CAIR’s new report on Islamophobia: An interview with Zainab Arain

May 13, 2019

Intro: From Georgetown University, this is Voices on Islamophobia, a podcast by the Bridge Initiative. I’m Kristin Garrity Şekerci. On May 6, 2019, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) released its latest reportHijacked by Hate: American Philanthropy and the Islamophobia Network. As described in its executive summary, this report “maps the flow of funding from charitable organizations to anti-Muslim special interest groups, and their negative impact on public life.” I spoke with Zainab Arain, the National Research and Advocacy Manager at CAIR National, about the report and its findings. Let’s take a listen.

Kristin Garrity Şekerci: Hi Zainab, how are you?

Zainab Arain: Hi Kristin. Good, how are you?

KGŞ: Good! So who are you? Tell me a little bit about yourself, and where you work, and what you’re doing here today.

ZA: My name is Zainab Arain. I work with CAIR National as the National Research and Advocacy Manager. And I’m here today to talk about our report, which I’m very, very excited about, called ‘Hijacked by Hate,’ which talks about how philanthropy—mainstream American philanthropy—has been funding a lot of anti-Muslim groups in the country.  

KGŞ: So let’s dive into the questions here. So this report is broken down into three main sections. I had a sneak peak. I took a look. The three sections are: the Funding Sources (the funders), Anti–Muslim Organizations (those funded), and Impact on Society. Could you share with us a brief overview of what you found over the course of your research for this report? What connections were you able to make in terms of funders, funding, the influence/impact of anti-Muslim organizations on a whole host of societal issues such as policy, legislation, court cases, public narratives about Muslims and Islam, etc.?

ZA: So the main thing that we have found is that the Islamophobia Network has been drawing upon mainstream American philanthropic institutions for financial and political support for years. And, these hate groups are basically exploiting American charities, and using the robust tradition of of American philanthropy to turn around and hurt our democracy.

And through the research that I conducted over several months last year, I found that 1,096 funders across the country were responsible for funding 39 groups in the Islamophobia Network between 2014 and 2016. These funders include corporate Donor Advised Funds like Fidelity, they include faith-based Donor Advised Funds like the National Christian Charitable Foundation, and they also include private family foundations, like the Adelson Family Foundation. And this funding from these 1,096 funders has contributed to the total revenue capacity of the Islamophobia Network reaching at least $1.5 billion in that three year period.

KGŞ: So $1.5 billion—that’s a sum of money. What exactly is being used—how are these funds being used? What are the tangible impacts of this funding?

ZA: So this money is being used in numerous ways. Anti-Muslim groups are using it to advance anti-Sharia legislation, for example. Two-hundred eighteen (218) anti-Muslim bills have been filed across the 50 states in just the last nine years. And, this money is also being used to stage anti-Muslim rallies in front of mosques, it’s being used to lobby to shut down American Muslim institutions like women’s shelters, or disaster relief aid groups, or places of faith and worship. It’s being used to disparage American Muslims in the public space. It’s being used to interfere in and falsify school curriculum. It’s being used in a lot of different ways that impact multiple sectors of society. And, what this reports really does is, it shows that connection. It follows the money to draw a direct line from the source of the funding all the way to the impact that that funding has on eroding our democracy. And again, that’s a point I want to reiterate—it’s a central point—that hate groups are exploiting mainstream American charitable institutions, and using the same legal benefits afforded homeless shelters, for example, to turn around and inflict harm on Americans.

KGŞ: So, Zainab, tell us—you were the primary researcher on this report. Tell us a little bit about the methodology. How does the report determine, for example, which organizations are part of the ‘Islamophobia Network’? Is there a criteria that you established for this? And in addition to that, this major number—$1.5 billion in total revenue capacity—what is that and how was that calculated?

ZA: So to answer your first question about what determines which organizations are part of the Islamophobia Network, I started first by developing a metric for what is considered to be an Islamophobic organization. And, to do that, I researched across both academic sources, and through grey literature, [i.e. policy papers, reports, briefs, etc., that] advocacy groups have used or generated. And, using that information, using those sources, I then created a four point standard against which any person or any group can be measured to determine if they are part of the Network.

