Devex News | Sharif Aly: How Islamic Relief has dealt with disinformation

Islamic Relief USA supports A Day of Dignity, an event focused on helping marginalized people in the community in the U.S. Photo by: USA Today via Reuters

 

“For Islamic Relief USA, the last few years have brought a mix of ups and downs. On the one hand, the organization’s income has doubled in five years, largely on the back of the generosity of Muslim American donors.

On the other hand, the organization — which started as a humanitarian NGO but now also runs development programs in a number of fields — has faced continued threats to its reputation.

CEO Sharif Aly told Devex that as a result of these controversies, his nonprofit and its sister charities have had to take care to combat the impact of disinformation, an issue he will address next month at Devex World, the biennial flagship conference for the development sector, which takes place on July 12 in Washington, D.C.

A common accusation is that IRUSA and its sister charities support terrorism. Islamic Relief Worldwide, the secretariat body for 12 Islamic Relief charities in different countries including IRUSA, has been added to prohibited lists of terrorist organization in some countries.

This series illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes.

In the U.S., similar allegations have been leveled. There have been attempts from both executive and legislative branches to limit funding. In 2017, a Republican congressman, Ron DeSantis, now governor of Florida, introduced an amendment to a government bill which would have prevented any state funding going to IRW. A similar attempt to limit IRW funding was made by the U.S. Department of State in the final hours of the Trump administration, an Islamic Relief spokesperson has previously told Devex.

The risk of reputational damage was compounded in 2020 and 2021 after trustees of IRW were found to have made antisemitic tweets. The U.K. Charity Commission investigated, found that IRW had taken prompt action, and closed its case. IRW has since appointed an independent commission to review its governance, and instituted reforms.

“Islamic Relief is a nonpartisan actor,” Aly said. “We are where we are purely for humanitarian reasons. But we’ve found that disinformation and misinformation are often used to delegitimize our institution. We tend to be caught in the crosshairs of geopolitics, unfortunately.”

Aly identifies three principal sources of disinformation about Muslim nonprofits. One, he says, is a small but vocal pro-Israel lobby who see Muslim NGOs as a threat to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Another is a group of Muslim countries which want to limit civil society within their borders, and have in some cases labeled IRW as a terrorist organization. A third group is trying to protect Hindu interests in India, whose 200 million Muslims are a significant minority.

When dealing with foreign governments in particular, he said, NGOs such as Islamic Relief have to take care.

“In many cases, we’re collateral damage in these governments’ real agenda,” he said. “We’re just a pawn in the chess game.”

One of the biggest negative impacts, Aly said, has been banking. Islamic Relief needs to transfer money all around the world, in order to get resources to the communities it serves. But many banks see the organization as too high risk.

“This impacts us very much operationally,” he said. “It’s not just a PR issue.” He said the organization’s account with Bank of America was closed after 23 years, as was a PayPal account, and that “A couple of financial institutions wouldn’t even onboard us to join their platform.”

“We’d been vetted, we’ve received U.S. government funding, we’ve received funding from governments including Canada, U.K., Sweden, Germany and others. But at the same time, the allegations don’t go away, and financial institutions are hesitant to engage with us,” he said.

These reputational attacks have created an environment in which it is easy to self-censor and find yourself on the defensive, he said. Sometimes, the perception of prejudice is enough.

“During the Trump administration, President Trump sometimes used language that was very derogatory or Islamophobic,” Aly said. “His policies didn’t actually reflect that all the time, but his language itself created a perception that our institutions were at risk. Once that perception exists, you’re operating from a deficit, you’re operating from a fear perspective. It makes you reactive and defensive, rather than being proactive and focused on your mission. You’re constantly wondering, is there going to be a specific designation against our institution? Are there going to be investigations? And that can lead you to make a mistake. So the pressure is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

 “In many cases, we’re collateral damage in these governments’ real agenda. We’re just a pawn in the chess game.”

— Sharif Aly, CEO at Islamic Relief USA

However disinformation and criticism has been a two-edged sword. While it might have hit trust levels with the public, press, and politicians, it has also made the charity’s core supporters rally around. IRUSA gets more than 90% of its funding from Muslim Americans, Aly said — and it’s those supporters who have doubled the organization’s income over the last few years.

“I think there are a few reasons for that,” he said. “Our brand is very well known in the Muslim American community, who are looking for trusted outlets and sources for their charitable giving.”

Other reasons he cited included the organization’s online presence — including a relatively new stewardship model of funding to cultivate major donors — and the effects of COVID-19, which he says precipitated increased giving to faith-based institutions. “But I also think our community, if it feels attacked, tends to consolidate. People say ‘They’re attacking one of our institutions, let’s make sure we support that institution even more now.’”

Aly said that scrutiny and criticism have led IRUSA to respond on multiple fronts. One was simply making sure all programs were scrupulously compliant — “that our I’s were dotted and our T’s were crossed,” controls he said that every organization should have in place, negative press notwithstanding. “We wanted to make sure that our processes would not leave room for any speculation or allegations against our institution,” he said.

Islamic Relief USA has also been working hard to tackle misinformation in cyberspace. They noticed that misinformation was gaining purchase particularly via search engines, “so in about 2016 or so, we engaged with marketing folks who could help us with search engine optimization, to ensure that the right things were being amplified,” Aly said.

IRUSA has also put emphasis on building trust with the U.S. government — it’s had a government relations office since 2008, he says — and with fellow NGOs through InterAction and the Charity & Security Network. The group has also stepped up domestic work, partly in a bid to prove to politicians, the press, and the public that its programs are beneficial. IRUSA works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on disaster response within the U.S., and helped with COVID-19 vaccinations for vulnerable people. It’s also helping to resettle Afghan refugees within the U.S.

Meanwhile, Islamic Relief Worldwide last year made changes to its governance structure, both to give stronger oversight of the organization’s activities, and to address outside concerns.

For Aly, it is vital that IRUSA is successful in addressing criticism, and is not deterred from continuing to offer aid.

“We need to make sure the national humanitarian space is inclusive, where all people are able to provide services to those in need,” he said. ‘I think it’s important that we don’t close civil society space for political purposes.’”

 

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