The horrors of September 11 led many to wonder where did such hatred originate. The official answer, offered by our leaders and their cheerleaders in the media, is that the terrorists were driven by a hatred of American values. September 11 was, if our leaders are to be believed, a strike against democracy and freedom more than simply an attack on the United States.
Even President Bush seems incapable of accepting that ‘in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred of America.’ He had said earlier in the year that he was amazed ‘that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us … like most Americans, I just can’t believe [it]. Because I know how good we are.’
For all this self-assured goodness, there remains tremendous anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world. However, as recent surveys by the Washington-based Arab American Institute and Zogby Institute found, this anger is because of what America does, not because of what America is. In other words, it is the policies of the United States that fuels anger against it, and not its beliefs or values.
The horrors of September 11 were not driven by a rage against America’s low taxes, Sex in the City or Roe versus Wade. Rather those who perpetrated these crimes were motivated by anger at US policies in the Middle East. That they chose illegitimate and barbaric methods to express some popularly-held concerns does not automatically render their complaints illegitimate nor reduce the necessity of understanding these grievances.
The occupation of Iraq, support for Israel and the arming and strengthening of totalitarian and anti-democratic regimes are obvious causes of Muslim anger. These legitimate concerns where hijacked on September 11 and have been quoted ever since by terrorists as justification for their latest atrocity. However, in the aftermath of September 11 and the War on Terror, there has emerged a new issue which, although largely ignored by the Western media, threatens to undermine and unravel whatever gains may have been made in the Bush Administration’s fight to rid the world of terror: the US-led closure of Islamic charities.
Like most religions, Islam prescribes charity; indeed, the giving of 2.5 per cent of one’s savings is one of the five pillars of Islamic belief.
Traditionally, Muslims in the more affluent societies have relied on charitable institutions to distribute their donations to those most in need elsewhere in the world. With the giving of charity an inviolable principle of the religion, Muslims see any interference in the giving of charity as an interference in the practice of religion itself.
However, since September 11, some of the largest and most trusted Islamic charities have been closed by the United States government; ostensibly to stem the flow of funds to terrorist organisations. The money, donated by tens of thousands of Muslim faithful and running into the tens of millions, has been frozen; and the principals of these charities imprisoned. Despite this, the US Attorney General has refused to provide the remaining Islamic charities with any guidelines, nor provide the American Muslim community with a list of approved charities.
As the world – Muslim world included – recoils in horror at the devastation caused by the Asian tsunami, the closure of these charities has severely hampered fund-raising and the provision of aid to many effected areas. For Muslims in the Middle East, it has limited the avenues for donations; and for Muslims in the West it has created an atmosphere of apprehension where many fear that donated funds may be seized arbitrarily or invite the future attention of government authorities. For tsunami victims in countries such as Indonesia, the closure of local offices of the Islamic charities means that funds move slowly from the affluent corners of the Muslim world to those in need, and, importantly, the much-needed local knowledge and infrastructure of the charities is no longer available.
Of course, one cannot dispute any effort to prevent the flow of funds to terrorists. However, as lives depend on the humanitarian efforts of the world’s charities, governments must act responsibly and tread carefully when taking any action that might impact the world’s most needy. In the case of most all the major Islamic charities that have been closed down, this has not been the case.
The case of Help The Needy provides an instructive example. When the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq, the effects were devastating as has been documented in countless reports by Western aid agencies. The first Gulf War and years of sanctions had impoverished a country that was once one of the most educated and literate nations in the Arab world. Dr Rafil Dhafir, a respected oncologist in Syracuse, New York, founded Help the Needy with the intent of providing aid directly to the Iraqi people who were suffering under UN sanctions.
As an oncologist, he had studied and documented the effects of depleted uranium on congenital birth defects in Iraq and began raising funds to assist impoverished families and victims of radiation exposure. By bypassing the Ba’ath Party, and thus denying Saddam and his cronies a slice of the aid money, Dr Dhafir was placed on Saddam’s hit-list of expatriate Iraqis.
In February 2003, Dr Rafil Dhafir was arrested by the FBI on charges of having ‘violated the US embargo against Iraq’. His crime was providing humanitarian aid, through the Help the Needy charity, to Iraqi families. He now faces charges which, if convicted, will see him serve around 260 years in prison.
