Islamic NGOs in the US look warily at the Trump effect

A man sits on the steps outside First Unitarian Church prior to aid distribution by Islamic Relief USA in Philadelphia. Photo by: Muneeza Tahir / Islamic Relief USA

Muslim faith-based NGOs in the United States remain watchful for a fall-out effect of the rhetoric and policies of President Donald Trump and his administration.

Already, some humanitarian and development groups with faith-based leanings and missions say that the fraught political climate has cast a shadow over their work, leading to potential challenges in partnerships, donations and aid transfers.

“There is a chilling factor to the Muslim-American donor base. If they feel like there might be attacks on Muslim organizations... there is less likelihood for funding,” said Sharif Aly, advocacy counsel at Islamic Relief USA, an Alexandria, Virginia-based humanitarian group that operates in more than 40 countries. “If there is a negative rhetoric going on that won’t facilitate the relationships you need to build to increase your impact. It’s not as simple as just funding.”

This week, Trump signed a revised executive order that places a ban of 120 days on the U.S. refugee resettlement program, and also temporarily restricts entry of migrants from six Muslim-majority countries. The state of Hawaii is set to try to block the order in court next week. In January, Trump signed a similar order — now suspended by the courts — that temporarily banned refugees and green-card holders from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. His attitude to Islam has been called into question.

“The dust is still settling and it is not clear where the [Trump] policies will end up, but it does kind of exacerbate the culture and the discourse you will see increasingly,” said Jamie Merchant, a spokesperson for the Zakat Foundation of America. “It fans the flames of certain tendencies that were already in place… There’s just generally a really strong anxiety that it is only going to get worse before it gets better.”

The number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the U.S. has almost doubled since 2015, according to the anti-discrimination nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. And last year anti-Muslim assaults reached numbers not seen since the aftermath of 9/11, according to a Pew Research analysis of FBI statistics.

Islamic Relief USA experienced a wave of discrimination in May 2016, when they partnered with the American Red Cross in responding to floods in Louisiana. They were told to leave by local officials and a church parish, according to Aly and the organization’s media release at the time. They were warned not to enter other communities — a lack of welcome the group attributed to Islamophobia. The international NGO had previously received hate mail and threats shortly after 9/11.

The Charity & Security Network, a cross-section of NGOs that includes Amnesty International, recently issued a statement signed by 80 groups expressing concern that if the Trump administration designates the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group — as some suspect might happen — this could result in “seizures and effective shut downs” for Muslim civil society. While the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a political wing, is designated as a terrorist organization by a few regional governments including Saudi Arabia, it is mainstream in other countries as a global civil society network running medical centers and providing basic provisions, among other things.

There’s also the issue of de-risking by international banks, a process that flags, delays or sometimes halts wire transfers for international NGOs working in high-risk countries. While a recent Charity & Security Network survey found that two-thirds of U.S. nonprofits had experienced significant problems as a result of derisking, Muslim NGOs and foundations have become increasingly vulnerable to the problem, according to a spokesperson from a prominent, U.S.-based Muslim charity organization. The spokesperson did not want their organization identified because of the sensitive nature of derisking.

“This is something that has disproportionately affected faith-based organizations and this goes back several years, speaking to a broader generalization of this suspicion towards organizations that do this kind of work and have broadly Muslim or Islamic-affiliated identities,” the spokesperson said, noting that they expect this trend could intensify under Trump.

The impact, they explained, is that aid for people in “dire, sometimes life-threatening situations” gets delayed. “People do not receive the vital resources that they need when they need it.”

An awareness of this issue in the Muslim civil society community has prompted some organizations to take additional steps in documenting their financials and receipt of donations. That includes Humanity First, a development and disaster relief organization that is operated mostly by volunteers and has not experienced problems from derisking, according to its executive director, Munum Naeem.

Baitulmaal, a Dallas-based development and disaster relief NGO working in eight countries, has undertaken similar practices, executive director Suleiman Alghanem told Devex.

“Nothing has changed so far, but we are still preparing for any actions that might be taken, just in case,” he said. “Some of our donors have asked us this question of how the new administration and executive order [on travel] is affecting our work... I know other organizations are facing this issue with banks and we have not faced it yet, and hopefully will not.”

Yet several Muslim faith-based NGOs say that, for now, their work continues as normal. Still, they are mindful of the challenges that can affect all NGOs, but may have a particular impact on Muslim groups.

“It comes to your mind, just being the color that you are, the religion that you have, and you are seeing this growing thing and I think we cannot ignore that, but you cannot blindly live in it,” said Naeem. One Humanity First volunteer — a U.S. green-card holder with Pakistani nationality — was recently detained for several hours at an airport following a work trip to Guatemala.

Nevertheless, he explained, “from a charity perspective, we are not sitting here and worrying about the need to have a different strategy.”

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.