Job’s only gotten tougher for leading Muslim group
When her boss sent Yesi King home from her waitressing job for wearing a religion-related scarf, she called the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim for help.
“I converted to Islam about 2-1/2 years ago,” King, 21, said recently. “I have grown in my faith and a few months ago decided I wanted to wear the hijab.”
Told by her supervisor to uncover her head or go home, she left the restaurant in tears. CAIR stepped in with a letter of protest to the restaurant chain – including a discussion of the law – and informational pamphlets. King was reinstated with back pay.
“CAIR and the AMC [American Muslim Council] have emerged as possibly the two most outspoken U.S. Muslim organizations in the wake of the tragedy, protesting ‘hate crimes’ against Muslims and Arab-Americans, explaining why increased security need not preclude civil liberties for those from the Middle East and Near East, and trying to put a moderate face on a religion Americans only seem to hear about when it rears up in its most extreme incarnations.” […]
“But reporters are learning it’s not easy to find leaders who can authentically speak for Muslim Americans, who represent a wide variety of ethnicities and languages, sects and political views ranging from completely secular to Islamic fundamentalist. CAIR and AMC in particular would not be chosen as representatives by many Muslims. In fact, there are those in American Muslim communities as well as law enforcement who consider CAIR and the AMC to be part of the problem, because both have been seen as tacitly — if not explicitly — supportive of extremist groups guilty of terrorism.”
– Salon, Sep. 26, 2001
“It was humiliating being sent home that day, but CAIR really helped me out,” King said. “It’s awesome.”
Based in Washington, D.C., the organization focuses its work on civil-rights issues, from promoting communitywide tolerance to handling everyday problems like King’s.
In Orange County, seven paid staff members serve a community of about 600,000 Muslims – native-born and immigrants from dozens of nations.
In recent months, CAIR has made successful pleas for the freedom of a young Southern California Muslim held in Egypt, helped a distraught local Muslim mother publicize her search for her missing son and completed a “candidate report card” on Muslim issues.
It also spent uncountable hours publicly condemning terrorism and trying to separate it from Islam.
“When we started,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR Southern California, “it had been to address this relatively minor discrimination: a funny but offensive Hallmark card or Hollywood movie stereotypes depicting a womanizing sheik. Sometimes something more serious like job discrimination.
“These were major things back then, but now we say: ‘Good ol’ days.’ I’d rather be thought of as a womanizer than a killer. Basically, that’s how bad it is now.”
Those bracing early days when many Muslims felt certain America would quickly embrace Islam and help the faith grow ended on April 19, 1995, when pundits initially blamed “Islamist terrorists” for the Oklahoma City bombing.
Death threats, physical and verbal attacks and a gnawing fear invaded the Muslim community. Year-old CAIR began its life speaking in the community’s defense.
Within days, the real killers were found, but Muslims stood back, stunned.
“People were saying, ‘Oh my God, can you imagine if these were Muslims that did it? We would probably be lynched,’ ” Ayloush said.
Immediately CAIR began planting new chapters around the country, one here in Orange County, where Ayloush, then an aerospace engineer, volunteered to encourage Muslims to reach out to the wider community.
Married and the father of two, he was working full time for CAIR by Sept. 11, 2001 – the day everything changed.
“What we’re doing today is out of hurt,” Ayloush said. “We are hurt when we see people suffering, being harmed, but it is a double suffering for us when people are being harmed in the name of Islam.”
Now, CAIR works to rebuild bridges between Muslims and their neighbors and issues a constant stream of press releases condemning terrorism.
Those efforts aren’t enough, say groups such as the American Jewish Committee, which wants the council to be specific in its anti-terror statements.
When CAIR condemns terrorism it could be including what it considers American or Israeli terrorism, said Yehudit Barsky, an AJC spokeswoman.
“I would only find (the group’s work against terrorism) useful if they condemned terrorists by name. We’re talking about Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Osama bin Laden.”
CAIR spokesmen say they condemn terrorism “in all its forms, including suicide bombing,” which harms noncombatants. They believe they can help end Middle East terrorism.
“We think that the best way to keep people from becoming terrorists is to provide an intellectual alternative and that alternative can be found in Islam,” Ayloush said.
The overwhelming number of Middle Eastern Muslims neither support terrorists, nor agree with U.S. bombing or invasions, he added. CAIR – whose members combine a love and understanding of American and Muslim culture – can offer a bridge of alternative policies and approaches to help bring the two cultures together, Ayloush said.
Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, said groups like the AJC and CAIR work well together locally on common goals, such as fighting hate crimes.
In particular, Ra’id Faraj, CAIR’s public relations director, has carried out “under the radar mediation” to develop greater understanding and cooperation between the local Muslim, Jewish and other communities, Kennedy said.
CAIR has also energized the wider Islamic community – something not possible at mosques, the traditional centers of Muslim life, which tend to attract only the devout.
The council bankrolls its projects primarily through community donations and its annual banquets, including the 10th anniversary celebration held Saturday.
The event was evidence of CAIR’s growing clout. A decade ago, the dinner drew 400 attendees, allMuslim. This time, 2,100 people – including California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, members of Congress, county and local office holders, and members of the interfaith community – packed the room.
Audience members donated $450,000 toward the local chapter’s approximately $750,000 projected budget for next year.
Support for CAIR’s work remains critical to the most vulnerable in the community, keynote speaker David Cole of Georgetown University Law Center told the crowd.
“In the wake of 9/11, CAIR is in the forefront of seeking to reclaim the idea of humanity for all of us,” said Cole, an expert on constitutional law, criminal procedures, civil liberties, and national security and immigration law.
Its efforts have brought the group new friendships and understanding, Ayloush said.
“I think this was a test for our country. Some people were betting that America would lynch Muslims or put us in internment camps. I think as a nation we passed the test.”
Since the 9/11 attacks, the O.C. chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – a Muslim civil-rights group – has worked to increase understanding of Islam and retrieve its good name from the actions of extremists. Among its works:
• Initiated a project that has put an 18-book-and-video package on Islam in 7,000 public libraries.
• Fielded a billboard campaign on the themes of tolerance, unity and kindness from “your Muslim neighbor.”
• Aired public-service announcements about Islam on radio and TV.
• Set up a speakers bureau to reach churches, synagogues, schools and service, political and senior-citizen clubs.
• Created the “Not in the Name of Islam” online anti-terrorism petition at www.cair-net.org, which says, in part: “No injustice done to Muslims can ever justify the massacre of innocent people, and no act of terror will ever serve the cause of Islam. We repudiate and disassociate ourselves from any Muslim group or individual who commits such brutal and un-Islamic acts.