Worry over terrorism laws hinders giving, O.C. Muslims say
Fear that government might target donors leads to shift away from Islamic nonprofits, leaders say.
By SEAN EMERY
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Muslim leaders already angered by allegations of FBI spying in Orange County mosques are backing the ACLU's assertion that terrorism-financing laws have had a chilling effect on donations to Muslim charities.
The ACLU says the Treasury Department's expanded authority to investigate terrorism-financing links in the wake of the 9/11 attacks has given the agency "virtually unchecked power" to designate groups as terrorist organizations, creating what local leaders describe as a "climate of fear" in the Muslim community.
The ACLU report, which is based on more than 100 interviews with Muslim community leaders, contends that:
•The Treasury Department operates under "overly broad" terrorism financing laws that fail to safeguard targeted charities against "government mistake and abuse."
•The FBI targets major donors to Muslim charities, approaching them at their workplace and homes to ask about donations.
•Law enforcement officials refuse to reassure donors that they will not be retroactively held liable for donations to organizations that are later shut down or placed under investigation.
•Federal and local law enforcement agencies have tried to convince community members to serve as informants in mosques in order to monitor donations.
The ACLU report, issued June 15, follows allegations that the FBI used a paid informant to infiltrate local mosques. Those allegations have frayed the relationship between federal officials and several high-profile Muslim groups.
The widening rift has drawn the ACLU into the fray, with that organization's lawyers celebrating an April ruling requiring the FBI to make available for federal court review surveillance records on Southern California Muslims.
"This has really undermined the ability to fulfill our religious obligations. Many of us believe that the practice of charity has become part of politics really," said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. "I have to give, period. Giving is my faith, it is as important as breathing, so there is no option for me not to give."
Federal scrutiny has forced large donors who traditionally gave $10,000 or more to Muslim charities to distribute their donations in smaller increments, Syed said.
"In the local mosques the cash collections have increased, which implies that people are afraid of giving large checks," Syed said. "Instead they opt for cash."
Muslim leaders admit the increased scrutiny has prodded some Muslim organizations to tighten up their oversight efforts.
"Some (donors) became pickier in who they give to. They started requiring from recipients a heavy burden of accountability and transparency, making sure they check their nonprofit status and board of directors," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relation's (CAIR) Southern California chapter. "That forced organizations to clean up their act and get a little more organized in anticipation of increased scrutiny by the government and donors."
But government pressure has also convinced many Muslim donors to avoid Muslim charities, Ayloush said, instead choosing to donate to less controversial nonprofits such as hospitals, universities, government programs such as USAID, and partnerships with Catholic and Mormon charities.
"That is a problem, because if all of us avoid giving to the orphans of Palestine and Iraq, who is going to take care of those children?" Ayloush said. "Are they less-deserving human beings?"
Treasury Department spokeswoman Natalie Wyeth said in a written statement that the agency is "increasing our engagement with the charitable community to help them protect against terrorist abuse … and to refine the guidance surrounding charitable giving."
"We're hopeful this ongoing communication will ensure all charitable groups, regardless of religious affiliation, have the ability to provide assistance where it's needed most, without empowering terrorist organizations," Wyeth wrote.
Justice Department officials declined to directly comment on the ACLU report, but indicated they "simply follow the money and evidence wherever they lead, without regards to race, religion or ethnicity," spokesman Dean Boyd said in a written statement.
Despite the disagreements between federal officials and the high-profile Muslim groups, FBI Director Robert Mueller reportedly described their relationship as "very good" in a Michigan speech earlier this month.
Muslim leaders also say they were encouraged by President Barack Obama's recent Cairo speech, which called for a new beginning between the United States and the Islamic world.
"We hope to see a shift in their attitude that will focus on real prevention of crime rather than the hyping of fear and paranoia," Ayloush said of federal agencies. "We do feel already an ease of that paranoia and unfair targeting, and we hope that will continue."
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- Hussam Ayloush
- Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html