This standard draws upon a lot of tropes that you see about American Muslims or about Muslims in general. It’s really wordy so I’m just going to mention a few—but one of them, for example, is that Islam is an existential threat, or that Islam and Muslims are inherently or uniquely violent or misogynistic. Using this four point metric, I applied it to organizations that CAIR had identified in its 2016 Islamophobia report, “Confronting Fear.” And once I applied the metric I then used that list as the starting point of anti-Muslim groups that I was then going to acquire financial information about. So then I took each group and I got its tax filings through GuideStar, and what tax filings show is simply the revenue of each group, and who it’s giving money to, but I wouldn’t be able to see who is giving money to it. So I could see ACT for America’s revenue, and I could see who ACT for America is giving money to, but I couldn’t trace it back and see who was giving ACT for America money. So for that I used this online database called the Foundation Directory Online. And what they do is that they have a very robust database that shows foundations as grantmakers and grantees, so you’re able to see who is giving money to who and really flesh out those connections and flesh out those links.

So in that way I discovered a lot of new funders, I discovered a lot of new anti-Muslim groups. And for each new organization or group that I discovered I would go back through that process again to make sure that I wasn’t missing any links. And through that complex, time-consuming process over the course of several months, I ended up creating this ginormous database with thousands and thousands of data points. For each of those 1,096 funders, for example, I had each organization that they had given money to, in 2014, 2015, and 2016, in addition to how much they had given each of those organizations. And then for the Islamophobia Network, I compiled each organization’s total revenue across 2014, 2015, and 2016. And so that $1.5 billion that we were talking about—that is basically the aggregate of the total revenue line on the tax filings for these 39 groups across the years  2014, 2015, and 2016.

KGŞ: So we’re talking a lot about charitable, philanthropic organizations, and there’s all kinds of terminology that is used in the financial world. And your report gets into this—donor advised funds, family foundations. Could you explain to our listeners what the difference is—what’s a donor-advised fund? Why is this type of charitable organization significant? What did you find in the report related to DAFs, and how do donor advised funds (DAFs)—how do they differ from family foundations?

ZA: I found that at its simplest, a Donor Advised Fund is a type of charitable mechanism that various charities can employ, and what it does is it functions like a conduit or a platform—kind of like social media, you can think of it in a way. So the Donor gives money to a Donor Advised Fund, instead of giving it, say, directly to the ACLU. In return, the Donor Advised Fund gives the donor an immediate tax write off—so you don’t wait until the end of the year, whenever you’re doing your taxes—you get that immediate tax right-off. And, it keeps the donor anonymous. So, say, David the Donor wanted to give money to the ACLU— he could give it to Fidelity, for example, which is a Donor Advised Fund, who would then give it to the ACLU. And so the money would be scrubbed clean of David’s name, and it would just be shown as having gone from Fidelity to the ACLU. And, David would get an immediate tax write-off, right then and there for his donation. And this differs from a Family Foundation or other charitable mechanisms, in that, again: 1) there’s no anonymity in Family Foundations, and 2) there’s no immediate tax write-off.

KGŞ: You know, when Bridge Initiative does things like factsheets or articles and we’re tracking these anti-Muslim, anti-Islam organizations, individuals, we do try to look at these tax filings, but in terms of what’s available on those public tax filings, it doesn’t list where they got the money from. It just lists that they got this money. And so what your report is really, really fascinating and extremely helpful [for], is that it’s linking those two things—not only did they have this revenue—this money that they received—but tracking who is giving them this money. And so, the role and function of anonymity is really central.

ZA: I think one thing that I want to add, just to make it more succinct, adding exactly to what you said—is “accountable.” Someone who is giving money to an unsavory cause, will not be held accountable if they’re anonymous. Just like, if you look—like I was comparing it to social media platforms—if someone behind some unknown username if spewing hate, they’re not going to be held accountable because they’re anonymous, whereas if it’s like John Doe or whatever, if some specific individual is listed or named as spewing hate, there are going to be consequences, there is going to be accountability. So similarly, when that anonymity is provided, there’s a lack of accountability, and a lack of consequences.

