U.S. terrorism finance laws and policies unfairly prevent Muslims in Southern California and around the nation from practicing their religion through charitable giving, and undermine America’s diplomatic efforts in Muslim countries, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released late Monday. The 164-page report, “Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity,” is the first comprehensive report that documents the serious effects of Bush administration terrorism finance laws on Muslim communities.
“Without notice and through the use of secret evidence and opaque procedures, the Treasury Department has effectively closed down seven U.S.-based Muslim charities, including several of the nations’ largest Muslim charities,” said Jennifer Turner, a researcher with the ACLU Human Rights Program and author of the report. “While terrorism financing laws are meant to make us safer, policies that give the appearance of a war on Islam only serve to undermine America’s diplomatic efforts just as President Obama reaches out to the Muslim world. These counter-productive practices alienate American Muslims who are key allies and chill legitimate humanitarian aid in parts of the world where charities’ good works could be most effective in winning hearts and minds.”
According to the report, for which the ACLU conducted 120 interviews with Muslim community leaders and donors in several states, including California, federal law enforcement agents are engaging in practices that intimidate Muslim American donors, such as widespread interviews about their donations and surveillance of donations at mosques. Those interviewed say the government’s actions have a chilling effect on Muslim charitable giving, or Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam and a religious obligation for all observant Muslims.
In one case, a Buena Park man was held for two years in immigration custody and threatened with deportation for his role as an independent contractor to a charitable organization that provided humanitarian relief in the Middle East and around the world. The government shut down the organization, the Holy Land Foundation, in 2001 even though it admits the money went to legitimate charitable causes.
“It’s ironic and extremely sad that laws designed to prevent another 9/11 have instead served to curtail the provision of humanitarian relief to people around the world who need it most, while undermining religious freedom here in the United States – one of the freedoms that makes our nation worth protecting,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrants’ rights and national security at ACLU/SC. “We hope that the comprehensive information set forth in this report will spark reform of these misguided laws.”
There has been extensive FBI surveillance of charitable organizations and fundraising activities for humanitarian relief in Southern California, according to the agency’s own records obtained by the ACLU of Southern California under the Freedom of Information Act. Under a constant microscope, many Muslims Americans in Southern California are no longer freely giving. They are finding themselves having to choose between their fear of vague and overbroad laws about charitable giving and discriminatory enforcement of those laws, and their religious obligations to give to charities.
“There is a pervasive fear in our community that has to be undone. People are afraid to give to worthy causes because of flawed laws that have criminalized legitimate humanitarian aid,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization representing over 70 mosques and Muslim organizations. “If a Muslim American is going to have second thought before he or she fulfills their religious obligation, then we are no longer living in a country governed by the U.S. Constitution.”
In his speech from Cairo on June 4, President Obama raised the issue of terrorism finance laws that have an adverse effect on Muslim giving. The ACLU report makes comprehensive recommendations to the Obama administration and Congress that are necessary to ensure terrorism financing policies are consistent with American values of due process and religious freedom.