FOCA is a not-for-profit organization whose core purpose is to advocate for reforms in the policies and law that impacts the charitable sector. FOCA is composed mainly of charitable organizations such as the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, the Islamic Relief Organization, the International World Assembly of Muslim Youth, Al Muntada Al Islami Foundation and the Muslim World League. The organization endeavors to promote best practices among Islamic charities and to advance the interest and causes of the civil society in general. FOCA works with like-minded organizations and institutions including government regulators, financial institutions and anti-terror financing agencies. FOCA has hired a group of lawyers whose role is to review existing and proposed charity, anti-money laundering and anti-terror financing laws and to advise on the best way forward for Islamic charities. In several occasions, FOCA lawyers have made important recommendation for improvement in charity laws, best practices and procedures for enhancing the charitable sector.
FOCA Concerns about US Department of Treasury Guidelines of Anti-Terror Financing
FOCA has on several occasions raised concerns that the guidelines drafted by the US treasury Department for combating terror financing are discriminating and arbitrary. According to FOCA, the guidelines assume that Islamic charities are the main source of funding for terrorist organizations. FOCA argues that while a few Islamic charities may be involved in terror related activities, no organization in the world is immune from misuse or abuse. Therefore, Islamic charities, which to a great extent rely on volunteer staff must take measures to prevent misuse of donor funds. However, FOCA does not believe that that any charitable funds collected by its members are being diverted to unlawful activities. The organization shares concerns with the department of treasury that at the very least, some Islamic charities have been abused by individuals and groups involved in criminal activities such as money laundering and terrorism. Consequently, FOCA has repeatedly offered to initiate dialogue with the department of treasury to investigate any contentious issues and improve best practices for its members. Although the Treasury has not agreed to these suggestions, FOCA remains hopeful that a strong partnership between its members and the treasury will be nurtured in the future.
FOCA has also raised concerns that the treasury guidelines rely on a fundamentally flawed process to designate an organization as a terrorist supporter. Among other issues, the designation process is not transparent and does not accord suspected organizations an opportunity to contest or appeal the decision of the treasury department. As such, many Islamic charities have had their bank accounts frozen and activities suspended without being informed in respectful ways the allegations leveled against them. Indeed, the Treasury has blacklisted many Islamic charities since 9/11, ostensibly because of their involvement in terror related activities. Regrettably, denial of right for independent appeal has caused FOCA, its members and several other Islamic charities to lose confidence in the US as the global leader in the fight against terrorism. In fact, many charities have been unable to arise funds because donors believe that once an organization has been blacklisted, it is automatically linked to terror activities. FOCA has acknowledged these gaping flaws and made recommendations for reforming the process of designating any charitable organization as a sponsor of terrorism.
FOCA has noted that unlike other administrative and regulatory agencies in the world, the US department of treasury has not made any meaningful efforts to provide Islamic charities the protection they need in order to operate effectively. This problem impacts Islamic charities in two major ways. First, the charities are less motivated to work towards promoting the public policy goals that are the basis of the anti-terror financing guidelines. Secondly, uncertainty regarding the level of protection derived from compliance with the guidelines, compounded by the bureaucracies of compliance jeopardizes the humanitarian missions of a majority of Islamic charities. Accordingly, most of the charities are not able to participate in the delivery of humanitarian aid during emergencies.
The anti-terror financing guidelines suggest that non-profit organizations can be held responsible for delivering humanitarian aid to recipients that have alleged ties with terrorist organizations. This means that apart from the formal list of suspected individuals and organizations provided by relevant US and international antiterrorism organizations, entities suspected on the basis of media reports or allegations in lawsuits can be subject to the guidelines. FOCA has expressed reservations that not only does this arbitrary process increase the burden of proof on charities but also allows organizations to be designated as supporters of terrorism on the basis of unfounded and unreliable allegations. Some of these allegation scan be made due to certain perceived interests or basis on the side on the investigators. FOCA recommends that the Treasury provides a system for confirming unsubstantiated reports before taking measures to punish suspected individual and entities.
