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The Trouble with CVE Cash for Muslim Groups

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Navigating the murky waters of CVE funding and establishing transparency in the American Muslim community

In the closing days of the Obama Administration, several nonprofits were awarded grants under HR 1022. The purpose of the funding under the law was for “countering violent Islamist extremism.”  Contrary to reports Trump is changing the focus of CVE to focus on Islam, the Republican Congress has already done that. The Department of Homeland Security had announced the funds awarded were a “Homeland Security imperative.’’ Reports are that more than 100 organizations throughout the Muslim community nationwide evidently applied for grants, although we won’t know for sure until the applications are made public.

This is odd since the “debate” about CVE in the US Muslim community is long over. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) hosted a debate at the ISNA convention in September 2016 and they were unable to find a single speaker who could state that CVE provided any “net benefit” to the Muslim community. The benefits go only to profiteers. Since 2015, several national and local Muslim organizations, Civil Rights Groups have all agreed the program is harmful and discriminatory, and serves no beneficial purpose to society at large.

But the question then comes up, are Muslim organizations, as well as those with secular missions serving Muslims, Arabs and Somalis, that took CVE money inherently corrupt and untrustworthy? I would not be so quick to come to that conclusion.  That groups are starting to turn down CVE money in the face of the Trump Administration’s apparent desire to humiliate them by contradicting their talking points justifying receipt of the funds does not really distinguish the malevolent organizations from the merely naive. Most recently, Bayan Claremont announced it will turn down its $800,000 CVE grant. Some groups will no doubt cling to the funds (if they are ever distributed) no matter what the cost to their reputations in the Muslim community.

In general, CVE Grantees fall into three categories:

Traditional Security Contractors

These are most grantees (not the most applicants), such as law enforcement and private organizations comfortable with the Islamophobic goals of CVE. They have no Muslim, Arab or Somali community constituencies.

Confidence Security Contractors

Organizations that serve or claim to serve the Muslim, Arab or Somali communities that are either AstroTurf groups or set up to exploit the trust of communities and youth —funded with law enforcement and national security-focused grants. A formerly “good” organization with a reservoir of trust inside the community can change its mission to focus on getting security grants.  These are the most harmful as they take up positions of trust they do not deserve, that they can then easily abuse for federal security cash. Confidence groups need not be federally funded, but tend to use their credibility within the Muslim community to pursue interests hostile to it, whatever the motivation.

Green Security Contractors

Organizations that serve the Muslim, Arab or Somali communities who are new to security contracting and did not necessarily know what they were getting into. Perhaps they genuinely believed it was free money to fulfill their own organization’s aims.  While it may seem laughable to some that a government security and intelligence agency would give away free money for religious and charitable purposes, this idea may have driven most applications. Indeed, some Muslim institutions appeared to believe they could get funding for religious programming at mosques that did not endorse terrorism. DHS seemed to encourage applications from religious organizations, so long as the grants were not for “proselytizing”.

Telling them apart

Traditional security contractors are easy to identify and this category is beyond our scope. The other two, Confidence Security Contractors and Green Security Contractors are harder for Muslim community members to tell apart. This is because there is no organization that operates in Muslim spaces, anywhere in the United States I am aware of,  that publicly claims to use their CVE grants for the purpose the grants were intended for under the law. Rather, they all appear to claim it is money for non-security things they would be doing anyway — which is to say confidence contractors are pretending to be green.

The CVE brand is toxic in the Muslim community. Without deep-seated internalized Islamophobia or a corrupt motive, people normally do not assume their mere existence, and the existence of their children, offers the nation a greater criminal and national security threat than that of their non-Muslim neighbors. People in the CVE business understand this.  While the politics behind CVE demands an Islamophobic frame that works well for white supremacy, which gets Congress to fund the grants, it is hard to swallow for most Muslims. This is why the industry would prefer “Countering Violent Extremism” to “Countering Radical Islam” or “Countering Violent Islamic Extremism” or other alternatives currently being pushed. So, the issue needs to be finessed by those Muslims groups who want the money while maintaining some semblance of “credibility” inside their communities.  This can look sloppy.

Deny the Obvious

At one Muslim meeting concerning the program “Safe Spaces” in 2016, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) President denied the program was CVE at all. A local Imam pointed to MPAC’s website on his iPad, which identified the program as CVE.  In January of 2017,  MPAC’s President again made an identical claim about how “Safe Spaces” was not CVE in front of leaders of a local Muslim community, days after the public announcement of a grant from the Federal Government for CVE for that exact program. When the false statement was again pointed out by a leader, he claimed the program was different because it was “community-led.” As MPAC is a security contractor acting against the wishes of the Muslim community and at the behest of the DHS, which has awarded it a grant for services, the claim is also false. MPAC’s Safe Spaces website currently claims it is an alternative to CVE, despite the grant.

MPAC is a unique organization in the American Muslim community.  They have a strong record serving the interests of the police, at one point was on the same page with a police mapping program, promoting this position in newspapers and to members of their listserv, then denying they ever did that. Internationally, they supported the Sisi military coup in Egypt. As documented at Muslimmatters and elsewhere, Safe Spaces itself was a masterwork of mendacity with no socially redeeming value. The notion anyone can engage in pre-crime detection to stop terrorism is fraudulent and been disproven for years. This is beyond serious dispute. MPAC also has a record of duping Muslim leaders, including Islamic scholars who should know better about its work vilifying traditional Islamic scholarship and associating it with terrorism.

This work has led to plenty of federal cash (if the grant goes through) for the MPAC, as well as employment and contracting opportunities for former employees and associates.

