D.C. News & Views - Ramadan & Anxiety Over Charity

August 21, 2007

As Ramadan fast approaches, there is a nervous anticipation among charities on whether the U.S. Treasury will shut down or raid or make some announcement about another charity.

 Since 9/11, six charity groups have been shut down by the government after being accused of providing financial aid to groups and individuals included on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Just last month, two Michigan charities - Goodwill Charitable Organization (GCO) and Mabarrat - were raided by federal officials. The current Dallas trial of the Holy Land Foundation is the third effort by government prosecutors to tie Muslim activists in the United States to overseas terror groups.

In April 2005, Muslim American humanitarian and philanthropic organizations interested in U.S. policy on charities established the National Council of American Muslim Non-Profits. The National Council was established to demonstrate transparency to donors and to create a network of support groups for protecting the rights of charitable giving and of donors. Then assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury Juan Zarate applauded the formation of the National Council in an op-ed in the Washington Times:

"The creation of the national council is also a testament to the community taking ownership of this corrosive and difficult issue. At stake in the project to preserve the sanctity of charity is not only the confidence of the Muslim American donor community but also the compassionate voice and view of America in the Muslim world. The work of the members of the council -- which will now begin in earnest -- will shape how charities are protected, how Muslim American dollars are spent at home and abroad, and how America is viewed in the Muslim world."

Mr. Zarate left the Treasury Department shortly after this article was published and since then, dialogue with this federal agency has come to a halt. In fact, dialogue with other agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, even the Department of Defense, has been more consistent and at with high level cabinet officials, than with the Department of Treasury. Treasury officials currently in charge of the Terrorist Financing Division have not sat down with any Muslim American organizations the way Mr. Zarate did.

In the op-ed mentioned above, Juan Zarate linked the protection of charities with the image of America in the Muslim world. Both have been severely damaged without any rehabilitation. What's at stake? Not just the protection of Muslim charities in the U.S. to operate but also the protection of other humanitarian agencies to operate in the Muslim world. As the U.S. government continues to shut down and prosecute Muslim charities, it reinforces the perception that it is obstructing fulfillment of one of the five pillars of Islam, Zakat. The only time it has debunked that myth is in the Tsunami relief effort, when the U.S. government actively worked with all charities to send relief to Indonesia and other areas of need. For the Palestinian territories, Kashmir and other hot spots in the Muslim world, however, it is given the opposite image -- one of obstructing Muslim charitable giving.

In some cases, those who work in these areas come to be viewed as agents of the U.S. government and are targeted by bandits and terrorist groups. The deaths and hostage-taking of relief workers in South Asia, including the recent incident involving Korean missionaries in Afghanistan, are examples of where U.S. policy is damaging the efforts of all humanitarian groups, not just Muslim charities.

A group of U.S.-based relief organizations and foundations are attempting to dialogue with Treasury officials to resurrect the partnership of April 2005. It's time for dialogue and real partnership between the U.S. Treasury and Muslim organizations.

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