Major Accomplishments Achieved by FOCA
Since it was founded, FOCA has played an increasingly important role in fostering good relationships between Islamic charities and the United States in light of the global war on terror. The main achievements are highlighted below:
i. Initiation of law enforcement dialogue: in the United States, law enforcement agencies do not maintain direct contact with the Friends of Charities Association. This means that the law enforcing agencies mostly base their opinions and judgments on the activities of Islamic charities (particularly those affiliated with FOCA) based on reports from other parties. In most cases, these third party reports are misinformed and may not reflect the truth of the matter. On the basis of this problem, FOCA has initiated a system of dialogue with law enforcement agencies and policy makers in the United States. The dialogue helps the organization to maintain direct communication especially during major crises pertaining to the conduct of Islamic charities. Among other important achievements in this area, FOCA initiated direct dialogue with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Treasury as well as officials from the Internal Revenue service and the Department of Justice. The organization also met with the Federal Bureau of Investigation Officials to coordinate dialogue with the bureau’s director in charge of terrorism in the Middle East. In the UK, the organization has held meetings with officials from the Home Office and the Special Branch. FOCA hopes that by maintaining good relations with these law reinforcing agencies, it will enhance its ability to persuade them for the purpose of benefiting Islamic charities.
ii. Best practices, due diligence and governance: FOCA conducts routine due diligence to establish most effective ways of representing its members with regard to the various issues facing Islamic charities as a result of the global war on terror. The due diligence reviews conducted by the organizations have resulted in enhanced understanding of the important role played by charities in the world. Accordingly, FOCA has made important recommendations that Islamic charities (those affiliated with FOCA) implement improved procedures and best practices. Drawing on the gained experience, FOCA has established working relationships with key government official s and organizations in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. Through these relationships, the organization has been able to advance the interest of its members and all other Islamic charities by developing models and information about best practices and effective governance. The organization conducted due diligence on a number of charities including the Al Haramain International Foundation and Al Muntada Al Islami. The organization also documented a list of identified public allegations against Islamic charities (both its members and outsiders). It continues to maintain liaison with other international groups and organizations share its perspectives about monitoring and regulation of charities. These groups include non-profit organizations, charity umbrella groups and key experts.
iii. Awareness and media campaigns: FOCA has identified lack of awareness as the most important issue contributing to increasing suspicion over the activities of Islamic charities. In many countries including the United States, most people do not have direct knowledge about the operations of Islamic charities and therefore rely on media reports which are often biased and inaccurate. Some of the reports conveyed through the media enable people to form negative impressions of charitable organizations. FOCA is determined to ensure that media reports about its members are accurate and capable of reinforcing positive image among the public and law enforcers. To achieve this important cause, FOCA has established a team whose responsibilities include monitoring and response to media reports about Islamic charities. The team is also responsible for nurturing close working relationships with leading media houses and journalists in major publication such as the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In addition, the team is responsible for monitoring media reporting in other parts of the world to ensure that they portray an accurate image about the nature of operations of its members. During major terrorist attacks, FOCA has issued press statements condemning such acts and pledging support for investigators to determine the motives and culprits behind the attacks.
iv. Publicity and marketing: in addition to FOCA’s ongoing work with policy makers and the media, the organization is determined to provide plenty of information to inform interested parties and the public about its mission. Among other important steps to this end include launch of website with links to member organizations, research projects and media articles. The organization has also been involved in the publication of papers about the important role played by Islamic charities in humanitarian aid. Similarly, it has been involved in the development of several op-ed which are published in the name charity officials affiliated with FOCA.
v. Fostering of relationships with not-for-profit organizations, think tanks and quasi-governmental institutions: FOCA is aware of the fact that just like the media is able to influence decisions of policy makers and public opinion, organization outside the government have the ability to influence government decisions. Some of these organizations are involved in research and publication of articles, which form the basis for media reports and political discourses regarding the operations of charities. Moreover, some of the groups are associated with certain political affiliations and points of view. These include the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and Sasha Cohen of Northeastern University. FOCA has sought to work with these organizations to portray a true picture of Islamic charities and dispel fears that these charities are involved in criminal activities.
vi. Planning and research: to a greater extent, the campaign against Islamic charities is based on ignorance of facts and misinformation. For this reason, FOCA has dedicated a substantial portion of its resources on planning and research programs. The organization monitors all manners of allegations leveled against Islamic charities so as to determine the best response. The organization is also working on various strategies for cushioning attacks on its members so as to advance the interests of its association. The organization has been able to identify and explain controversial issues related to terror financing as alleged by the US government, media and other interest groups.
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