Muslim charities, guilty until proven innocent?

Muslim charities, guilty until proven innocent?

High officials in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice, and other US government departments and agencies love to talk about how good they are at “reaching out” to American Muslim communities.

They should be reaching out. It is just possible that folks in these communities might be valuable sources of intelligence. Or credible teachers of the customs and practices of Arabs and other Muslims.

The amazing thing about American Muslims is how well they have assimilated into US culture. This is in sharp contrast to the attitudes of European governments about their growing Muslim communities – and vice versa.

There is certainly no shortage of examples of the Americanisation of the Muslims among us. Many have been here for generations. Thousands serve in the armed forces, many of them in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For American Muslims, though, the “material support” for terrorists rap presents a real dilemma. One of the most fundamental tenets of Islam is charitable giving. But giving to whom?

The President and Congress have given the Treasury Department the authority to designate any charitable organisation as a supporter of terrorism. With that authority, the Treasury Department has investigated thousands of not-for-profit organisations that support Muslim causes. And it has effectively closed down many of these by seizing records and freezing assets – with virtually no due process at all.

The outfits so designated have included the organisation that was the largest and most prominent Muslim charity in the United States, the Holy Land Foundation (HLF). The government seized HLF’s assets in 2001 and didn’t put it on trial until mid-2007. Meanwhile, donations from supporters languished in frozen bank accounts.

The latest failure in a terrorism financing prosecution came late in 2007, when a Texas jury failed to render any guilty verdicts in the trial of HLF. Several HLF officials were charged with giving money to Hamas, the Palestinian organisation designated a terrorist group by the United States in 1995. The trial ended with a mix of acquittals and deadlocks.

William Neal, a juror in the HLF case, told the media that the government’s evidence “was pieced together over the course of a decade – a phone call this year, a message another year”. Instead of trying to prove that the defendants knew they were supporting terrorists, Neal said, prosecutors “danced around the wire transfers by showing us videos of little kids in bomb belts and people singing about Hamas, things that didn’t directly relate to the case”.

Civil liberties groups say the HLF case was just the latest in a line of misguided prosecutions. One such group, OMB Watch, says that “once a charitable organisation is so designated, all of its materials and property may be seized and its assets frozen. The charity is unable to see the government’s evidence and thus understand the basis for the charges. Since its assets are frozen, it lacks resources to mount a defence.”

One of America’s foremost constitutional scholars, Prof. David Cole of the Georgetown University Law Centre, argues that the “material support principle is ‘guilt by association’ in 21st-century garb, and presents all of the same problems that criminalising membership and association did during the Cold War”. He told Inter-Press Services that the problem requires fundamental changes in the terrorism-financing law.

Included in Cole’s recommendations for major changes: the Treasury Department should be required to permit closed charities to direct their collected funds to charities mutually approved by the frozen charity and the government; Congress should enact a statutory definition of a “specially designated terrorist”; Treasury should allow designated entities to use their own funds to pay for their own defence; and the criminal material support statutes should be amended to require proof that an individual supported a proscribed group with the intent to further its illegal activities.

OMB Watch says the “material support” effort has resulted in the government shutting down charities that were not on any government watch list before their assets were frozen. The organisation says the result is that Muslims have no way of knowing which groups the government suspects of ties to terrorism. “Organisations and individuals suspected of supporting terrorism are guilty until proven innocent,” it says.

When foreign policy experts who know about Middle Eastern and other Muslim cultures counsel the Bush administration to be smarter in the ways it pursues terrorism in our midst, they are not recommending that we look the other way. Nor are they saying there are no bad apples in the basket. What they are suggesting is that we need to stop substituting post-September 11 paranoia for evidence. And that if the Justice Department charges someone with doing something unlawful, someone ought to be entitled to the due process enshrined in our Constitution and our jurisprudence.

Using the law as a blunt instrument is highly unlikely to make many friends for the United States in a community where we desperately need all the friends we can find.