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Commentary

The Crime of Being a Muslim Charity

Laila al-Marayati and Basil Abdelkarim, both physicians, are board members of KinderUSA, aMuslim American nonprofit humanitarian organization.

Laila al-Marayati and Basil Abdelkarim
Washington Post
Sunday, March 12, 2006; Page B07

The Treasury Department is playing target practice with American Muslim charities. On Feb. 19 Treasury seized the assets and froze the operations of KindHearts, a Toledo-based humanitarian organization, acting on the dubious allegation that it is financing terrorism. Someone from Treasury once told us, "There are folks here who look at you guys like notches on their belts... just waiting to take the next one out."

Unfortunately, those of us in the American Muslim community who want to give to legitimate causes in a lawful manner are getting mixed messages from the U.S. government. We are told that if we conduct due diligence and function transparently, we should be able to give to charities of our choice. Then the government closes most of these charities, using the weakest of evidence to support its actions and leading many American Muslims to believe that our government opposes efforts to help needy Muslims around the world. Moreover, the arbitrary freezing of assets ensures that the money will never reach the destination intended by the donors -- the truly indigent. The government has consistently denied requests to have the frozen funds released to reputable organizations (that are not on any lists) doing similar work so that the donors' intentions are honored.

Under the USA Patriot Act, the U.S. government is authorized to close down a charity while an investigation is going on. The government is under no obligation to reveal the evidence used to justify the seizure of assets and the designation of the charity as a "specially designated national," i.e. a bad guy on the list of suspected terrorists issued by the Treasury Department.

The organization can file an appeal, but as was noted in a recent paper titled "Muslim Charities and the War on Terror" by the organization OMBWatch, "appealing Treasury actions to the federal courts is relatively useless, as the court's scope of review is very limited."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, six American Muslim charities have been shuttered in this fashion. The government still doesn't have a single terrorism conviction against any of the employees or board members of any of those charities. Similarly, the government has never been able to document a bona fide trail showing how money from the charity got into the hands of actual terrorists. Never.

We believe it is possible to provide sustenance to people in need without supporting terrorism. But the message we are hearing is this: "All Muslims are suspected of supporting terrorism. Your charities are guilty of this crime until proven innocent. But don't bother trying to prove your innocence because you won't have the chance." The government has not taken action against a single non-Muslim charity that works in the same region helping to feed, educate and sustain people who had also received assistance from the Muslim charities accused of financing terrorism.

We are among those American Muslims who decided that because it is our right as Americans to fulfill our religious obligation to help the needy both here and abroad, we would start a new charity. We did so in 2002 and have experienced our fair share of government harassment as a result.

None of us is interested in engaging in illegal activity; it is immoral, unethical and un-Islamic, and it serves no useful purpose whatever. Our crime is that we care about what happens to the children of Palestine. Who knows what price we will have to pay for our hot-breakfast program for hungry kids in Gaza, for our playground project in the West Bank, for our psychosocial trauma center in Hebron.

Under former attorney general John Ashcroft, American Muslim charities were closed as part of the charade to make the American people believe the government was disrupting terrorist financing. Today, under Alberto Gonzales, the message is that Muslim Americans will be punished if they want to help Palestinians. Either way the assault on our charities is not about the safety and security of the American people but about politics.

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