Grand Ayatullah (marj’a) Sayyid Abul Qasim Musawi Al-Khoei, one of the most influential Shi’a Islamic scholars, established The Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation in 1989. The Foundation’s concern is to continue the charitable and educational functions historically associated with the office of the marj’aiyya, the institution of the highest-ranking Shi’i leadership. While its traditional, mainstream base of support is of course to be found in Shi’a populations, the Foundation has been striving for an anti-sectarian, unifying approach to build peaceful and tolerant communities.
The Foundation has branches around the world, including in London, New York, Montreal, Paris, Islamabad, Karachi and Mumbai and has grown to become the largest International Shi’a Muslim organization. It operates numerous schools, colleges, universities, Islamic and community centers around the world.
In 1997 the Foundation became the fourth Muslim organization – and the only Shi’a Muslim organization – to hold General Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, where it currently promotes work in development, human rights and minority rights. The Foundation’s officers have helped monitor elections in Iraq as well as voting booths in Europe. In pursuing its founder’s vision the foundation endeavors to take on a holistic approach to development, which goes beyond the traditional fields of development, as they are often practiced by many bilateral and international agencies in a disparate and isolated manner. The Foundation attempts to work under the rubric of “human security” which attempts to encompass humanitarianism, development, human rights and conflict resolution all at the same time.
SHAFAQNA – You represent the Al-Khoei Foundation at the UN. Can you please summarize your role within the organization and explain briefly how you weigh in on the issues discussed at the UN?
Al-Khoei Foundation has had General Consultative Status with the United Nations since 1998. As a representative of the Al-Khoei Foundation at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, my role involves
Lobbying Member States to improve on their human rights record and ensure greater freedom of religion or belief.
Drawing global attention to the devastating life-long consequences of extremism and the Daesh crimes, specifically against ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East, including the Christians, Turkmen, Fayli Kurds and others.
Building a broad and effective coalition of partners that currently or previously raised the issue of extremism and violations of human rights based on religion or belief.
To lobby Mission Representatives and Special Rapporteurs for effective legislation to protect sacred places of worship and heritage from damage and destruction. We publish various reports on these subject matter.
To lobby for effective legislation against the use of public forum and social media to promote hate speech.
My previous oral interventions to the Human Rights Council include calling for investigations into crimes carried out by terrorist groups along with raising concerns about hate ideologies against Shias. We have also condemned attacks against other religious groups and called for the protection and preservation of their heritage sites.
SHAFAQNA – The Al-Khoei Foundation has always been a strong advocate of interfaith collaboration and tolerance among communities – how has this translated in your work. Is there any particular project or dossier the Al-Khoei Foundation has been pushing forward?
Since its birth, the Al-Khoei Foundation has dedicated its efforts to working with a variety of religious bodies and interfaith initiatives to present Shia Islam to the wider world and coordinate on shared objectives.
At a national level they have collaborated with several leading Jewish and Christian institutions, including the Church of England and the Catholic Church, along with participating in initiatives such as ‘Peace One Day’, ‘Intra-faith Unity Statement’ and the ‘Big Iftar’. At an international level, the Foundation has engaged in dialogue and exchanged visits with the Vatican among other institutions. It collaborates with the Elijah Interfaith Institute and has participated in various other international conferences such as the World Alliance of Religions Peace Summit and the Danish-Arab Interfaith Dialogue.
The inter and intra faith work of the Foundation has given me the opportunity to engage with other faith groups in order to enhance my own understandings along with participating in several events.
SHAFAQNA – The UN has lost a lot of its standing over the past years, to the point where observers have dismissed this international body as redundant. As a delegate at the UN do you feel that the system is broken? Can positive still be channelled through the UN?
The UN is a broad entity and I deal specifically with the Human Rights Council, which gives NGOs the opportunity to express their views and concerns. Whilst the big powers and states have stronger resources to influence the system, we use the available platform to express ourselves and be a voice for not only the Shias, but all other oppressed minorities. Through oral interventions, side events and meetings with Special Rapporteurs and states, we highlight the issues that are not usually discussed by mainstream media.
