December 7, 2005

Post-9/11, US Muslim charities fear work is at risk

By Caroline Drees, Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a country seared by the September
11 attacks, Muslim American charities and donors say they live
in constant fear of frozen funds, indictments and even closure,
regardless of whether they have done anything wrong.

The case of former Florida university professor Sami
al-Arian, who was acquitted on several charges of funding
terrorists on Tuesday after almost three years in jail,
highlights and underscores these concerns.

While government prosecutors said Arian provided money and
support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad for terrorist activities,
the defendant said any money he sent to the group was for
charity. Arian remains in prison because the jury deadlocked on
some charges and he could be retried.

"Donors and charities have a lot of things to fear," said
Jihad Smaili, a lawyer for KindHearts, an Ohio-based charity
founded as a vehicle for Islamic donations. "It's not just
fearing substantiated accusations that a charity may be
connected to a terrorist group, but also fearing the mere
suspicion, or a witchhunt."

Imad ad-Dean Ahmed, head of the Islamic American Zakat
Foundation, said donors were "concerned about donations being
frozen and not getting to the intended destination, even when
the organization may eventually be cleared." Giving alms, known
as "zakat," to the needy is a requirement in Islam.

Muslim charitable giving has been in the spotlight since
authorities discovered al Qaeda and other militants had abused
charities to fund attacks. Three major U.S. Muslim charities
have been shut down and hundreds of millions of dollars have
been blocked as a result of counterterrorism efforts.

"Each day you would hear that someone has been arrested or
some charity has come under scrutiny, so initially it was very
difficult and sent a chilling message to the community," said
Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North
America, one of the largest U.S. Muslim groups.


Charities must be on guard on several fronts. They must
make sure they do not accept funds from anyone identified as a
suspected terrorist, which they say can be difficult when many
donations come as $10 or $20 bills given by anonymous donors at
religious services.

They must also ensure that none of their employees or board
members are affiliated in any way with thousands of individuals
or groups designated as militant by the U.S. government.

Once they raise money, charities must make certain none
goes to a project or person linked to militants or banned
groups. In regions where Islamic militant groups often have
significant charitable operations, U.S. charities say it can be
hard to distinguish good apples from bad.

The government says it understands the difficulties, and
issued updated guidelines this week to help charities protect
themselves from abuse.

The U.S. Treasury has also taken other steps to help,
including working with Israeli and Palestinian officials to
help set up safe aid channels in an area where many social
services are provided by militant groups.

Muslim Americans say the ripple effect of the government's
hunt for terrorist funds has deeply shaken their community and
led to an overhaul of Islamic charities.

"This isn't a game. There aren't any excuses and the U.S.
government isn't taking any prisoners in terms of this issue,"
said Clareen Menzies, program officer for California-based
Islamic Relief.

Some U.S. Muslim charities -- including the Zakat
Foundation -- have stopped donating money abroad. Others, such
as KindHearts and Islamic Relief, have their own offices abroad
to make sure donations stay safe.

The Islamic Society of North America set up the National
Council for American Muslim Non-Profits this year to serves as
a watchdog to assure donors that certain charities are safe.

Some have made the Treasury guidelines their official
policy, but note that the guidelines specifically state they
are not automatic protection from prosecution.