The nation's largest Muslim advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has come under increasingly heated suspicion from critics trying to connect it to a radical Islamist political agenda and even link it to terrorist groups.
The group held a panel discussion in a U.S. Capitol meeting room March 13 over the objections of House Republicans.
Ahmed Rehab, 30, is executive director of the group's Chicago office. He joined CAIR in 2004 as spokesman for the Chicago office and was promoted last year. Following is an edited transcript of a recent e-mail conversation with him.
Q. Why have an advocacy group in the U.S. like CAIR?
A. To accurately inform the American public about Islam and Muslims where misconceptions are rampant; to advocate for the civil rights of Americans who suffer discrimination, hate crimes and other violations for no other reason than being Muslim or being perceived as such ... to encourage Muslims to be active civic participants where they are politically marginalized; and to build coalitions and partnerships with other community organizations.
Q. What are some recent projects launched by the group?
A. Nationally, CAIR projects include the Muslim Care campaign, which encourages Muslims to volunteer in their communities. Local projects include the Employment Discrimination Project, which advises victims on their rights as employees; the Youth Leadership Symposium, which promotes civic responsibility among Muslim students; and the CAIR-Chicago Voter Education Guide 2006.
Q. Tell me a bit about you.
A. I am an American Muslim of Egyptian background and a proud Chicagoan. Before joining CAIR more than two years ago, I worked as a software engineer for a major consultancy firm and was active in global interfaith. During a trip to Kenya as part of an American religious delegation exploring the plight of the world's refugees, I felt a social awakening that brought out the activist in me. Upon my return, I found a compelling cause in a post-9/11 climate where Islam and Muslims were increasingly viewed with suspicion.
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, said Thursday: "Since 9/11, we have witnessed a McCarthyesque witch hunt against Muslims in this country generally, and Islamic charities specifically. In this case, no accusations of supporting terrorism have even been made.
Q. What is the source of the latest criticism/accusations being launched against CAIR at the national level?
A. Every one of the dozen or so urban legends about CAIR that are circulating out there can be traced back to a single and homogenous source of interlinked individuals and groups with such deceptively benign names as the Investigative Project, the Middle East Forum, Jihad Watch and Americans Against Hate. These groups typically flourish in the unmoderated, chaotic world of the blogosphere; they attempt to sell themselves to political and media circles as experts on Islam and terrorism and as patriots who are looking out for American interests. A second look exposes them as career Islamophobes who are deathly afraid of Muslim-American enfranchisement and its possible effects on the Israeli lobby's interests.
A. No, CAIR is not associated with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other foreign group. CAIR unequivocally condemns all acts of violence against civilians by any individual, group or state.
Q. Does CAIR pursue an extremist Islamist political agenda?
A. You would have to be living under a rock to buy that. CAIR's contribution to the democratic process of this country is hard to miss. In dozens of American cities, we have helped guide Muslim Americans toward political enfranchisement: voter registration, education and mobilization.
We consistently urge our constituents to funnel political grievances to their elected representatives. Conspiracy theories will be just that, and right now, Muslims make for a convenient lightning rod.
Q. How much money has CAIR accepted from individuals or foundations associated with wealthy Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia? What has the money been used for? Why take such donations when many non-profit Islamic organizations have faced problems post-9/11 because of this?
A. All CAIR chapters, which are independent corporations, solicit contributions only from people residing in the states where they are incorporated. Neither CAIR chapters nor the national office solicits or accepts money from any foreign government.
The CAIR national office does on occasion receive donations from private citizens of foreign countries. Such donations are the exceptions, not the rule, and have to meet three conditions: They come with no strings attached, they go toward supporting existing CAIR projects ... and they come from people who have standing within their societies as upright citizens engaged in legitimate professional pursuits.
Much has been made about a $500,000 donation received by the national office from Alwaleed bin Talal. If CAIR is taken to task for this endowment (which went to buy books for U.S. public libraries), then so should Fox network, Citigroup, Four Seasons Hotels, AOL, Apple Computer, Amazon.com, Donna Karan International and Motorola. Bin Talal owns significant fiduciary interests in each of these American companies.
Q. What do you believe is the key dilemma faced by Muslims in the U.S. today?
A. Like all Americans, we have to worry about the security of our country, our communities and our children in the face of potential terror attacks. At the same time, we have to worry about being cast as scapegoats by some of our very own compatriots whose predicament we share.