Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
December 26, 2001 | Berard, Yamil
FORT WORTH, Texas _ The government’s decision to freeze the assets of three of the nation’s top Muslim charities has had a chilling effect on some Muslims in the United States.
Some who worshipped at mosques are staying home. Others who were regulars at Islamic centers are demanding that their names be removed from mailing lists, Muslim leaders said.
Even some of the most devout followers of Islam did not make charitable donations during the holy month of Ramadan, a time designated to help the poor, the leaders said.
“They want to know, `Are we going to get in trouble?’ and, to tell you the truth, nobody knows how to answer,” said Khalil Jassemm, chief executive officer of the International Relief Association in Dearborn, Mich. “They’re confused and scared, extremely uncomfortable.”
In December, U.S. government officials closed the offices of two Muslim charities in Illinois, the Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International Foundation, and President Bush froze the assets of the nation’s largest Muslim charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which is in Richardson, Texas.
The worsening economy has contributed to the decline in donations to two of the largest Muslim charities, organizers acknowledge. But they said the main cause is that Muslims are concerned that donating would spur government action against them.
“They are afraid that if they give to us, they will be liable,” said Muhammad Rahman, executive director of the Islamic Circle of North America in New York.
Rahman’s organization has experienced a 50 percent decline in donations since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Islamic Circle of North America operates a women’s shelter and distributes food to the homeless in New York. It also offers case management services and counseling to families in Detroit and East Orange, N.J. Other projects include international humanitarian aid.
The International Relief Association, which offers aid in the United States and abroad, has also experienced a decline, though not as sharp, Jassemm said.
The decreases were particularly significant during Ramadan.
Muslims are required to offer $7 to $10 per family member to a worthy cause during the Islamic holy month, which ended Dec. 15. The donation can go to a charity, a mosque or a neighbor, said Ghassan Elashi, chairman of the Holy Land Foundation board.
Recipients do not have to be Muslim, but donations must reach them during Ramadan, he said.
Muslims are also required to give 2.5 percent of their wealth to charity each year, and many of them start with Ramadan.
Freezing the charity’s money in Ramadan “makes it much worse. It’s incredibly horrific,” said John Janney, a Muslim who was a spokesman for the Holy Land Foundation before he was laid off after the assets were frozen.
In early December, the foundation estimated that $1.9 million of its funds had been frozen, meaning that the donations could not reach recipients, Elashi said.
Janney said he believes the fear of giving will not subside until Muslims feel comfortable again in the United States.
“I’m sure with the closing of the three largest charities, some people are going to be wondering who’s next,” he said. “It seems like the crackdown isn’t on terrorism. It’s on Muslims.”