Charitable giving: Help Muslims give without fear

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When President Obama recently donated part of his Nobel Prize earnings to the Central Asian Institute—the charity run by Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson—did he research the organization thoroughly, including every child educated in its schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Has the President’s generosity led to FBI inquiries of him, or prolonged interrogations from Customs & Border Protection agents when he travels abroad? Does he fear being stripped of his citizenship?

Probably not.

These questions may sound dramatic, but they are exactly what countless American Muslims think about before writing a check to a worthy Muslim charity.

Under the Bush administration, new policies were created to prevent resources from reaching groups designated by the U.S. government as terrorist organizations. These policies remain in place under the Obama administration.

Unfortunately, legitimate charities doing good work, both here and abroad, have also suffered from these confusing regulations. Though donors are eager to provide for those in drought- and disaster-stricken places like Pakistan and Somalia, the unintended consequences of these laws make them grimace and helplessly clasp their wallets shut in fear. Donors are forced to withhold money that could help so many.

Last June, President Obama acknowledged this problem during his speech in Cairo, stating, “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.”

American Muslims applauded this commitment. But they now need to see the President make progress in alleviating unfair and unnecessary burdens on well-intended donors. Almost a year after the President’s speech, many American Muslims still abstain from giving to important charitable causes, worrying that their donation could become a criminal liability.

Current financing laws do not just stifle Americans Muslims’ freedom to give and support the charities of their choice. They also weaken American efforts to build relationships with Muslim communities across the globe. When American Muslims are able to send money to a girls’ school in Afghanistan, or offer help to orphans in Pakistan, their gestures are noticed and appreciated by their beneficiaries, helping ease national tensions and anti-American attitudes.

So what can the President do to allow American Muslims to fulfill their religious obligations to zakat? American Muslims should urge the President to protect good faith donors who give to legitimate charitable organizations by providing them with the presumption that they have given lawfully. Also, the government must create a single, publicly accessible database that incorporates various government lists of prohibited charities and entities, that makes it clear to donors which potential recipients are on a prohibited list.

American Muslims can also let their voices be heard on this issue in Washington by phoning the President and urging him to fulfill his pledge to protect charitable giving given in his Cairo address one year ago on June 4, 2009.

Like President Obama, American Muslims have been historically generous donors. Now they need him to help the community help others, for their faith and for their nation.

Akil Vohra leads the Muslim Charity Works Campaign at Muslim Advocates, a legal aid and advocacy organization based in San Francisco, California. The Muslim Charities Works Program aims to strengthen the Muslim nonprofit sector and reform hurdles to charitable giving. More information on the White House Call-in Alert scheduled for Friday, June 4th can be found here.


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