Al Jazeera - November 24 2003
US Islamic charities in trouble
By Benjamin Duncan in Washington, DC
For many American Muslim charities, the fallout from 11 September 2001 continues to this day.
Groups set up to assist impoverished peoples in areas such as the West Bank, Chechnya and Afghanistan are struggling to hold on to their base support, according to several representatives of the Muslim American community.
Ladale George, a Chicago-based attorney who advises more than 30 American Muslim charities, said there has been an estimated 40% reduction in financial support since 11 September for the groups he represents.
He attributed the problem to widespread concerns among donors that Islamic charities with global operations are still heavily scrutinised by law enforcement agencies.
“I think the biggest reason for the drop off is a fear that the unproven allegations made against the [Muslim] charities will be levelled against the donors,” George said.
The allegations he is referring to involved Global Relief Foundation, Benevolent International Foundation (BEF) and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.
The three American Islamic charities had their assets seized by the government amid accusations of financial ties to "terrorist groups".
So far, the only individual charged with a crime is Enaam Arnaout, the former head of BEF who pleaded guilty to one count of assisting Islamic fighters in Chechnya.
However, while the three groups were effectively shut down under Executive Order 13224, which gives US authorities the power to seize assets of organisations with suspected links to terrorism, George said there has never been a “judicial finding of fact”.
Last year, members from several Arab and Muslim American groups requested that the US Treasury Department (USTREAS) assist US-based Islamic charities in building trust with donors while ensuring the government that their financial activities were clear of wrongdoing.
In response, the Department developed a set of voluntary best practice guidelines that advise charitable organisations on how to establish proper transparency and vetting of potential foreign aid recipients.
The problem is that while most of the guidelines involve basic, common sense accounting standards, the section called “Anti-Terrorist Financing Procedures” contains some parameters that are too far-reaching and logistically impractical.
Among other things, these guidelines say charities should take steps to ensure that no individual employees of any foreign recipient organisations or subcontractors of those organisations support terrorism in any way.
It also recommends a thorough investigation of any financial institutions used by the organisations in order to determine whether they could be “shell banks” involved in money laundering activities.
Dr Riad Abd al-Karim, co-founder of Kids in Need of Development, Education and Relief (KINDER USA), a Muslim American relief organization, said certain aspects of the guidelines are beyond the scope of what many charities are able to do and called them “ridiculous and burdensome".
During times of humanitarian crisis, conducting background checks of every individual who could possibly be involved with foreign relief organisations is irrational, George said.
“The Red Cross does not keep a list of everyone they give a band aid to after a tornado,” he said.
Although the guidelines are voluntary, the Treasury Department has taken a “passive aggressive” approach in promoting their usage, hinting that any charity unable or unwilling to fully comply with them could be subject to closure under Executive Order 13224, said Dr Laila al-Marayati, a KINDER USA board member.
“Because the Treasury Department can basically shut you down without ever having your day in court, you’re basically at their mercy,” Dr al-Marayati said.
Her husband, Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said he worried because “even when you abide by the guidelines, the government said there are no guarantees that you’ll be cleared”.
One of the biggest concerns regarding the flow of money overseas from US-based Muslim groups is that funds intended for humanitarian purposes might find their way into the hands of organisations such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).
Terminating the money operations of Hamas and similar groups has been one of the US government’s chief declared motivations for clamping down on Islamic foreign aid groups.
At KINDER USA, a voucher program was developed that may address part of the problem and provide a model for other Muslim charities to follow.
Since food aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip comprises a large portion of the group’s budget, al-Marayati said her group devised a system whereby individual recipients would be given $50 vouchers, which would be limited to the purchase of food, household products and other day-to-day items.
The coupons allow the individuals to decide what type of products they need, while preventing the money from being used for political or military activities. While financial accountability was not the reason for the program, so far, it has been a success, al-Marayati said.
“This eliminates the cash from the picture, but it also gives more dignity to the participants,” she added
No political ties
Like every other representative interviewed for this story, al-Marayati said her group has never had any financial dealings with Hamas or any other group classified by the US government as a "terrorist organisation".
However, she added that it is extremely difficult to guarantee that no individual within a foreign recipient group has any underground links to "terrorism".
Even without a voucher system, the people receiving assistance from groups like KINDER USA are not politically motivated Islamists, but hungry families, Abd al-Karim said.
“The people that we are dealing with are worrying about where their next meal is coming from,” he said. “They’re not thinking about how they can abuse this money.”
But they and others like them may be the ones who are suffering the most as a result of US crackdowns on Muslim relief organisations.
George said many of the groups he works with have complained that the post-9/11 drop-off in funding is only hurting the people who need help the most.
“They’re not able to feed as many people,” he said. “Equipment that was supposed to be purchased abroad has not been purchased because of resource limitations.”
Salam al-Marayati said humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, Chechnya and the occupied territories have been hit by declining financial support.
“Those are the programs that have been affected the most,” he said.