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The practice of investigating and prosecuting terrorism cases in the United States has had an impact on Muslim charities, which have come under greater scrutiny since 9/11. The Islamic religious obligation to give charity is known as zakat. And when Ramadan begins, late summer, American Muslims will be deciding where to donate money, which making some of the faithful a little nervous.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty explains.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: The idea behind zakat is this: If every Muslim gives 2.5 percent of his savings to the poor, that will go a long way to eradicating poverty. Imam Mohamed Magid at the ADAMS Center in Virginia says that's why zakat is one of the five pillars, or really important obligations, of Islam.
Mr. MOHAMED MAGID (Imam, ADAMS Center): A Muslim will not be able to fulfill his religious obligations and be fully a Muslim without fulfilling zakat.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: But how do you do that without running a foul of the law? With some difficulty, according to a report released today by the ACLU. Researcher Jennifer Turner says she interviewed more than 100 Muslims in Michigan and Texas to see what happened to them after they donated money to large Muslim charities working abroad.
Ms. JENNIFER TURNER (American Civil Liberties Union): Donors and their lawyers told me that FBI agents were knocking on donors' doors at home and at their workplaces to interrogate them about their donations, to ask them questions, like, did you write a check to a charity? What do you know about that charity?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: After the attacks on September 11, the U.S. government suspected that some Muslim charities were funneling donations to terrorist groups like al-Qaida. Under the regulations, anyone who gives to one of those charities - even if he did so before the charity came under suspicion - could be accused of giving material support to terrorists.
This has made Ashraf Sabrin, who worships at the ADAMS Center, a little nervous. Each year, he spends hours researching charitable organizations, poring over the bios of the officers and records filed with the government for any hint of wrongdoing. It's a lot of work, he says.
Mr. ASHRAF SABRIN: And I bet most people don't want to go through all of that. And I bet most people probably just say, Allah knows my intentions, but I can't give because maybe three years from now, someone will be investigated and my donation will be scrutinized in some way.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: He says there's another problem. So far, the U.S. has frozen the assets of seven large Muslim charities worth $20 million. So, money that was supposed to go to the destitute sits in a government bank account.
For years, Muslim leaders have asked the Treasury Department for guidance as to which charities are safe to give to, a so called white list. But Juan Zarate, a former Treasury Department official who investigated terrorist financing, says that will never happen. He says a charity that looks clean today could be dirty tomorrow. In fact, he says, those approved charities could become targets of sophisticated terrorists.
Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Deputy National Security Advisor For Combating Terrorism): We know terrorist organizations have actually infiltrated charities before. And so you could have a white list serving as a road map or blueprint for those seeking actually good sources of funding.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Especially since those charities would attract more donations because they have the seal of approval from the U.S. government. Zarate says the tension between religious liberties and national security arises because of the way many terrorist organizations work. He says groups like Hamas, Hezbollah or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad actually do run hospitals and feed orphans and widows.
Mr. ZARATE: They do have these social mechanisms that endear them to the local populations, give them resources and then be able to enlist the sons and daughters of those helped to strap on bombs and suicide belts to carry out the terrorist agenda.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Imam Magid understands that. But he thinks the government should take another look at the rules that were set up eight years ago, which is why he was thrilled when he heard President Obama tell Muslims that he understood the rules hinder their religious freedom.
Mr. MAGID: Oh, I clapped actually. I said, yes. Finally somebody is mentioning it publicly. And coming from the president himself, that means a lot.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Now, Magid says, the president needs to turn his words into policies and do it before Ramadan begins in August.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.