Panel: Jennifer Turner, Laila al-Marayati, Raymond Ibrahim
"Hello and welcome. Can a Muslim donate money without raising suspicion? It's a question that the 7 million or so Muslims living in the USA are asking now as the holy month of Ramadan gets underway. It's a particularly auspicious time in the Islamic calendar, and one where traditionally Muslims focus on charitable giving, known as zakat, one of the 5 pillars of the religion.
"In the aftermath of 9/11 ands as part of the so-called global war on terror, the US Treasury Department stepped up its efforts to stop the flow of money to groups that it considers to be terrorist. Unfortunately, with then blanket suspicion of anything Islamic following the attacks of 9/11, it meant the charities with any sort of connection to Muslims were scrutinized. Has it gone too far? Well, at least 76 Muslim charities in America have had their assets frozen after the past 8 years, and many Muslim Americans are being questioned for donating to those charities and other causes abroad. This has created a chilling effect where Muslim Americans are wary of donating to anything.
"President Barack Obama acknowledged the problem in his speech to the Muslim world in June in Cairo:
'Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.'
"So today we ask, 'Is the crackdown on charities run by American Muslims a violation of their human rights or is it justified that there's extra scrutiny of these organizations in the post-9/11 world?' Remember you can join our conversation with questions and comments. Log on to livestation.com/aje and we'll also take your phone calls on the show.
"Joining me today from New York is Jennifer Turner, a human rights researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union, who is the lead author of a report this past June on the dilemma facing Muslim charities in America. The report, 'Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity,' argues that US terrorism financing policies are seriously undermining American Muslims' constitutional liberties and violating their fundamental human rights to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination.
"In Los Angeles, we have Dr. Laila al-Marayati, the chairwoman of the US-based charity KinderUSA, whose primary focus at this time is on addressing the health and educational needs of Palestinian children living in the West Bank and Gaza. Dr. al-Marayati served as a presidential appointee to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to May 2001.
"We also have Raymond Ibrahim, the associate director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank based in Philadelphia from where he joins us. Mr. Ibrahim is the editor of The Al Qaeda Reader, a collection of texts and documents that trace the origin, history and evolution of the ideas of the leaders of Al Qaeda.
"I welcome you all to the show. And Jennifer Turner, if I could start with you there 9in New York and ask, 'How serious is the crackdown on Islamic charities. Looking at it, how widespread, how tough?"
"Well the crackdown on Muslim charities has affected the 7 charities that have been closed by the Treasury Department, but the repercussions are much broader. In fact in talking with Muslims across America I found that there is a widespread impact on Muslims who feel that they can't give in charity, can't fulfill their obligation to give their zakat because of this crackdown."
"And then from what you know, has there historically been anything similar to this? Has any other organization, any other group or similar sort of range of organizations been targeted like this?"
"Well historically Irish charities have come under scrutiny for their donations, and Irish Americans have come under scrutiny. But since 9/11 Muslim charities have borne the brunt of the Treasury Department's scrutiny of American charities."
"Well Dr, Laila al-Marayati, if I can get you into the conversation here from Los Angeles. Welcome to the show as well. What impact is this targeting of charities having do you think on the desperately needed resources that some of these charities are seeking?"
"Well I think that ids the main question, that the focus on these Muslim charities has been on the neediest people in places of conflict and disaster. And by closing them and cutting off the ability of American Muslims to donate, it really affects the ability of people to survive those types of situations. The one that we deal with of course is what's happening particularly in the Gaza Strip right now. So I think this inhibits people from starting new charities, from taking on new projects, and makes people really doubt whether they should be giving at all. And I think it has had a huge impact. That really the bottom line is that – not that it's had any impact in the diminishing of terrorism because it hasn't been proven in the majority of cases – but rather it has had the effect on diminishing our ability as American Muslims to help the people we care about around the world."
"Now Dr. al-Marayati, since we're doing this at a time that's quite significant in the Muslim calendar, we're doing it during Ramadan when charity is high on the agenda, I guess the impact is even greater or at least the concern is even greater right now."
