August 30, 2006
WASHINGTON — Western Union, a global money transfer agency, has delayed or blocked thousands of cash deliveries by American Muslims on suspicion of terrorist connections simply because senders or recipients have names like Mohammed or Ahmed, drawing rebuke from the community as a yet another form of identity harassment.
Mohammad Kamran Habib, a 29-year-old engineer at Cisco Systems in San Jose, California, tried to make a payment to an Arabic teaching institution when Western Union blocked his money transfer without any clarification.
"I just enrolled recently in a distance learning program for Arabic Language," he told IslamOnline.net.
"The institute is based in Cairo and the only way for students to pay their tuition fees is to send them via Western Union," he explained.
Habib said he wasn’t able to send his money transfer to Egypt and the online transaction gave him an error.
"It didn't even give me a MTCN number which it should do even if a response was rejected," he noted.
Western Union, one of the world's most frequently used money transfer services, is based in the United States and owned by First Data Corporation.
Its North American headquarters are in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and its international marketing and commercial services headquarters are in Montvale, New Jersey.
The financial services and communications company has 270,000 agent locations in over 200 countries and territories.
Habib took pains to understand from Western Union official what the problem was but in vain.
"When I called them and explained the situation to them, their employee told me very politely that she didn't understand what was going on and she tried to approve the transaction because I answered all the three security questions she asked me," he added.
"But she was unable to approve it."
Habib said that after asking the supervisor, the same employee told him that apparently the system is not allowing her to approve the transaction because of "business justification"
He took his complaint to the supervisor, asking why his transaction was not being approved.
"She kept repeating the same thing that her computer is saying that it cannot be approved because of business justification."
Habib, a software engineer, knows that computer programs don't automatically know what the business justification is until it's defined on the system.
But when he told that to the supervisor, she refused to give him any more information.
"And to date, my money is still blocked," fumed.
Another Muslim American from an Arab descent, who requested anonymity, said his money transfer was also blocked because his first name is Mohammed.
Like thousands of other Muslims, he was trying to send an international money transfer to his brother in Egypt, but he was surprised to hear that his money would not be released.
However, this Mohammed was lucky because his transaction was only delayed for one hour.
"They only asked for identity verification and they released the money," he said.
"It took me one hour to solve the problem, but I am sure it could happen again in the future."
Western Union clerks insist they are simply following US Treasury Department guidelines that aim to scrutinize cash flows for terrorist links, which apply to money transfers made anywhere.
Western Union routinely delays or blocks transfers between customers whose names even partially match names on the Treasury list, which features names that contain hundreds of Mohammeds and Ahmeds.
According to Western Union, the money is usually released once suspects can show identity documents that prove they are not on the list.
The Treasury Department has defended use of the program, saying it plays a vital role in efforts to identify terrorist financiers.
Some Muslims and Arabs are thinking of alternative money transfer agencies from where they can send their wires with less monitoring and pressure.
Many of them are also left wondering if the so-called war on terrorism will cause them to actually lose the exact freedom and civil rights that such policies are aimed at preserving.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights advocacy in the US, insisted that the department has the right to fight terrorism, but not over Arab and Muslim Americans rights.
"A comprehensive policy has to be implemented by the Treasury Department to ensure accuracy in efforts to fight terrorism and stop funneling of money to terrorists," Husam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR Los Angeles chapter, told IOL.
"But at the same time, those Americans who have not committed any wrongdoing must be able to transfer money without any problems or delays," he stressed.
Ayloush said CAIR's national office has met with Western Union to eliminate errors and ensure innocent individuals are able to transfer money without any fears or obstacles.
"We also urged Western Union to change its forms to include the first name, last name and middle initial of the sender and the recipient to help reduce false positives that could delay money transfers otherwise," he added.
"CAIR also filed an FOIA request with the Treasury Department to become aware of what procedures are used to put the list together."
Iman al-Asyouti believes these regulations seem like an accusation for every single Muslim American.
"It means that they [the government] treat us as terrorists until we could prove the opposite," she said.
"It seems like a joke to me and I still can’t believe that things like this are happening here, in America," she fumed.
However, some Americans believe that these regulations are not justified but the natural result of what Muslim extremists have done.
"Muslim extremists declared a holy war against America. So targeting Muslims to protect our country makes sense to me," said Gaby Giuliani, 30.
"I know, you guys are under strong pressure, but we are also under a big threat."
But Muslims and Arab Americans counter that there must be a better way to fight terrorism without tightening the noose around the necks of innocent citizens.
"It is not my mistake that some terrorists have the same name as mine," complained Ahmad Najati, a student at a California State University.
"Our government needs to realize that not all terrorists are Muslims or Arabs," he said.
Najati, 21, asserted that American Muslims should not have to pay for Muslim extremists’ mistakes just as Christian Americans shouldn’t pay for those of Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
"Are they blocking money transfers to people whose name is Timothy or McVeigh, too?"