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American Muslim

September 4, 2006

Hezbollah: Dilemma for the American Muslim charities

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Attracting charities to help rebuild Lebanon in the aftermath of Israeli rampage has once again highlighted the problem faced by the Muslim charities in the post-9/11 America.

While various groups and organization were busy in easily raising millions of dollars for Israel, Muslim and Arab groups were facing serious difficulties in raising money for the reconstruction of Lebanon devastated by the barbaric Israeli attacks on mainly civilian targets such as residential buildings, bridges, industries and infrastructure.

Since the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, the Arab and Muslim charities were able to collect only two million dollars nationwide, according to Buena Park, CA-based Islamic Relief.

It was an atmosphere fueled by fear that hindered their efforts. "A lot of people are afraid of donating to Middle East causes because they're afraid they'll be accused of supporting something other than humanitarian causes," said Duston Barto, spokesman for the Zakat Foundation of America.

The Illinois-based charitable group pledged to raise $250,000 for Lebanon, but it was able to collect about $140,000 because many Muslims and Arabs fear that writing a donation check could bring FBI agents to their doors.
An estimated $40,000 has come from Chicago donors.Although the Charity Without Fear law, enacted last spring by the Illinois Legislature, prevents donors from prosecution if their contributions are used unlawfully without their knowledge.The law could not calm donors' fears. 

Yet in the case of Lebanon donors are particularly cautious because their donations may not land in the hands of Hezbollah which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization. Ironically, the Hezbollah has ministers in government, members of parliament, mayors in small towns and a network of thousands of volunteers who have been ferrying aid supplies to devastated areas since a cease-fire took effect earlier last month.

So far, the government has not issued specific guidelines for operating in Lebanon and instead have encouraged charities to practice "due diligence" to ensure that their assets are used for charity and not diverted to “finance terrorism.”

After Sept. 11, 2001, the government issued general guidelines meant to help charities maintain transparency and prevent money from being diverted to groups or individuals that the government has designated as terrorists. It also created a list of some 400 individuals and organizations, including 43 charities, that it accuses of funding terrorism.

In May 2005, the Illinois General Assembly passed bipartisan resolutions calling on the federal government to create a list of Muslim charitable organizations to which one can safely donate. "Americans giving charity to Muslim charities need assurance that the charitable contributions they make in good faith to charities in good standing will indeed go to humanitarian purposes and will not give rise to potential retroactive criminal or immigration prosecution," read the advisory resolution, which passed by voice vote. The resolution also cited legislation - known as the REAL ID Act of 2005 - that threatens to deport immigrants who make a donation to a charity that was in good standing at the time but is later linked to terrorism.

The Council on Foundations in Washington, which represents more than 2,000 philanthropic groups in humanitarian work around the world, has also 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.

Instead of a list of acceptable charities, the Treasury Department endorsed and guided the creation of a National Council of American Muslim Non-Profits (NCAMNP), which would be a self-policing organization working for transparency, accountability and the safe delivery of charitable funds to the proper recipients. But soon after its creation, the government froze the assets of a Toledo, Ohio-based charity on the NCAMNP steering committee called KindHearts.

The Treasury Department says that issuing a list of "safe" charities is not the government's responsibility. "Basically the United States government can't be put in the position of picking a preferential group. It would be inappropriate for the government to choose charities at the expense of not choosing others.”

To intimidate the Muslim community, the Senate in June 2004 launched a witch-hunt of Muslim organizations by seeking the IRS tax and donor records of 24 American Muslim charitable, youth and civic organizations. To quote the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations “the Senate Finance Committee's investigative net has been cast so wide that it seems to target all American Muslims as terrorism suspects. Its indiscriminate scope smacks of a McCarthyite witch hunt and creates the impression that the presumption of innocence no longer applies to Muslims.” Interestingly, after two years investigations, the Senate Committee could not find anything "alarming" in tax records to tie them to terrorism. However, it insisted that its lack of action does not mean the groups had been "cleared."

Over the past five years, federal authorities have raided and shut down three major Islamic charities: Dallas-based the Holy Land Foundation and Chicago-based Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International. Since 9/11, millions of dollars in donations have been seized and frozen, leaving Muslims with unfulfilled religious and moral obligations. Some have found FBI agents at their doors, asking about specific checks they have written.

The fear of ending up on some government watch list for aiding terrorism threatens donations to American Muslim charities that usually benefit from zakat – a religious obligation to give two and half percent of their assets as alms - given during the month of Ramadan that began in North America on Sept 23/24, 2006. Muslim organizations say members are afraid to give money to Muslim charity organizations and many more of those who do donate are opting to give cash instead of checks.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective: www.amperspective.com