By William Fisher t r u t h o u t 4/19/06
    If you still believe our government doesn’t practice ethnic profiling, ask yourself why charities run by Muslims or devoted to Muslim causes are bearing the brunt of the powers Congress gave the government in the USA Patriot Act.

    One provision of that law gives the government largely unchecked power to designate any group as a terrorist organization. Thus far, the effort has resulted in the government shutting down five charities that support Muslim causes. But there has only been one indictment, no trials, and no convictions. Only one official criminal charge has been brought against a Muslim organization for support of terrorism, and that case has not yet made it to trial.

    Once a charitable organization is so designated, all of its materials and property may be seized and its assets frozen. The charity is unable to see the government’s evidence and thus understand the basis for the charges. And it has only limited right of appeal to the courts. So the government can target a charity, seize its assets, shut it down, obtain indictments against its leaders, but then delay a trial almost indefinitely.

    Critics of the government say the government’s campaign is a product of the paranoid Islamophobia that has gripped the US since 9/11. They also say is has had its desired effect: to scare Muslim-Americans into abandoning one of the sacred tenets of Islam – giving to those in need.

    The government says this is nonsense; it is merely trying to cut off funding to a wide variety of so-called charitable organizations that funnel it to groups that practice terrorist tactics. The Treasury Department, which oversees the war on terrorism financing, cites President Bush’s pledge to ensure “that Arab Americans and American Muslims feel comfortable maintaining their tradition of charitable giving.”

    Both claims may contain a grain of truth. But the result is that Muslim charities report a precipitous decline in contributions. Contributions that do arrive come increasingly in cash from anonymous givers. And donors who happen to be Muslim are increasingly turning to the large household names like Oxfam and Save the Children, which may conduct programs in predominantly Muslim areas abroad.

    Another impact has been that a number of charities that support Muslim causes have been forced to shut down. This applies not only to the few – five, at last count – that have been formally named as wrongdoers, but to smaller groups. With their assets frozen, they are in no position to pay for defense lawyers if they are fingered by the government.

    According to OMB Watch, dozens of charitable groups have been investigated since 2001. Several have been shut down, without the disclosure of any official finding that they were aiding terrorist organizations. The organizations shut down were not on any government watch list before their assets were frozen.

    The predictable result is that Muslims have no way of knowing which groups the government suspects of ties to terrorism. Organizations and individuals suspected of supporting terrorism are guilty until proven innocent.

    Leaders of the Muslim charitable community in the US have had numerous meetings with officials at the Treasury Department, and together they have developed a set of “guidelines” for charitable organizations and their donors.

    But these guidelines lack any specificity regarding Muslim philanthropy and could be applied to any charitable organization. For a Muslim considering making a contribution or someone wanting to support a Muslim cause, they are less than useless – particularly because the government is constantly adding new names to its blacklist.

    Earlier this month, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued its new list of “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons.” This is a 220-page document, which is world-wide in scope, contains the names of both individuals and companies, and in which are buried the names of 27 Muslim charities around the world. Unless a prospective giver were an Internet junkie, he or she would have no way of knowing who’s been added.

    Frustrated, leaders of the Muslim philanthropic community in New Jersey asked the Treasury Department at the start of Ramadan in 2004 to issue a “white list” of “approved” charities. But the request was denied. The government claimed it was impossible to fulfill. “Our role is to prosecute violations of criminal law,” a spokesman said, adding, “We’re not in a position to put out lists of any kind, particularly of any organizations that are good or bad”

    And this may be one of the few rational decisions made by Bush administration warriors in their Global War on Terror. A list of government-approved charities is a very bad idea.

    It’s a bad idea for two reasons. First, the government has no expertise in philanthropy, and would undoubtedly get it wrong. Second, it would open to door to yet more government control over matters that are none of government’s business. And everything we know about government tells us that when it sees even a small crack in the door, it rushes in.

    Government-controlled charities are not unusual in countries with repressive or authoritarian governments. Egypt, for example, has a law that severely limits the work of non-governmental organizations. Under that law, the Ministry of Social Affairs must approve nominees to the governing boards of NGOs, can deny requests to affiliate with international organizations, can dissolve an NGO at will, and can freeze its assets and confiscate its property, without a judicial order.

    But America is not Egypt. Charities in the US are already regulated by the tax code, the Internal Revenue Service, and other laws. For example, an organization designated a 501(c)3 (named for the title in the tax code) must be a not-for-profit group dedicated to charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, and a few other activities. Such groups are exempt from taxes, but cannot engage in political activity. Another type of non-profit is called a 501(c)4. It has no tax exemption, but can be as political as it wishes.

    Illegal practices in US philanthropy, while relatively rare, do occur from time to time. Information about the reported wrongdoing of a particular charitable group is usually available through private-sector Better Business Bureaus, as well as through the US Department of Justice and the 50 state attorneys general. Charities in the US are required by tax and other law to be transparent, though smaller groups often find it difficult and expensive to fully comply with regulations. But if a not-for-profit corporation is charged with, say, a garden-variety fund-raising scam, it is entitled to all the protections normally available under US law.

    Treasury’s campaign, on the other hand, is reminiscent of the activities of John Ashcroft’s Justice Department in the months following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That’s when the government launched its “Global War on Terror” by rounding up thousands of “Middle Eastern-looking” men and women, throwing them in jail without charges or access to lawyers, accusing none of them with terror-related crimes, convicting no one, and ending up deporting some for non-criminal immigration violations.

    It should also remind us that, despite the hyperbolic press conferences the government holds every time it charges someone with being a terrorist, many of its cases have fallen apart, and there have been far fewer convictions than the government routinely claims.

    Similarly, in the terror-financing field, the use of secret evidence and lack of due process for charitable groups designated as supporters of terrorism have yielded little in terms of tangible results. Instead, Treasury’s McCarthy-like practices are damaging the confidence of a constituency President Bush has repeatedly described as important – Muslim-Americans – while undermining the credibility of the whole anti-terrorist financing effort.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for The Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.