For the last five months, the Senate hearings on Islamophobia have featured testimony about systemic discrimination in the Canada Revenue Agency’s auditing practices of Canadian Muslim charities. In a healthy democracy, such revelations should cause public outrage and spur urgent corrective action by government. Neither is likely to occur, say lawyers Faisal Kutty and Faisal Bhabha.
The Senate testimony detailed the problems with the CRA’s Review and Analysis Division (RAD), a unit responsible for investigating allegations of terrorism financing in the charitable sector. RAD has been found to disproportionately target Muslim charities, according to the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and the University of Toronto’s Institute of Islamic Studies. As lawyers working within the Muslim community, we have observed a widespread perception that Muslim charities are over-scrutinized. For years, Muslim charities quietly grumbled about discriminatory audits by the CRA but rarely complained publicly due to fear of reprisals and of frightening donors. After the evidence of anti-Muslim bias was publicized, civil libertarians spoke up.
In response, the National Security Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) started an investigation into the CRA’s work with charities. This came after a review by the taxpayers’ ombudsperson, mandated by the prime minister, was derailed by the CRA’s non-cooperation. In particular, the agency had denied the ombudsperson’s request for access to risk-assessment documents, which are key to understanding how the CRA assesses terrorism-financing risks. As a result, the ombudsperson’s final report stated that it was unable to fulfill its mandate of examining how RAD selects and treats Muslim charities. This failure leaves the public in the dark as to how the CRA makes terrorism risk calculations. Canadian Muslim charities are left with the impression that their religion is a factor.
We have found that the CRA’s allegations of terrorism financing against Muslim charities often rely on biased opinions from terrorism experts, policies from right-wing think tanks, and distorted facts from Islamophobic media sources.
NSIRA has announced its intention to investigate the decision-making process concerning Canadian registered charities to uncover the truth behind the discrimination allegations. While complete information may not be available, we can analyze previous cases of revocation involving Muslim charities to infer RAD’s methods for identifying and supporting findings of terrorism financing. RAD issues administrative fairness letters (AFLs) in each case, which provide a detailed explanation of the terrorism-financing allegation.
After reviewing numerous AFL documents, we have found that the CRA’s allegations of terrorism financing against Muslim charities often rely on biased opinions from terrorism experts, policies from right-wing think tanks, and distorted facts from Islamophobic media sources. This has led to a witch hunt against Muslim charities and a series of discriminatory revocations.
Reliance on biased terrorism experts
The CRA appears to make little effort to consult reliable experts, preferring ideologues steeped in American conservatism when it comes to understanding Muslims. For example, CRA draws heavily on Matthew Levitt, a former terrorism analyst with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US State Department. Levitt, who has a PhD in US law and diplomacy, claims to be an expert on Palestinian terrorism. In 2007, he testified for the prosecution in the terrorism trial of the largest Muslim charity in the US at the time.
The CRA ignores that Levitt has never actually gone to the region for research purposes, does not speak Arabic, and has no expertise in the history or politics of the Middle East. According to a study conducted by University of Toronto law professor Anver Emon and a senior executive of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Nadia Hasan, the CRA’s Charities Directorate relies solely on Levitt’s affiliations to US government institutions as evidence of his expertise and disregards the substantial criticism of his work among recognized academic experts in the field.
The CRA appears to make little effort to consult reliable experts, preferring ideologues steeped in American conservatism when it comes to understanding Muslims.
The CRA also relies on Matthew Epstein, a former US Treasury Department official and neo-conservative activist who wrote articles for Steve Emerson’s anti-Muslim Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) and has been reported to have run a campaign to manipulate American journalists to publish misinformation.
Evan Kohlmann is another CRA source who is a polarizing force associated with the Islamophobic IPT. According to a former CIA officer, Kohlmann’s opinions are “so biased, one-sided and contextually inaccurate that they do not provide a fair and balanced context for the specific evidence to be presented at a legal hearing.”
Another source relied upon by the CRA is Lorenzo Vidino, who promotes conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood and is connected to numerous anti-Muslim think tanks. Vidino has publicly demanded an “Al Capone law-enforcement approach” to cracking down on Canadian Muslim charities. If the government cannot shut down Muslim charities for criminal activity, he says, it should use tax violations. In his 2015 Senate testimony, Vidino raised the false spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood and other foreign groups influencing and even controlling mainstream Canadian Muslim organizations. Such statements not only defame Muslims as a whole; they incite Islamophobic extremists to commit acts of violence against Canadian Muslims, which has proven to be a more lethal problem in Canada than Islamic extremism.
According to testimony by the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) at the Senate committee, the CRA audit their organization is facing is based on misinformation pushed by the self-styled Islamic extremism expert Thomas Quiggin. A former intelligence officer with a career in the military, Quiggin alleges widespread links between Canadian Muslim civic organizations, including charities, and terrorist organizations around the world.
A review in Maclean’s magazine described a 2014 report by Quiggin as “a doomsday manifesto, predicting the end of Western civilization at the hands of Muslims” and portraying Canada’s Muslim community as “a secretive cabal plotting the downfall of Western civilization from within.” MAC has filed a legal case against the CRA in the Ontario Superior Court claiming that its audit is tainted by bias and anti-Muslim discrimination.
On March 20, a MAC executive, Abdul Nakua, testified before the Senate committee and explained how the writings and opinions of Vidino and Quiggin influenced CRA decision-makers and created the pretext for the RAD audits of MAC.
