The Washington Post, via the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 11, 2002
By Alan Cooperman
WASHINGTON — During every Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that ended last week, there is a surge of charitable giving by American Muslims, fulfilling their annual religious obligation to donate 2.5 percent of their net wealth to the poor.
This year, there is a difference in the pattern of giving: According to American Muslim charities, many Muslims made their gifts anonymously or in cash. They contributed less to mosques and international humanitarian groups — but more to organizations that defend the civil liberties of Muslim Americans.
Some American Muslims said they avoided institutional charities altogether, either by handing money directly to needy people in their communities or by wiring funds to relatives to distribute overseas.
Muslim community leaders attributed these shifts to fallout from the Bush administration’s crackdown on charities suspected of diverting funds to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the administration shut down three of the five largest international Islamic humanitarian organizations operating in the United States and froze about $8 million of their assets. The groups have appealed, so far without success.
Worshipers interviewed at mosques said the giving of zakat, or alms–a usually joyful endeavor that is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith–was fraught with anxiety this year. Their concerns included wanting to be certain their money goes to the poor, worrying that it might get diverted and fearing government persecution.
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Taking a break?
“We don’t want our money to go to some bad organizations,” said Mohammed Arozullah, 66, at the Muslim Community Center in suburban Maryland. “And I don’t want my name in some kind of database.”
Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the lobbying group Muslim Public Affairs Council, said government scrutiny has had “a definite chilling effect” on contributions to established Muslim charities. “There is fear of the government, a feeling that this is an instrument being used to intimidate and silence American Muslims,” Al-Marayati said.
“If the diversion of funds from charities is really the issue, then I think the government is making it more difficult to monitor where the money is sent, not less,” he said. “At least with non-profit organizations, there is a system for reporting.”
While zakat can be given at any time of year, Ramadan is the traditional season for one of the world’s oldest systems of redistributing wealth.
A 1,300-year-old formula
The 1,300-year-old formula for how much a Muslim must give away can be complex–5 percent of the produce from irrigated fields and 10 percent from unirrigated fields, for example. But religious scholars advise most modern Muslims to donate 2.5 percent of their savings, excluding homes and business assets.
Because there is no central authority in Islam and the American Muslim community is loosely organized, no one compiles authoritative data on how much money the community collectively contributes each year, or to whom the money goes.
Aslam Abdullah, editor of The Minaret, an Islamic monthly in Los Angeles, said he surveyed 56 mosques and Islamic centers nationwide. Their responses, he said, indicate that gifts to mosques fell an average of 20 percent this year.
Abdullah said he feels certain that Muslims actually are donating more money, because they “are under rough weather in this country” and because “spirituality and religiosity are up among Muslims.”
Cash for civil rights groups
Some of the money is going to civil rights groups, such as the Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations, which dramatically demonstrated the financial wherewithal of the Muslim community by taking in $523,000 at a single night’s dinner in Los Angeles on Oct. 19 and $650,000 at a similar fundraiser a week later in suburban Washington.
In the past eight weeks, CAIR has raised close to $2 million, double what it received in donations in all of 2001, said its chairman, Omar Ahmad.
More money also appears to be going into community projects, such as soup kitchens and medical clinics. In Los Angeles, a recent Muslim food drive fed more than 1,500 homeless people. In Washington, Muslim volunteers from Howard University teamed up with a church to provide dinners for homeless women and are raising money to open a free clinic. In Houston, Muslim doctors already run such a clinic, serving mainly Hispanic clients.
“It’s the impact of 9/11,” said Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group of about 300 mosques, community centers and professional organizations. “Once the names [of the terrorists] became known, the reaction among Muslims was shock. Then it was activism. From coast to coast there is much more involvement of Muslims in faith-based and interfaith projects.”
Meanwhile, some Islamic charities with an overseas focus are struggling. Life for Relief and Development, a Michigan-based agency that distributes humanitarian aid in Iraq and Afghanistan, raised $4.4 million last year, but a representative said it “will be lucky” to reach $4 million this year.
Mercy-USA for Aid and Development, another Michigan group with worldwide operations, said its donors were so “spooked” by allegations about other charities funneling money to terrorists that it made major efforts–including a redesigned Web site and a direct-mail campaign–to highlight the fact that it receives U.S. government funding.
At the request of Muslim groups, the Treasury Department on Nov. 7 issued voluntary guidelines for all charities, emphasizing financial transparency, annual reports and vetting of foreign recipients.
During MPAC’s annual convention, expected to bring 2,000 Muslims to Los Angeles on Dec. 21, representatives of Islamic philanthropies also will discuss setting up an accrediting agency whose stamp of approval would be trusted by donors, organizers said.
Several Islamic charities that emphasize transparency have sprung up this year. But they are still tiny and little-known compared with the three aid agencies shut down by the government, which together had raised more than $20 million annually: the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, based in Richardson, Texas; Benevolence International Foundation of Palos Hills, Ill.; and Global Relief Foundation of Bridgeview, Ill.