When Dr Hany El-Banna founded Islamic Relief it had no office and had to win over the Muslim community. It is now one of the most respected international faith groups in the world. Andrew Holt traces Dr Hany’s vision and journey
Many charities are used to undertaking their missions in difficult, war torn areas, but, Dr Hany El-Banna, founder of Islamic Relief has made it something of a virtue. Iraq, Chechnya, Palestine, Afghanistan are just some of the 40 countries Islamic Relief now covers as part of its international remit to alleviate poverty and suffering of the world’s poorest people. In so doing, Dr Hany has built Islamic Relief into the largest Western-based international Muslim charity and development NGO.
It, like many faith-based international charities, had humble beginnings: created in 1984 in Birmingham after Dr Hany had attended a medical conference in Sudan in 1983 during a time of famine in the region. The poverty and desperation he witnessed compelled him to return to the UK and set up Islamic Relief as an organisation to help people in need.
“There was a need for the people in the whole of Africa at that time, which shocked me. There was a swift reaction in Britain, led by Live Aid, and I felt as a medical student the Muslim community did not do much or, were not recognised.” So he started with his family in Cairo and raised £100 (1,000 Egyptian pounds).
A bank account was then opened. “We then went from Mosque to Mosque,street to street, shop-to-shop, community centre to community centre to raise money. This is how we started: with no office, no strategy, no telephone, no fax, just a door-to-door collection. There was no big name, no bid strategy documents, just a desire to focus on the people in need.”
From 1984-86 the charity did not have an office. Then in 1987 they occupied an office under some stairs in a Birmingham community centre and were able to invest in a telephone and a computer was donated. “The computer was like a showpiece, we looked at it in amazement but I didn’t know how to use it, somebody else did that.” In 1988 a fax machine arrived.
What happened next was the slow, but deeply impressive development into the charity Islamic Relief is today: an international organisation with an income over £58m.
This process began during 1989-90, with the Sudan floods in 1989, followed by the Bangladesh floods, Armenia earthquake, and Iran earthquake in 1990, Islamic Relief was often the first to respond.
So the charity started picking-up a pace of support as it reacted quickly to each event. “We responded to each swiftly, and got a lot of recognition from local and national media. Fundraising then went from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands.” Then the Iraq-Kuwait invasion started in 1991, and with the help of Virgin Atlantic Islamic Relief shipped 30 tonnes of aid into the region. The approach was to work with the local community to start with, such as in Sudan, Islamic Relief worked with the African Muslim Committee.
“As we raised a decent amount of money, we opened field offices in Sudan and Bangladesh and sent in our own people and volunteers, as you have to start building a link. In Iran, people were divided on Ayatollah Khomeini, but we focused on the people, which helped us to grow.”
Then came the Bosnian conflict which pushed Islamic Relief from being a charity with an income of hundreds of thousands to the millions. “We learnt a lot from the Bosnian war and from the Afghanistan war. In the latter, we did not have an office.We opened an office in Pakistan in 1992- 93.
“In Afghanistan the Mujahideen used to come and raise funds for arms publicly. And everyone was penalized for it. And this is how politicians can drown the community.
“So we learnt this should not happen in Bosnia. We opened our books to the international community from the time of Bosnia and had partnerships with the UN.We started to receive the first funding from the then IDA.We learned the philosophy of communication, with the big players.”
Then came September 11th. “A big debate occurred within Islamic Relief on what to do.We decided to stand-up and deliver a message [on humanitarian Islam]. And we managed to swim with that. Prince Charles came to the office in November 2001.”
But the immediate knock-on impact from 2002 was that people were scared to give money. This though changed in 2003, and donations went up rapidly. “I think that was because we were clear during the [September 11th] crisis.We did not hide and people knew we had nothing to hide.”
Islamic Relief’s message was also very clear, as only two individuals were allowed to speak to the media: Dr Hany and his deputy. “Also through delivery, on the ground people had come to know us. The British Government, through DIFID’s Clare Short, gave us £1m for Afghanistan. So the relationship with government was very good.”
Interestingly, the biggest challenge in the early days was establishing community trust with the charity. “Even the Muslim community was suspicious of us,” Dr Hany admits. For the first three years, the charity was very cautiously received.
“Our message went strategically through a student organization to overcome Mosque prejudice. Mosques can classify you. And you have to go through the Iman to raise funds. “I was once kicked-out from in-front of a Mosque. It was
during Eid and I was distributing some leaflets and raising money, and the Mosque Guard came and took the box. They did give the money back, but that was the feeling.”
Much has been said and written about Islamophobia, how does he view this? “It was never as bad as it is now,” he confesses. “The prejudice came after the Iranian Revolution, and through the media a different face of Islam, so the public started to become scared. Then the Salman Rushdie case added to this, and was a community issue, because Rushdie was British. It was during the first Iraq war that this spilled over. The UK National Security started searching who was doing what for Iraq and some of them came to our offices in London.
“They took everything, including cheques and I was in Germany at the time. They called me for a meeting at a police station and to investigate me. After a couple of meetings they dropped everything, because they found nothing.We cleverly prevented the Muslim media from reporting it.”
The charity has also had offices in Gaza since 1997 and had dealings with Hamas, when he was asked: ‘Are you dealing above the table or under the table?’ He replied: “I am here for these camps. I am here for the people of Palestine. At no time since 1997, has the money been stopped.”
Urbane in manner and outlook, Dr Hany’s focus has always been on the humanitarian aspects of Islam. But religion and faith can divide, where can this hurdle be overcome? “The hurdle is in the intention of the workers, who have come to change the faith of others, and this is very difficult. That is why I say come follow me to sign a nonconverted policy, to see the test. There is a line between being passionate and being emotional.”
What then in all the places have been the most challenging? “There are many different types of challenges: Palestine and Iraq it was how to get in, Afghanistan was difficult geographically, and in term of perception, Chechnya was a shoot to kill country and whether you would come back was uncertain, Bosnia was not as bad, and Kashmir was difficult as a no-go-area.”
Dr Hany received an OBE in 2004 in recognition of his work and stood down as Islamic Relief president in 2008.
He is though, not stopping. One of his new projects is the Humanitarian Forum, which Dr Hany describes as a strategic bridge between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities to build trust, confidence and talk together.
“This will take years,” he admits. So he has his work cut out for some time to come.