Charities given zeal of approval
By KATHY GANNON, The Globe and Mail
KABUL -- Before giving away five freshly baked pieces of bread, Atta Mohammed carefully studied the soiled white card offered up by a small boy.
The bread was cooked at a bakery run by Al-Rasheed Trust, the largest of several new Islamic charities to open in Afghanistan. The boy, Hamid, is the son of a government worker who likely earns less than $4 (U.S.) a month and so must hand over proof of his need for the charity.
In just four months, Kabul's landscape has changed: White signs emblazoned with the name of the Pakistani-based trust have suddenly appeared on every other street.
"The money is collected from Muslim clerics all over the world," Mr. Mohammed said. Most aid recipients in Afghanistan are poorly paid government servants.
In an advertisement beseeching the faithful for money, Al-Rasheed Trust asks: "When will the Islamic world wake up for Islam?"
"If there exists just one Islamic non-government organization, then there is no need for other NGOs to come here," said Naim Safi of the Taliban Information Ministry.
After five years of virtual Taliban control of Afghanistan, it is only now that Islamic charities have begun to arrive in the country in significant numbers. Their proliferation coincides with an attempt by the Taliban to impose controls on international -- mostly Western -- aid organizations.
This year, the Taliban ordered every aid organization, including the United Nations, to submit a list of Afghan and foreign employees, detail their projects and explain their finances. The Taliban also threatened to take over some groups and shut down others.
Most recently, authorities closed three Western aid organizations on charges of preaching Christianity -- a serious crime in the Muslim nation -- arresting eight foreign and 16 Afghan workers.
The arrests of the Afghans terrorized other aid workers, who fear they will be accused of flirting with Christianity -- a crime that can carry the death penalty.
Some Western aid workers worry the Taliban will try to force out international aid groups.
"If they can bring in the Islamic NGOs and kick us out they would be happy because we are a pain, we complain about human rights, we are witnesses," said an international aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some of the new Islamic organizations are secretive and refuse interviews.
Al-Rasheed Trust has links with the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed and its radical leader, Massood Azhar -- one of three men freed from Indian jails in 1999 in exchange for a hijacked Indian plane and its passengers.
Two other groups -- Al Akhtar Trust and Al Mujahedeen Trust -- are Pakistani-based and share the Taliban's strict brand of Islam. Their leaders criticize Western aid organizations as purveyors of obscenity, vulgarity and Christianity.
Al Akhtar is building mosques and repairing a military hospital in Kandahar, where the Taliban headquarters is located. It is building a university for men and a mosque for women. But no schools will be built for women, says Mohammed Mazhar, the Pakistani head of the organization.
In Kabul, Al Akhtar runs aid projects at an orphanage for boys 13 years and older.
Al Mujahedeen Trust was started by Pakistan's radical Islamic leader, Fazl-ur Rehman, who has campaigned in Pakistan against international aid organizations. He accuses them of flouting tradition and trying to liberate women.
Then there is the Wafaa Organization for Humanitarian Work, run on donations from Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. The head of the organization refuses to speak to women. It operates health and education programs in Kabul.
In four months, Al-Rasheed Trust has set up 29 bakeries to provide bread to the poor in Kabul. It plans eventually to operate 50 bakeries, one-third the number operated by the UN World Food Program in Kabul.
"That's not a small amount," said Peter Goossens, a WFP representative in Kabul. "Until Al-Rasheed came on the scene it was just us.
"You see the increase in Islamic aid groups because we are getting more applications for food programs from international Islamic NGOs. You rarely saw them in the past."
Other new Islamic aid organizations are based in Kuwait, Sudan and other Arab countries. All say their money is private.
Not all new Islamic charities espouse the same strict version of Islam practised by the Taliban.
The Canadian Relief Foundation, an Islamic group based in Canada, came here last November. "The whole idea is to bring NGOs representing the Muslims of North America and Europe to Afghanistan," said Fadil Dillman, a Canadian who heads the Canadian Relief Foundation in Kabul. "I think this will lead really toward the improvement of the image of Afghanistan."