Anti-Muslim groups funded by local charities, report finds

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Hannan Adely

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American charities steered $125 million to groups that spread anti-Muslim hate and propaganda during the three-year period ending in 2016, according to a report by a Muslim advocacy group. These charities included at least 30 foundations in New Jersey and a dozen in Westchester County, New York. 

More than 800 entities ranging from major national foundations like Fidelity Charitable and Schwab Charitable to small, little-known family foundations gave grants to organizations that push anti-Muslim rhetoric and legislation, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported. The funding came amid an alarming rise in Islamophobia that has stoked violence and divisiveness and made its way into mainstream media and politics.

“The amount of resources being spent to negatively influence public opinion and government policy about Muslims and Islam is staggering,” said James Sues, executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey chapter. “The fact that foundations that were established for the betterment of society are being used for these hate-driven activities is cause for alarm.”

In some cases, foundations may be donating to organizations while unaware of their role in anti-Islam activity, according to CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

Activists from the region joined CAIR in New York City last week to talk about the report, called “Hijacked by Hate: American Philanthropy and the Islamophobia Network.” They included Charles S. Chesnavage, president of the Westchester Coalition Against Islamophobia, who said the funding had contributed to a climate of bias and extremism.

“It is a little surprising that there isn’t better screening by these charitable foundations,” said Chesnavage, noting that many of the organizations described as anti-Muslim have innocuous or patriotic names.

Among groups receiving the money, CAIR identified 39 organizations in its so-called “Islamophobia network” that operate as media watchdogs, experts on security or the Middle East, or centers for “freedom,” among other benevolent-sounding missions.

Some of the groups, like the Center for Security Policy and ACT for America, have been labeled hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center and criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for having an anti-Muslim agenda. CAIR’s “network” includes organizations dedicated primarily to anti-Muslim activity, while others have a range of far-right political causes. 

NorthJersey.com and the USA Today Network reviewed the tax returns filed by local nonprofit foundations that support these organizations. 

Who is donating?

The report listed more than 800 foundations and charities whose money went to groups viewed by CAIR as promoting anti-Muslim speech and activity between 2014 and 2106. Some are foundations whose families have helped educational, cultural and health institutions for generations.

Among them was the Sarna Family Foundation in Englewood, which gave $500 to the Clarion Project, which produces and distributes films promoting anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that monitors extremists. Asked about their support, trustee Mark Sarna said it was “because generally they tell the truth.” He declined further comment.

An anti-Muslim poster at a Rutgers University building

An anti-Muslim poster at a Rutgers University building in New Brunswick. (Photo: ~Courtesy of CAIR-NJ/Rutgers anonymous student)

The F.M. Kirby Foundation, based in Morristown, has given tens of millions over three years in grants to causes including education, faith and the environment. But during that time, the foundation also gave $30,000 to the Center for Security Policy, labeled a hate group by the SPLC. Founded by Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official, the Center promotes conspiracy theories including the notion that Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated U.S. government and is plotting to destroy America from within.

Dillard Kirby, president of the F.M. Kirby Foundation, said the donation given to the Center for Security Policy was small and that it was motivated by the organization’s work with energy security and grid protection and not by any anti-Muslim efforts.

The Philip J. Solondz Family Foundation in Millburn gave $4,200 to Citizens for National Security, a Florida group whose stated mission is to raise awareness of the threat of Islamic extremism. A SPLC-designated hate group, it promotes the notion that public schools are indoctrinating students with pro-Islam propaganda. Several messages left for trustee Leonard Solondz were not returned.

In 2015 and 2106, the William H. Donner Foundation in Tarrytown donated $62,500 to the Center for Security Policy and $35,000 to the Gatestone Institute, an anti-Muslim think tank that has warned of a “jihadist takeover” and claims Muslim migrants bring crime and disease. The foundation did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Among foundations that support Jewish and Israeli causes, popular grant recipients were the Middle East Media Research Institute and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA. Neither are listed among hate groups by SPLC.

The Middle East Media Research Institute specializes in translating media into English to expose hate speech by Muslims around the world. Critics say the group often uses selective or inaccurate translations to show Muslims and Arabs in a negative light. The Middle East Media Research Institute did not respond to requests for comment about its inclusion in CAIR’s report.

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, is a media watchdog that monitors global media for what it views to be anti-Israel bias. The group has also falsely accused American Muslim organizations of being fronts for terrorism, according to CAIR.

In an online article, CAMERA said CAIR was attempting to censor or discredit is critics by labeling them as Islamophobic and questioned the organization’s credibility as a source on anti-Muslim bigotry.

Across the U.S., New York City was home to more than 90 foundations that gave grants to organizations viewed as Islamophobic — more than any other city.

