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Smokers` Corner: Boxing the faith

November 08, 2009

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Once upon a time, charity boxes of so-called Islamic welfare organisations were a ubiquitous sight at shops in our cities. These boxes were claimed to have been put there by the shopkeepers and Islamic welfare groups to raise money for the building of mosques and madressahs.

They started appearing in shops during Pakistan's involvement in the so-called anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad in the 1980s — a decade that saw a proliferation of mosques and madressahs across the country, mostly funded by aid from the Gulf countries, and patronised by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship. By the 1990s, however, it became quite apparent that the funds collected through these boxes weren't necessarily being used to build mosques and madressahs that were already thriving and in abundance.

The money in this case was largely ending up in the laps of various Kashmiri and Afghan Jihadi organisations, and from 1989 onwards, sectarian organisations too started to place their respective charity boxes at shops. Most of the charity boxes belonged to the Jamaatud Dawah Pakistan, a so-called charity organisation formed in Lahore in 1985 by a former university professor of Islamic Studies.

The Dawah collected funds to provide healthcare to wounded Afghan and Kashmiri Jihadis, and also claimed to be providing financial support to the families of Islamist guerrillas killed in action. According to the celebrated investigative journalist, Amir Mir's book 'The Talibanisation of Pakistan,' the Dawah became closely associated with the notorious Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT) in 1990, an organisation that eventually became the 'military wing' of the Dawah.

After the tragic 9/11 episode when Pakistan became an ally in the West's 'War on Terror,' the LeT was banned by the Musharraf regime, but the Dawah was allowed to continue with its 'charity activities.' Musharraf's regime was constantly accused by American and Indian intelligence agencies of taking only selective action against Jihadi groups. According to Mir's book, most of these groups were said to be the handiwork of Pakistani intelligence agencies to 'wage low intensity insurgencies in Indian Kashmir and Afghanistan.'

After the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks undertaken by Pakistani Jihadis that India says were trained by the LeT, the democratically elected government of Yousuf Raza Gilani finally banned the Dawah. The organisation was also accused by the United Nations for aiding LeT men in planning and conducting the Mumbai attacks. The Dawah chief, Hafiz Saeed — a former member of the Jamat-i-Islami's student wing, the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT) — denied his group's involvement in the Mumbai attacks.

The other prominent 'charity organisation' that fully utilised the services of the charity box, was the Al-Rashid Trust. Formed in 1996, the trust described itself as a 'welfare organisation', and one of its original charters was to carry out welfare projects within Pakistan, with financial resources provided by public donations. It then expanded its mandate to carry out 'relief activities' for Muslims in Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan. It perceived the various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) currently working in Afghanistan as 'enemies of Muslims.'

The trust also promoted the concept of Jihad. One of its numerous booklets states 'The holy war is an essential element of Islam' and that 'every Muslim must carry weapons if the need would be felt to fire on a non-Muslim.' Suspected of raising funds for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Al-Rashid Trust was also banned by the UN in December, 2008.

Earlier, the placing of charity boxes in shops by so-called Islamic charity organisations was finally banned by the Musharraf regime in 2003 when Pakistan cracked down on certain Islamist organisations.

Shopkeepers defying the ban were heavily fined and some were arrested for having links with the banned organisations. The Jihadi charity box phenomenon across the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s was aided by three main factors associated with the shopkeepers.

Firstly, a bulk of shop owners in urban Pakistan belongs to the conservative petty-bourgeois class that heartily supported Ziaul Haq's 'Islamisation process.' Many shopkeepers actually believed the charity was being used to build mosques.

Secondly, many shopkeepers could not decline to keep these boxes, because those who did were harassed by Islamist organisations and labelled as 'American/Indian agents' and 'Quadianis.' Lastly, some shopkeepers actually did have links with Jihadi organisations, and played a central role in raising funds through their business connections with some wealthy overseas Pakistanis residing in various Middle Eastern countries as businessmen, doctors and engineers.

Today, shops in Pakistan do not carry these charity boxes. Boxes having logos and pleas of various Islamic charity organisations and sectarian groups have now been replaced by boxes belonging to genuine charity organisations, such as the Edhi Foundation, The Shaukat Khanum Hospital Foundation, SUIT, The Kidney Centre, etc.

But some congested shopping areas in Karachi and Lahore still have a few shops that have boxes pleading charity for mosques. Some believe these are harmless, while others claim that the presence of these few boxes proves that the 'Islamist' charity box menace is not fully taken care of and may continue to raise funds for organisations bent on creating havoc in the name of Islam.