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Keeping Cairo’s Commitments: Reform Charitable Giving Laws & Build Bridges to the World’s Muslims

Our guest blogger is Akil Vohra, Counsel at Muslim Advocates, who is leading the Muslim Charities Works Program aimed to strengthen the Muslim nonprofit sector and reform hurdles to charitable giving.

President Obama is trying to bridge the divide that persists between the United States and Muslim communities here and abroad. During his groundbreaking speech in Cairo last June, Obama made an important commitment to American Muslims: reform charitable giving:

OBAMA: “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’s why I’m committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.

American Muslims have applauded the President’s Cairo commitment and are eager to see results. Easing burdens on charitable giving protects religious freedom and builds bridges of goodwill between the United States and Muslims around the world. Extensive polling of those in Muslim-majority nations shows that charity not only creates goodwill between nations but also improves Muslim perceptions of America abroad.

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For example, when a massive tsunami struck Muslim-majority Indonesia in 2004, those in the U.S. gave generously to help victims. This fact was widely reported in local media. Public opinion among Indonesians then dramatically swung in favor of the United States, with 65 percent of Indonesians expressing a favorable opinion as a direct result of American aid. At the same time, the number of Indonesians who held what might be perceived as anti-American views declined.

Indeed, humanitarian aid increasingly serves a critical national security objective. As the New York Times recently reported, the Obama administration is eager to move development assistance to the tribal areas and other regions of Pakistan where religious schools currently proliferate.

Yet, under current U.S. laws, charities that are America’s de facto goodwill ambassadors are hamstrung. If a teenage Al-Qaida recruit, or a child of an adult member, attends a newly constructed school built with U.S. aid, the charity and its donors would be in violation of the law and potentially subject to criminal prosecution. Clearly, that’s not what Congress and government regulators intended when they sought to stem the flow of money to Al-Qaida.

Specific laws, policies and practices adopted by previous administrations, bolstered by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, stymie both security efforts and religious freedom. Adopted to fight terrorism financing, the Anti-terrorism Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), Executive Order 13324 and International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), have had the unintended consequence of erecting legal hurdles to well-intentioned charitable giving. These laws allow investigations, freezing of assets, and designations of charities without a full and fair opportunity to challenge the government’s allegations.

International donors face obstacles similar to those confronting charities working overseas. Current law prohibits any assistance — except religious materials and medicine — to a party on the government’s prohibited lists. Such laws discourage international charity by allowing donors, regardless of intent, to be prosecuted if their donation eventually ends up in a bad actor’s hands. These punitive laws dissuade donors from giving generously and charities from operating freely. Lastly, the numerous, disconnected government lists of prohibited groups, individuals and governments (at least five lists), make it impossible for individual donors and smaller nonprofits to provide charity, especially in times of humanitarian crises like earthquakes or tsunamis.

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These restrictive giving laws, combined with continuing government scrutiny of the American-Muslim community, creates a climate in which donors are afraid to give and charities are afraid to operate. This phenomenon is well-documented in a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Federal scrutiny of American Muslim travelers who donate to lawful U.S. mosques and charities is chronicled in a report by Muslim Advocates.

President Obama can take three discrete, concrete steps to begin the process of reforming charitable giving laws:

1) Direct the Treasury and State Departments to create a user-friendly, accessible database that would combine all the prohibited lists in one central location. Currently, these prohibited lists appear on two separate agency websites in a format that is difficult to navigate. Establishing a publicly accessible database would be a useful tool for nonprofits and donors when determining where they are sending their aid.

2) Provide protection for well-intentioned charitable giving. If a donor checks the proposed, above database and confirms that the entity to which they are giving is not on a prohibited list, the donor should not be subject to investigation or prosecution. The government can rebut the presumption by showing that the donor knew beyond a reasonable doubt that the organization was on a prohibited list. 3) Establish a presidential advisory commission on easing hurdles to charitable giving that would involve the American-Muslim community, the greater nonprofit sector, and government agencies to address other issues to charitable giving.

If President Obama wants to make strides in building bridges to Muslim communities abroad, he needs to build stronger bridges with Muslims at home. Reforming charitable giving is an excellent place to start.