President Obama is already popular among Muslims in the U.S., but one reference in a recent speech made many hearts swoon.
"Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together," he told an audience in Cairo. "Rules on charitable giving made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That's why I'm committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat."
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 toward eradicating poverty. Imam Mohamed Magid at the ADAMS Center, a large mosque in Virginia, says that's why zakat is one of the five pillars, or obligations, of Islam.
"It's a really big deal," he says. "A Muslim will not be able to fulfill his religious obligations and be fully a Muslim without fulfilling zakat."
But how do you do that without running afoul of the law? With some difficulty, according to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union. 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.
"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," she says, "asking questions like, 'Did you write a check to a charity?' or, 'What do you know about that charity?' "
After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, 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 biographies of the officers and records filed with the government for any hint of wrongdoing.
"It's a lot of work," he says. "And I bet most people don't want to go through all of that. And I bet most people 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.' "
Sabrin and others say there's another problem: So far, the U.S. has frozen $20 million in assets from seven large Muslim charities. 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 a "white list" that offers guidance on which charities are safe to give to. 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, those approved charities could become targets of sophisticated terrorists.
"We know terrorist [organizations] have infiltrated charities before," he says. "And so you could have a white list serving as a road map or blueprint for those seeking actually good sources of funding."
Especially since those charities would attract more donations because they have the seal of approval from the United States government.
Zarate says the tension between religious liberties and national security arises because of the way many terrorist organizations work. Groups like Hamas, Hezbollah or Palestinian Islamic Jihad actually do run hospitals and feed orphans and widows.
"They do have these social mechanisms that endear them to the local population, that give them resources," he says. That enables them "to enlist the sons and daughters of those helped to then strap on bombs and suicide belts to carry out the terrorist agenda."
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.
"Oh, I clapped actually!" he says, laughing. "I said, 'Yes! Finally somebody is mentioning it publicly!' And coming from the president himself, that means a lot."
Now, Magid says, the president needs to turn his words into policies — and do it before Ramadan begins in August.