Breaking Down Barriers to Charity
In his June 4 address to Muslim nations from Cairo, Egypt, President Obama acknowledged that--since September 11, 2001--American Muslims have faced a complex and daunting maze of new federal regulations governing charitable giving:
"Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat."
The President's pledge to facilitate charitable giving is a welcome change for all Americans, including American Muslims, who have a religious obligation to tithe (zakat). All Americans and people of faith and goodwill are guided by a desire to assist those in need, whether they live next door or in a village halfway across the world. American Muslim charities--such as the UMMA Community Clinic in Los Angeles, Islamic Medical Association of North America and the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago--serve both local communities and the world by operating food pantries, community health clinics, domestic violence shelters, and youth programs.
Under the Bush Administration, federal regulations were created to curb money being sent to terrorist organizations. These complicated policies have actually created confusion and stifled charitable giving and activities in the nonprofit sector. The consequence has been a chilling effect on charitable donations both here and abroad, thwarting religious freedom and frustrating Americans' ability to help those who need the most assistance.
While these policies affect the entire nonprofit sector, American Muslims and their charitable institutions have borne the brunt of these complicated and unclear policies. All of us share the goal of stopping terrorism, yet the current legal regime impedes our nation's greatest export and asset in building bridges with other nations: our charity.
Muslim Advocates--a national legal advocacy organization working to protect our nation's promise of freedom, justice and equality for all --commends President Obama for recognizing the importance of ensuring that all Americans, regardless of faith, can tithe and help those in need at home and abroad. The President can begin to address the barriers to charitable giving by taking the following steps:
1. Rescind the Treasury Department's quasi-legal, confusing, and overly burdensome Voluntary Best Practices for U.S.-based Charities;
2. Amend the current system where a charity's assets may be frozen indefinitely by federal authorities without the charity being charged of any crime and enact procedures to ensure due process protections; and
3. Reform practices and policies to prohibit Customs & Border Protection and other federal law enforcement agents from probing and collecting information from law-abiding American Muslims about their charitable giving and associations with lawful, charitable entities.
While we call on President Obama to take these steps, we recognize that the private sector - and specifically, the American Muslim nonprofit sector - has a critical role to play. In response to American Muslim community leaders who have sought guidance to strengthen the governance, transparency, and legal compliance of their institutions, Muslim Advocates last year launched the first national accreditation program for U.S.-based Muslim charities. The Muslim Charities Accreditation Program--a joint initiative with the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance (BBB-Wise) --consists of comprehensive legal and financial seminars for nonprofits, advising them on such critical issues as international philanthropy. The program's legal and financial experts advise charities on how to meet the BBB-Wise's widely respected standards of charity accountability that are essential in measuring a nonprofit's health.
President Obama duly noted in his speech that "since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States." American Muslims, like Americans of other faith backgrounds, have been able to enrich our nation and to better our communities through charitable organizations. American Muslims have already started to work to do their part to strengthen our institutions. Mr. President, we are ready to work with you to bring down the barriers to charitable giving and to enhance good works at home and abroad.
Muslim Advocates' mission is to promote equality, liberty, and justice for all by providing leadership through legal advocacy, policy engagement, and civic education, and by serving as a legal resource to promote the full and meaningful participation of Muslims in American public life. Prior to joining Muslim Advocates, Ms. Khera was Counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution where she worked for Senator Russell D. Feingold (D-WI), focusing substantially on the USA PATRIOT Act, racial and religious profiling, and other civil liberties issues raised by the government's anti-terrorism policies since September 11, 2001.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.
June 17, 2009; 11:29 AM ET
Religion & Leadership
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