Arab charity is blooming – no thanks to America
Why doesn't the country that invented modern philanthropy do more to support it in the Middle East?
Oil and conflict. These are the two topics that dominate news coverage of the Middle East.Skip to next paragraph
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But there are signs that amid headlines that scream of suicide bombings and surging energy costs, a quiet social movement is under way – one that could help alleviate some deep-rooted problems of the Arab world.
Last month, while much of the globe watched the oft-hyped World Economic Forum, a first-of-its-kind summit of Arab philanthropists was held in this Persian Gulf city. Middle East royalty and Egyptian businessmen mixed with Lebanese activists and other humanitarian do-gooders to find ways to aid their troubled region. And they carried a pointed message to the Bush administration: Stop making the war on terror a war on Arab goodwill.
The charitable impulses of Arab billionaires and others are growing, according to a report released at the event by the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo.
Building on a long tradition of zakat, the Islamic version of tithing, philanthropy in the Mideast looks strikingly similar to that of Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie and seeks to make profound social changes.
Consider the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who pledged $10 billion last year to his own foundation. If this were an American grantmaker, it would be the third largest in the country, according to Chronicle of Philanthropy figures.
The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation will focus its largess on bolstering education, supporting entrepreneurship, and fostering cultural understanding by translating both classic and modern Arabic books into English and other languages.
But to get organized and be effective aren't easy tasks. Most Arabic nations have murky laws governing nonprofits and charitable giving; support for human rights and democracy is often a taboo subject, and, not least of all, American policy is an obstacle.
Since Sept. 11, the US has viewed Arab donors with a suspicious eye, accusing them of using their money to fund madrassahs or terrorist training camps. After the attacks, for example, US officials pressured Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to set up rules that restrict charitable giving.