TOPICS : Arab charity is blooming, no thanks to US

Oil and conflict. These are the two topics that dominate news coverage of the Middle East. But there are signs that amid headlines that scream of suicide bombings and surging energy costs, a quiet social movement is under way — one that could help alleviate some deep-rooted problems of the Arab world.

Last month, while much of the globe watched the oft-hyped World Economic Forum, a first-of-its-kind summit of Arab philanthropists was held in this Persian Gulf city. Middle East royalty and Egyptian businessmen mixed with Lebanese activists and other humanitarian do-gooders to find ways to aid their troubled region. And they carried a pointed message to the Bush administration: Stop making the war on terror a war on Arab goodwill.

The charitable impulses of Arab billionaires and others are growing. Building on a long tradition of zakat, the Islamic version of tithing, philanthropy in the Mideast looks strikingly similar to that of Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie and seeks to make profound social changes. Consider the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who pledged $10 billion last year to his own foundation. If this were an American grant-maker, it would be the third largest in the country, according to Chronicle of Philanthropy figures. The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation will focus its largess on bolstering education, supporting entrepreneurship, and fostering cultural understanding by translating both classic and modern Arabic books into other languages.

But to get organised and be effective aren’t easy tasks. Most Arabic nations have murky laws governing nonprofits and charitable giving; support for human rights and democracy is often a taboo subject, and, not least of all, American policy is an obstacle. Since Sept. 11, the US has viewed Arab donors with a suspicious eye, accusing them of using their money to fund madrassahs or terrorist training camps.

When Warren Buffett publicly pledged most of his fortune to The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006, he inspired other gifts to the fund, including the $35 “life savings” of a 7-year-old. Aside from government scrutiny of giving, Arab philanthropy has also been criticised because it simply may come from a donor with a different viewpoint from the recipient’s.

Many terrorism experts say that Al Qaeda, Hizbullah and other militant groups use charities as a front to raise money for their operations. But a focus only on cracking down on illegal gifts hurts the region, conference participants said. Why doesn’t the country that invented modern philanthropy do more to support it in the Middle East? Why not help Arab nations implement better non-profit laws that promote, as well as regulate, giving?

I have seen what philanthropy and charities can accomplish in disaster-ridden areas like Sri Lanka after the tsunami and in post-Katrina New Orleans. Perhaps a similar humanitarian spirit can generate home-grown solutions in the Arab world. — The Christian Science Monitor