Season of charity: a time of scrutiny for U.S. Muslims - IRUSA

By Kim Vo

Mercury News

San Jose Mercury News

Article Launched:10/13/2007 01:49:12 AM PDT

Chatting with visitors to her mosque during Ramadan, Bushra Burney mentioned to a married couple that her annual charitable donation – or zakat – went to the Islamic Relief Fund.

It’s a respectable group, the Fremont woman hastened to add. “There’s nothing fishy about it.”

Such defensiveness reflects the quandary facing many Muslims, whose religion requires them to pay 2.5 percent of their assets to charity. Many make their payments during the month of Ramadan, which ends today.

The unease is the result of the government’s increased scrutiny of charities since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The government alleged that some donations had supported terrorism.

In response, more Islamic charities are posting their financial statistics and changing their methods to assure donors that their money will support legitimate causes. Advocacy groups have issued guidelines to help Muslims make safe choices.

“The government scrutiny has created a real chill in the community, and people are fearful of giving and participating in the community,” said Farhana Khera with Muslim Advocates, the charitable arm of the National Association of Muslim Lawyers.

Among the advice is that donors:

• Consider contributing to U.S.-registered charities.

• Make their intentions clear by writing the purpose on a check’s memo line.

• Make sure money is received by a legitimate bank when it’s transferred overseas.

• Keep records.

That last bit of advice goes against some people’s instincts when faced with increased scrutiny, said Khera, whose group just created a new position focused on charities.

“Some people say they’re giving less or giving in cash,” Khera said. “They’re under the belief that if they give in cash, it’s harder to be tied to an organization.”

Since 2001, the U.S. Treasury Department has targeted more than 40 charities it says were funneling money to terrorist groups like Al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas.

One of the highest profile cases involves the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic relief group forcibly closed by the government, which accused it of raising millions for the Palestinian political group Hamas. A jury in Dallas is currently deliberating that case, in which the defendants include U.S. citizens.

Charities are now expected to compare their recipients against a government watch list. However, the government warns that charities could violate U.S. sanctions if they help people not on the list who might later interact with people affiliated with terrorists.

“Everyone is concerned and worried,” said Waseem Baloch, founder of the Santa Clara-based Hidaya Foundation, which took in $2.8 million in donations last year. The charity funds educational and social welfare programs domestically and overseas.

The non-profit group posts its audits online and invites people to examine the financial data, he said.

At the Rahima Foundation in Santa Clara, founder Habibe Husain changed her charity’s policy shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

She kept the focus on local people, but decided to give the single mothers, elderly and disabled clients in-kind help – such as providing food or paying their rent directly – instead of cash grants, since she couldn’t guarantee how the money would be used.

“We will be watched very carefully,” Husain said, “so we must work very carefully.”

When it was time for Burney, the Fremont woman, to select her charities, she focused on an Oakland mosque and Islamic Relief – which she first heard of when it was helping victims of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

The Buena Park-based group had a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, a service that evaluates charities, and that eased Burney’s mind. She’s keeping the e-mail confirmation the group sent her “just in case.”

But she doesn’t plan to itemize her donation come tax time. She doesn’t have enough deductions to make it worthwhile.

And besides, she said, “Why invite scrutiny?”

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