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Under the garb of charity

December 01, 2012

THE growth of faith-based charity organisations in Pakistan can be linked to increasing religiosity in society. These organisations are mainly part of the larger religious political discourse in the country and, in one way or another, convert religious tendencies into support for religious political parties.

The expanding support has multiple levels as these parties, and militant or sectarian groups, are all benefiting from this conversion.

Like other societies, the subcontinent has a long tradition of charities in different forms. Shrines and khanqahs have played a similar role, which has been assumed by organised charities. The landscape of Islamic charities is quite diverse in Pakistan, ranging from local-level welfare organisations to national- and regional-level relief bodies.

Broadly, these can be divided into three main categories. The first includes subsidiaries of religious political parties such as Al Khidmat Trust affiliated with the Jamaat-i-Islami. Then there are charities that have no such affiliation, such as Al Rasheed Trust; the third category is of charities established by militant groups, such as Al-Rehmat Trust linked to the banned Jaish-i-Mohammad.

Religious political parties have charity wings not just for welfare purposes but also because they help boost their public image and provide employment to members and supporters. Although such charity wings collect funds from the masses, their relief operations are not beyond political biases, which also impacts their credibility. The charity wings of many religious parties become operational during natural disasters or other crises and do not conduct regular relief operations.

Purely faith-based charity organisations on a large scale are missing in Pakistan. The agendas of even the ones established with such purpose were later taken over by groups with political, ideological and, in some cases, militant objectives. That has been the case with Al Rasheed Trust, which now operates as Maymar Trust or Al Akhtar Trust of Karachi.

Militant groups with charity credentials are also facing internal transformation, manifesting the increasing divide between structured militant groups such as the Lashkar-i-Taiba and semi- or non-structured ones like the Punjabi Taliban and the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.

Most structured and organised militant groups in Pakistan were formed in the 1980s and 1990s. After 9/11, many of them faced government restrictions and thereafter devised new ways to survive and keep their financial channels intact.

In 2002 and 2003, the state proscribed most of these groups, including the Jaish-i-Mohammad, Harkatul Jihad-i-Islami, Harkatul Mujahideen, the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jamaatud Dawa, Hizbul Mujahideen, Jamiatul Mujahideen and Al Badar Mujahideen.

These militant groups have since established what most of them call public welfare wings as a front for their activities, or they resurfaced after the ban as charity organisations to boost their image and circumvent official curbs.

This ploy has not only helped them gain social acceptance but also enabled them to expand their support base and ultimately add to their financial resources. Some militant groups, in an attempt to diversify their assets, set up commercial ventures such as English-medium schools, healthcare centres, transportation companies, residential projects and media groups; some also acquired farmland on a large scale.

While militant groups have kept the supply lines for their financing intact, many of them also found ways to cultivate and consolidate financial resources abroad.

Not only do they conduct bank transactions, but informal hawala channels and other illegal means are also used to bring funds into Pakistan. Some groups have even established their own currency exchange networks, while others continue to use smugglers’ networks to bring in funds raised abroad.

The capacity of militant groups and affiliated organisations to raise private donations has traditionally witnessed a sharp increase after natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods.

After the 2005 earthquake, Al Rasheed Trust raised Rs950 million for relief work within five months. It used the funds for welfare activities, including providing food and medical treatment and reconstructing damaged madressahs and mosques.

Al Rehmat Trust, a charity associated with the Jaish-i-Mohammad, raised Rs600m in funds and supplies after the earthquake.

Al Asar Trust, affiliated with the Harkatul Mujahideen, was a new and relatively unknown welfare organisation back then, but even so it managed to raise Rs280m in the ensuing months. It is not clear how much of that money it spent on relief activities, but such activities have certainly earned it goodwill among the masses.

Major religious charities, including Al Khidmat Trust of the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Idara Khidmat-i-Khalq of the Jamaatud Dawa, claim to have raised billions of rupees through private donations. It is important to note that these claims were made post-9/11, with government sanctions in place and militant organisations officially barred from raising funds. The situation was totally different earlier. In 2001, before the events of Sept 11, the Lashkar-i-Taiba had collected Rs90m from direct private donations and had a very organised jihad fund collection system across the country.

The charitable operations of militant groups helped them expand their infrastructure and networks. However, it can be discerned from the recent history of radical and militant organisations that when the infrastructure of such an organisation expands on a large scale, the group’s stakes increase in the very system that it had previously been opposing.

For example, the Jamaatud Dawa cannot afford any major confrontation with the state that could force it to abandon its activities. Contrary to this, militant groups that failed to develop their organisational infrastructure were subjected to divisions and became more violent.

Obviously, structured militant groups’ charity credentials have forced them to compromise on their ideological ambitions, which created rifts among the groups; their splinters emerged as non-structured groups that occupy the parent groups’ ideological realm, while blaming their leaderships for being state puppets of traitors to the cause of jihad.

That may be seen as a positive outcome of their inclination towards charitable operations but the former militants’ flexibility has not yet proved that they have completely abandoned their militant agendas. Besides, their increasing influence could change the dynamics of religiosity and prompt expansion in religious parties’ support.

The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.