Chilling Effect on Muslim Giving Examined at Law Conference

Chilling Effect on Muslim Giving Examined at Law Conference

Sireen Sawaf, editor in chief of a UCLA academic journal on Islamic and Near Eastern law, speaks to conferees at the day-long event.

The UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law will devote one of its annual issues to papers emerging from the April 16 meeting on "Critical Perspectives on the Criminalization of Islamic Philanthropy in the War on Terror."

Military lawyers seeking to keep an Algerian "enemy combatant" at Guantanamo Bay present, as evidence favoring his continued imprisonment, a list of nongovernmental organizations for which he'd worked abroad. On behalf of New Yorkers after 9/11, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani returns a $10 million disaster-relief donation from a Saudi prince who had criticized U.S. foreign policy. Five founders of a Richardson, Texas–based Muslim charity, the Holy Land Foundation, receive long federal prison sentences for sending charitable donations to Palestinian groups, which led to convictions on material support charges though no funding of violence was alleged.

Citing instances like these, participants in an April 16 conference at the UCLA School of Law said that Muslim giving, particularly across national borders, has come to be seen as inherently suspect in U.S. and other legal regimes since 9/11. Speakers considered changes to the landscape and their effects on giving by Muslim charities and foreign governments, while also reviewing the place of charity, a pillar of Islam, in the lives of Muslim communities.

"What happens to Islamic philanthropy … is a very critical part of the story of what will happen to Muslim minorities in the United States," said UCLA Professor of Law Khaled Abou el Fadl, an authority on Islamic jurisprudence and human rights law.

The conference, "Critical Perspectives on the Criminalization of Islamic Philanthropy in the War on Terror," was organized by acting Professor of Law Asli Bali and sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Critical Race Studies Program, and the Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law. The journal will dedicate next academic year's issue (vol. 10) to issues raised at the meeting.

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at CUNY who has represented clients at Guantanamo and Bagram air base in Afghanistan, said that the suspicion over Muslim charity extends even to volunteers who donate their time and skills to helping people in war zones. Though much stronger after 9/11, the shift in attitude by the U.S. government towards transnational Islamic charitable networks dates to the end of the Cold War, he said.

"Out-of-place Muslims come to be regarded and treated as combatants," with the roles of doctor, aid worker, preacher and fighter "all conflated into one," Kassem said.

Published: Wednesday, April 21, 2010