U.S. Muslims Temper Ramadan Giving With Caution

Times Staff Writer

Like many Muslims, Southern California businessman Safi Qureshey plans to contribute to charity during Islam's current holy season of Ramadan, when it is said that the blessings of all donations are multiplied 70 times in the book of God.

But since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. heightened suspicions that some Islamic relief organizations were covertly funneling donations to terrorists, Qureshey is far more cautious about which charities he supports. Now, he says, he no longer contributes directly to individual charities but funnels his giving through the California Community Foundation and Citibank, which check the recipients for him to make sure they have a clean bill of health.

"We have all become much more cautious," said Qureshey, one of Southern California's leading Muslim philanthropists, whose largess includes a $1-million gift to UC Irvine for brain research and seed money for a new foundation to produce documentaries promoting understanding of Islam and harmony with other religions. "Now you feel much more of a burden as a donor that you have never felt. If you see an appeal that looks OK on the surface, how do you know the details? You just don't know where your money may end up."

For many American Muslims, the war on terror is forcing modern adjustments to Islam's age-old tradition of charitable giving. Their faith requires them to contribute a religious tax known as zakat, amounting to 2.5% of their assets, to the poor and other needy people listed in the Koran. In addition, Muslims are required to pay zakat fitr, or a fee to feed a family during Ramadan; without that contribution, many Muslims believe, their spiritual benefits gained from fasting and praying will be forfeited.

But the U.S. crackdown on Islamic charities has complicated this religious obligation and, some Muslims say, impeded the free practice of their faith. Since 9/11, the U.S. government has designated 27 Islamic charitable groups worldwide as supporters of terrorism, including five it shut down in the United States.

According to Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Anaheim office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, many American Muslims are sending less money to international relief organizations and keeping more at home for U.S. organizations or such local projects as mosque renovations. His own organization, which promotes Muslims' civil rights and education about Islam, has benefited from the shift. He said the council's California budget has increased from $300,000 in 2000 to $1.1 million in 2003, and its staff has grown from two to eight.

"In all honesty, I'm not happy about this," Ayloush said. "Yes, I'm glad and very grateful that the community is putting more resources into [the council], but I don't want it to be at the expense of feeding widows and orphans and helping with the education of young children overseas."

The Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim community's largest national organization with 300 affiliated Islamic centers and professional associations, has also seen a redirecting of charitable contributions from international to domestic, increasing its budget by 50% since 9/11, according to its secretary general, Sayyid Syeed. He added that his society has cut off all donations from overseas to avoid possible problems.

At least one international relief organization also said it has benefited from the shutdown of other agencies. Abdel Salam, spokesman for Burbank-based Islamic Relief, which supports programs in 20 countries, said its contributions increased to $7 million this year from $6.4 million last year. He said, however, that donors are asking more questions about the organization.

The heightened federal scrutiny of Islamic charities has directly influenced the way some international relief organizations do business. Take, for instance, KinderUSA, a Dallas-based group formed in 2002 to help needy Palestinian children.

Mindful that the U.S. government had accused other Islamic charities, such as the Holy Land Foundation, of sending money to families of suicide bombers, KinderUSA has chosen not to give cash benefits but only vouchers for food, clothing and school supplies. When aiding orphans, the organization does not inquire how the father died to avoid charges that it knowingly supports the families of suicide bombers, according to board member Laila Al-Marayati.

In addition, KinderUSA posts its financial statements online, along with information on the reliability of its finances and accountability of its practices.

To ease concerns among Muslims, the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council and others have asked the U.S. government for a "white list" of approved Islamic charities so Muslims can fulfill their charitable obligations without qualms. Council executive director Salam Al-Marayati also argues that entire organizations should not be shut down and held liable for illegal actions of individual officers.

"Holding the whole organization culpable is promoting the myth that mosques are involved in terrorist financing, which they are not," he said.

In addition, the council is pushing to allow the frozen assets of charities shut down by the U.S. government to be released to a third-party agency and disbursed to needy recipients.

So far, the U.S. Treasury Department has declined to furnish a white list and denied a request to disperse Holy Land Foundation's frozen assets through a third-party organization.

Spokeswoman Molly Millerwise declined to comment on why the asset request was denied. But she said that officials had decided not to issue a white list because they did not want to play favorites and that it would be "impossible and extremely risky" to give any charity a permanent clean bill of health given that officials were constantly receiving new intelligence.

She also denied charges that U.S. officials were playing politics with Islamic organizations.

"The Treasury Department is responsible for cutting off conduits that finance terrorism.... We'll root it out wherever we find it," Millerwise said. "We have the same goals as the charitable sector: Most donors who give money for orphans and the poor do not want to be funding guns, bombs and Osama bin Laden."

On that point, Muslims agree. Despite their qualms, many say they want to cooperate with U.S. officials and are grateful for the increased public accountability of Islamic organizations.

Ayloush, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he contributes only to charities that have been in business at least a year and does Internet research on organizations' history, finances and projects.

Despite the new burdens, Ayloush says that his charitable giving is more a privilege than a duty during Ramadan, when fasting makes him more aware of people's hunger and intense prayer deepens his spiritual awareness.

"I'm one of the blessed people who live in America and know that my contributions here can feed a lot of people in many Third World countries," he said.

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