DETROIT, Michigan - As Ramadan approaches, many US Muslims are worried about how they will manage to fulfill their charitable obligations without raising the ire or attention of federal authorities.
The start of Ramadan sometime next week coincides with the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks which prompted anti-terrorism crackdowns that many here say unfairly target Muslims.
Six major Muslim charities operating in the United States have been shut down after being designated as fund raisers for terrorist organizations and several others have been raided or closed.
“These are indirect ways of having Islamic charities close down without due process,” said Dawud Walid, director of the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“It scares away the donors and even some employees.”
There has also been a very suspicious pattern of raids taking place just ahead of Ramadan when Muslims typically do the bulk of their required giving known as “zakat”, said Shereef Akeel, a lawyer who represents two of the raided charities.
In 2004, Missouri-based Islamic American Relief Agency was shut down in the days leading up to Ramadan because of alleged ties to the militant Palestinian group Hamas and Al Qaeda. It was indicted in March for providing aid without a license in Iraq while the country was under US sanctions.
In 2005, federal agents knocked on the doors of prominent Detroit-area Muslims and asked them if they were planning on donating to Michigan-based Life for Relief and Development and other charities.
And in 2006, Life was raided and every local television station was on hand to capture images of federal agents carting away computers and boxes of documents.
While it is important to ensure that charitable funds are not diverted to terrorist activities, the federal government’s inability or refusal to provide hard evidence against the charities has created a backlash, said Akeel.
Especially since many Muslims have stopped donating to overseas programs out of fear that the money will be either frozen or tied up in legal fees and that they could be held liable for inadvertently funding terrorism.
“What we have done is compromise our image and our standing abroad,” he told AFP. “There’s no better PR than when you have American organizations on the ground.”
Life for Relief and Development has managed to keep operating despite the bad publicity from the 2006 raid, said administrative director Mohammad Alomari.
But it had to go to court to prevent its bank from flagging it as a money launderer or terrorist financer when the charity’s account was closed shortly after the raid.
It was back in court last month to stop the Justice Department from charging it 115,000 dollars in copying fees so it could get its documents back.
While charges have not yet been filed, the charity believes it is being investigated for work it did in Iraq while the country was still under sanctions.
It has managed to avoid being tied to terrorism because it carefully followed all regulations and chose not to come to the aid of orphans in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, Alomari said.
“People in the Muslim community are scared. They have to give zakat. But how do you give it? Do you give it only to the mosque? Do you give it to a friend who takes it overseas? The avenues of giving are narrower,” Alomari said in his suburban Detroit office.
“There used to be a lot of different organizations. We certainly weren’t the largest. But by default now we’re the largest because they closed down the other ones.”
Federal officials say they are committed to protecting legitimate charitable work and only target organizations when they have strong evidence that the money is being misdirected.
“These actions are not going after people who are sending legitimate funds for legitimate purposes and are accidentally swept up,” said Molly Millerwise, a Treasury Department official.
“Every one of our charitable designations that has been tested in US court has been upheld,” she said.
The nation’s largest Muslim charity, Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, is currently in court defending itself against allegations of funding terrorism by supporting Hamas.
In late July, the Treasury Department froze the assets of Michigan-based Goodwill Charitable Organization after it was declared a front for the anti-Israeli militant group Hezbollah.
The Treasury department has worked closely with the charitable community to develop guidelines that will help them ensure their funds are not being misdirected towards terrorist activities, Millerwise added.
“The charitable sector and the US government share the same goal: we want charitable giving to continue but we don’t want the money going to terrorists,” Millerwise said