Muslims worry about charities
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
This year, the spirit of giving for American Muslims during Ramadan has taken on a heightened level of fear and frustration as U.S.-based Islamic charities have become targets of the government's effort to choke off money for terrorist groups.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has frozen the assets of three major Muslim nonprofits suspected of having links with terrorism: the Holy Land Foundation of Richardson, Texas; Benevolence International Foundation and Global Relief Foundation, both based in the Chicago area. Only last month, the Treasury Department designated Global Relief Foundation as a terrorist organization because, among other allegations, it received money from a high-ranking al-Qaida official.
The government's actions have Muslims, including Hakim Ouansafi, head of the Muslim Association of Hawai'i, worried about how to fulfill their obligation to give.
During Ramadan, the holiest month of the year, the faithful are expected to give alms for the poor or zakat al-Fitr. The idea of zakat al-Fitr is to calculate what it would take for the poor to have a day of celebration at Eid al-Fitr, the culmination of Ramadan and one of Muslims' two holidays.
Zakat is one of the five pillars of their faith. Unlike tithing, which is based on income, zakat is calculated as 2 1/2 percent of one's "excess wealth," said Aly El-Kadi, a professor at the University of Hawai'i. The extra zakat al-Fitr is collected during Ramadan.
This makes the holy month of Ramadan an opportune time for Islamic charities to launch their largest fund-raising campaigns.
The start of Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar and requires visual sightings of the new crescent moon. The new moon is often spotted first by members of the local mosque here in Hawai'i, who then alert others around the country. The Islamic month of fasting from sunrise to sunset is expected to begin tomorrow.
Ouansafi has personally donated thousands to the Global Relief Foundation, whose co-founder, Rabih Haddad, stands accused by federal investigators of having been involved with an Osama bin Laden group in the 1980s that recruited guerrillas to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Haddad came to Hawai'i in February 2001 to raise money, and met with members of the mosque.
Ouansafi said he finds it "hard to believe" that the charges against Haddad are true. Haddad, a popular Michigan-based cleric, has been jailed since Dec. 4 on immigration charges. Ouansafi says that he was not aware of Global Relief Foundation's designation by the government as a terrorist organization. Even so, it's the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, he said.
"Take the director, bring him to justice," Ouansafi suggested. "Don't tie up aid to people it's intended (to help) in the first place."
Other Muslim charities, which feel they've been unfairly tarred by association, have seen a significant drop in donations since Sept. 11, 2001.
"Two-thirds of our funds come from this month," said Muhammad Rahman, head of the New York-based international relief arm of the Islamic Circle of North America. "If we don't make it, that means next year will be a very tough time."
No single authority measures how far donations have declined, but Muslim leaders and fund-raisers say regular donors are afraid to sign their names to checks for fear they, too, could fall under suspicion should their charities of choice draw the interest of federal investigators.
"I would venture to guess that giving during Ramadan will be less than usual," said Khalil Jahshan, executive vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "The evidence is overwhelming that people are nervous about giving right now."
A group of Muslim leaders met with President Bush in September, urging him to take some action so American Muslims may feel safer making zakat. Muslim leaders in the United States are also lobbying for a federal auditing system for Islamic charities, so investigators and donors can feel confident that no money goes to groups thought to have terrorist ties.
Without such safeguards, many Muslims fear that sending checks to their favorite humanitarian organizations will inadvertently make them suspects in the eyes of law enforcement.
El-Kadi said he and others in the mosque are waiting to ask Ouansafi and other executives to resolve the issue. Last year, the zakat went to the needy within the community.
"The best option is if somebody knows where it's most needed," the geology professor said. "If you know some needy, even within your family, that would be your first choice."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.