Raids make Muslims wary of charitable giving

Thursday, October 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:17 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

PATERSON, N.J. (AP) — As Muslims prepare for the holy month of Ramadan, a period in which they are supposed to donate to charity, many are finding themselves torn between their faith and their fear of being accused of terrorist ties.

Over the past three years, federal authorities have raided and shut down four Islamic charities, and many American Muslims say the crackdown has them worried that writing a donation check could bring FBI agents to their doors.

``Everyone is scared to death,'' said Hassan Mahmoud of Westfield, a retired import company manager. ``There is a lot of indecisiveness.''

Ramadan starts either Friday or Saturday, depending on when the crescent moon is visible.

The Holy Land Foundation in Paterson was one of the charities raided by the federal government, which claims the groups were aiding terrorism. On Wednesday, authorities froze the assets of a Sudan-based charity with an office in Columbia, Mo., and accused five of its officials of helping finance Osama bin Laden and other terrorists.

Islam has a two-pronged requirement on giving to charity. The first, the ``zakat,'' requires believers to give 2.5 percent of their savings each year to the poor. The second, ``sadaqah,'' is voluntary and depends on a person's ability to give.

Amaney Jamal, a Princeton University professor who recently completed a survey of the Dearborn, Mich., Arab-American community, said the uncertainty is one of the most distressing problems Muslims feel these days.

``If someone says to me, `Do you want to support an orphan for $30 a month?' I say, `Sure, that's a noble cause.' And then later someone comes and knocks on my door and says, `Her father was a suicide bomber,''' Jamal said. ``Charity giving to the Arab world has become a big no-no.''

One result has been an increase in non-traceable cash donations to local mosques or religious institutions.

``They don't want to write checks or use credit cards,'' Jamal said.

John Conway, an FBI agent in Newark, said law-abiding Muslims who donate to legitimate charities have nothing to fear. But he acknowledged that an organization in good standing today might not be several years from now.

``It's perfectly understandable that people would have concerns about that,'' he said. ``If it's a group that gives money to suicide bombers or to Hamas, then you run into a situation where there's a possibility their name may come up at some point in time.''

Conway said he did not know whether anyone has been arrested or detained as a result of having given to a charity that was later raided.

So why not just give to an unaffiliated charity, like the Red Cross or the United Way? Islamic scholars say there are differing schools of thought on whether the primary recipients of the charity must be Muslims in order to fulfill the religious obligation.

Yaser El-Menshawy, chairman of the Majlis Ash-Shura of New Jersey, the state's council of mosques, said the recipients of ``zakat'' have to be Muslims, while ``sadaqah'' recipients can be of any faith.

Besides the Paterson and Missouri charities, two suburban Chicago-area Muslim charities — Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International — also were raided by federal agents and had their assets seized, effectively putting them out of business.

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