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Muslim groups divided over money from foreign donors
All he had to do was say yes.
It was the 1980s, and Maher Hatout needed money for the Muslim community in Los Angeles. Saudi Arabia, Libya and other foreign governments were offering millions of dollars to help build mosques and Islamic schools in America.
But Hatout saw danger in this helping hand. He refused the donations.
"We are working for an American Muslim identity," he said. "We cannot be an extension of, or serve the agenda of, any other country."
These days, debate among U.S. Muslim leaders about whether to accept money from foreign sources has gained urgency as the community has been scrutinized -- unfairly, its members say -- for any links to extremists because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Iraq war.
It is a complex issue for American Muslim organizations. They face their greatest demands ever to defend adherents' civil rights, and they need money to better establish themselves in this country. The depressed economy has hurt fund raising, and many U.S. Muslims have been withholding donations for fear any gift will seem suspicious to law enforcement.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Los Angeles-based national advocacy organization that Hatout founded, has accepted no foreign money since it was created in 1984, and it advertises this policy in its pitch to donors.
Strings 'always' attached
By contrast, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, perhaps the best-known Muslim advocacy group, said it takes no aid from foreign governments but does accept money from individual donors overseas -- a position that can sometimes cause controversy.
"As long as long as it's unconditional, as long as we're free to use the funds as we wish, as long as it's a project we start, I don't think it undermines our efforts," Ahmed said. "I'm not going to do profiling or discriminate against any Muslim because they were born somewhere else."
Some Muslim leaders say individual donors often are acting on behalf of their governments. Naeem Baig, secretary general of the Islamic Circle of North America, said foreign countries usually do not offer money directly, but through a philanthropist.
"Money does not come free. It always comes with strings attached," Baig said. His New York-based social service agency, with a $4 million annual budget, refuses help from foreign governments, though it does not condemn groups that do.
Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of Islamic studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, said it is well known donations from the Saudi and Libyan governments, which have decreased in recent years, have come with restrictions. "They expected you to be grateful and not to criticize them," Ayoub said.
The Saudi government also asked that certain imams, or prayer leaders, be hired and that men and women be segregated during worship, Hatout said.
Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, said up until the 1990s, several foreign governments tried unsuccessfully to pressure his group into taking money for promoting extreme forms of Islam.
The Libyan government, for example, said in the late 1970s it would pay the Islamic Society to distribute "The Green Book," a manifesto on a form of Islamic socialism written by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
"We refused. We never received anything from Libya," Syeed said.
Ahmed said foreign donations comprise "less than 20 percent" of his council's budget. He would not reveal the total budget amount for the group's Washington headquarters and 21 chapters in North America, but said the Washington office alone spends $3.5 million annually.
The Islamic Society, an educational and social service group based in Plainfield, Ind., received about $100,000 from individual overseas donors last year out of a total annual budget of $2.5 million, Syeed said. The organization accepts no money from foreign governments.
As the Muslim community develops in the United States, its need for overseas money will diminish, but now is a difficult time for leaders to refuse all aid from foreign individuals, Ayoub said.
"What I hope will happen is that the Muslim community will find its American feet, to become acclimated," Ayoub said. "But it is not yet self-sufficient."