Charitable Giving Under Greater Scrutiny After Sept. 11
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, web producer Lee Hill joins us to talk about what our listeners have to say and what's going on, on the blog. But first its time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation. Muslims around the world are observing the holy month of Ramadan. This is a time when Muslims fast each day, pray, and ask for forgiveness for past sins. Another important obligation tied to Ramadan is the Zakat, an offering of money to the poor. Many people fulfill this by donating to a charity, serving people of need in Islamic communities, but since 9/11 the U.S. government has scrutinized and in some cases frozen the assets of several Muslim charities because of suspected ties to terrorism. These actions have left some Muslims afraid to donate and the charity strapped for cash.
Joining me now to talk about this is Imam Hassan Qazwini, he is the head of one of the largest Shia congregations in the U.S., the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan. He joins us on the phone from his office in Dearborn. Joining me here in our Washington studio is Arsalan Iftikhar, he's a civil rights lawyer, founder of themuslimguide.com and one of our Barbershop regulars. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Lawyer): Thank you, Michel.
Imam HASSAN QAZWINI (Head, The Islamic Center of America): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Imam, how widespread do you think is concern about donating to charities because of the scrutiny that some of these charities have gotten after 9/11? Are members of your congregation concerned? Are people asking you for advice?
Imam QAZWINI: Well, obviously there is the significant reduction in the size of donations given to all Islamic centers including my own center. I can say probably somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the same amount we used to collect every year, of course, before 9/11. So, there is a sizable reduction in the amount of donations given to the Islamic centers in general especially during the month of Ramadan. We've been noticing this lately.
MARTIN: But can I ask you though, how do you know it's because of this concern about being scrutinized as opposed to the economy? Many nonprofits, many charities have reported a falloff in donations because people are stressed and they're frightened about their own economic circumstances. So, how do you know?
Imam QAZWINI: That's very true. The economic stagnation has also contributed in this reduction, but from conversation with people, with the congregation you can tell that some people, actually many people are apprehensive of giving to Islamic centers and to Islamic charities.
MARTIN: Arsalan, after 9/11, Congress gave the government the power to crack down on not-for-profits that were suspected of giving material aid to groups that the U.S. has designated as terrorist. I mean, tell me your thoughts about this. On the one hand, clearly the U.S. does have legitimate interest in siphoning off resources that could be going to groups sort of engaged in terrorist activity. On the other hand, there is a First Amendment concern.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely. And, you know, shortly after 9/11 on September 23rd, 2001, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13224 which, quote, prohibits U.S. persons from transacting or dealing with individuals designated as specially-designated global terrorists. Now, in addition to that, there is this something called the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the IEEPA, which basically says that the government can block assets of any entities that are suspected of providing material support for the terrorists. Now, the problem with that, Michel, is that we found the top three American Muslim charities after 9/11 being summarily shut down by both the Treasury Department and pursuant to this executive order. The main problem to this, the ACLU and other human rights groups have said since 9/11, is that there are no checks and balances. Basically, the government can use classified information. These organizations have no recourse in the courts, and most importantly, all of the assets, all of the donations that regular American Muslims have contributed to these organizations become frozen and can't be moved or be - even be challenged.
MARTIN: What about the money that people donate to mosques? Do members of the community feel that those donations are also being scrutinized and can they legally be scrutinized?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely. Under the U.S.A. Patriot Act, you know, the government has wide latitude in, you know, these sorts of investigations. And a lot of American Muslims, you know, have personally told me, and I know I've told Imam that, you know, they fear that, you know, by writing a check, you know, they'll see men in black come knocking on their doors, you know, asking about their affiliations, and of course this has a resonating and chilling effect on their First Amendment right to free association.
MARTIN: Imam, have members of your congregation said this to you? Have they said, Imam, I don't know what to do. I wish to contribute but I don't want to bring unwanted scrutiny on myself. And, what do you say?
Imam QAZWINI: Well, basically, there are some people who utterly suppress their fear and their are apprehension from giving to Islamic centers. And there are people who still give but they give anonymously. As a religious leader, I always advise people to give and not to be overreacting over these incidents. Obviously, there is a very logical ground for concerns, but at the same time, we all understand that Islamic centers, Islamic institutions and Islamic schools in the United States, they all solely rely on the donations of people and the charity. So I continue to tell people that there should not be a problem, not to be apprehensive about this. And that's my advice to the Muslim community.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Imam Hassan Qazwini and Arsalan Iftikhar about how government scrutiny seems to be keeping some Muslims from donating to charities. Imam, if you could just back up for one second and talk about - a little bit about the tradition of Zakat, explain its origins if you can, and how important is it as a faith practice.
Imam QAZWINI: Well, we know that Zakat or charity is part of our Islamic tradition. It is one of the five main Islamic principles, and it is mandatory. And therefore, Muslims feel obligated to give since this is a major part of their faith.
MARTIN: Do they have to give through religious organizations? For example, many Americans give money to groups like the Red Cross or the Red Crescent. Is that an option also?
