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Political Considerations

The cases against the Muslim charities are based on allegations related to activities that took place years before the current War on Terror began. Yet, the timing of their closure as well as that of high-profile arrests over the past three years clearly demonstrate a pattern on the part of the government designed to give the impression at regular intervals that they are making progress against terrorism, as if each case is a new development. It is true that the removal of the “wall” between law enforcement and intelligence (that is, to enable law enforcement to use surveillance information in criminal cases) and other provisions of the PATRIOT Act have facilitated the actions of the government post 9/11. It doesn’t make sense to go after groups or individuals simultaneously if the timing itself can be used to the government’s advantage. Also, several of the closures have coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when giving is at its peak and therefore, the government has the best chance to seize a larger amount of money. Of course, these considerations are denied by government officials but the average observer cannot be faulted for drawing such conclusions.

Despite government allegations at the time of the terrorist designations of American Muslim charities, not a single court case has resulted in a conviction that is related to the events of 9/11 or to al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, during testimony on Capitol Hill, the Treasury Department repeatedly cites the cases of GRF, BIF and HLF as models of success in their efforts to disrupt terrorist financing. They refer to the loss of appeals by HLF as evidence that the courts uphold and defend the government’s position, thus justifying their actions to date. At the same time, they consistently fail to acknowledge in their testimony that there are no terrorist convictions among these cases. At times, Treasury officials contradict the actual rulings in the cases. For example, in his testimony in March 2003, Juan Zarate, stated that BIF was closed for ties to al-Qaeda. However, the indictment itself issued against Arnaout in October 2002 “contained almost no specific allegations that BIF funded al-Qaeda.”

Concerns that the Government’s Actions Target at Aid to Palestinians

During the 1990’s HLF was under surveillance by Israeli intelligence resulting in the closure of its offices and the arrests of employees in the West Bank and Gaza who were subjected to torture and forced confession. Ultimately, President Bush’s decision to designate HLF upon the request of Ariel Sharon reinforced the perception that the assault on one of the major Muslim American charities was carried out as a favor to the government of Israel and not necessarily as a means of making Americans living in the US safer. Since then, there is a growing perception among American Muslims, that Muslim charities that continue to provide aid to Palestinians will be singled out and targeted for investigation and closure, not because of any wrongdoing, but because they assist Palestinians at all. The alleged link of IARA to Hamas and the fact that GRF was targeted months after beginning work in the Occupied Territories contribute to this perception.

Senator Grassley’s “List”

In 2003, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, issued a press release indicating that the Finance Committee was conducting its own investigation of American Muslim charities and other non-profit organizations potentially involved in diverting funds to terrorism. In a letter to Mark Everson, Commissioner at the Internal Revenue Service, Grassley wrote that

Many of these groups not only enjoy tax-exempt status, but their reputations as charities and foundations often allows them to escape scrutiny, making it easier to hide and move their funds to other groups and individuals who threaten our national security…Often these groups are nothing more than shell companies for the same small group of people, moving funds from one charity to the next charity to hide the trail.

The groups named to the list included many well-established community based organizations who did not understand the implications of being targeted in such a way. In addition, the tone and content of his letter suggests that only Muslim organizations are suspect, corruptible and presumed guilty, since no other groups were mentioned in the letter. Since that time, the Senate Finance Committee has not issued a single public statement or held a public hearing indicating further action or interest in this issue. However, the Committee did sponsor a hearing on charitable giving called “Charity Oversight and Reform: Keeping Bad Things from Happening to Good Charities” in June, 2004. Despite the widespread attention given to the possible role of American Muslim charities in financing terrorism, no reference was made at that hearing to concerns affecting American Muslims and their charities nor did any individuals involved in charitable giving in the Muslim world testify.

Muslims Singled Out

All of the SDGT’s listed by the Treasury Department are Muslim. Despite the fact that numerous other groups provide assistance in high-risk areas throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia, no non-Muslim charitable organization has been designated as a supporter of terrorism. In view of the fact that no terrorism convictions have resulted from the closures, it appears to many that Muslim groups are singled out because they are Muslim first and foremost. And, since the government is not obliged to prove its case justifying a designation, mere suspicion of wrongdoing will suffice. The absence of terrorist convictions does not inhibit the government from claiming victory, as long as the “terrorist designations” are upheld in the courts, even if they are based on faulty evidence and lack of due process. As a result of the perceived inequities and injustices, Muslims feel they are singled out based on their religion and that other religious groups, such as Christian organizations, receive preferential treatment, further perpetuating the idea that the government is attacking Islam in general and seeking ways to open up the Muslim world to Christian missionaries. While there may not be any truth to such thinking, the perception in the community is real and has negative repercussions both hear and abroad.

The Future

One positive consequence of the increase scrutiny of Muslim charitable organizations is a better understanding on their part of the need for transparency and accountability. In the past, Muslim groups did not publish annual reports, conduct audits or engage in the same kind of oversight that is commonplace among other charitable institutions. This was a result of inexperience as opposed to any devious intentions. But now there is a growing awareness of basic expectations, not only to protect an organization from attack by law enforcement, but mainly to provide assurances to donors that their money is being spent according to their wishes. In addition, this better serves the beneficiaries. In the end, Muslim groups know that being transparent and open might help in mounting an effective legal defense if they are ever targeted by the US government even though it won’t guarantee anything.

Despite concerns about the constitutionality of the use of government “lists” of suspected terrorists, Muslim groups are using them to screen donors, employees and beneficiaries as they are now prone to being more conservative in their efforts to minimize any likelihood that they could be investigated or shut down. Yet the sense of uncertainty remains and is likely to increase in the near future. In addition, only a few new Muslim American humanitarian organizations have emerged since 9/11 meaning that, in this country, fewer than a dozen groups exist that provide assistance abroad on behalf of the American Muslim community.

Muslims are committed to following through with their religious obligations but not if it means sacrificing their legal status in this country, losing their jobs or their hard-earned money, or becoming the subject of an FBI investigation. The government’s efforts have had an effect that impacts the already small contribution of American Muslim giving internationally. Based on the evidence offered to the public to date, one can hardly conclude that the seizure of assets, intimidation of the community, and dwindling opportunities for Muslims to give to Muslim charities that work overseas has had any meaningful effect in the War on Terror.

In fact, these actions may actually make things worse. Muslims around the world pay attention to the treatment of their brethren here in the US. Others see how democracy works when American Muslims are able to engage in the full expression of their religious faith, including alms-giving, When American Muslims, through their own institutions, help provide humanitarian assistance to Muslims in need, they help convey a positive image of what it means to be American. While we may be winning by a show of force at this point, the long-term success of US efforts to promote values of freedom, democracy and equality will be thwarted when we target the wrong groups at home simply because of political expediency.

The ever present threat of a “terrorist designation” by the Treasury Department functions based on the principle of “guilty until proven innocent.” The use of secret evidence, hearsay, erroneous translations, guilt by association and press reports in recent court cases further erodes the ability of charities to rely on basic assumptions regarding their constitutional rights, especially when the courts ultimately favor the government when “national security” allegedly is at stake. Over-zealous surveillance tactics of the intelligence community such as wiretapping, infiltrating organizations by bribing employees to work as spies (thereby disrupting normal and lawful humanitarian activities), and engaging in other forms of harassment – when added to the above bleak picture – will not only chill, but will freeze completely American Muslim charitable giving overseas. Perhaps this is the goal of the US government. However, no one should be fooled into thinking that America or the American people will be much safer as a result.