Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
May 1, 2002 | Z, Riad; Z, Basil
Riad Z. Abdelkarim, MD, is Western Region Communications Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Basil Abdelkarim, MD is a columnist with the Independent Writers Syndicate.
In a move that has alarmed American Muslims and sparked intense criticism from civil rights advocates, scores of law enforcement officers from several federal agencies converged on Muslim homes and businesses in Virginia on March 20, reportedly investigating “links” to international terrorist organizations. Among the sites raided were the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, the Fiqh Council of North America, and the Virginia office of the Muslim World League. The raids were orchestrated by the U.S. Customs Service. Although no arrests were made, agents hauled away documents, computers, files, and other information after detaining and questioning a number of employees and residents present.
At a press conference held by the Council on American-Islamic Relations the following day, Aysha Unus, 62, of Herndon, Virginia, whose husband works for the IIIT, described in stark detail the raid on her home. At 9:30 a.m., she said, she heard banging on her door. Initially able to see only the barrel of a gun against the glass door held by a man in a black jacket, she explained, “I was afraid to go out.” When her 19-year-old daughter attempted to call the police, the agents broke open the door, even pointing a gun at her daughter and ordering her to put down the telephone. According to Mrs. Unus, the agents failed to present a warrant or identification badge and handcuffed both her and her daughter for six hours while conducting their search.
Laura Jaghlit, a high school English teacher, described the raid on her home as “the most un-American thing I have ever seen.” Jaghlit, whose father is a WWII veteran and whose brother was killed in Vietnam, said officials threw the contents of her drawers and her childrens’ school pictures on the bed and took passports, bank statements and personal papers, including her daughter’s wedding party invitations.
The organizations targeted in the raid are among the more widely respected American Muslim institutions. The Leesburg, Virginia-based Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, for example, trains Muslim clerics, including for service in the U.S. military. The Fiqh Council is a body of prominent Islamic scholars who provide advice and information for Muslims in North America aspiring to live their lives according to Islamic precepts. Another of the organizations raided, the IIIT, publishes Islamic texts and sponsors major national seminars. In the words of Louai Safi, IIIT director of research, “Here we have a raid by the Treasury Department trying to destroy a moderate voice in this country…We promote democracy, human rights, civil exchange and dialogue.”
At the CAIR press conference prominent Muslim organizations and leaders immediately denounced the raids as a “fishing expedition” and “McCarthy-like witch hunt.” Representatives of CAIR, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Institute, the Islamic Circle of North America, American Muslim Council, the Muslim American Society, and Muslim Alliance of North America told reporters that American Muslims are disturbed by the perception created by such government actions that all American Muslim institutions are “guilty until proven innocent.” In the current environment, they argued, such raids will serve only to intimidate law-abiding Muslims from exercising their constitutional rights and unfairly arouse the suspicions of the community at large–without providing the affected organizations and individuals the opportunity to refute the allegations against them.
“Unfortunately,” stated one CAIR representative, “investigators are well aware that in the current climate of fear and prejudice, few people will ask the tough questions about why these respected individuals and groups were targeted. Vague and unsubstantiated references to `links’ or `ties’ to infamous names and organizations should not be a substitute for credible evidence. As in past incidents targeting American Muslim institutions, no one is being given their day in court to confront accusers or refute allegations.”
Many in the American Muslim community view the federal raids as part of a disturbing “Islamophobic” trend that casts doubt on repeated Bush administration assertions that the current campaign against terrorism does not constitute a “war on Islam.” The raids followed closely on the heels of several highly publicized government steps directed against Muslim organizations or individuals, including the December closure of three prominent American Muslim charities and a series of “voluntary” interviews by the Department of Justice with recent Muslim or Middle Eastern immigrants.
On March 20–the same day as the Virginia raids–Attorney General John Ashcroft announced plans to conduct a series of “voluntary” interviews with an additional 3,000 foreign nationals, similar to the estimated 5,000 interviews carried out last November with Middle Eastern individuals. Those interviews resulted in the arrest of fewer than 20 men–none on charges related to terrorism. The announcements also follow the revelation that the INS has begun searching for an estimated 6,000 young men of Middle Eastern extraction who have ignored deportation orders. Although Muslim and Arab immigrants form only a tiny fraction of the estimated 315,000 “absconders” (individuals who have ignored deportation orders), Washington’s efforts are focused exclusively on the apprehension of Muslim and Arab immigrants.
In December, the Bush administration, alleging ties to terrorism, froze the assets of three major American Muslim charities. The government first closed the doors of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), which raised $13 million in the year 2000, and was targeted for alleged ties to the Palestinian organization Hamas. Less than two weeks later, federal authorities shut down two other major American Muslim charities, Global Relief Foundation (GRF) and Benevolence International (BI).
Across the board in the American Muslim community, the government’s action against HLF (the largest American Muslim charity) and the other organizations was viewed as unjustified, politically motivated, and an insult to all American Muslims. The Bush administration has provided no solid evidence to back its claims in any of the cases. Moreover, the timing of the closure of the charities’ U.S. offices and the freezing of all of their assets–in the midst of the peak fund-raising period of Ramadan, when many had already sent in contributions for Zakat and Sadaqat–has been widely viewed as an affront to the Muslim faith and a slap in the face of the American Muslim community.