SHAFAQNA – Could discuss some of the projects you have worked on for the Al-Khoei Foundation to give our readers a better understanding of the organization?
Whilst focusing on the UN Human Rights Council, I also do social development work related to Al-Kawthar Project. Al-Kawthar is a non-profit initiative providing humanitarian aid and everyday basic necessities including medical care, education and microfinance to widows and orphans in Iraq. Since its establishment in 2010, Al-Kawthar has been sponsoring over 420 orphans, whilst looking after 1000 others excluding 600 widows.
Eradicating poverty and empowering women is Al-Kawthar’s ultimate vision, inspired by the previous Millennium Development Goals and the current Sustainable Development Goals. We strongly believe in the importance of our role in contributing towards the goals and targets set out by the United Nations in tackling global issues. With the aid of technology and efficient human resources, Al-Kawthar is able to operate in Iraq from its head quarter office in London.
Besides fundraising and shedding light on the plight of widows and orphans in Iraq, we continuously strive to develop frameworks that will keep widows financially sustainable and explore models that will empower them within their cultural and religious boundaries.
Along with being part of the Interfaith Committee that hosts interfaith events and encourages dialogue with other religions, I am also part of Al-Khoei Foundation’s academic arm, CASS (Centre of Shia Studies) which was established in 2009 with the aim of promoting original, contemporary, and impartial scholarship on Shia Islam and Muslims. The Centre also endeavours to establish itself as a consultative body that offers analytical frameworks for a number of bodies and organisations, ranging from NGOs, media outlets, academic researchers, journalists, to governmental bodies. I am also currently completing a report for CASS on the subject of Anti-Shiism.
The Al-Khoei Foundation also participated in visiting Calais Refugee Camp in order to provide some aid and spiritual support to the Refugees. Students at our school Al-Sadiq Al-Zahra also held a fundraising event for the refugees and will be purchasing items for them with the money they raised. They intend to visit the camp within the next few weeks to deliver the aid.
Along with this, Al-Khoei Foundation is involved with a lot of other projects, their efforts in lobbying the Government for the rights of Shias being a major one.
SHAFAQNA – In March 2015 Al-Khoei Foundation attended a UN Forum on minority issues – what is the Foundation’s vision towards this? I’m referring to sectarianism, elitism and other forms of repression against ethic and religious minorities?
Al-Khoei Foundation has always been a voice for minorities that are suffering at the hands of extremism and discrimination, including the Christians, Shabak, Fayli Kurds and Turkmen in Iraq. Our oral interventions to the Human Rights Council have propagated for the rights of minorities and called for their protection.
SHAFAQNA – Would you say that the role of Shia Islam as a voice and catalyst for peace and tolerance has been grossly underestimated and misrepresented by the media?
Shia Islam has traditionally not taken an active stance in terms of public relations and engagement with authorities who had traditionally not afforded to them positions in the public sphere. Shia Islam despite it being the second largest group within Islam hadn’t really come to the lime light until after the Iranian revolution and perhaps was confused with political events rather than the faith itself. Politics is divisive but faith should be a uniting force. Shia faith leaders particularly the Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali Sistani have always emphasized the need for tolerance, accountability, transparency and civil society but unfortunately this is not reflected in the mainstream media and many in the world are unaware of this progressive thinking that many Shia leaders have consistently maintained.
SHAFAQNA – How would you define Shiaphobia? The term has recently been used in mainstream media – especially on the back of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen.
I think it is fair to say that recent anti-Shia sentiment and secular polarisation has raised major concerns in the Middle East. Hate speech and propaganda by several faith leaders in certain Gulf countries has contributed to this rise of anti Shiism. This anti-Shia bigotry is not limited to Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, rather it has reached places as far apart as Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, UK etc. Several state and non-state actors have contributed to this growing trend.