Upon his arrest, New York governor George Pataki declared, ‘It is again troubling to see, with the arrests that occurred in Syracuse today, that there are clear terrorists living here in New York State among s…who are supporting or aiding and abetting those who would destroy our way of life and kill our friends and neighbors.’
Likewise, US Attorney General John Ashcroft released a statement saying, ‘Those who covertly seek to channel money into Iraq under the guise of charitable work will be caught and prosecuted. As President Bush leads an international coalition to end Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and support for terror, the Justice Department will see that individuals within our borders cannot undermine these efforts.
Despite no terrorism-related charges ever having been brought against him, the United States government has sought to create the illusion that Dr Dhafir was involved in terrorism and the charity was really a fund-raiser for Saddam. That Dr Dhafir was allegedly fund-raising for a government that had placed him on a hit-list is a contradiction that the government chose to ignore.
The passage of funds to Iraqi citizens during the period of sanctions was relatively common amongst humanitarian organisations active in the region. Amongst those that sent delegations to Iraq during sanctions were Voices in the Wilderness, Veterans for Peace, Pax Christi USA, the American Friends Service Committee, the Order of St Dominic (Dominican priests), Conscience International, Global Exchange, and the International Action Center. Even Val Kilmer, the actor, traveled to Iraq delivering medicine and yet he remains, quite rightly, a free man.
In September 2004, the US government did successfully prosecute Voices in the Wilderness but, unlike Dr Dhafir, nobody was imprisoned and the California-based charity was simply instructed to pay a $20 000 fine. Therefore, it is with some justification that the prosecution of Dr Dhafir and closure of Help the Needy is seen by many Muslims as symptomatic of a broader campaign targetting Islamic charities.
Unfortunately, the case of Dr Dhafir is not unique. The US branch of Haramain Foundation, a Saudi-based charity that operated orphanages and schools throughout the poorest corners of the world, was closed down; a lien put on its property; and the treasurer, a Saudi agricultural engineer named Soliman al-Buthi, placed on a UN list of ‘terrorist funders’. As a result, his assets were seized, his bank accounts frozen and a man who has never been charged, much less proven guilty, of any offence has been cast into a financial no-man’s land for which there is no court of appeal or judicial oversight.
Some may see the unjust persecution of two men as a tolerable side-effect to the US’s mission to make the world safe from terrorism; however, it should give pause to those who advocate such a view to remember that in charity, as with trade, there are always two parties: the giver and the recipient. The United States may have successfully eradicated the charities that facilitated the giving, but what becomes of those who relied on these charities to survive? For example, the Friends of Charities Association (FOCA) found that the closure of Haramain Foundation rendered 4727 orphans destitute in Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan and Somalia alone.
Whilst little consideration has been given to the humanitarian effects of these closures, even less consideration has been given to the national security implications. Yet, it seems obvious that communities severely affected by the closure of these charities will become fertile grounds for the recruitment of terrorists intent on ‘revenge’. For the rest of the Muslim world, al-Qaeda has no more effective recruitment poster than the images of destitute children that are broadcast around the Muslim world daily by satellite stations such as al-Jazeerah and al-Arabiyyah.
The United States seems indifferent to the effects of its policies. It seems preoccupied with creating the illusion of ‘progress’ in the fight against terror whilst ignoring the real causes of Muslim extremism and violence: ignorance, social instability and political stagnation. For the US’s War on Terror, the guiding principle is, to borrow a favourite saying of Caligula, ‘oderint dum metuant’. Let them hate us, so long as they fear us. Let the masses seethe and let the Imams and Mullahs rally against America from their pulpits, so long as there remains fear of the projection of American power.
Perhaps pursuing a war that runs roughshod over the sensibilities of one billion Muslims will deliver the Bush Administration some short-term wins and provide fodder for Justice Department press conferences; and perhaps it is true that the overthrow of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein has taught upstart Arab and Muslim leaders a lesson about American power. However, it does little to bolster American security when millions of people now view America through a prism of seized donations, closed orphanages, and unfair treatment of their co-religionists. Although few of these people will seek to translate their discontent into terrorism, such popular anger provides a fertile ground for terrorist recruitment and the spread of extremist ideologies.
Rather than adopt the indifference of the Roman emperor Caligula, the American empire might be better served by considering the warning of the Roman statesman Marcus Cicero: ‘ut sementem feceris ita metes’. As you sow, so you shall reap.
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