A Muslim Philanthropic Culture

SAFspace draws our attention to an interesting article about Toronto’s Jewish community and their philanthropy. She writes:

A colleague once told me of a hospital that had designed a state-of-the-art multifaith room with funds from donors of the various faith communities in Toronto. The walls of the room were etched with the names of donors, few of whom were Muslims. And yet, he said, Muslims were the ones who used the space most often. There is much to admire of those individuals who are able to recognize the worth of the communities within which they live and are willing to lend their support in whatever way possible. If only Muslims would compete with the ‘yahood’ in this way.

If we wish to compete then we have a lot of work to do. In a piece last year dealing with some of the issues or challenges faced by ‘religious philanthropy’, Philanthropy Magazine noted the scope of Jewish giving:

Two studies, both conducted in recent years but with different methodologies, show that Jewish philanthropists contribute the overwhelming majority of their dollars to universal, rather than Jewish, organizations and causes. In 1998, professor Jack Wertheimer studied the 232 foundations in America that self-identified as giving at least $200,000 to Jewish causes. He found that even these foundations gave nearly two-thirds of their annual funding, $487 million, to non-sectarian causes. Similarly, a 2003 report by Dr. Gary Tobin and colleagues at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research examined the 865 philanthropic gifts of $10 million or more made by all American donors between 1995 and 2000. While nearly 25 percent (188 gifts totaling $5.3 billion) were made by Jews, the Jewish mega-givers made fewer than 10 percent of their gifts to Jewish or Israeli organizations. While these two studies do not represent the full panoply of Jewish giving, most of which is by individuals giving much less than $10 million, it seems likely that the data capture the overall thrust of giving by Jews.

In Australia, Australian Jews have also been at the forefront of charitable giving. Organisations such as the Pratt Foundation, Smorgan Family Foundation, Besen Family Foundation, and others, have contributed millions to health, education and social welfare issues in this country. It takes only a casual walk through any of our major hospitals or universities to see that the contribution of Australian Jewry has been profound: the life of all Australians has been enriched by the presence of Jews in Australia. This is, of course, to say nothing of the equally profound intellectual contribution that Australian Jews have made to academia.

The reasons for Jewish philanthropy are well outside the scope of this piece, but perhaps one of the reasons is that Jews recognised, after centuries of persecution, that one of the most important bulwarks that they have against a repeat of past atrocities is to become active and valued members of the society; members whose contribution and commitment are beyond question. When so much of the infrastructure in a country owes itself to the kindness of its Jewish minority, it would be difficult for some demagogue to make the case that Jews are a ‘threat’ that must be eliminated.

Interestingly, the author of the article referenced above suggested that the traditional Jewish philanthropic focus on ‘universal causes’ may be to the detriment of issues specific to the Jewish community.

As we noted earlier, only a small proportion of Jewish philanthropy currently flows to Jewish causes. Since nearly half of even this limited amount is sent abroad (much of it to Israel), the resources available for Jewish needs in America are minimal. If Jews today were more literate in their own traditions and more successful in transmitting Judaism to future generations, then the meagerness of charitable contributions for Jewish religious life, especially Jewish education, would not matter as much. Sadly, the needs dramatically exceed the available funding.

Muslims — at least, Australian Muslims — don’t face such a dilemma. Our philanthropic contribution to this country has, in comparison, been rather meagre. With few exceptions, one cannot recall any major fundraising effort for a ‘universal cause’. However, in recent months, local groups have held fundraising campaigns for everything from the families of some recently arrest terrorism suspects to Egyptian orphans to building a mosque in the outer suburbs of Melbourne to feeding poor Somalians. When it comes to giving, the locus of concern for Australian Muslims seems to be ourselves — and, if not ourselves, then our co-religionists abroad.

Is this a good thing? There are certainly good arguments for why Muslims should also give towards projects that benefit the wider society: it demonstrates that we are part of that society and share the same concern for bettering our community; and we are ultimately working towards things that benefit us as individuals, such as the extension of medical facilities or the development of education institutions. At the same time, there are arguments to be made that the Muslim community is a young and relatively weak community and that its charity should be spent closer to home in developing institutions and infrastructure.

There needs to be a balance: we should continue to fundraise for meaningful causes within our community, but, at the same time, Muslims need to also work on projects that have a benefit that extends beyond our ghettos and co-religionists. Whilst we have been moderately successful with the former, we have not done nearly enough with the latter. In fact, it could seem to some observers that Australian Muslims are more interested in taking than we are in giving anything meaningful back to the society that has given us sanctuary, comfort and opportunity.

Charity is just one part of a bigger picture. We should, as a community, ask ourselves: is Australia better off by virtue of our presence here? If we were to assess the total contribution of Muslims to every aspect of this country, can we honestly say that Australia would be poorer intellectually, culturally, economically and spiritually if we were suddenly removed from the face of this earth?

Unfortunately, if we don’t start asking ourselves these sorts of questions soon, other people will be asking (and answering) them on our behalf.