Charity is not enough this Ramadan

Charity is not enough this Ramadan
6 min read
14 Jun, 2016
Comment: Ramadan is a time for reflection and charity, but Muslims must look beyond the contributions they can make as individuals, and push for democratic reform, writes Usaid Saddiqui
Bangladeshi Muslims give alms to those less fortunate after prayers [Getty]

Ramadan - the holiest month in the Islamic calendar - started last week and will see millions of Muslims fasting from sunrise to sunset. Designated as one of the five pillars of Islam, the month is supposed to serve as a reminder of all that is good in life and a time to be grateful for God's blessings. During this time, Muslims should show empathy with those who have less, and contribute to charitable causes.

However, Ramadan might also be a time to reflect on much more than just the physical and psychological suffering of others; it is a period for reflecting on the link between the material excesses of a few and the poverty that affects millions of Muslims across the globe.

Understanding the political and economic dynamics of poverty can help us comprehend that poverty is not irreversible and need not be inflicted upon fellow Muslims, and others.

Poverty in the Muslim world

Of those living in Muslim states, it is estimated that an astounding 40 percent live below the poverty line. According to the Human Development Report published in 2002 by the United Nations, 36 of 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) were ranked among the least developed nations in the world. 

Widespread poverty means it is hardly surprising these countries are facing a crisis when it comes to providing basic services such as healthcare and education.

A study conducted by the World Bank in 2002 found that in Egypt, approximately 46 percent of the population was illiterate while "40% had a basic education or less". A UNICEF report on child poverty in the country found 23 percent of children under the age of 15 living on under $1 a day.

"A child who lives in poverty rarely gets a second chance at education or a healthy start in life" said Sigrid Kaag, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2013, the World Economic Forum ranked Egypt last among 148 countries for the quality of its primary education, with overcrowding in schools and a lack of dedicated teachers cited as major obstacles. The report claims that to gain a good education, parents have to enrol their children in private tuition classes, which are beyond the scope of many hailing from poor backgrounds.

Muslim-led governments have however failed to tackle these issues, with governments populated by elites voraciously lining their pockets while the poor keep getting poorer.

The Tahrir Square protests that mesmerised the Middle East were not only a cry for democracy, but for a more economically equal society

Since Hosni Mubarak's rule began in the 80s, he has worked closely with his American counterparts to liberalise the Egyptian economy; overseeing a huge shift to neoliberal policies that have little economic benefit for the majority of the populace. In doing so, those who are already part of upper class strata, or well-connected with the military junta have become extremely prosperous.

"The privatisation of public services enriched well-connected cronies while putting education and health care out of reach for many…" said Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics, regarding the swing towards neoliberalism under Mubarak. Furthermore, he added that "elimination of subsidies and tariff undermined local businesses and drove up unemployment rates... and the tax burden was shifted from the rich to the poor".

The Tahrir Square protests that mesmerised the Middle East were not only a cry for democracy, but a more economically equal society. Much to the disappointment of many, the Islamic-oriented and first democratically elected party in Egypt in decades - the Muslim Brotherhood - announced similar economic guidelines to their military predecessors.

Under Morsi, the former regime's economic policy continued, as demonstrated by a preliminary agreement made securing a $4 billion loan from the IMF.

In neighbouring Tunisia - arguably where the Arab Spring originated when a street vendor in Tunis self-immolated after his economic woes got the better of him - policies comparable to those under Mubarak were in practice years before the fall of the regime in 2011.

The structural adjustment programs of the IMF in the 80s led to the liberalisation of the economy favoring the rich; including the then ruling Ben-Ali family, which is said to have controlled 220 companies acquiring 21 percent of the country's wealth while only producing 3 percent of its economic output. 

Tackling poverty with reform

The silver lining to such depravity is that poverty need not be permanent or widespread. Millions in developing countries like Venezuela and Bolivia have seen their lives change for the better as left-leaning governments have taken steps to lift the poorest out of poverty.

The policies of the late Hugo Chavez although lambasted in western economic circles, included a redistribution of wealth using the country's enormous oil resources that drastically reduced the poverty rate in Venezuela, which during 2003-2009 dropped by more than half from 54 percent to 26 percent, with extreme poverty falling by 72 percent.

In Bolivia, left-wing leader Evo Morales passed a bill in 2006 that vowed to take over large swathes of land and distribute it amongst the majority indigenous people who had, for centuries, been on the margins of society. The policy resulted in peasants and indigenous groups owning 55 percent, or 88 million acres of titled land by 2013, many of whom previously had not a cent to their name.

In contrast, in Pakistan, the second largest Muslim country in the world, it is estimated that as recently as 2013, five percent of people owned a staggering 64 percent of the country's total farmland. 

Attempts at eradicating poverty in the Muslim world will require Muslims to call on their rulers to create a more just society

The elected politicians are overwhelmingly involved in the feudal system: Eighty percent of representatives in Punjab, and 90 percent in Sindh - the first and second largest provinces in the country respectively - are also feudal lords.

In discussing land reforms, Pakistani writer Nikhat Sattar says that Islam makes clear that rulers "must ensure a socially just, economically equitable and fair society, with land distributed amongst citizens in such a way that they are not exploited by a few".

The second Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab strictly forbade his conquering armies to seize land from locals, ensuring that accumulated land did not unjustly fall into the hands of a few. As author Moin Qazi writes in his biography of the Caliph, such orders made the Coptic population in Egypt more trusting of its Muslim rulers than former rulers, the Christian Byzantines.  

Keeping this mind, it is fairly obvious that we must look beyond our contributions in an individual capacity (no matter how generous or commendable) to resolve an issue that is largely systemic.

Attempts to eradicate poverty in the Muslim world will require Muslims to call on their rulers to create a more just society; based on the fair allocation of our collective resources and wealth, as necessitated by our faith and practiced by highly revered leaders like Caliph Umar.

Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.