Britain is one of the richest and largest economies and is rightly known as the most charitable developed nation on earth. Sadly, despite this richness as well as superiority in the charity sector, the country is marred with rising wealth inequality and social deprivation. Years of economic insecurity since 2008, exacerbated by austerity in recent years, have seen the huge rise of food bank use across the UK. The anti-poverty charity, the Trussell Trust, "provided 1,182,954 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis between April 2016 and March 2017. Of these, 436,000 went to children."
An increased usage of food banks is not the only concern in modern Britain; many people are also struggling with deteriorating household poverty, homelessness and rough sleeping. While British charities can continue providing invaluable emergency relief and support to people in other parts of the world, necessity demands that more attention should be given to alleviate the domestic economic hardships.
The same can be expected from the burgeoning British Muslim charity sector as well. The Muslim community is comparatively new in Britain and in spite of its relative poverty and under-achievement; its charity sector is one of its strongest assets and makes a significant impact on helping the needy globally. The Muslim charity sector rose to prominence in the 1980s as a response to the humanitarian crisis in Africa and has since multiplied, thanks to the commitment from the community's youth. It is now acknowledged that Muslims are among Britain's most generous givers.
One of the major factors for Muslims outperforming others is because of the unique month of Ramadan when believers open their hearts for others and stretch their hands towards fellow human beings in difficulties. The month, though aimed mainly towards spiritual elevation and self-restraint for Muslims, creates the spirit and environment of giving preference to other human beings. Generally, the Muslim psyche automatically switches to a 'selflessness mode' in this month of fasting. It is not surprising that a small community donated around £100 million to charities during last Ramadan.
Charity giving (Arabic: Sadaqah) is central to Muslim social life. While Zakat, as a pillar of Islam, is a compulsory financial obligation for Muslim individuals who can afford it, charity giving is highly recommended for every Muslim. The concept of Sadaqah is unique; believers are reminded that by giving they are not doing needy people a favour, rather the former are giving the latter their right ("And in their wealth the beggar and the destitute have due share", Qur'an 51:19).
There are serious reasons for why most of the Muslim charity spending goes abroad. As some Muslim majority countries are going through chaos in recent times due to the absence of effective central authorities and the continuous trauma of war, these countries are producing a higher number of refugees and internally displaced people. The situation is heart breaking; people are in desperate need and rely on international help. Muslim charities cannot simply shy away from their responsibilities in helping them.
But, it is also imperative that the Muslim charity sector does not ignore what is happening around them - long-term and consistent - in their own neighbourhoods, communities and the overall society in Britain. Some charities have already taken steps to raise funds for causes in Britain and are spending here. The National Zakat Foundation NZF has been collecting and distributing Zakat and Sadaqah funds to tackle poverty within the UK for some years. Muslim Aid took an initiative in the name of "charity should begin at home" a few years ago with an aim to helping the elderly in the communities and end poverty. "There are always people much closer to home who are also in need of our assistance", it said.
There is no reliable information on how much the Muslim charity sector spends on domestic needs. It is now increasingly felt that more selective attention should be given to help those in desperate needs in their own community as well as the vulnerable sections of wider British society.
The Muslim community may be young, but the number of elderly people in care homes is on the rise. There are also those who have fallen into rough sleeping and homelessness. Some sections in the community are also disproportionately affected by health problems, drugs issues and educational underachievement. They often fall through the net of supports provided by the government and mainstream charity sector. As someone involved with a homeless charity, Caritas Anchor House, I am sadly aware that over one third of its beneficiaries come from Muslim background.
Against this backdrop of austerity and poverty, it is highly recommended that Muslim charities, especially the large international organisations, re-evaluate their priorities and increase their focus on the domestic needs of British Muslims as well as other vulnerable people of our society. Their work abroad can and should continue but the needs of those closest to home should not be secondary.
The statutory sector is struggling to cope with the needs of the aging population. Mental health problems, poverty and general inequality are on the rise. Our Muslim charity sector can bring its expertise and join hands with others to tackle the growing needs inside Britain. Charity should always begin at home even in our globally connected world.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, parenting consultant and author.