How an anti-terror bill could strip Muslim social justice NGOs of nonprofit status

(RNS) — When does anti-terrorism legislation become a cover for Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian policies? Academics, social justice and faith leaders and Islamophobia experts are raising the alarm after the introduction of a bill by Texas Sen. John Cornyn that would expand the IRS’ power to deny tax-exempt status to any nonprofit organization accused of supporting terrorism.

Many Muslim and non-Muslim organizations are warning that if Cornyn’s bill gains momentum it would have far-reaching implications for charitable and social justice nongovernmental organizations and their donors, most immediately those supporting Palestinians in Gaza.

At a webinar last week hosted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Gerald FitzGerald, a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said disinformation has led to a series of congressional actions, including but not limited to the Cornyn bill, that in turn “contributes to perpetuating disinformation damaging the reputation of legitimate American Muslim charities.”

FitzGerald quoted Farid Hafez, an Islamophobia expert and visiting professor of international studies at Williams College, who said on another panel recently, “The idea is, if you weaken the Muslims, their resilience, their institutions, there would be less support for the Palestinian cause.”

“The implication,” said FitzGerald, “is that if you want to diminish and hinder the enfranchisement of American Muslims, you target the charities.”

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other advocacy groups, the motivation behind this Orwellian legislation stems from “unfounded allegations that certain Palestinian and Jewish nonprofit and student-led advocacy groups, critical of the Israeli government and supportive of Palestinian human rights, are linked to designated foreign terrorist organizations.”

The potential for misuse of this legislation could be great.

Hena Zuberi, director of the social justice advocacy group Justice for All, told me that the Senate bill’s potential to intimidate and suppress independent organizations, especially those addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, is deeply concerning. The bill, she said, gives one person, the secretary of the Treasury, the authority to freeze anyone’s accounts, giving them just 90 days to fight the action. “The concentration of power is very, very scary,” said Zuberi.

This bill is just the latest piece of controversial legislative measures that over the years have been aimed at combating terrorism, such as the post-9/11 Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, which is up for reauthorization in 2025. The last version of the NDAA, passed in 2011, mandated “military interrogation and detention for any suspected member of Al Qaeda and authorizes indefinite detention of terrorist suspects without trial.”

The law was so broadly written in parts that it can be turned against U.S. citizens. Despite the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a right to a trial, the NDAA allows for any citizen the government deems a terrorist to be locked up, “without the burden of proving its case to an independent judge … ”

Cornyn’s bill, SB4136, would similarly award unilateral power to the secretary of Treasury to strip an organization of its nonprofit status if the organization is considered to support terrorism, without firm proof. 

Kia Hamadanchy, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said on the ISPU webinar that because it stems due process, SB4136 has serious implications for civil rights. “There’s no requirement that (the secretary of Treasury or those who bring up suspicions) have to disclose the evidence against you. So, you could be left to try and disprove such a designation being left entirely in the dark as to its nature.”

Hamadanchy added, “That is exactly how an authoritarian-leaning administration would try to cow civil society,” noting that some members of Congress have been conflating protesters on college campuses with Hamas, without any evidence. “The Treasury Department could take that and say they want to strip away the nonprofit status of any university.”

At the heart of it all, social justice, charity organizations, and faith groups — many of them crucial to humanitarian work as well as safeguarding civil rights and protecting this country — are left vulnerable, defenseless and without proper recourse under SB4136. A wide-ranging application of this bill could affect how and where Americans donate their money, what causes they support or even what they can or cannot say on college campuses, especially when it comes to protests against genocide and Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza.

“The broad and vague definitions could easily be used to target Justice for All,” said Zuberi, pointing to a 129-page report published by the Hindu nationalist Indian government recently that connects her organization with Muslim advocacy groups such as the Indian American Muslim Council and the Helping Hands Foundation.

Someone, she said, could make a jump connecting Justice for All to Helping Hands and from there to some organization overseas that is viewed as problematic. “Now imagine such flimsy evidence from a foreign government, that does not stand in court, gets sent in by (Hindu nationalist agents) to the Department of Treasury, and the Treasury secretary says they need to do an investigation and in the meantime strip us of our nonprofit tax status.

“It wouldn’t stand up in court, but we would, as a small nonprofit, have to divert human resources and money into fighting this rather than actively doing the work that we are doing.”

A House version of the bill failed to advance as an amendment attachment to the Federal Aviation Agency annual funding authorization, but some now fear that SB4136 could get attached to the 2025 reauthorization bill of the National Defense Authorization Act or be passed as a stand-alone bill. And then? All bets are off.

(Dilshad D. Ali is a freelance journalist. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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