A top donor in New Jersey

The Russell Berrie Foundation gives millions in grants annually for causes related to New Jersey community betterment, diabetes research, interfaith efforts and Jewish causes. In 2015 and 2016, the Teaneck-based foundation also gave $400,000 to the Middle East Media Research Institute and $5,000 to the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

The Investigative Project on Terrorism is headed by Steve Emerson, a longtime pundit who claims to be exposing the dangers of Islamist infiltration in America and has a history of Islamophobic statements. In New Jersey, the group launched a smear campaign against Sohail Mohammed, who is Muslim, after he was appointed Superior Court judge in 2011 by Gov. Chris Christie, falsely claiming he was a “longtime mouthpiece for radical Islamists” and unfit for the bench.

In 2011, Emerson said Christie “takes the Islamist side” against the advice of those “who worry about lawful Islamism eroding the fabric of American life.”

In a statement given to NorthJersey.com and the USA Today Network, the Russell Berrie Foundation didn’t mention specific grants, but emphasized its expansive work in interfaith bridge building.

“The leadership of The Russell Berrie Foundation is currently in Rome attending the 10th Anniversary of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, an important initiative of our Foundation aimed at promoting interfaith dialogue throughout the world and building bridges between Christians, Jews and Muslims.

“In the words of our President, Angelica Berrie, ‘Our work speaks for itself. We trust those who benefit from it can best judge its contribution to our community and to inter-religious understanding.’”

CAIR’s report is not the first time the Russell Berrie Foundation has been scrutinized for donations to anti-Muslim groups. In a 2011 report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, the foundation was identified as a top funder of anti-Muslim organizations, including the Investigative Project on Terrorism and the Middle East Forum led by Daniel Pipes, a longtime, controversial critic of Islam. The foundation has not given grants to Pipes’ group since at least 2013, tax records show.

The IRS allows it

Prominent donor-advised funds, including Fidelity Charitable and Schwab Charitable, have been among the biggest contributors to anti-Muslim organizations, according to the report. Donor-advised funds are special accounts that allow people to donate anonymously and get immediate tax deductions.

Fidelity Charitable and Schwab Charitable have funneled $8.7 million and $5.7 million, respectively, to anti-Muslim groups, according to the report.

Schwab Charitable said in a statement that “it does not condone hate groups and we take concerns about illegitimate activity by grant recipients seriously.”

It added that it relies on the Internal Revenue Service to determine charitable status and encouraged people with concerns to contact the IRS or state regulators.

Fidelity Charitable said the inclusion of a charity on its platform isn’t an endorsement of their work and that it regularly reviews its grant-making practices.

“If there are concerning reports identified regarding a specific charity, and Fidelity Charitable determines grants to an organization are not used exclusively for charitable purposes, Fidelity won’t approve grants to that organization,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

The 39 organizations identified in the report are recognized as tax-exempt charities by the federal government. The IRS has also granted charity status to controversial nonprofits that critics say espouse hate toward immigrants, gays, minorities and Jews. The federal agency balances concerns that include First Amendment rights and viewpoint discrimination when making its determinations. 

The coffers of anti-Muslim groups are also being filled by U.S. megadonors like Sheldon Adelson and the DeVos family, according to the report. The biggest donor, according to the report, was the National Christian Foundation, a faith-based donor-advised fund.

The Hickory Foundation, headed by one of New Jersey’s biggest Republican donors, Virginia James, also gave $65,000 over three years to the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a SPLC hate group whose founder has promoted conspiracy theories about Muslims, claiming extremists have infiltrated schools and government.

Calls to end funding to hate groups

The 39 organizations identified by CAIR as anti-Muslim form a powerful coalition that influences elections, state legislation and federal policy.

A few of the groups have ties to the Trump administration. National Security Adviser John Bolton previously served as the chairman of the Gatestone Institute and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo received ACT for America’s National Security Eagle Award for 2016 and twice addressed its national conferences.

The repeated framing of Muslims as a threat, as radicals, or as un-American has taken a toll. Hate crimes, including arson fires at mosques, are on the rise. Muslims in high-profile positions have faced harassment and death threats. A travel ban was enacted that has prevented people from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the country.

“Islamophobia is now part of our mainstream public life because special interest groups have abused tax-free charities, foundations and non-profit laws to further their hate-filled agenda,” said Ahmed Mohamed, litigation director of CAIR-NY.

Activists believe funding to anti-Muslim groups has grown in the past few years, as anti-Islam activists have gained a bigger platform on news networks, online sites and social media.

The authors of the report laid out recommendations to stem the flow of donations to anti-Muslim groups. They urge foundations to get educated on what constitutes anti-Muslim bigotry, to audit funding sources and to put procedures in place to ensure money does not go to anti-Muslim groups.

Chesnavage, of the Westchester Coalition Against Islamophobia, said people who donate to foundations should apply pressure to ensure their grants don’t go to groups that promote hate.

“I do hope people who have personal investments or knowledge of investments act on behalf of Muslims and call them,” he said.