In another Muslim charity investigation, CRA relied on Danny Eisen, the co-founder of the Canadian Coalition Against Terror. Eisen co-authored a report with Quiggin that smeared the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). The piece, entitled “Terrorists in Our Midst,” ludicrously warned that NCCM, Canada’s most reputable Muslim civic organization, was part of a Muslim cabal bent on destroying Canada from within.
Many of these terrorism experts are, whether they intend to be or not, inextricably linked to the Islamophobia industry. Terrorism research has long been criticized for attracting fake or biased experts. In a recent study called The Canadian Islamophobia Industry, Jasmin Zine, a professor of sociology at Wilfred Laurier University, sheds light on the coordinated networks of far-right media, Islamophobia influencers, Muslim dissidents, and pro-Israel, fringe-right activists who fuel anti-Muslim disinformation and propaganda.
Reliance on right-wing extremist institutions and media
CRA also makes use of the right-wing Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, which receives funding from the Alan and Hope Winters Family Foundation and the Bradley Foundation. These foundations actively fund organizations that promote Islamophobic conspiracy theories, disinformation, and anti-Muslim stereotyping. Also, CRA has used publications from the anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which has ties to Israeli intelligence, and the Middle East Forum, which the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University describes as “a right-wing anti-Islam think tank that spreads misinformation.”
CRA has also relied on reports from newspaper sources that are of questionable credibility, such as Indian Express. That publication has been accused of using Islamophobic clickbait to attract readers and advertisers.
Approach to intelligence
The examples mentioned above are not an exhaustive list of problems in the CRA’s use of sources. They are, rather, indicative of a worrying trend at the agency, which seems to be moving away from established sources of reliable information and embracing highly politicized and fringe sources. Research conducted by the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group shows that RAD may have been acting on flawed, out-of-context, weak, politically motivated, and outdated intelligence, resulting in discriminatory decisions against Muslim charities without any accountability or external review.
The CRA seems to be moving away from established sources of reliable information and embracing highly politicized and fringe sources.
It is not clear whether this shift at the CRA marks a deliberate choice or represents genuine confusion within the agency about reliable authorities on Islam and Muslims. Sadly, we have seen similar behaviour by governmental agencies before. During the Harper decade, as national security laws were under review, both Parliament and the Senate granted parliamentary immunity to many so-called terrorism experts whose questionable opinions were adopted as authoritative by government agencies.
The Trudeau government’s failure to clean up the previous government’s bureaucracy is just as deserving of denunciation as the Harper government’s decision to use charity regulation as a weapon against Canadian Muslims in the first place.
The burden of proof falls unfairly on Muslim charities
As a result of biased information infusing CRA decisions, Muslim charities are placed under the disproportionate burden of having to demonstrate that they are not connected to terrorism or extremism. Having to prove a negative by showing that one is not a terrorist becomes an impossible challenge when the false presumption is backed by sources that are secret, unreliable, Islamophobic, or all of the above. Any “opportunity” to disprove falsity offers not even a veneer of fairness.
As a result of biased information infusing CRA decisions, Muslim charities are placed under the disproportionate burden of having to demonstrate that they are not connected to terrorism or extremism.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the CRA relies on compromised sources. In its guidance for charities on how to analyze risk or conduct due diligence, the CRA recommends the use of “experts” without defining the term. After 9/11, the national security regime adopted an unstated presumption of guilt toward Muslims, which led to a greater reliance on misinformation and Islamophobic tropes in lieu of credible evidence.
If the numerous samples of revocation letters and AFLs sent to Muslim charities that we have reviewed are any indication, the CRA has become ideological and unreliable in its consideration of national security risk in relation to Muslims, leaving Muslim charities most vulnerable to arbitrariness and discrimination.
NSIRA must go beyond audit practices
NSIRA should not limit itself to just examining audit practices but should investigate the specifics of individual audits. Once the NSIRA inquiry commences, it will have to delve into RAD’s risk assessment of Muslim charities, the intelligence that formed the basis of RAD’s selection criteria, and the conclusions that resulted in the revocation and suspension of Muslim charities.
Despite the government’s efforts, such as the 2017 Motion 103 to acknowledge and examine Islamophobia, a National Summit on Islamophobia, a national day dedicated to combatting Islamophobia, and a review by the CRA taxpayers’ ombudsperson, it seems that no progress has been made in the one area where the government has the power to effect change: its own bureaucracy.
The overt Islamophobia of the Harper government appears to have been replaced by a toleration of Islamophobia by the Trudeau government that can only stain the legacy of a prime minister who wishes to be seen as a diversity champion.
Although many in the charity sector have requested that RAD be suspended and audits of Muslim organizations be halted until the NSIRA inquiry is complete, the prime minister has opted to maintain a business-as-usual approach to RAD.
Canadian Muslim charities are the heart and soul of the Muslim community. Responsibility lies with the prime minister and the ministers of finance and national revenue to bring an end to the CRA’s discriminatory audits of Muslim charities. The overt Islamophobia of the Harper government appears to have been replaced by a toleration of Islamophobia by the Trudeau government that can only stain the legacy of a prime minister who wishes to be seen as a diversity champion. Substantial and transparent reform of the CRA’s audit practices in relation to Muslim charities would be an excellent starting point for dismantling Islamophobia in the state apparatus.