French Islamic charity accused of funding terrorists
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A French Islamic charity has been accused of raising funds for jihadist groups in Syria, in a case that is worrying other Muslim NGOs who fear being branded as supporting terrorists.
Perle d’Espoir (which means Pearl of Hope) advertises itself as a humanitarian charity. It was set up in Paris in 2012 to provide medical and food aid to the war-torn Syrian population.
The NGO is currently under investigation for allegedly giving financial and material support to terrorist groups.
What defines an Islamic NGO?
According to Idriss Sihamedi, president of Barakacity, an Islamic NGO “collects legitimate donations that respond to specific needs according to Islamic law”. These donations are redistributed in the form of food, clothing and medical assistance to civilian victims of war “regardless of their religious faith”.
Paris-Sud University Professor Khattar Abu Diab describes Islamic NGOs as having similar philosophies to Christian NGOs such as British charity Christian Aid and international Catholic organisation Caritas.
One of its directors, Nabil O (the family name cannot be given for legal reasons) is accused of embezzling the NGO’s funds before joining an armed group in Syria at the beginning of 2014. The case went before a Paris court in November.
Other French Islamic charities are worried: how damaging is a case like this to their reputations and efforts to provide genuine humanitarian assistance?
Idriss Sihamedi is the head of Islamic NGO BarakaCity which provides food, clothing and medical help to civilians in Syria, Gaza, Jordan – and also DR Congo.
Sihamedi told FRANCE 24 the Perle d’Espoir case risked undermining the good work of many other Islamic organisations, and that he himself has been the subject of “unfounded” allegations.
“Muslim associations are the subject of a growing number of serious misconceptions,” he said. Earlier this month, RTL radio accused BarakaCity of working beyond its remit – namely Islamic recruitment. They didn’t have “a shred of proof”, Sihamedi said.
“Completely unfounded suspicions like this opens the door to far more serious allegations such as contributing to the ‘jihad industry’,” he added. “We do not finance armed groups. We operate in total transparency.”
The accusations against Perle d’Espoir are not without precedent and many NGOs, either Islamic or simply operating in the Middle East, have been accused of helping terror groups.
Former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, director of UK-based charity Cage, was arrested earlier in 2014 on terror charges (which were later dropped).
Turkish NGO IHH (Foundation for Human Rights, Liberties, and Humanitarian Relief), which made international headlines in 2010 for sending a three-ship flotilla to break the Gaza blockade, was accused by British daily The Times in 2012 of shipping arms to Syria through its contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood.
And Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi, one of the founders of Geneva-based humanitarian NGO AlKarama (which means “Dignity” in Arabic) was accused by the UN of being a financier and facilitator for al Qaeda in 2013, and named a “Specially Designated Terrorist” by the US Treasury department in the same year. He resigned from his role as president of the council in the course of the summer, Alkarama said.
Western NGOs also flawed
“It is perfectly legitimate to question the links between humanitarianism and terrorism,” Khattar Abou Diab, professor and geopolitical consultant at Paris Sud University, told FRANCE 24. “But it would be a mistake to say that this is a purely Muslim phenomenon.”
His view is backed by Alain Rodier, a French terrorism and military intelligence specialist.
“Any organisation that has any kind of influence in a war zone exerts a political influence,” he told FRANCE 24.
“For NGOs this became obvious during the 1980s conflict in Afghanistan [against the Soviet occupation]. “Back then NGOs, both western and Islamic, used their activities to support the terrorists as well as Arabic, notably Saudi, intelligence services.”
The legacy of the connivance with terrorists and spy agencies has never really disappeared.
“These suspicions become even harder to eradicate when it surfaces that an NGO like Perle d’Espoir may have – even unknowingly - jihadist militants in its ranks,” explained Khattar Abou Diab.
“There are certainly some people who exploit their positions in NGOs to spread religious dogma or to give funds and aid to the wrong people,” he added.
“But this is no reason to tar all Islamic NGOs with the same brush. The vast majority of these organisations do 100 percent humanitarian work.”
‘I shouldn’t have to justify my activities’
There is also a geopolitical dimension, said FRANCE 24’s specialist on Islamist militant groups Wassim Nasr.
“We must not fall into the trap of thinking that just because an organisation is Islamic its sole purpose is to provide support to jihadists,” he said. “But it is also important to differentiate between NGOs based in Europe and the West, and those based in Arab countries who are often sponsored by, or working for, their governments [Saudi, Qatari etc.].”
Barakacity’s Idriss Sihamedi is exasperated – he wants to get on with his job of providing aid to those who need it most and does not want to be drawn in to defending other France-based Islamic NGOs.
His association cooperated with the authorities and is so transparent that “we are as clear as spring water,” he told FRANCE 24.
“We raise around eight million euros a year and it is used to help civilian victims of war regardless of their religious beliefs,” he said. “And when we are in the field we never ask for donors because we can never be sure of their political affiliations.”
“I shouldn’t have to justify my activities because of something that I didn’t do or that doesn’t concern my organisation,” he added. “But I am forced to do so, and it makes me angry. Perle d’Espoir is Perle d’Espoir, and Barakacity is Barakacity. End of story.”
(Translated by Tony Todd)