"It is greater. But I will say as a tribute to my fellow Muslim Americans that people really come forward to help the people they care about, and that it's our job as charities and as other organizations to really reassure them that we are conducting the proper due diligence to make sure their money gets to where it needs to be. Because our obligation is to our donors and to our beneficiaries, and that's the bottom line."
"Raymond Ibrahim, let me bring you in here. Glad you can join us too. Considering the harm that it is doing to bona fide charities and those that are in need, how do you regard this sort of blanket targeting or at least very widespread suspicion of Islamic charities?"
"First I feel that both on a theoretical level and a practical level it has been proven over and over again that zakat or charity has been sent to aid and assist what is considered terrorism, especially abroad. And so while I sympathize with the fact that Muslims do want to contribute zakat and to give it to the poor and needy, the conundrum is how does one bypass or how do we figure out that the money is not being in fact sent to terrorists. And just to bring it right back to what I was saying, on a theoretical and a practical level. By theoretical, what I mean by that is it's well known that zakat can be given to x amount of recipients. But one of them, which is very well extremely codified is the people who are engaged in 'fi sabeel Allah', or 'in the path of Allah', which according to Islamic law and all the jurists specifically means those who are engaged in jihad or in military activities. This for example is found in Koran 9:60, Surah At-Tauba, aya 60. And it's also in all the legal texts and legal Islamic manuals. And in fact in the Koran when you read it, jihad or sabeel Allah – fighting on behalf of Allah – when you look at the primary verses it is often that fighting with one's wealth, ands in this case we can look at zakat, is prioritized as opposed to fighting with one's self. So it comes down to on a theoretical basis it is well known that zakat can go and contribute to sabeel Allah, fighting on behalf of Allah, and jihad.
"On the other hand now is everyday real life as we've seen it has been proven that this has been the case. For instance, what comes to my mind immediately are two instances as Al-Haramain Foundation – which I believe was also indicted for contributing to jihad or those engaged in military operations I believe in Chechnya – and of course the most famous anecdote would be the Holy Land Foundation, which it turned out lots of charity was going and funding Hamas, which is a recognized terrorist organization. So that's the problem, how does one bypass that and still see to it that Muslims can give charity to those who are needy?"
"OK, I'll look at some of the issues you raised in just a moment. We have Lee on the line in Virginia. We try to get our viewers' questions in as much as possible. To Lee, thanks for joining us. What would you like to ask?"
Caller (Lee from Virginia):
"Thank you, I actually have a quick comment. Jihad sabeel Allah does not really mean what the gentleman explained. It actually means literally perseverance for the name or the cause of God. It does not literally mean fighting or picking up arms. My question really is, there is a Zionist influence behind the Treasury Department's effort to shut down all Muslim charities. Could there be something as simple of a solution as essentially starting new organizations that start up and shut down faster than the Treasury Department can actually identify them? And if that's the case, how can the general public find out about these, especially with the advent of the Internet and etc.? Thank you."
"Actually Jennifer, if I can put this to you. Isn't one of the key things that basically if people really want to target money to suspect groups they could. I want to get to Raymond on this in a minute, but I want to ask you, surely motive, engaging and getting the right motives established that people are giving money for positive reasons would be a better focus for the government."
"Well sure. One problem is that these laws were expanded under the Bush administration and they currently give the Treasury Department virtually unchecked power to close charities. So currently under the law the Treasury Department can close a charity without notice, without showing the evidence, without a hearing, without providing the charity an opportunity to respond. In fact, after 7 charities have been closed by the government, independent government review by both the 9/11 Commission and other government agencies and court review have shown that the evidence used to close these charities has often been deeply flawed and even points to a lack of evidence showing that these charities have supported terrorism. While the Treasury Department has closed 7 charities, only one has been convicted of any material support for terrorism.
