(PHOTO) According to Prof. (HC) Dr. Zainulbahar Noor, UNHCR should not collect zakat from Muslim-majority countries.

The Secretary General of World Zakat and Waqf Foum (WZWF), Prof. (HC) Dr Zainulbahar Noor, called on the United Nations to stop the UNHCR zakat collection immediately. Zakat is an Islamic teaching with strategic value in reducing various economic problems, such as poverty or inequality. The power of muzakki in many Islamic countries is very potential. For instance, Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country, has the potential for zakat of IDR 327 trillion (USD 20.97 billion) per year. Imagine if all Muslim countries deposit their zakat and distribute it to the entitled people (mustahik). Therefore, zakat stakeholders should unite in formulating a common agenda to empower the mustahik.

According to Prof (HC), Dr Zainulbahar Noor, Indonesia, through the National Amil Zakat Board (BAZNAS), continues to preach the zakat worldwide. He also added that zakat stakeholders recently gathered at the 2022 World Zakat and Waqf Forum (WZWF) International Conference in Leeds, United Kingdom. One of the critical issues these global zakat stakeholders discussed was the involvement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in zakat activities. Zainulbahar explained that UNHCR had conducted international zakat collection activities by establishing the UNHCR Zakat for Refugee Fund. In this matter, "WZWF strongly rejects this UNHCR policy," he said.

How do Islamic organizations, including BAZNAS, view this issue? What is the impact of UNHCR's participation in collecting zakat from many countries? The following is the conversation between Republika journalist Muhyiddin and the Secretary General of WZWF.

Q: Among the topics discussed at the 2022 WZWF Conference was the problem of collecting zakat by one of the United Nations agencies. Can you explain this matter in detail?

A: Yes, a very intense and in-depth discussion at an international conference at the end of September 2022, among others, related to UNHCR policies. One of the high commissioners of the United Nations (UN) is known to have carried out global zakat collection activities.

They did this by forming the "UNHCR Zakat for Refugee Fund". Eventually, the zakat collection activity carried out by UNHCR received a strong rejection from various world Islamic organizations. And we, WZWF, also rejected UNHCR's policy. The Secretary-General and 10 Deputy Secretary Generals of WZWF rejected the policy and asked, what is the basis for the UN to collect zakat from the global Muslim community? First, the United Nations itself is not a zakat organization.

From the UNHCR program, it is known that the zakat collected (later on distributed) is for funding assistance for a refugee forcedly evicted from their country for some reason. In fact, the one who has the right to do so is the zakat organization from each country. And indeed, in reality, it has been done that way so far.

Q: What is the impact of the UNHCR program, especially in underdeveloped Muslim countries?

A: The clear point is that UNHCR Zakat for Refugee Fund is an unsupervised activity. It provides a huge possibility for the occurrence of irregularities in the use of global Muslim zakat funds. Zakat collection comes from muzakki in Islamic countries, especially many of which are WZWF member countries. Notably, 19 of the 41 member countries of WZWF are classified as underdeveloped.

With the collection of zakat by UNHCR that comes from muzakki in countries that are classified as poor, it can cause problems. The zakat funds, which should have been distributed in the local region, were even seized by UNHCR for purposes other than the country's poor people.

Q: What steps or responses did WZWF take?

A: In this regard, WZWF expects all of our 41 member countries to reject the UNHCR policy. The OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) countries should also call on the United Nations to stop the activities of the UNHCR immediately.

WZWF plans to discuss this with the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), which was mentioned by the UNHCR delegation at the UNHCR session. In addition, we would like to hear from Mr Khalid Khalifa, special advisor to UNHCR and Mr Shaadi, a member of UNHCR's management.

In our opinion, the UN should seek its funding sources without disturbing the funding of zakat—and waqf—which is for the benefit of Muslims. As it is known that UNHCR has also signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the Islamic Development Bank in a movement known as the "Global Waqf for Refugee Fund".

We want all relevant parties to sit down together and discuss this critical issue. Also, we know that the number of poor mustahik who are Muslim is still vast.

Q: Has the UNHCR activity been taking place in Indonesia?

A: In the recent WZWF annual international conference and meeting in Leeds, United Kingdom, at the end of last September, a UNHCR official, Mr Shaadi, said clearly that his party has collaborated with zakat institutions in Indonesia in receiving zakat for refugees. So, there is indeed the "UNHCR Zakat for Refugees".

BAZNAS is trying to investigate which zakat institutions have collaborated with UNHCR. However, the UNHCR is not cooperating with BAZNAS. BAZNAS certainly disagree that a UN agency collects zakat in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, which still has a relatively high poverty line.

UNHCR's activities were discussed by the participants at the international conference in Leeds, United Kingdom. Perhaps, later on, the related matters will be formally informed by the WZWF secretariat in Jakarta to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Furthermore, WZWF will hold hearings of the ambassadors of the OIC member countries in Jakarta. The objective is to get a common view: UNHCR, one of the UN agencies that are not engaged in collecting zakat, should stop these activities.

Q: Speaking of WZWF, what is the profile and vision of this international zakat and waqf forum?

A: In 2022, WZWF is entering its second decade since its founding on 30 September 2010 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Initially, the forum was called the World Zakat Forum (WZF). However, since 2021, its name has been expanded to WZWF, which includes the aspects of waqf.

This change in terminology underscores our desire to expand our role and contribution internationally. It is also an effort to realize the great potential of zakat and waqf in the world. If they can be fully optimized, the consolidation of global zakat and waqf will undoubtedly have a compelling impact on Muslims worldwide.

The effect will be even more significant if more countries join the WZWF. There will be various innovations and collaborations for zakat and waqf programs that will further strengthen the socio-economic strength of the ummah.

These are among the major challenges of WZWF leadership for 2020-2023. Our vision is to make WZWF a unifying medium for the people internationally, mainly focusing on the power of zakat, infaq, alms, and waqf. I believe this movement will bring even more significant benefits to improving Muslim welfare.

Q: What is the role of BAZNAS as the representative of Indonesia in the forum?

A: In this forum, BAZNAS conveyed the need to improve zakat policies and regulations in optimizing zakat potential, especially in Indonesia. The zakat management system in a country is undoubtedly strongly influenced by its culture, conditions, regions, characteristics of the people, and policies.

Some experiences related to zakat management in various countries can add references and input regarding zakat in Indonesia. More specifically, efforts to continue to optimize the potential of zakat in our country. On the other hand, experience from Indonesia can also be a valuable input for zakat stakeholders from other WZWF member countries.

Q: Apart from the UNHCR issue, what was discussed at the 2022 WZWF International Conference?

A: At least 10 (ten) topics are discussed in this international event. Among them was the potential of zakat and waqf to strengthen the country's fiscal policy. Then, the determination of guidelines for the effectiveness of regulations in optimizing the potential of zakat and waqf.

Other discussions were efforts to optimize innovation and technology in increasing the collection and distribution of zakat and waqf. The model of zakat distribution programs and waqf investment was also discussed. Furthermore, future collaborations between WZWF member countries were discussed with great enthusiasm. It includes the Islamic Development Bank's role in promoting zakat and waqf's development.

The culmination of these topics was summarized in the Ministerial Talk agenda with the subject: the role of the government in supporting the zakat and waqf movement. In this agenda, the Ministry of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, represented by the Director General of Islamic Community Guidance, conveyed the magnitude of the government's role in the development of zakat and waqf. For example, through issuing special laws related to zakat and waqf.

From Banking World to Diplomacy

Prof. (HC) Dr Zainulbahar Noor is one of the founders of the first Islamic bank in Indonesia, Bank Muamalat Indonesia (BMI). The institution has been operating since May 1992. He also became the first President Director in the history of BMI.

He recalled that the presence of BMI was motivated by Muslims' anxiety regarding the prohibition of bank interest. Therefore, they wanted an interest-free financial institution. In response to this, Kiai Hasan Basri, the General Chairman of the Central Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) at that time, held a seminar on August 18-20, 1990, in Bogor, West Java. The theme carried was "interest-free bank".

Prof. Zainulbahar said that he attended the forum. Also participating were many scholars, economists, Bank Indonesia officials, and even ministers related to the financial sector. The results of the seminar paved the way for the realization of BMI.

After the Islamic bank, Prof. Zainulbahar continued to be involved in the banking world. He was also noted to have worked at Citibank for ten years. “Previously, it never occurred to me to enter the Muamalat bank (BMI), then I was appointed. Finally, I became the first President Director of BMI. Five years in that position,” he said when met by Republika in the Central Jakarta area some time ago.

Since childhood, he admitted that he did not aspire to be a banker. His initial desire was to become a diplomat or ambassador. The man born in Binjai, North Sumatra, was inspired by his eldest brother, Bahrum Noor.

During the Japanese era, his brother had been the commander of the People's Security Army (TKR, now TNI) in Binjai. After the revolution, Bahrum worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and visited many countries.

His dream came true in 2009. At that time, he was the Indonesian ambassador to the Kingdom of Jordan and, concurrently, the Palestinian National Authority. Returning to the country, Prof. (HC) Dr Zainulbahar Noor, the former vice chancellor of As-Syafiiyah University, was pursuing doctoral studies at Trisakti University, Jakarta. His dissertation was on waqf banks.

The interview was conducted with Republika daily on 23 October 2022.