The Muslim charities shut down by the government have decided not to go down without a fight, however. To that end, GRF and BI each filed lawsuits early this year. Then, on March 8, lawyers for the HLF filed suit in federal court, charging several agencies and individuals with violating the organization’s civil rights. The lawsuit names the U.S. Departments of State, Justice and Treasury, as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. The suit charges that the administration’s actions were based primarily on a memorandum issued by Dale Watson of the FBI’s counterterrorism division. That memorandum, the HLF suit alleges, relies on information obtained by Israeli intelligence services through interrogation of alleged Hamas members that involved physical and psychological coercion (torture), making the information unreliable and inadmissible. Lawyers for the HLF also point to the heavily censored and selective nature of the information provided by the Israeli government to create the impression of a link between the HLF and Hamas.
On April 5, the Holy Land Foundation filed a motion for preliminary injunction and declaratory relief in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia arguing that “the government’s actions in seizing its assets have caused, and will continue to cause, irreparable harm to Holy Land, its employees, its donors, and thousands of Palestinians and other needy persons throughout the world.”
In a press release accompanying the filing, HLF further stated that: “The defendants’ actions of blocking the donated assets of Holy Land violate laws that specifically forbid interference with donations of humanitarian aid by American corporations and from American donors. The defendants have no credible evidence–and none exists–that Holy Land has any connection with terrorist organizations or has provided support to any terrorist organization. The seizure has also violated Holy Land’s fundamental constitutional right to protection against illegal searches and seizures because the defendants seized the funds, office equipment and all property of Holy Land without any warrant or even any probable cause. The seizure also violated the right of Holy Land and its donors to practice their religion, a practice that provides urgently needed relief to families around the world.”
The statement continued: “The Holy Land Foundation rejects terrorism by anyone. It is dedicated to alleviating the suffering of people who have been caught and injured in conflicts and disasters around the world, particularly in Palestine, where the suffering by the Palestinians is staggering. The blocked funds are all owned by Holy Land.”
It is apparent to the majority of American Muslims that their government’s move against the charities was motivated by politics, rather than by the rule of law. Still, many have expressed concern about donating to any Muslim cause–in the U.S. or abroad–in the aftermath of the charities’ closure. American Muslims worry that if they donate to a Muslim cause–even to a local mosque or Islamic school–an FBI agent may appear on their doorstep to question them.
At a time when Washington’s policies more and more resemble the draconian measures of totalitarian regimes from which many immigrant American Muslims fled, these concerns are not unfounded. Such fears must be overcome, however, if the American Muslim community is to continue forward on its steady march toward integration, acceptance and inclusion in the broad fabric of American society. Now is not the time for Muslims in America–or anywhere else in the West–to cower in silence, change their names, or attempt to hide their Muslim identity.
Even with all the new obstacles imposed by unjust legislation encouraged by hatemongers, Islamophobes, and others with special agendas, American Muslims still enjoy far more liberties than their counterparts in the rest of the Muslim world. Now more than ever, we must exercise these liberties and not allow the purveyors of hate and intolerance to succeed. We must speak up, write, rally, and vote. We must make clear that being Americans and being Muslims are complementary, not paradoxical. We must assert our rights and freedoms as Americans, and not allow some to tell us to “stop complaining,” as if these rights were somehow given to us as a prize. We are just as American as everyone else in our nation, and we must demand to be treated as such, rather than as second-class citizens or foreign intruders.
Despite the assault on American Muslims’ civil liberties and the selective targeting of their institutions, organizations and charities, some members of the community have taken the initiative to assert their rights as Americans and their obligations as Muslims to provide aid for the needy. Several new American Muslim charities have been launched in recent months with the purpose of providing aid to needy Palestinian refugees. In view of the wide-ranging, bloody assault against Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps launched by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the end of March, the need for humanitarian relief for innocent Palestinian families could not be ignored.
At least two new organizations have been formed to fill the void in humanitarian assistance for Palestinians created by the closure of the American Muslim charities. Kinder USA (Kids in Need of Development, Education, and Relief; <www.kinderusa.org>) was launched in early March, with a primary focus on “the forgotten children of Palestine.” The group’s stated mission is to “alleviate the suffering of children and their families…by bringing material goods into war zones and areas of disaster, to provide material support to those living in refugee camps, to initiate educational, health, and rehabilitation programs; and to dynamically reverse the psychological damage caused to these innocent beings due to the horrors of conflict.” At the time of this writing, Kinder USA was launching an appeal for an emergency relief campaign in the West Bank and Gaza following the latest bloodshed.
Another charity, named Kind Hearts and based in Ohio, was launched during Eid al-Adha with an inaugural project of delivering assistance to needy families in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. Kind Hearts is also preparing a campaign to send badly needed ambulances to the Palestinian territories.
The future of the Muslim charities closed down last year and of the Muslim businesses and institutions raided by the government in March remains to be determined. Not only will the legal process undoubtedly be difficult, but–given the recent passage of antiterrorism legislation which gives the government broad, sweeping powers to act against individuals and organizations–the outcome is far from certain.
One thing, however, is certain: if American Muslims allow their charities and institutions to be destroyed without defending them with their words, actions, and funds, those organizations already targeted will not be the only American Muslim institutions eliminated in this war against American Muslims. Indeed, many fear that HLF and the other charities were just the first casualties of a national smear campaign to marginalize, delegitimize, and ultimately silence our American Muslim community. Muslims must act quickly and in a united fashion if we are to preserve and improve upon the gains of the past decades for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
Article Courtesy: wrmea.com
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs