By SHABINA S. KHATRI
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
September 24, 2006
Ajaz Khan doesn’t consider himself a cynical person, but he finds it hard not to be – especially when deciding where to give.
“Give in the name of Islam? No,” Khan, 54, of Rochester Hills said, referring to a common pitch from Muslim-run nonprofits asking people to donate because they share a faith. “If I don’t know about you, why should I give it to you?”
With federal officials raiding Southfield-based Life for Relief and Development last week, the faithful are facing difficult questions during Ramadan, the holiday period that began this weekend and lasts for a month. Among the biggest: how to perform the obligatory zakaat- donating 2.5% of one’s income to the poor – without inadvertently being linked to terrorism.
Some people, fearing government harassment, are redirecting their giving to nondenominational charities. And many of those who’ve decided to stick with Muslim-run nonprofits have started donating in cash and staying away from lesser-known charities altogether.
“The current environment is so polluted,” Khan said Wednesday after finishing prayers at an area mosque.
But, he added, that doesn’t give Muslims an excuse to shy away from charitable giving: They should just do their homework first.
He spoke two days after the raid on Life, Michigan’s largest Muslim charity, where officials have criticized the government for maligning its name so close to Ramadan.
Officials with the charity say the FBI might be investigating whether it conducted business in Iraq before the war in violation of sanctions against the country. Life maintains it had all the required licenses to do business in Iraq.
The charity still is open and accepting donations, but the raid’s proximity to Ramadan could have a profound effect: This is the month that Muslim charities collect much of their income for the year, said Anwar Khan, manager of U.S. fund-raising for Islamic Relief, a global group that gets about a third of its annual donations during Ramadan.
Though no charges have been filed against Life or several other Muslim charities that have been investigated in recent years, the raids cast doubts in the minds of many donors, including Nadir Shuttari, a 34-year-old Rochester Hills resident.
“I don’t think anybody should change their practice of donating just because they’re under scrutiny by the government,” he said Thursday. “But I’m still deciding what to do.”
While many Michigan residents remain motivated to give by family ties to places like Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, not all will do so openly, said Mouhib Ayas, a physician who sits on the board of directors for the Muslim Unity Center of Bloomfield Hills, which has seen a rise in cash donations.
“This is unfortunate,” he said Wednesday. Anonymous cash donations aren’t tax deductible, he explained, “So probably, people will give less.”
But not all Muslim charities are suffering. Islamic Relief, which received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, a Web site that evaluates nonprofits, has seen an increase in donations since 9/11.
Islamic Relief’s Anwar Khan said part of the reason for that is because so many other Muslim charities have been shut down since then.
And though the group does work in various countries, it also has participated in many domestic programs, including HIV prevention campaigns and Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
That kind of visibility helps, said Khan, who added that nearly half of Islamic Relief’s donations now come from non-Muslims.
Included on that list is Sally Howell, a 41-year-old graduate student in Ann Arbor. She said she began donating money to Life and Islamic Relief after the 2004 tsunami – but not until after thorough background checks.
“I know a lot of these charities work in areas that are politically difficult to work in,” she said. “But you can’t be a charity operating at the intersection of America and the Muslim world without double, triple checks.”
She added that she sympathized with Muslims who are reticent to give to certain groups for fear of government harassment.
“It makes me fear for my future and security, but my intentions are clean,” she said.