On Jan. 14, 2010, a roundtable discussion with UK scholar Jonathan Benthall featured research on zakat committees in the West Bank, focusing on their evolutionary process during the past 20 years. Benthall was in Washington, DC to share the findings of a November 2009 report about zakat committees written by his colleague Emanuel Schaeublin of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding in Geneva, Switzerland.  Alistair Millar, President of the Fourth Freedom Forum and Co-Director of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, described how nonprofit groups reduce the threat of terrorism but have been viewed with suspicion by governments.

For most Americans President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech may have been the first time they had heard the word “zakat.” But for millions of Muslims around the world, the act of giving zakat (alms giving) is strongly rooted in their religious traditions. But zakat is more than just donating money. It requires that the donated money be distributed to those in need without prejudice or political bias.

To meet that additional requirement, Benthall explained how Muslims in the West Bank region have for centuries relied on informal voluntary committees to administer charitable donations from local communities. These “zakat committees” were largely independent from government or political influence. However, the committees’ loose structure was formalized by the Jordanian government in the 1970s. More recently they “have evolved in a changing socio-political context under Israeli occupation and successive Jordanian and Palestinian authority.”

These changes in governance and structure have led to  questions about their independence from political bias. Benthall dismissed criticism from Mathew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute and a former Treasury official, that alleges many zakat committees help groups such as Hamas to “win the hearts and minds of the people” or that they are used to recruit members. Benthall believes it is a commonly made mistake to associate everything in the Palestinian states with support for Hamas. In  his 2008 report, The Palestinian zakat committees 1993–2007 and their Contested Interpretations, Benthall said, “There is a grave risk of attributing guilt by association. This risk is compounded by the citation of highly biased press reports and intelligence web sites, and sometimes by reliance on statements extracted from detainees under coercive interrogation.”

Adding to what Benthall had said, Millar explained how nonprofits have been the targets of heavy handed sanctions for whom and where they provide aid. He blamed short-sighted terrorism financing measures passed after 9/11 that were “overly broad and lacked procedural safeguards, ”  subjecting nonprofits to “unprecedented intimidation, investigations, and in some cases, assets blocked without sufficient justification or notice.”  Millar said ten Muslim charities in the U.S. have been shut down to these overbroad laws.

The work that nonprofits do addresses grievances, provides vital aid and gives a voice to the marginalized around the world. Citing “lost opportunities,” Millar explained how the current counterterrorism regime squanders chances to utilize nonprofits as an ally against violent extremism. Millar also spoke about the United Nations’ Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (2006). He said this unanimously agreed upon plan “offers an opportunity to recalibrate security-focused counterterrorism efforts and develop more balanced and more effective responses.”  He concluded his remarks by calling on governments, the UN and for nonprofits to take the threats from overbroad counterterrorism measures seriously and proactively engage in dialogue to address the security concerns but still respect the humanitarian imperative.

The event was sponsored by the Charity and Security Network and held at the OMB Watch office in Washington, DC.