In opening his controversial hearings this week about “radicalization in the American Muslim community,” Rep. Peter King (R) of New York targeted one group in particular for pointed criticism: the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
In doing so, he took on what’s generally considered to be the largest Muslim civil-rights organization in the country. Depending on one’s point of view, CAIR is either a legitimate group standing up for the rights of law-abiding American Muslims at a time of increased “Islamophobia,” or it has questionable connections to organizations promoting or supportive of terrorism.
Just what is CAIR?
Established in 1994, CAIR is a nonprofit organization with 33 chapters in the United States and Canada. The organization’s stated mission is “to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.”
It has been directly involved in issues such as the proposed Islamic center near 9/11’s “ground zero” in New York and the related instances and threats of Koran burning. It has taken legal action on behalf of Muslims – the right to wear head scarves in work places, for example. It has repeatedly condemned terrorism, worked with law enforcement agencies, and promoted a peaceful view of Islam.
Pointedly, CAIR was not invited to testify at today’s hearings before the Committee on Homeland Security, which Congressman King chairs.
In its written testimony, CAIR emphasized its cooperation in rooting out terrorist threats, citing FBI Director Robert Mueller’s 2008 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee: “I reaffirm the fact that 99.9 percent of Muslim-Americans … are every bit as patriotic as anybody else in this room, and that many of our cases are a result of the cooperation from the Muslim community in the United States.”
“It’s not surprising to me that the list of witnesses is not representative of the [Muslim] community,” CAIR spokesman Ahmed Rohab told the Monitor. “We’ve seen a cottage industry emerge that is ripe with Islamophobic rhetoric and demonizes the Islamic community, rather than the individuals who commit the acts of terror or extremist rhetoric.”
Representative King takes a decidedly different view, describing CAIR as “discredited.”
Quoting a Senate Homeland Security Committee report on "Violent Islamist Extremism and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat,” King said in his opening statement Thursday that “Muslim community leaders and religious leaders must play a more visible role in discrediting and providing alternatives to violent Islamist ideology.”
“This means that responsible Muslim-American leaders must reject discredited groups such as CAIR – The Council on Islamic-American Relations which was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the terrorist financing case involving the Holy Land Foundation,” King said. “Thankfully, FBI Director Mueller has ordered the FBI to cease all dealings and contact with CAIR. I would hope that all law-enforcement officials would follow the lead of the FBI Director.”
The situation King refers to began in 2008 when the FBI – without a detailed explanation – quietly withdrew formal relations with all local chapters of CAIR.
At the time, it was assumed that the FBI’s decision to sever most of its work with CAIR went back to May 2007, when the organization was named along with some 300 other Muslim-American groups and individuals as an "unindicted coconspirator" in the controversial terrorist funding trial of the Holy Land Foundation, which had been the largest Muslim charity in the United States.
After a mistrial that year, a retrial in 2008 found the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation and some of its officials guilty of money laundering and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. One of those convicted – Ghassan Elashi – had been a founding member of the Texas branch of CAIR.
That episode raised questions about CAIR’s background and inclinations.
“We are struck … by the tendency of many in the United States, including the media and various government agencies, to ignore the Islamist influences on established Muslim-American organizations and their leaders,” Boston College political scientist Peter Skerry and American Enterprise Institute scholar Gary Schmitt write in a Monitor opinion piece.
“For example,” they continue, “the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has origins and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, is routinely described and treated as though it were just another civil-rights or advocacy organization.”
CAIR itself has never been charged with any wrongdoing; being named an “unindicted coconspirator” in the Holy Land Foundation case was later reported to have been “largely a tactical move by the government.” And the difficult relationship with the FBI is due at least in part to the agency’s controversial use of paid informants at several mosques.
But such persistent questions – reemphasized by King’s congressional hearings and raised in the context of public concern about Islamic fundamentalism and related attacks in recent years – make it more difficult for the organization.