"Another problem is that the laws will punish support without any kind of regard for the intent behind the support. So if a donor is to give to a charity fully intending to support humanitarian aid, giving in good faith and in opposition to any kind of violent aims of any group, that person can still be prosecuted, which raises serious concerns with what is our real goal. Our goal should be to make ourselves safer, and in fact these laws are failing to do that and are in fact counterproductive. We're finding that these policies are alienating American Muslims who are key allies in the war on terror, are undermining America's reputation overseas especially in Muslim countries, and are also chilling legitimate humanitarian aid. American good will is the best foreign policy we have in fighting extremism."
Caller (Ahmed from Somalia):
"Have any Islamic groups, charity groups, ever been taken to court in the States and actually proved…"
"Yes, Ahmed I think it was discussed a little earlier that there were a couple of cases."
"Welcome back. We're discussing the dilemma of Muslim charities and donors in America in light of the policies and practices of the US Treasury Department as it pursues the so-called war on terror. I am joined by Jennifer Turner, a human rights researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union, who is with us from the ACLU offices in New York. Also Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, who chairs KinderUSA. Dr. Marayati joins us from Los Angeles. And Raymond Ibrahim, the associate director from the Middle East Forum, a think tank that is based in Philadelphia from where he joins us.
"If I could get to Dr. Laila Al-Marayati in Los Angeles there. Looking at the situation that was being discussed a little earlier of how charities can be shut down on short notice, can be scrutinized and perhaps given no real reason, tell me what you know or what you're familiar with when it comes to the case of the KindHearts charity."
"I'm only somewhat familiar with the circumstances of that case. And they recently had a favorable ruling saying that the investigation and the freezing of the assets by the government has been determined unconstitutional. And this is the crux of the issue that all of us are dealing with, that while we understand there needs to be a protection of American safety, we have our due process rights to be respected as well. And one of them is to be able to say that we have the right to defend ourselves and be able to be sure that – the problem is that they can close a charity or freeze its assets while an investigation is ongoing before they actually present any evidence of wrongdoing. And I think this is a key area that has been dealt with with the KindHearts organization"
"Let me get across to Raymond Ibrahim here and ask, if you've had 7 charities shut down since 9/11 and only one has faced conviction, the odds don't look that good. Does it bother you then that President Obama has actually said that he wants to engage more effectively with Muslims as we heard in that sound bite earlier that he was saying he wanted to make sure that American Muslims could pay their zakat?"
"It doesn't bother me; it's just that I am very curious to understand what that means and what he has in mind by that. Does that mean he is going to lessen scrutiny or what he is going to do. It is very unclear. Again, my position is basically that whatever is in the limits of the law should be executed. And I don't know the details of how that works, I don't know if that would grossly retard charity from going to where it should be going and all that. But to eliminate it just because of that doesn't seem right to me based on earlier precedent that in fact we have found cases where this has been happening. Like I said, it's not some sort of aberration because it is actually one of the aspects of zakat, is to contribute to this. So it can't be that it's completely out of every contributing Muslim's mind. I'm not saying it's the majority or I am not giving any numbers, but so long as there is some who are contributing then I believe there should be certain safeguards included."
Caller (Ahmed from the UK)
"First of all you must understand who the terrorist is. To most of the neocons and Zionists, every single Muslim, unless they abide by their own rules, are terrorists. But one must understand the other side of the coin. The Israelis, the Americans, the British, what they are doing in the world, that is tantamount to terrorism in the eyes of the Muslims. What the Israelis are doing in Palestine and what they do everywhere else through the agency is nothing less than terrorism. Why do we ignore that?"
"May I respond to that?"
Khan: "Go ahead please, Raymond."
"Basically, I completely understand his position. Of course, it's in the eye of the beholder who is the terrorist and who isn't. But what we're talking about here, at least I believe, is American Muslims contributing to this. So if American Muslims want to contribute to Hamas, well you're contributing to someone that the US government has designated as a terrorist and that is combating. So you can believe that they have a just cause, but at the same time to be living in the United States and contributing charity to an organization that is deemed by the US government as a terrorist organization seems problematic."
"Jennifer, from an ACLU perspective to what degree has the culture changed in America to a case of guilty until proven innocent rather than the traditional edict of innocent until proven guilty?"
