US Muslims in a quandary over charities

During Ramadan, American Muslims do more than devote themselves to fasting for spiritual renewal. Most choose this time to fulfill another annual obligation of the faith - zakat, or charitable giving. One can't really be a Muslim, they say, without contributing 2.5 percent of savings to the needy.

"If you don't give, it's like saying, 'I'm not going to pray,' " says Anwar Kazmi, owner of a software business in the Boston area. "We're taught that this is not even our money; God has given you things and others have a share in what you have."

Yet this year, as Ramadan drew to a close last week, Muslims found themselves once again distressed over the impact of US government shutdowns of Islamic charities for possible links to terrorism.

The assets of a fourth US-based charity - Islamic American Relief Agency in Columbia, Mo. - were frozen in mid-October at the start of Ramadan. And the following week, a plea from Muslim organizations for the US government to provide a list of "approved" charities for donations was turned down. (It just isn't feasible, US officials said, since new information could come to light at any time.)

Since 9/11, millions of dollars in donations have been seized and frozen, leaving Muslims with unfulfilled obligations. Some have found FBI agents at their doors, asking about specific checks they have written.

The Kazmi family had supported several orphans in Bosnia since 1995. "We had just sent a check for a full year's support when the charity involved was closed down," he says. "I tried to find other ways to reach them but was unable to do so."

While many have adjusted by rechanneling overseas donations to Muslim organizations in the US, many also say they have a continuing responsibility to help the needy in other Muslim nations, particularly in their own countries of origin. And they feel that issues of basic freedoms may be involved.

In its report to the nation, the 9/11 commission agreed that the government's actions raised civil liberties concerns, and that it had shut down groups without any formal determination of wrongdoing.

"Closing down groups without charging them with a crime raises the question of whether American Muslims' right to free association is being chilled," suggests Arsalan Iftikhar, legal counsel for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights group in Washington.

The US Treasury Department has designated 27 charities worldwide as financiers or supporters of terrorism. The raids on three major US-based groups - Holy Land Foundation in Dallas, and Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International, both in Chicago - have affected Americans the most.

Muslims have requested that the US Treasury make the frozen funds available, under government supervision, to a third party, which could disperse them for their intended purpose.

"All designated entities are welcome to petition the government for release of funds, and we'll entertain those requests on a case-by-case basis," says Molly Millerwise, of the US Treasury Department. She says the department can't discuss individual requests or release the amounts of frozen assets for individual groups.

After three years, legal actions have not produced any terrorism-related conviction. One group has been charged, says Bryan Sierra of the Justice Department. In July, officials of the Holy Land Foundation were indicted for disbursing to organizations in the Palestinian territories money believed to ultimately have gone to Hamas, a radical Islamic organization defined by the US government as a terrorist group.

American Muslims say they don't want to support terrorism and understand why Muslim groups are being scrutinized more closely. But they question whether standards are being applied fairly. "How can you support any needy Palestinian families and guarantee that no money will go to someone involved in some action?" asks Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary.

She points to the past when Americans sent money to groups in Northern Ireland suspected to have links to the Irish Republic Army and yet no charitable groups were closed. But more than that, she says, the problem is that evidence against these groups has been kept secret.

"Secrecy fosters the idea that evidence isn't really there," she adds. "Show it to us and then we can be angry at these organizations."

For 10 years before 9/11, American Muslim groups worked to make Islamic relief organizations more professional, and to raise funds for more effective long-term projects.

Now people are reverting to giving cash to individuals they know who are traveling to a specific country, to offer to the needy. That, some say, undermines the beneficial growth of nonprofit institutions.

The Council on Foundations in Washington, which represents more than 2,000 philanthropic groups in humanitarian work around the world, recently called on the Treasury Department to reconsider its antiterrorism financing guidelines issued in 2002. Calling the guidelines "unrealistic, impractical, costly, and potentially dangerous," the council said they discourage organizations from efforts to relieve suffering at a time of great need.

There is a silver lining to the situation. Muslim organizations in America - from mosques to health clinics to Islamic schools to civil rights groups - have greatly benefited. "A lot more people are donating to local causes and helping solidify the American Muslim identity that many of us are trying to forge," says Mr. Iftikhar.

With civil rights a major issue within the Muslim community, CAIR and similar groups have seen contributions soar.

But zakat is supposed to be given to the neediest. For many American Muslims, the challenge remains - particularly now, when many would like to remedy the poverty and other conditions that may help breed terrorism - to find legitimate ways to give to those in the Muslim world in the most difficult situations.

Some ask why Muslims don't send contributions through non-Muslim charitable channels. They respond that there are various categories to zakat, and that Muslim organizations know how to deal with them. Many also feel an obligation to help a part of the world they understand.

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