in Pakistan. In 1997, there were floods of Afghan refugees coming to Pakistan, forming tent colonies around the towns. My father was a physician and used to volunteer at the camps each day, after his normal work, going tent to help. On weekends he took me along with him. It was a powerful, early formative experience.

I went to medical school and led an essentially normal life until September 11, 2001. That was a wake up call for everybody. I was moved by the events and the reactions to them, but especially by a growing awareness that Muslim charities were being shut down more on the basis of suspicion than evidence of wrong doing. There was a fear of giving to Muslim causes within the community, compounded by negative images of Muslims and of Islam, on the TV and newspapers. It made me rethink much of how I was living my life.

I had always seen and experienced giving, my own and that of my family and friends, as good giving, an essential part of life, with both internal and external motivations, essentially linked to a love of fellow human beings regardless of color and creed. Now came a new bombardment of negative images of terrorism and Muslims. As I started to take a keener interest, I began to look to Muslim donors in the city of Chicago and to their role in the community. The pattern I found (and that included my own) was one of small checks, some to Muslim causes, some not. The local mosque was often a focus, but not always. The common desire was to do good, for everyone, but it was rarely strategic in any sense of the term. What was missing was any form of robust network that linked Muslim donors so I sought to build one. There was a need to organize, to sit together and to do an honest assessment of who we give to and why, what happened to the money, and what impact it had.

Our initial intent in establishing the Congress was very modest and largely local, but because there was such a void, the idea was picked up quickly across the globe, including by some very prominent, powerful, and wealthy individuals, including some heads of state.

What were your initial goals and findings?

As we moved forward, we explored what was actually happening in the first instance, with a view to seeking improvements. We came to some important, early conclusions.

The vast majority of Muslim giving was for good causes and with good intentions. It did good. But it was not very organized. I coined the term “sloppy giving.” It was rarely institutionalized, even at a personal level. People would write checks but did not follow up. They might well forget what they had given for and when. They did not do the due diligence on use of funds by the recipients nor did they take ownership for the results and impact of their giving.

We also were aware of the enforcement of new regulations that were making giving more difficult. It was working counter to the basic good intentions as well as the faith inspiration for giving. This applied to many types of giving but had a special impact on faith-linked institutions.

There was a massive task ahead to institutionalize this giving. The tendency of Muslim philanthropy, which many saw as justified, even demanded by their faith, was spontaneous and generous. What was needed was a more strategic approach with due diligence built in and transparency in giving and in delivery. Focus on impact was needed.

Over a five-year period we have been successful in building an international network of donors. These are primarily high net worth individuals, foundations, and corporations. The goal is to help them move from the earlier giving patterns to giving that is smart, vigilant, and transparent, with benchmarks, giving that will yield a social dividend. We are working to promote that culture.

What about the restrictions that emerged that focused especially on Muslim giving—call it discrimination?

There is no question that there were targeted regulations and discrimination. But I made an early determination not to be paranoid and not to focus on them in the first instance. The first task was (and is) to focus on improving giving practices within our community. If we become more transparent, more strategic, more organized, more sophisticated, I am confident that the external problems will subside. If not, we will be far better placed to defend ourselves against them, legally, politically, and socially. If we start simply with complaining and crying discrimination we will get nowhere.

So what were your major challenges?

Changing attitudes was a central part of what we had to do. The attitude that traditional patterns of giving were demanded by the faith went deep. It involved a sense that giving should be secret, private, with no boasting about it. We worked to make it clear that the spirit of these traditions was above all to preserve the dignity of the recipient. The religion had no requirement for the secrecy around giving and good works. That should be no blockage to reform.

Another challenge came with the nature of giving. Most Muslim giving was to institutions directly linked to the faith, notably mosques and madrassas. But they needed ways of handling the money because many of them lacked solid procedures and frameworks. We had to work on the donors to ensure that they understood the importance of making sure their gifts were well used. We stressed the element of trust: that they had a sacred trust to ensure that funds were well used. This involved a self-regulatory mechanism. The donor had a responsibility to ensure that the recipient reported what they received.

This exploration highlighted the importance of capacity weaknesses. Most of the recipients did not have the capacity to manage well. The problems were accentuated by regulations that encouraged donors and recipients to look for alternative delivery channels. And there was some cultural resistance to becoming more organized in giving.

In short, with the notions of trust, the focus on ability to deliver, efforts to support good charities, we were focusing on the internal challenges. We are looking to more sophisticated giving as well as to a paradigm shift in thinking about charity and philanthropy.

What kinds of giving were involved?

That question takes us to another central challenge we identified: the very narrow spectrum of giving. Most Muslim giving was focused either on conflicts with a religious character or on humanitarian aid following catastrophes: in short, manmade or natural disasters. We sought to expand this spectrum to include other social issues, like education, the environment, culture, and youth. We seek to inspire donors to look to a far wider and more diverse field of giving. The issues, for example, of literacy and of environmental stewardship are linked to the faith and have high priority for Muslim communities.

We are trying to encourage a movement in Muslim giving away from a simple focus on relief towards longer term efforts like endowment building, establishing pooled funds to support scholarships for higher education and interest-free microfinance, with a special focus on female population.