KGŞ: And with the Family Foundations, is there also this anonymity? Or is there less so?

ZA: So with private, Family Foundations because they are private, they’re subject to slightly different tax laws and different kinds of regulations, and they’re private so there isn’t’ an external mechanism of oversight. So, it’s like you’re giving $10 from your pocket directly into something. You can spend your money, in a way how you want to. And so, that’s how those private Family Foundations function.

KGŞ: With the Donor Advised Funds, the DAFs, does the donor have—so say someone donates to Schwab—we’ve mentioned Schwab a few times—or Fidelity, does that donor then have control over where those funds go to? Can they say, I want those funds to go to David Horowitz Freedom Center, I want these funds to go to ACLU? Or, is it kind of a general pool, and then the investors at those respective organizations then send that money where they send it—how does that work?

ZA: That’s a great question. So generally, if a donor says that they want to give to, for example, the Center for Security Policy, and they give that money to Fidelity—Fidelity takes the donor’s request into consideration. Ultimately, Fidelity has the authority to accept that or not.

KGŞ: So we’ve been talking about Fidelity Charitable, Schwab Charitable—and these are pretty mainstream philanthropic, charitable organizations. And Fidelity and Schwab in particular, as your report has found in the data that you’ve collected, are major funders of these anti-Muslim organizations. What distinguishes them—Fidelity and Schwab—from a Donor Advised Foundation [Fund] such as Donors Trust, Donors Capital, Abstraction Fund—we know from my research at Bridge, from CAIR’s research, Center for American Progress’ research (their Fear Inc. reports) that organizations like Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund—they’re pretty specific in who they fund, and it’s pretty tailored to anti-Muslim groups.

ZA: So, with regards to Fidelity, Schwab, Vanguard—these are corporate Donor Advised Funds that function as the arms of their respective investment vehicles. So Fidelity Charitable is the charitable arm of Fidelity Investments. So that’s how it works for those. When it comes to Donors Trust and Donors Capital, those are Donor Advised Funds that are standalone DAFs, and they have their own particular mission-driven funding. So when you open an account with them, you know that they’re only going to be funding certain kinds of groups, and certain kinds of programs or policies that are coming out. And so, you wouldn’t go to them, you wouldn’t go to Donors Trust and be like, I want to give money to Georgetown’s Bridge or CAIR. That’s not something they would likely be okay with funding given that they’re very mission-driven.

And then when it comes to Abstraction Fund, it’s not a Donor Advised Fund. Abstraction Fund, though it has ‘fund’ in the name, is actually the private family foundation of Nina Rosenwald. And so Nina Rosenwald is also connected to the Gatestone Institute, which is an anti-Muslim, basically, think tank, you can say, that she founded and where she currently serves as president. So there’s a very direct link between the funding and her actual work as well.

KGŞ: And so, your report, in addition to these Donor Advised Funds, these DAFs, you also looked at the role of Faith Based Funders. That was one of the other category of funders. So what exactly is a Faith Based Funder, and what are some of the findings in your report regarding these more religiously affiliated funders, and funding these anti-Muslim organizations?

ZA: So, when it comes to faith-based funders, the majority of them are also set up as Donor Advised Funds, where the donor gives the money to the DAF, and the DAF gives the money on. What we’ve found, unfortunately, is that several faith-based funders are also funneling money to anti-Muslim groups. In fact, we found that the two—one of largest is the National Christian Charitable Foundation, who has given $15.7 million to anti-Muslim groups over the three year period, and the second being the Jewish Communal Fund, which has given $3.2 million to anti-Muslim groups between 2014 and 2016. And they rank among the top 18 groups who have given more than a $1 million over that three year period.

KGŞ: In the last section of the report, you get into the impact. And in this section, you discuss the role of anti-Muslim legislation in particular—primarily at the state-level, but also at the federal level. Could you discuss this section a little bit and explain what its impacts are in terms of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam funding in the U.S., that you found in this report? And also what influence has this funding had over these specific laws and policies and narratives, and how they’re used and wielded against Muslims and those perceived to be?

