U.S. policies that purport to address terrorism financing are seriously undermining the Constitution's fundamental rights to freedom of religion, freedom of association, and freedom from discrimination.
This past year, I traveled from Michigan to Texas to interview American Muslims about how terrorism finance laws interfere with their rights to practice their religion. American Muslim donors told me how the closure of some of the largest American Muslim charities in the country, widespread law enforcement interviews of Muslim donors about their donations, and surveillance of donations at mosques without suspicion, is creating a climate of fear that prevents them from making charitable donations. Terrorism financing laws leave many innocent Americans unable to fulfill a central tenet of their religion: charitable giving, or Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam and a religious obligation for all observant Muslims.
In a new report released today, the ACLU Human Rights Program documents the chilling effects of terrorism financing policies on American Muslims' practice of their religion through charitable giving. For example, one American Muslim quoted in the report (PDF) told me,
"I'm so scared to give charitably. They might come after me. I think when I'm giving, will they come after me? Will they put me on their hit list? There is a constant worry in the back of my mind. I fear giving more would put me on the hit list, and the government will say there is a linkage between me and the charity…. Because everything is under scrutiny, I am not able to fulfill my religious obligation to give — because I am just afraid. It affects my religious obligation to give. I am not following my faith, I'm not practicing my religion as I should. I'm like a prisoner, I can't practice my religion the way I want to — there's no freedom in that respect."
From Michigan to Texas, American Muslims told me that they are unable to fully practice their faith, and unable to support needy people both at home and overseas for fear that they could be interrogated by the FBI, dragged into court, lose their citizenship, or even prosecuted for donations to entirely legal Muslim charities that are registered with the IRS.
While charitable giving is an important part of all major religions — Christians practice tithing, for instance — terrorism finance laws unfairly and disproportionately target Muslim giving. In recent remarks in Cairo, President Obama recognized that American Muslims face barriers to practicing their religion, noting, "[I]n the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation." The continued intimidation of American Muslim donors tarnishes America's reputation as a beacon of religious freedom.
In his speech in Cairo, President Obama not only acknowledged problems with the current laws, but went further, calling for and committing to change these policies and enhance protections for charitable giving. The ACLU applauds the President's commitment and stands ready to work with him for change. Post-9/11 policies have created a climate of fear that prevents Muslims from practicing their religion, and unless the Obama administration takes action, this legacy of the Bush administration will persist. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value to be protected and honored.
Learn more about this important issue, and watch a video featuring Americans who have been negatively impacted by these unfair laws, at www.aclu.org/muslimcharities.