Daily Southtown: Local Muslims Denied List of 'Safe' Charities

Staff writer During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began Friday, believers often give money to ease the plight of fellow Muslims overseas.

With major Muslim charities most with Southland ties shuttered by the federal government and accused of funding terrorism, the faithful asked the U.S. Department of Justice for a list of “safe” recipients of their generosity.

“If the government knows there are charities that are misleading the American Muslim community, it’s their obligation to help protect these innocent Americans,” said Sohail Mohammed, a lawyer for the New Jersey-based American Muslim Union.

The request was rejected by the Justice Department, which called it impossible to fulfill.

“Our role is to prosecute violations of criminal law,” spokesman Bryan Sierra said. “We’re not in a position to put out lists of any kind, particularly of any organizations that are good or bad.”

Local Muslim leaders said the department’s refusal puts the Muslim community in a difficult position.

“The process for determining if these charities have terrorist ties is secret,” said Yasser Tabbara, spokesman for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, a civil rights group. “Somebody might give their money with no idea that it is not going to support charity. It makes people nervous, and creates the perception that you just shouldn’t give at all.”

Charity is one of the five tenets, or “pillars” of Islam, along with fasting during Ramadan, prayer five times a day, pilgrimage to Mecca and a declaration of faith.

Afzal Ahmad, chairman of the American Islamic Association in Frankfort, said he gives his donations primarily to support secular schools and hospitals in Pakistan, and has visited both to be sure they are using his funds wisely.

“For many Muslims, it’s not easy for them to do,” Ahmad said, referring to checking out charities in person. “People want to do the right thing, and they often don’t have the benefit of all the information the government has in making their decisions.”

Ahmad said he knew people who, instead of donating through a charity, simply gave money to friends and family living overseas, so that they knew the recipients of their funds personally.

In the past, Southland Muslims have donated to local non-Islamic charities such as their local food pantry or homeless shelter. But for those who want to alleviate suffering overseas, Muslim charities are most often their chosen conduit.

“We will never run out of places to give money,” Tabbara said. “The important thing is that the money goes to a good cause. The recipients do not have to be Muslim. But a great many people feel that this is a wealthy country, and that the need is greater elsewhere.”

Since December 2001, numerous Islamic charities in the U.S. have been raided or shut down by federal investigators, including the Dallas-based Holy Land Foundation, which had offices in Palos Hills; two other Palos Hills charities, Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International; and the Sudan-based Islamic American Relief Agency.

None of the raids has led to terrorism-related criminal convictions.

Contributing: AP

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