ZA: So, since 2010, 218 anti-Muslim bills and laws have been filed in the U.S. Eighty-three (83) of these have connections to seven virulent anti-Muslim groups across the country. And what do I mean by connections: I mean, these bills were literally written and supported by anti-Muslim hate groups. The model legislation used to advance anti-sharia or anti-foreign law bills was commissioned by the American Public Policy Alliance, and written by David Yerushalmi, who is co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center. The American Freedom Law Center, just to flesh out the funding aspect that we were talking about earlier, has been funded by Fidelity, who gave them $50,000; by the National Christian Foundation, which gave them $75,000; and by Schwab, who gave them $105,000. So Yerushalmi has explicitly said that the purpose of his anti-foreign law, anti-sharia legislation, is to create and stir up fear about Muslims, Islam, and what shariah is.

KGŞ: And so, Zainab, one thing that crossed my mind when you were talking about the impact of the funding on legislation, on society, on American Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim—one thing that crossed my mind is, we all remember—most of us remember—that poll that now President Trump cited back in 2015 when he first announced his candidacy back in December 2015. He cited this poll that in his estimation justified the need to ban Muslim from entering the U.S. That poll was commissioned by Center for Security Policy, and they used Kellyanne Conway’s polling organization to administer that polling data—those survey questions, rather—and so that presumably would’ve been within 2014-105, which is exactly within the parameters of the times that you—you know, 2014-2016 is when you were looking at the data from the tax filings.

This is a provocative question, but I think it captures the central piece of what your research is doing here. Could someone—could an organization like Fidelity have contributed funds that funded that poll, that Trump then cited as justification for his Muslim Ban, which is still on the books. I mean, is this the kind of impact we’re talking about here?

ZA: Fidelity has given money to the Center for Security Policy, from 2014 to 2016, and Center for Security Policy, in that time as you stated, commissioned the polling company of Kellyanne Conway to conduct that poll which Trump then used as justification. You know we’ve had several cases in just this past year, where infants who are in need of critical life support have not been able to meet their parents, and when their parent has finally arrived, that [child] died within a day or two. That money has a very direct impact on the average person just trying to live their day-to-day life, right? And, that is what this report is trying to highlight. That is what this report is trying to show, is that, it’s not just an abstract, right? It’s a very real effect that funding these hate groups has. And, it needs to honestly be stopped. That’s one fundamental way to stop these policies from happening, is to stop funding the people that are pushing those policies.

KGŞ: So you, Zainab, were the primary researcher for this report—this massive report with a huge data set. I saw the excel sheet, it goes on and on, it’s fabulous. In your research for this report, what is something that you learned and something that really kind of stuck out for you? Something that was your ‘a-ha’ moment, so to speak?

ZA: I think that someone who holds certain bigoted or biased views funds hate groups that mirror those views, it is not supriving. So if the Adelson Family Foundation is giving money to ACT for America or other anti-Muslim groups, it’s understable because we know that Adelson funds these kinds of right-ring and anti-Muslim hate groups, and that those are his views and that’s what he’s funding. What was surprising for me was that mainstream, American charitable and philanthropic institutions were funding anti-Muslim hate groups. And I don’t think it was an intentional funding. I think it’s an oversight, right, because if people—or if groups who are classified as 501(c)3s or particular kinds of nonprofit statuses are—if that’s the only barrier for you to get money or not, then it’s allowing millions to be funneled to anti-Muslim hate groups. Because of the way that American philanthropy is set up, or that these Donor Advised Funds are set up—ACT for America, Center for Security Policy, David Horowitz Freedom Center—they are exploiting our American mainstream philanthropic institutions. They’re exploiting Fidelity, they’re exploiting Schwab, they’re exploiting Vanguard to use that money and to divert that money to them. And so the same benefits that are afforded a food pantry or a domestic women’s shelter are being afforded to hate groups, and I think that’s very jarring for me, because that is something that I would not have suspected—I would not have suspected that mainstream philanthropy is supporting anti-Muslim hate across the country, whether inadvertently or not.  

Outro: CAIR’s report Hijacked by Hate: American Philanthropy and the Islamophobia Network is available at the link in the podcast transcript, or at To stay informed on this topic and other issues related to Islamophobia, follow the Bridge Initiative’s research on its website, at