Medill Reports: Chicago Muslims Weigh in on Charity Verdict

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Chicago-area Muslim leaders’ reaction was mixed following the federal government’s setback in a Texas court earlier this week in its case against the Holy Land Foundation, once described as a promoter of terrorism “masquerading as a charity.”

“The reaction amongst Chicago’s Muslims has been positive,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations, on Thursday, “but there hasn’t really been a return to (charitable) giving because people are still afraid.”

In Texas, Greg Westfall, defense attorney for one of the defendants, agreed that the government prosectution had discouraged charity. “Muslims are not as free as anyone else in this country to give to the charity of their choice,” he said. “The mistrial will not be enough to change this pattern.”

When the U.S. Treasury Department froze the foundation’s assets in December 2001, then Secretary Paul O’Neill said: “Holy Land Foundation masquerades as a charity, while its primary purpose is to fund Hamas…This organization exists to raise money in the United States to promote terror.”

The 42-count indictment against the group’s leaders, unsealed in 2004, argues the foundation aided terrorism by providing humanitarian aid through Hamas-led groups, enabling Hamas to shift funds to other activity.

The government’s three-year prosecution ended in a mistrial Monday. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the North District of Texas has announced its intent to retry the cases, a decision Rehab described as “a war of attrition, draining community resources that could be put to much better uses.”

“Although the need to ensure that humanitarian and charitable aid is not diverted to support terrorism is a real and valid counterterrorism issue,” ACLU staff attorney Hina Shamsi said in a statement, the government’s case “effectively criminalizes guilt by association and does not provide guidance about what is and is not prohibited.”

In fact, in 2004 Rehab’s organization joined dozens of other groups to call for such guidance in the “Charity Without Fear” campaign, requesting the federal government to list acceptable Muslim charities. The Illinois General Assembly passed a resolution in support of such action in 2005, but there has been no response from the federal government.

“For Muslims, the zakat – giving to charity – is an obligation, but also a statement, a manifestation of our faith,” Rehab said, expressing frustration that fear of prosecution undercuts this cornerstone of Islam in America.

America’s Muslim population, estimated at about 1.4 million, is among the most moderate and integrated in the world, according to May 2007 Pew Research data. While just 32 percent of the general population expresses satisfaction with the United States, 38 percent of American Muslims do so, according to Pew.

However, more than half of Muslims in America believe they are under unfair surveillance by the government and that life is harder for them after September 11, the survey revealed. The Pew Research also found that 76 percent of American Muslims list their obligation to charity as “very important” to them.

While 24 percent of America’s Muslims come from Arab nations, Rehab estimates the number in Chicago is closer to 30 percent. “These people want to support their families and home countries through charity,” he said, but are now largely unable to do so.

Government evidence presented during the trial was meant to show that Home Land Foundation raised just over $13 million in 2000, according to court documents. Calls to the U.S. Attorney’s Office were not returned.

Copyright © 2007, Medill Reports