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American Muslim Donor: A Dilemma

By Tom Watson on May 15, 2008No Comment

American Muslim Donor by Sara Shroff

In light of the diversity, sensitivity and evolutionary nature of Muslim philanthropy within the American context, Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and American Muslim Studies Program recently hosted a roundtable discussion to better understand the predicament from opposing perspectives.  The one-day gathering brought together academics, practitioners, professionals, government officials, and policy makers to engage in a multi-dimensional and rigorous dialogue around Muslim, Arab and South Asian Diaspora philanthropy in America today.

Zakat and Sadaqah
The conference began with a discussion around the tradition and practice of Islamic philanthropy.  Historically, principles of individual and institutional philanthropy are embedded in Islam; in fact, Islam takes this one step further and makes one segment of personal philanthropy compulsory for Muslims.  Giving among Muslim donors is driven both by faith and tradition.  The term Zakat, or “purification” is an obligatory portion of a Muslim’s income which must be directed to those who are less fortunate.  Sadaqah, or voluntary donations, are more similar to American-style giving; unlike most American giving, however, Sadaqah is traditionally given anonymously. 

Diaspora Giving
Dr. Adil Najam, Director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center and Professor of International Relations, Geography and Environment at Boston University, discussed the evolution of philanthropy in America within the Diaspora community. The conversation was led by a discussion around his recent book, Pakistanis in America: Portrait of a Giving Community, published by the Harvard University Press, which is an aggregated study on how Pakistani-Americans give.  The study brings to light the history, demography, and institutional geography of Pakistani-Americans while examining how this immigrant community manages its multiple identities through charitable giving and volunteering.  It provides a snapshot in time of a generous and giving community whose philanthropy has become increasingly “American” without being less “Pakistani,” a continued debate for many global citizens who have multiple national, religious and ethnic identities.

American Muslims at large have been involved nationally and internationally in the fields of social justice, disaster relief, and development, and few organic philanthropic models have developed over time that are both “American” and “Muslim.”  Mahmood Alam of APPNA, the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America, discussed how APPNA has come a long way to become the leading association of the Pakistani Diaspora in North America and has made strides in the areas of medical relief, development, and philanthropy in both in Pakistan and in America.   Anwar Hasan, founder and president of the Maryland Muslim Council, focused on grassroots organizing and philanthropy while stressing the need for Muslims to be politically active, especially at the local and country level.   Peter B. Gudaitis of the New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), a leader in inter-faith philanthropy, highlighted the critical need for partnerships and collaboration within faiths, especially in times of disasters, and spoke about the NYDIS and their experience in New York. 

Giving Post 9/11
Within the post-9/11 anti-terrorism and national security oriented landscape, many American Muslims continue to face an unwelcoming philanthropic environment, whether it is giving to Muslim organizations in America or Muslim organizations in other Muslim majority countries.  Policy makers and American Muslim advocates continue to seek answers in form of policy and law where their civil liberties are protected, while keeping in mind the security and health of our nation.  This tough negotiation was evident through the efforts and impact of anti-terrorism financial policies discussed by Chip Poncy, Director of the Office of Strategic Policy for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.  Salam Al-Maryati, Executive Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, discussed the importance of civic and political participation of American Muslims to help inform and shape public policy opinion and practice.  Muslim Advocates’ Farhana Khera and a representative from The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) focused on addressing dilemmas of American Muslim donors in the context of religious freedom while protecting charitable giving.

A Welcome Debate
The philanthropic medium and expression by American Muslims has varied based on regional customs and preferences, religious and personal motivations, and the need of the time.  The broad giving categories could be summed up to include: infrastructure; intellectual capacity; advocacy; welfare systems; disaster relief and international development; all having strong religious and ethical underpinnings in social justice and equality.  The ambiguity and suspicion towards Muslim giving today calls for a progressive and productive dialogue with a focus on equitable and peaceful co-existence.  Conversations like these are welcomed with open arms by individuals and organizations on all sides of the debate.

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