Imam QAZWINI: Well, Muslims have wide discretion on the way they disperse their own charity. Many Muslims choose to give their charity to the corps directly, or they give it to one of these humanitarian organizations that you just mentioned. However, so many other Muslims, due to lack of a better choice, they trust their respective Islamic centers and therefore they forward their charity to their own Islamic centers and they authorize them to do that.
MARTIN: Arsalan, have there been prosecutions of charity - successful prosecutions of charities for ties to terrorist organizations?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: No, there have been no successful prosecutions thus far. Thus far, efforts have not yielded one single conviction on anyone involved with the designated charities or terrorists financing or support. The top three American Muslim charities were summarily shut down in the winter of 2001. Many of these organizations were not even charged with a crime until five years later. And even five years later, the highest profile case, the Holy Land Foundation case in October 2007, after 19 days of deliberation and over 200 counts in front of them did not return one guilty verdict.
MARTIN: There's an organization called Muslim Advocates. It's a San Francisco based network of Muslim-American lawyers there, as I understand it, partnering with the Better Business Bureau to streamline the fiscal management of American Muslim charities. What's the intent here? Do you think that that will help?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: It will and it won't. It's a two-way street. What Muslim advocates and other American-Muslim organizations are trying to do is reach out to the Better Business Bureau, the Department of Treasury and ask for best practices guidelines, and saying that, listen, we don't want our charity shut down in the future. What can we do in order to show our transparency and ensure that our donors' money is getting to their intended beneficiaries? The unfortunate part of this, Michel, is that as I mentioned, it's a two-way street. The Department of Treasury really hasn't offered those best practices guidelines in terms of saying, OK, you know, this is what you can do to ensure that your organizations are not going to be shut down in the future. And so Muslim Advocates and other organizations are having to go to places like the Better Business Bureau and other third party organizations to try and ensure the best transparency for Muslim organizations nationwide.
MARTIN: Arsalan, what about the individuals who give to those charities? Is there a risk that you could unintentionally violate the law if you donate to an organization that you don't know has terrorist ties, that you think is just doing, you know, feeding the poor some place and in fact is engaged in these other activities?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Unfortunately, yes. The way the current federal statute stands, the material support statute which is 18 USC 2339, there is no specific intent requirement. And what that means is you can not have the intent, but if you write a two-dollar check and it goes to a terrorist organization, you technically violate the federal law. And groups like the ACLU and other civil rights group are trying to add specific intent provisions to the federal laws so that a person would actually have to intend that their money was going to a terrorist organization in order for them to violate the law.
MARTIN: But then, couldn't you argue that the government is performing an appropriate oversight function by scrutinizing these charities to make sure that they're not doing that, so that individuals aren't unwittingly giving their money to things that they wouldn't agree with? Why wouldn't they want there to be some scrutiny to make sure that their dollars are not misused?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oh, absolutely. What we're trying to say is that there shouldn't be added scrutiny just because of the fact that people are Arabs or Muslims. You know setting a double standard or second standard for people of Arab or Muslim descent is obviously not only antithetical to American values but it's blatantly unconstitutional.
MARTIN: Imam, you and I have spoken before about the journey that many Muslim-Americans have made, you know through this country and how the community in the wake of 9/11 has grappled with all the issues that 9/11 sort of brought us. How would you, I know it's a broad question but how do you think things are now? We just observed the seventh anniversary of 9/11. Compared to how things were in those early days, how do you feel in a relationship scenario that the distrust on both sides, the sense that alienation that some Muslims felt, the sense of heightened scrutiny, things of that sort. How do you assess that now?
Imam QAZWINI: I believe that as the unique sense of bitterness and disappointment among the Muslim community now. We really hope that seven years after 9/11 that attacks, as things are back to normal in the Muslim community. We really hope that the - our country, our nation could have passed these bitter days and we could have a better understanding of each other. For Muslims to be still viewed as suspects and as my friend Arsalan mentioned to have added scrutiny simply because they are Muslims, it is really a main source of concern for us. It's very disappointing to see that Muslims are being singled out simply because they are Muslims, simply because of their origins, and I really hope that the new administration be it a Republican or Democrat can help in dispelling some of these grievances that Muslims suffer now since 9/11.
MARTIN: Arsalan, final thought. Do you think that's true? Arabs and Muslims or people who are perceived to be Arab and Muslims are still receiving additional scrutiny, a sense of distress - the target of distress?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely, I think that you know whether you are looking at the spectrum of racial profiling in the airports for example, if you see an olive skin bearded man or a woman with a head scarf there is an element of disdain. You still see cases from around the country that happen. And so, you know we're living in a not only in a post-9/11 America but in the next chapter of our civil rights history of America also in terms of privacy rights. First amendment free speech issues. You know we have seen it with the U.S.A. Patriot Act with domestic spying and wire tapping. We're sort of entering the millennial civil rights movement in terms of how we're going to view our constitutional rights for all Americans in the future.
MARTIN: Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney. He is an editor of Islamica magazine and founder of muslimguide.com. We were also joined by Imam Hassan Qazwini. He leads the Islamic Centre of America in Dearborn, Michigan. Gentleman, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Imam QAZWINI: Thank you, Michel.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Thank you so much.