Critics claim it has extremist agenda, links to terror groups
With violence across the Middle East fixing Islam smack at the center of the U.S. political debate, an organization partly financed by donors closely identified with wealthy Persian Gulf governments has emerged as the most vocal advocate for American Muslims — and an object of wide suspicion.
The group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, defines its mission as spreading the understanding of Islam and protecting civil liberties. Its members appear frequently on TV and are often quoted in newspapers.
Yet a debate rages behind the scenes in Washington about CAIR and its financing and motives. A small band of critics have made a determined effort to link it to Hamas and Hezbollah, which have been designated terrorist organizations by the State Department.
On Tuesday, CAIR held a panel discussion on Islam and the West in a Capitol meeting room despite demands by House Republicans that Speaker Nancy Pelosi not allow the event. The Republicans referred to CAIR as “terrorist apologists.”
Caley Gray, a spokesman for Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., who helped book the room, rejected that label in a phone interview and said CAIR held similar meetings when Congress was controlled by Republicans.
In December, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., issued a routine certificate of appreciation to Basim Elkarra, the CAIR representative in Sacramento, but she revoked it when critics assailed her on the Web with headlines like “Senators for Terror.”
She later explained that her California office had not vetted the group sufficiently.
CAIR and its supporters say its accusers are a small band of people who hate Muslims and deal in half-truths. Boxer’s decision to revoke the commendation provoked an outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union and the California Council of Churches.
Joe Kaufman, who Boxer’s office said first drew her attention to CAIR’s reputation, founded a Web site that tracks what he calls the group’s extremism, cairwatch.com. Other critics include the Investigative Project, a conservative group that attempts to identify terrorist organizations.
“You can’t fight a war on terrorism directly when you are acting with a terror front,” said Kaufman, who advocates shutting down CAIR.
Founded in 1994, CAIR had eight chapters at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, but has grown to some 30 chapters.
Broadly summarized, critics accuse CAIR of pursuing an extreme Islamist political agenda and say at least five figures with ties to the organization or its leadership have been either convicted or deported for links to terrorist organizations. They include Mousa Abu Marzook, a Hamas leader deported in 1997 after the United States failed to produce any evidence directly linking him to any attacks.
There were no charges linked to CAIR in any of the cases involved.
CAIR officials say the accusations against it are rooted in its refusal to endorse the U.S. government’s blanket condemnations of Hezbollah and Hamas, although it has criticized Hamas for civilian deaths.
Several federal officials said CAIR’s Washington office frequently issued controversial statements that made it hard for senior government figures to be associated with the group.
Last summer, CAIR urged a halt to weapons shipments to Israel as civilian casualties in Lebanon swelled. In September, CAIR held a dinner for former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at a time when much of official Washington had ostracized the Islamic republic. In November, the group sponsored a panel discussion by two prominent academics who argue that the pro-Israeli lobby exercises detrimental influence on U.S. policy on the Middle East.
“Traditionally within the government there is only one point of view that is acceptable, which is the pro-Israel line,” said Nihad Awad, who helped found CAIR and is its executive director. “Another enlightened perspective on the conflict is not there, and it causes some discomfort.”
CAIR has raised some suspicion by accepting large donations from individuals or foundations closely identified with Arab governments.
The donations are a source of contention within CAIR itself. Several CAIR branch directors said they had avoided foreign financing and had criticized the national office for it.
Some Muslims, particularly the secular, find CAIR overly influenced by Saudi religious interpretations.
But they still support its civil rights work. One Arab American advocate compared CAIR to “the tough cousin who curses at anyone who speaks badly about the family.”