“You have to talk to the local imam”

Muslim woman with relief supplies © Yahya Arhab

Advent is also the time for donations – and not just among Christians. The Islamic relief organization Islamic Relief Germany is involved in a wide range of activities. An interview about fundraising campaigns at Christmas and work in Islamic countries.

CBA: Islamic Relief is active in more than 40 countries. How does your work differ from that of other non-Muslim organizations??

Tarek Abdelalem (Managing Director of the Islamic relief organization Islamic Relief Germany): As a Muslim organization, we have special access to people in Islamic countries. Respect for the respective culture is an important component of humanitarian aid. For example, on the ie of education: If you want girls to go to school, you first have to establish separate-sex schools. Later, you can switch to mixed schools.
CBA: What about in the religious sphere?
Abdelalem: Saving water is particularly important in Jordan or Mali, for example. To reach the population, you often have to talk to the local imam and make him aware of the religious significance of the ie. Islamic tradition says you should also conserve water if you happen to be by the sea. Only when the imam is convinced can we make a difference with the villagers.
CBA: What are the focal points of your work?
Abdelalem: Building trust with the local population and cooperation with other organizations. We want groups with different religious views to be represented. All religions have to pull together. This is also a message to society here at home and in the recipient countries. The question is always: How can we – whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or secular – make a difference together??
CBA: How does this approach make a difference?
Abdelalem: In many countries we support projects with other international organizations. For example, we have supported a project in Jordan for Syrian refugees with the United Nations World Food Programme and a project in Yemen. We try to cooperate a lot with other groups in Germany as well. One organization alone cannot solve the world's problems anyway.
CBA: Do your donations mainly benefit Muslims or do you also support Jews, Christians or Buddhists?
Abdelalem: According to our self-image, we support those in need of help regardless of skin color and political or religious views. When a person is in need, you have to help them. This general commandment also goes back to Koranic tradition and corresponds to the convictions of humanitarian aid.
CBA: At the moment, we are experiencing a highly polarized social discussion. Do you feel this?
Abdelalem: After the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on 11. September 2001, the reservations were much worse. At the moment, we as an organization experience rejection occasionally, for example when the media talk about Islamic Relief. Then there are calls from time to time. But we are dealing with it positively and see these occasions as an incentive to become even more open and to seek even more cooperation with other groups.
CBA: Christmas time is known to be donation time. To what extent is this noticeable at Islamic Relief?
Abdelalem: The Christmas season is characterized by a very special atmosphere, which of course also influences Muslims in Germany. Islamic Relief organizes from December certain activities, like for example "meals for orphans". Muslims and non-Muslims organize joint meals and collect money for refugee children in the Middle East.
CBA: What is the importance of giving in Islam?
Abdelalem: A very high. In Quranic verse 107 it says: "If you see the one who declares the court to be a lie? This is the one who pushes back the orphan, and does not stop to feed the poor."The compulsory tax, "zakat," for example, is something Muslims must pay regularly. This means that of the money saved, which sits in their account unmoved for a year, they must donate 2.5 percent to those in need of help.

Then there are certain rules for the fasting month of Ramadan: believers must give one food per day and per head in the family to poor people. Even if someone cannot fast for certain reasons, they must make up for it with donations. Along with Ramadan, the Feast of the Sacrifice is an important occasion for donations.

CBA: In many crisis regions, villages and towns are completely cut off from the outside world, for example in Syria. How do you ensure that donations and aid reach those who really need it??
Abdelalem: We have very good contacts in the respective countries. That's why we can support local organizations there that go to crisis areas to provide aid. Of course, as an organization, we also have to maintain our standards and take care of the safety of our local staff.
CBA: How do you prevent donations from falling into the hands of Islamist groups??
Abdelalem: We have offices and our own staff. Before we cooperate with another local organization, we check if they are somehow connected to terror. To do this, we use a special database that contains a lot of relevant data, or we obtain information from the German Foreign Office. Most important, however, are our local partners on the ground, with whom we are in constant communication. This means that I can actually rule out the possibility of funds ending up in the wrong channels.

The interview was conducted by Julia Lauer.

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