Islamic charities under scrutiny

Officials call claims of terrorist aid false

Terrorism Strikes America

October 07, 2001|By Jean Marbella | By Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. - The donation boxes next to the register at businesses like the Al-Amal grocery and the Nile restaurant are similar to what a Kiwanis or Rotary clubs might use to gather spare change for their good works.

But the boxes - a common sight here in the southwestern Chicago suburbs where thousands of Muslim-Americans live - collect money for Islamic charities. And in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, they have come under suspicion of supporting not just the usual orphanages and hospitals, but also terrorist activities.

The federal government is investigating a variety of such charities as part of its effort to cut off the flow of money to Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind behind the recent strikes in New York and Washington as well as previous attacks on U.S. embassies and the destroyer USS Cole.

While declining to identify which groups are under investigation, a U.S. Treasury spokesman said last week that the department expects in coming days to add to the current list of 27 individuals, companies and charities whose assets have been frozen for allegedly funding terrorist activities.

The prospect of frozen funds is no idle threat in this area, where several Islamic charities are headquartered and many have seen firsthand what the government can do when it suspects ties to terrorists.

The United States seized the assets of an Islamic nonprofit based in neighboring Oak Lawn several years ago, claiming it had channeled funds to Hamas, the Palestinian group behind suicide bombings and other violent acts in Israel.

And in a related action that has implications for any future litigation that stems from the Sept. 11 attacks, a couple has sued six Islamic nonprofits that they hold responsible for their son's death in a Hamas-sponsored drive-by shooting in Israel.

The case, pending before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, seeks $300 million in damages and is considered a possible blueprint for the families of those killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

But representatives of Islamic nonprofit groups say they are being singled out for scrutiny simply because they raise money from Muslims to help other Muslims. They say their only offense is "FWI" - "fund raising while Islamic."

"It's like the movie, Casablanca: Round up the usual suspects," said Ashraf Nubani, attorney for one of the major Islamic charities, Global Relief Foundation. "The government has looked into these organizations, but only out of prejudice and fear."

Global Relief, which is based in a nondescript industrial park here, is among a number of Islamic charities that have come under suspicion because they send money to some of the same political hot spots suspected of harboring terrorist groups, such as the Middle East and Afghanistan.

"They don't shy away from war-torn areas. These are the places where people are most in need," Nubani said. "This organization has been doing nothing but providing humanitarian assistance and relief."

The latest investigation into Islamic charities has added to a general unease that since Sept. 11 has descended over communities such as Bridgeview, where an estimated 30 percent of the 15,000 residents are Arab-American. For three nights after the Sept. 11 attacks, hundreds of demonstrators converged outside a mosque here and at other Arab or Muslim gathering places to wave the American flag and shout anti-Arab insults.

Some here see the investigation of the charities as another variant of that kind of misdirected reaction against all things Muslim or Arabic.

They say news reports over the years have quoted unnamed sources saying major Islamic charities such as Global Relief, Holy Land Foundation and Benevolence International Foundation are under investigation, but then fail to note later that these inquiries have resulted in neither criminal charges nor a change in the charities' nonprofit status.

Nubani, for example, said that he doesn't even believe his client is under investigation because the group's financial records have never been subpoenaed, and it has never been asked to provide documentation for where it distributes its funds.

The sense that these investigations are nothing more than a smear campaign against Muslims makes others in the community stand by the groups, for now at least. Safaa Zarzour, principal of one of the two Muslim schools in Bridgeview, says the nonprofits deserve to be considered innocent until proved guilty.

"Have the charities' [nonprofit] status been revoked?" Zarzour said. "I would say, in my mind, that is what due process is. What I love about being an American is due process and the law."

Although no charities have faced criminal charges, some have been sanctioned in other ways: Two groups, the Holy Land Foundation based in Texas and the Islamic American Relief Agency in Missouri, have been removed in recent years from the list of organizations approved by the U.S. Agency for International Development to receive government grants.

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