Assault on Muslim Charities

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A participant in a rally supporting the Holy Land Foundation The reputations of many charities are damaged by unfounded accusations from the government, and the fear has significantly reduced giving. Many Muslim charities have not survived in the post-9/11 world, and many of those that have report giving is now as little as 1/6 what it once was.. Many people are afraid to donate, even though they may have Khums or Zakat obligations of certain amounts.

A participant in a rally supporting the Holy Land FoundationThe American Civil Liberties Union has just published a report entitled “Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity: Chilling Muslim Charitable Giving in the ‘War on Terrorism Financing'”, available online.

If the implications made in the report are correct, the very foundations of Islam in America are being undermined through intimidation, guilt-by-association tactics, and denial-of-due-process policies that are at their very core inhumane and unjust. They are also ineffective if not even counterproductive in their purported aim of fighting terrorism. The ridiculously harsh techniques being employed by the government drive charitable giving underground rather than promoting the open-book atmosphere that should be, and create distrust and suspicion of all government actions related to the Muslim community.

The ACLU conducted 120 interviews with a cross-section of American Muslims from virtually every ethnic background, both Sunni and Shia, in Texas and Michigan, and also conducted legal research and case reviews of government interventions with Muslim charities.

To date, only one Muslim charity, albeit one of the largest before its closure (the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, HLF), has been found ‘guilty’ of the charges, with the weakness of the case against it hard to believe. President Bush claimed in a 2001 press conference that “Hamas has obtained much of the money that it pays for murder abroad right here in the US, money originally raised by the Holy Land Foundation.” The money that the Holy Land Foundation claimed was raised for needy Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Bush said were “used by Hamas to support schools and indoctrinate children to grow up to be suicide bombers [and to] recruit suicide bombers and to support their families.”

However, by the time the trial occurred, no evidence to support the President’s claimed were ever produced, and prosecutors no longer claimed HLF had ever supported Hamas or ever gave money intended for violent acts. One of the main pieces of evidence used against the organization was financial support for a hospital in Jenin, West Bank, that incidentally the US Agency for International Development had also supported. In late November 2008, the charity and its five leaders were convicted on 108 counts, including material support for terrorism, in spite of the fact that prosecutors admitted all funds went to local charity committees that were never on any government watch list. Prosecutor Tom Melsheimer did not seem to be very pleased with the result, saying, “To spend millions of dollars in time and expenses to prosecute people who were of no real threat to anyone, under the banner of a terrorism case, is a waste of precious federal resources. I think this case proves that, with enough effort, the federal government can convict nearly anyone.”

The feeling that anyone and everyone is at risk is not felt by the prosecutor alone, but is prevalent in the Muslim community, if ACLU interviews are any indication. Many people reported receiving calls from the FBI to question their donations even as far back as 1995. It makes no difference if the charity is licensed and under no suspicion; there is evidence and fear that individual donors may be victimized by the government for their giving. Further, the reputations of many charities are damaged by unfounded accusations from the government, and the fear has significantly reduced giving. Many Muslim charities have not survived in the post-9/11 world, and many of those that have report giving is now as little as 1/6 what it once was. Many people are afraid to donate, even though they may have Khums or Zakat obligations of certain amounts. Wealthy Muslims especially feel at risk, because their Khums or Zakat donations are large enough that they are virtually always questioned by the FBI after making a donation to a Muslim charity. They fear for their safety, they fear being imprisoned or deported, and feel that their ability to adhere to a pillar of the Islamic faith is being blocked by unjust persecution. The laws, as currently written, allow people to be named as “terrorist associators” without any means to combat the claim, for any or no reason whatsoever. Further, the laws allow someone to be prosecuted for donating to a charity that is completely above aboard without any suspicion at the time of the donation but is later “suspected” of improper acts. As one interviewee put it, “What is legal today could be illegal in seconds. When people ask the Treasury Department, ‘I want to obey and respect the law, but how can I know as a donor that my donations are safe and legal?’ the government’s answer is: ‘you do your homework as a donor.’ If the charity is legal, then why isn’t the donation legal?”

One lawyer who represented donors to Muslim charities who were repeatedly interviewed by the FBI for their giving said that, “It was very obvious to me the second time [the FBI interviewed them] it was to say, ‘If you keep giving, we’ll keep coming back at you.’ I thought it was a move to intimidate, and everyone had the same conclusion [that this was done] to make sure people are intimidated and scared, to cut off funding to Muslim children abroad.”

This seems very much like an attack against Muslim people, not against terrorism. Another interviewee said, “There are Christian charities and Jewish charities, but why not Muslim charities? Christian and Jewish charities exist to fulfill their religions. Being a Muslim, I want to fulfill my religion. Zakat, which is our charity as Muslims, it has to go through certain channels. I am not an Islamic scholar, so I don’t know who Zakat is to be distributed to and how it is to be handled; I must rely on Muslim charities for that. As far as where my Zakat is going, I have to give Zakat to those who know the rules of how to distribute the money. Being a good Muslim requires this.”

Or, as another said, “Giving to a Muslim group isn’t just about giving to a Muslim recipient, but giving to an organization that understands the religious rules.” Thus, giving to just any charity is not sufficient to fulfill this primarily religious obligation. Yet, if the government closes down or creates excessive and usually unfounded suspicion and fear around the Muslim charities, how are Muslims supposed to fulfill this basic tenet of their faith?

Other charities have had their funds seized and been closed without ever being investigated, charged, or given any recourse of due process. They have not been allowed to see allegations against them. They were shut down for no apparent reason and no ability to defend or fight against the action. In some cases, the government eventually went after high-ranking members of some of the charities, but almost always for offenses having nothing to do with the original claims and nothing to do with terrorism. For example, the head of the Global Relief Foundation (GRF), once one of the largest U.S. Muslim charities, Rabih Haddad, was detained in solitary confinement for a long period of time, and ultimately he and his family were deported, all based on one expired visa while residency paperwork was in progress, and allegations against GRF that were never charged or prosecuted to this day.

The effect on Muslim communities of these and many similar acts has been profound. Many Muslims report even a fear of assembly, a constitutional right. Several interviewees expressed fear of praying in congregation at their local mosque because it could later turn out that someone in the congregation is accused by the government – will they be harassed for guilt by association just because they prayed next to him? One community leader later said, “A vital freedom is the freedom to be active in issues for the community. Now there is a high price for being active, whether active in charities, active in mosques, or active in [Islamic] schools…people have been indicted; their businesses suffered; they have faced immigration issues such as delays in citizenship, delays in visas, or deportation; they have faced profiling in the airport, harassment by the IRS, and interviews by the FBI.” These people are not terrorists, just people active in their Muslim communities. Another summed the situation up well: “We want to help in building the USA, and we want to work with the Department of Homeland Security as trusted partners, but we feel they treat us guilty until proven innocent. They want us as spies, not as partners. Bridges are not being built – no, they are being torn down.”

Where is the freedom of religion that the first European immigrants to the Americas came for, and one of the primary principles upon which the United States claimed to be founded, if fear is so rampant that being active in one’s religious community, praying together with your community, and donating to religious charities according to a basic requirement of the faith are all being compromised by the climate? Eight years after 9/11, the evidence is clear that the government has gone overboard in its assault on civil liberties, and that a wide swath of innocent victims, mostly Muslims, lie in the wake of its unjust policies. As Ben Franklin proclaimed in 1755, “”Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” But today’s situation is even worse – the government has not purchased a little temporary safety. The Muslim charities appear to have never been a real threat to anyone to begin with, yet the failure to justly regard a significant population of the United States and the world seems to at times produce the very instability such acts were supposedly intended to prevent.

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