"Well certainly among the American Muslims who I interviewed around America, they told me that their perception at least is that they would be considered guilty until proven innocent. And it's all about perception. The government's practices of prosecuting donors or threatening or refusing to reassure donors and closing charities has created a climate of fear such that when observant Muslims want to fulfill their obligation to give charity they hesitate, and in many cases in fact don't give in compliance with their religion. And that's a huge problem."
"Dr. Al-Marayati, let's look at the work your organization, KinderUSA, is focused on right now. To what degree are you facing problems because of what's going on now? To what degree are you finding that people are a little wary of donating so that the work you do is being hampered?"
"As I said, I think that the American Muslim community really has stepped up, especially in view of the tragedy that has affected Gaza over the last 6 months with the siege and with the bombings that occurred back in January. So they seem to have overcome that fear. I would also say, with respect to the comments made by one of the other guests, that the cases we are talking about have been dealt with in the courts date back now 7, 8 years. And if we look at present day Muslim Americans and what they're interested in doing and who they're interested in helping - in addition to Muslims who are suffering around the world, they want to help their fellow Americans as well in times of need. So I can't say for sure that the climate has persisted in terms of inhibiting people from giving, but people do want to know. They simply want to know like any other person donating to any charity wants to know that their money is getting to the intended beneficiaries. And that's the job of our community, to be able to reassure them. And I can tell you that my experience with Muslim Americans is they're not interested in financing jihad; they are interested in financing and supporting children who are hungry, who need to be educated, women who have been hurt ands harmed, and people who are homeless. That's really their primary focus."
"Raymond Ibrahim, you wrote in a recent article of yours, 'The Dark Side of Zakat', that zakat should not be equated with charity. Presumably that's because of the reasons you had mentioned - the fact that it can be directed in light of jihad and so on. I wonder how you regard the idea of engaging a little more thoroughly to make sure that at least the community, the Muslim community in America, doesn't feel it's being targeted so much and that perhaps the motivation to be a little more positive might be triggered at least here."
"Well, going back to your first point, what I originally tried to demonstrate is that certain Islamic terms are often translated into certain English words – so zakat is immediately translated as charity. And by and large there is of course that element involved in it. But what I had written about originally in my article - and I used zakat as an example, one of several – is to show that what we think of zakat from a Western perspective, to call it charity is a little stretching in a certain sense. Why? For example a lot of people would be surprised to find that, again according to Islamic law, a Muslim is forbidden from bestowing zakat on a non-Muslim, even though the term charity itself would connote some sort of universal beneficence. And so that was the first aspect that I wanted to point out, that in these terms we take them and attribute a Western coloring to them, and in fact there are other elements involved to it that we don't know. And that's what we should become more cognizant of. And so going back to that is the aspect that zakat of course can be and has been used to fund jihadi operations across the world. And I'm sorry, I didn't quite follow your last part."
"Yeah, isn't there more benefit to be had by engaging the American Muslim community so that they're sort of on board as opposed to feeling even more targeted as seems to have happened?"
"I completely agree with that. And to that end I wonder to myself – I don't know the logistics involved in getting law enforcement to scrutinize Islamic charities – but I also think to myself, if you have nothing to hide and you are fully transparent I would hope that the process would go by smoothly. Let me give you an example. If you look at me, I am this large, bearded man whose last name is Ibrahim. When I go into airports, I get a couple of stares and I am often – I spend a little more time at the gates. But I comply because I understand the logic behind it, and more importantly I know I don't have anything to hide. So long as they are respectful and efficient about it, I just go about my business and it doesn't bother me. And so I am thinking, Islamic charity organizations I would hope would have the same spirit and that they can be transparent, they have nothing to hide and just try to make this go by smoothly because the fact is some are engaged in this. To just say there shouldn't be scrutiny – sure, maybe the vast majority of zakat is not going to fund terrorism, but to say that no scrutiny, then that small amount will be going. And so we need a balance."
"There unfortunately we've run out of time. It's a shame. There's so much more to discuss. I want to thank all three of you for taking part in the debate. Thank you."