Just give it to the poor?

The real challenge comes when Muslim organizations appear to be largely in agreement about CVE being bad, but take the money anyway without anything as offensive as MPAC’s “Safe Spaces” in their record.  What do we make of them?

I had spoken to the head of another nonprofit that received a CVE Grant. He was adamant that he is against CVE, that they applied for the grant to prevent Islamophobes from getting money.  Furthermore, the money will be given away to food pantries and support for projects for the poor and not for anything related to the goals of CVE, which to him are offensive and ridiculous.

Federal Grant Fraud

Even if the money is merely to be given to the poor, there is the matter of taking money from the Federal government for purposes other than for what it was intended. There is no reason to believe the Trump Administration would pass up on the opportunity to aggressively prosecute Muslims who misappropriate funds for fighting terrorism, since that is federal grant fraud. Indeed, audits of Federal contractors are common, and adversaries of the organization can report fraud or misappropriation of grant funds quite easily. Disgruntled employees can even profit mightily from qui tam actions under the false claims act. Subgrantees may be on the hook for various forms of liability as well and should stay far away from this program.

Regardless of good intentions, grant fraud with anti-terrorism funds is a poor nonprofit practice that should be avoided. Green Security Contractors should send the money back or not accept it in the first place.  It seems this is happening now.

Transparency

Our communities should demand transparency from nonprofits that purport to serve them. All groups with Muslim constituencies should disclose all contracts with the government, their application with the narrative for why they asked for the money, as well as the proposed budget. They should also disclose all correspondence with the government, including emails. While people such as Waqas Mirza, who writes about CVE at Muckrock will likely send out Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for all CVE documents, it is possible the efforts will be limited by the Trump Administration on national security grounds. Muslims should not tolerate a lack of transparency in the use of security funds by nonprofits that purport to serve them.

If an organization claims it is within the bounds of their contract to not make suspects of groups of people, including Muslims, Arabs, Somalis, those with mental illness, engage in oracular pre-crime services like MPAC’s Safe Spaces, national security propaganda like hyping fake terrorist threats or other CVE-related activities, and can simply give money away to the poor, that should be stated in writing and made public.

Demand Rejection

It is unlikely any organization can use CVE funds in a manner that does not do actual security-related work while being immune from criminal or civil liability.

The only realistic option is to reject CVE funds as some groups have already done. Turning down these funds is not heroic or principled. They should have never applied for security funds. It was wrong no matter who is President. Rejection is the first step in righting an ethical lapse that occurred from applying for the funds in the first place. Muslim leaders and community members should be assertive in demanding groups that have successfully applied for CVE funds reject or return the funds to maintain any level of access and credibility within Muslim spaces. The organizations should also develop ethical rules for their organizations the prevent such travesties from happening again.

The problem of confidence nonprofit and for-profit organizations and individuals is a long-term challenge for the Muslim community. We should all start being more discerning.

Ahmed Shaikh is a Southern California Attorney. He writes about inheritance, nonprofits and other legal issues affecting Muslims in the United States. His Islamic Inheritance website is www.islamicinheritance.com

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Zee

    February 13, 2017 at 11:03 PM

    MPAC has its supporters, bro. There are bubbles in the Muslim community – sort of a microcosm of America – so there are many people who don’t go to the mosque often and think that CVE is an effective way combat what they see on the news. Mosques already are safe spaces as long as there is an open exchange of ideas.

    Brother Ahmed Shaikh, Jazzakom Allahu kheyran. Do you think there are situations where institutional or public funds are permissible for Muslim organizations?

    Do you think this MB terror org designation is damning for all these orgs who don’t sign up for this gravy train?

    • Avatar

      Ahmed Shaikh

      February 15, 2017 at 12:59 PM

      Yes. MPAC has supporters. Some Muslims cannot distinguish between it and a civil rights organization (and MPAC has a record of doing some good things in the past), while the Muslim community has many authoritarians who agree with its pro-police politics.

      Of course, health care providers obtain federal funds to deliver healthcare. Contractors obtain federal funds to build basic infrastructure or restrooms in national parks. Those are all good. National Security funds are different though.

      I hope to write about the designation issue separately but no, I don’t think it matters.

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The Unexpected Blessings of Being Alone

Juli Herman

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My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.

“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”

In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.

It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.

Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.

When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.

Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone

In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.

The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as well.

The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.

We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.

مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا

“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15

On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.

Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.

وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22

But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?

The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.

It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.

You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.

There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.

Being Alone Has Its Own Perks

It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.

Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.

Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.

When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.

Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”

All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.

 

We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone

The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.

Open grave

You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.

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Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.

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israel, occupied Palestine

Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?

This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:

1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens

When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.

Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.

This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.

2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower

The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.

While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.

3)  Military aid and complicity of tax-payers

US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.

Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.

4) The Israeli lobby

The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.

5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history

This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.

Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.

The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.

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This Article Could be Zakat-Eligible

Who Accounts For This Pillar of Islam

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Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji

As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations.  We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.

Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion.  Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone.  There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.

No, it’s not ikhtilaf

The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat.  The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.  

It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined,  free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically,  the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.   

The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds.  We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?

Show Your Work

We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules.  In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.  

Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.

You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2

Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them?  Why or why not?

Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts?  What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.

Bubble Charity

In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor.  There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.

The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.   

As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent.  Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.

People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble.  Fisabilillah.

Dawa is the new Jihad

Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past.  Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.  

Indeed dawah is a broad category.  For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah.  Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.   

No Standards or Accountability

Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.  

The Shift to Meaninglessness

Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.

Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it.  It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.

Footnotes:

  1. The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
  2. In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.

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