As Muslims begin one of their most important holidays
the month of Ramadan charitable organizations serving the American
Muslim community are taking what some observers believe is a desperate last
step to keep the US government from shutting them down.
Muslim Advocates (MA), a San Francisco-based national educational and advocacy
organization established by a 500-plus network of Muslim American lawyers, is
teaming with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance to launch
a new initiative to improve the fiscal management and administration of American
Muslim charitable organizations
Aziz Ahmad, an MA staff attorney, told IPS that sponsors of the program hope
it will begin to restore donors' confidence in charitable organizations that
support Muslim causes.
He added: "We hope the government will be less inclined to prosecute American
Muslim nonprofits and mosques for supporting terrorist causes if they demonstrate
that they meet the highest standards of legal compliance, financial accountability
and good governance."
In the months following the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, the US government
launched its "global war on terror" by rounding up thousands of "Middle
Eastern-looking" men and women, jailing them without charges or access
to lawyers, but accusing none of them of terror-related crimes, convicting no
one, and ending up deporting some for non-criminal immigration violations.
At about the same time, the government opened up a second front against charitable
organizations it suspected of providing financial or other material assistance
to groups the government designates as "terrorist." While the campaign
applies to all domestic nonprofit organizations, the lion's share of scrutiny,
suspicion, and preemptive action has fallen on groups that support Muslim causes.
Since 9/11, there has been an exponential increase in government surveillance
of the financial practices of charities serving Muslim communities both in the
US and abroad. Numerous charities have been shut down, their records seized
and their assets frozen all with virtually no due process.
One such organization the Holy Land Foundation has been brought
to trial. That trial ended in the exoneration of one of the defendants and a
hung jury on the fate of the other defendants. The government is about to retry
Meanwhile, none of the assets frozen by the Treasury Department which
administers the scrutiny of charitable organizations has been returned,
despite numerous requests. These assets include funds the charities require
to pay for their legal defense.
The government's pursuit of not-for-profit groups that support Muslim causes
has caused a dramatic decrease in contributions and has left donors and volunteers
confused about which organizations and institutions they can trust. Fulfilling
their "zakat" giving to charitable causes is a fundamental
tenet of Islam and a high priority for donors and volunteers.
For American Muslims, these charities play a vital role in society, from feeding
the hungry, to building bridges of interfaith understanding, to helping victims
in disaster-stricken regions of the world.
The new initiative combines MA's legal expertise and the BBB's reputation as
an independent charity evaluator with over 1,200 charities reviewed to date.
It will provide charitable organizations with free services including assistance
a network of attorneys and accountants to assess their current practices and
identify information needed for meaningful review by the BBB's Wise Giving Alliance.
The Alliance will also conduct evaluations to determine that an organization
has met its 20 Standards of Charity Accountability. These are considered by
many to be the toughest, most comprehensive governance and fiscal management
standards in the nonprofit sector.
At the same time, MA will produce informational materials and host a series
of free educational seminars for nonprofit leaders in eight cities across the
US, beginning in the San Francisco Bay area in October. These seminars will
advise Muslim charities on a wide range of issues, including how to improve
their governance, increase transparency, and ensure legal compliance with anti-terror
financing laws and regulations. Thus far, seven charities have signed on to
the program, Ahmad told IPS.
But the BBB's Wise Giving standards are applicable to charitable organizations
generally and do not specifically address the unique challenges that have been
faced by Muslim not-for-profits since the start of the "war on terror".
So what remains unclear is how improvement of these organizations professional
practices will influence the government's administration of the "material
support" statute and regulations.
A number of authorities in the not-for-profit sector doubt that the government
will be deterred by the new MA/BBB initiative. Kay Guinane, director of Nonprofit
Speech Rights at OMB Watch, a widely respected government watchdog organization,
told IPS she believes the MA/BBB initiative is "useful first step toward
keeping Muslim charities from being shut down."
However, she added, "fundamental change requires a change in the government's
basic approach to interpreting the law" which she says is "ultimately
She added, "In order to preserve the rights of all nonprofit organizations,
and indeed, the rights of all people, all levels of government must conduct
their counterterrorism activities in a way that consistently protects liberty
and civil society. Otherwise, Americans and others lose safeguards that were
designed to protect us all from creeping tyranny."
OMB stands for the government's Office of Management and Budget, the White
House office responsible for devising and submitting the president's annual
budget proposal to Congress.
In a recent report, Guinane's organization charged that in the name of "global
war on terror," the US government is waging war on non-governmental organizations
by applying "shortsighted, undemocratic policies" that are "constraining
the critical activities of the charitable and philanthropic sectors, stifling
free speech, and ultimately impeding the fight against terrorism."
It concluded that the government views nonprofits as "conduits for terrorist
funding and a breeding ground for aggressive dissent." It accused the courts
of being "overly deferential" to the US Treasury Department, which
is responsible for conducting programs designed to stem the flow of money to
terrorist organizations And it contended that federal agencies "ignore
nonprofits' calls for change," and that "Congress has not utilized
its oversight powers to review counterterrorism programs."
The result, the report said, is that the US nonprofit community today "operates
in fear of what may spark (the government) to use its power to shut them down."
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) was the target
of much of the report's criticism of the government's approach. After 9/11,
Congress gave the government sweeping new powers to crack down on not-for-profit
organizations that were allegedly using their charitable status as cover for
funneling funds to terrorist groups.
These powers include the authority to designate any charity as a material supporter
of terrorism. This action demands virtually no due process from the government,
denies the target to see the evidence against it, and can result in freezing
of a charity's assets, effectively shutting it down.
Guinane told IPS that the OFAC terrorist "watchlist" was originally
designed to identify drug kingpins and other more conventional criminals and
is of little value due to "questionable accuracy" caused by numerous
duplications. Moreover, she said, most not-for-profit groups, especially smaller
ones, lack the resources to monitor it.
She added, "I don't think there should be special rules governing not-for-profits
that support Muslim causes. This has evolved into a bizarre regulatory regime
that is unduly discriminatory."
In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched its Spy Files Project
and uncovered an intricate system of domestic spying on US nonprofits largely
condoned by expanded counterterrorism powers within the USA PATRIOT Act.
(Inter Press Service)