For years, leaders of Muslim-led charities in Canada have expressed concerns the Canada Revenue Agency targets them for special audits.
A new report by the National Council of Canadian Muslims says there is a real basis for such fears.
The report, titled Under Layered Suspicion, says Ottawa’s approach to anti-terrorism financing and anti-radicalization makes Muslim-led charities exceptionally vulnerable to audits, or worse, revocation of charitable status.
The report identifies patterns of audit practices that show potential biases in the CRA that casts a chill on the community, undermines their effectiveness, and calls into question Canada’s commitment to inclusive multiculturalism.
"We had heard a number of concerns from Muslim charities feeling something was off with the audits," said Nadia Hasan, chief operating officer of the civil liberties and human rights organization that advocates against Islamophobia and racism. "They felt it was like an extra layer of scrutiny."
After hearing the concerns multiple times, the organization decided to see if there was anything to it. The answer, it found, was yes.
Using case studies of three Muslim charities that lost charitable status, Hasan said the research found suspicious patterns of structural biases and prejudicial policies that influence the selection of Muslim-led charities for audit.
"Audits are a normal and necessary process to safeguard the charitable sector," she said, noting she isn’t saying Muslim charities never do anything wrong.
"We have no complaint with that. But we wonder why the CRA asks Muslim charities for information about things like religious literature and transcripts of sermons," she said, wondering if charities supported by other religions have to do that same things.
The research also questions whether staff at the CRA are "competent to interpret and understand those things. What religious expertise does the CRA have for that?"
Hasan realizes its important to be on the lookout for anything that supports terrorism or radicalism. "But this level of scrutiny is unique and unusual... it has a chilling effect and adds a whole other layer of decision making for Muslim charities."
This includes scrutinizing the social media accounts and websites for anyone they ask to speak, to make sure nothing was said that could be interpreted as supporting terrorism or radicalization.
"Many mosques now have agreements with speakers where they have to attest they have never said anything that supports terrorism," she said, wondering if charities supported by other religions feel the need to do the same thing.
"These extra steps are hard, especially for smaller groups. It adds an administrative and psychological burden."
The report recommends the government of Canada formally investigate patterns of bias within the CRA. It also calls for an examination of the idea of "extreme ideas," as a key feature of analysis in what constitutes radicalization since it is an ambiguous concept open to interpretation.
Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of Winnipeg’s Islamic Social Services Association, shares the concern.
"This has been a long-standing concern for Muslim charities going back some years," she said. "As the research states, the lens through which Muslim charities were reviewed is problematic and, for me, is frankly a double standard."
Fears about the power of the CRA to take away charitable status has "sent a chill across the Muslim charitable sector and intimidated many to self-censure."
Another local Muslim community leader, who didn’t want to be named for fear of drawing unwanted CRA attention, said he is always careful when inviting a speaker.
"I check their background, speeches, YouTube, articles," he said, emphasizing he doesn’t want to invite anyone who supports terrorism.
"We can’t afford to make one mistake."
In a response, Pamela Tourigny of the CRA’s media relations department said a charity can be selected for audit for a variety of reasons, and that "the CRA does not select registered charities for audit based on any particular faith or denomination, nor does it maintain statistics that track audits based on the denominations of faith-based charities."
To view the report, go to www.layeredsuspicion.ca.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.