Sixteen U.S. states have passed legislation banning Sharia law. Are you looking for a grant to expand that number? Or maybe you need cash to fight this effort and other paranoid attacks on Muslim Americans. No worries. There are funders backing all viewpoints amid a rising tide of fear and hatred.
That’s the beauty of philanthropy, remember. It underwrites a flourishing of civil society—amplifying America’s rich diversity of voices so that authoritarian xenophobes get equal airtime with defenders of the Bill of Rights.
Let’s start with the money behind the xenophobes.
A recent survey found that two-thirds of Republican primary voters support Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States—a call attributed to pushing his poll numbers up even further. Meanwhile, a survey a few years ago found that 30 percent of the public believe that Muslim Americans favor replacing the U.S. Constitution with Sharia law.
Well, it stands to reason that at least a few people with such extreme views might be wealthy philanthropists. In a nation where 5,000 households have a net worth over $100 million, how hard can it be to find a few that take a hard line on Muslims? Not so hard, judging by the success of a network of Islamophobic organizations that have flourished in recent years. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 37 U.S.-based anti-Islam groups had combined revenue of $119 million between 2008 to 2011. CAIR reported that these groups are “often tightly linked,” and that “key players in the network benefited from large salaries as they encouraged the American public to fear Islam.”
Who’s paying those salaries, exactly? That’s not an easy question to answer, since much of this money flows in non-transparent ways. A report by the Center for American Progress earlier this year looked at the eight largest donors to U.S. think tanks and organizations that the Center for American Progress categorizes "as being anti-Islam and/or supporting policies discriminating against Muslims." The biggest amount of money came from Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, the right's leading donor-advised funds.
DAFs are often celebrated for “democratizing philanthropy” by making it easy for anyone to engage in giving. Well, that includes some folks who’d prefer to stay anonymous as they lend support to controversial efforts that target Muslim Americans—and DAFs are great for giving in secrecy. The growing use of DAFs for politicized giving by donors of all stripes is a prime example of the transparency problem in philanthropy, which I wrote about earlier this week.
Other funders to anti-Islam organizations have included the well-known stalwarts of conservative philanthropy, the Scaife and Bradley foundations, and less well-known funders such as the Fairbrook Foundation and the Alan and Hope Winters Family Foundation. Grantees have included the Society of Americans for National Existence, or SANE, which has taken the lead in promoting anti-Sharia law bills, and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which has organized Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week programs on hundreds of U.S. college campuses.
But fear not, the fear mongers aren’t going unchallenged.
Earlier this year, we reported that a number of funders have been giving grants to combat anti-Muslim bias and promote interreligious understanding in the U.S. These have included the Ford Foundation, the California Community Foundation, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, and El-Hibri Foundation.
In the past five years, Muslim Advocates, an anti-hate group based in Oakland, has received a number of sizeable grants from Ford, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Open Society Foundations. Still, it remains a very small organization, with a budget in 2014 of around $1.6 million. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has also been at the forefront of anti-hate work lately, is pretty small, too. It receives funding from a variety of U.S. foundations, but usually in the form of modest grants.
The far bigger guns in the bigotry fight include the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center, both of which have substantial support from both major foundations and individual donors.
Are funders likely to make a new big push in this area after the events of the past few months? Stay tuned.
As for the broader point, about philanthropy bankrolling the good and the bad in civil society, there's not much we can do about that. People are free to give money to the causes they believe in. But I do think it's reasonable to ask that this funding at least be transparent, along with all ideologically motivated donations in an era where philanthropic dollars often have far more influence than campaign donations.