What about coordination?

The common trends of charitable giving were to give in isolation and we found very few mechanisms for collaboration. Individuals wanted to do good in their own way. There was no tradition or culture of cooperation or of pooling resources to address the issues of common concern.

What about sources of information?

The research, we found, was scanty. Very little work had been done. Zakat is an ancient tradition and a religious obligation aimed to alleviate poverty. But there is very little information about how billions of dollars are given away. And it matters because much is given away in a very inefficient way. Governments and citizens need better information to ensure that the funds are used more effectively.

We work closely with several organizations on research. These include the University of Indiana Center on Philanthropy, the John Gerhart Center at the American University of Cairo, and the Cass Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at the City University London. They are making important contributions to filling the knowledge voids.

So what does the Congress do?

We have established a network that works both at the national and international level. It serves an advocacy function but the primary focus is to advance effective and accountable giving using the resources of our community and institutions.

How do you work with the large Muslim development agencies (like Islamic Relief)?

Those organizations are part of the tapestry that we are talking about, the institutional networks that are needed to move towards smarter giving, trusts, reliable funding, and strategic projects. Those organizations are reaching a new level of maturity, and they are very much comparable to benchmark organizations like Oxfam, ActionAid and Save the Children. This is part of a natural growth of institutions that is very fascinating and important. They are the trendsetters in many respects.

But the bulk of Muslim giving goes directly to the needy individuals and religious charities.

Another sector that is growing in importance is the grantmaking foundations, both private and corporate funded. They can fund projects that pave the way for innovation and new directions, that focus on the broader social issues and trends for the future. They are well placed to promote human rights and democracy. There are striking examples of effective social entrepreneurship in these sectors and we would like to see the development of more.

What is your main working mechanism? How large is your staff?

We focus on the Congress, which today meets every other year. The last meeting was in Malaysia in 2012 and the next in 2014 will be in Washington, D.C. In addition, we have launched the Academy of Philanthropy to meet the skill gap and promote best practices and research in the sector. The other important work Congress does is to establish multi-donor funds to address range of issues such as disease, hunger, poverty, etc.

Our staff is small, with permanent teams in Chicago, Doha, and Kuala Lumpur. We rely heavily on volunteers who are accomplished professionals with expertise essential to our program and strategy building. Many (myself included) work on pro-bono basis.

We are neither activists nor are we simply spectators. Our goal is to improve the situation in any way possible. We thus listen and consult on where the obstacles are. For example, in terms of the regulatory hurdles that are significant and that stand in the way of good Muslim giving, we are aware that it will do little good to stand and shout slogans. We have to work in consultation, to earn a place at the table where policy is made. We have to make the case for policy change in the policy space. We have a genuine concern that funds do not end up in the wrong hands, that charity is well used. We have worked, with some success, to find that place and thus to argue for improvements in regulations. But our core strategy is to focus primarily on improving our own practices and to make the case that preventing charitable giving from crossing borders and reaching those who need it is in no one’s interest and is a collective loss for everybody. The common good is served by making sure charity and philanthropy work well and in a transparent fashion, and beyond the divides of ethnicity, faith, or geography. Thus, we will win the confidence of the rest of the world, that we are trustworthy and have high standards. We are as watchful as any one of the predators that inevitably exist.

Our consultation in Doha some years ago suggested that many of the newer Muslim and Arab philanthropic and development institutions feel that they are excluded from the main international coordinating bodies. Has this improved?

Not really. That is indeed one of our goals, to fill those gaps. We need to be more persistent in insisting on proper changes in membership and still more in attitudes towards inclusion.

Within the Muslim world there are important divisions. Do you, for example, work with the Aga Khan Development Network (one of the most respected institutions within the development community)? With both Sunni and Shi'a actors?

Absolutely yes. The Aga Khan Development Network has been a leading partner from the outset. We work with individuals and institutions across the full spectrum. They include the Islamic Development Bank and a wide variety of partners across the globe. It is a goal to work towards still closer partnerships and collaborations.

Indeed we take pride that the Congress has been successful in bringing together these different currents in constructive, positive ways, through our forums and in specific projects. In fact, a significant number of Congress members and partners come from other faith traditions, which indeed is very powerful aspect of our work.

Two live issues in our consultations are concerns about the proper boundaries of proselytizing in charitable and development work, and how religious institutions approach gender equity. What is your experience here?

On proselytizing we are aware that there are problems at the fringes, and they manifest themselves in cases like the opposition to polio vaccinations in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan and to girls school attendance in some places.

But the problems in these cases are not about religion. They are issues of culture that are falsely attributed to religion. Or they are rooted in politics. In all these cases there are a lot of issues involved, of which religion is generally the least.

The Congress takes the issue of women equity very seriously. We have launched a movement called “Empowerment through Enlightenment.” We see that progress will come through when the male population is enlightened about the dignity and the rights of women. Women’s rights to equality include the right to hold property, receive and own inheritance, consent to marriage, and receive an education. This is consistent, entirely, with the faith.

Do you still practice medicine?

No, I have left clinics since 1998, but sometimes I do work as a volunteer physician in disaster areas. I spend some time on my family business but, above all, I focus on the Congress and pursue my philanthropic interests.

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