Chicago Tribune: Muslim activist takes on his group's critics
By Noreen Ahmed-Ullah
March 25, 2007
(Full, unedited interview, portions of which were published by the Chicago Tribune)
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.
Why have an advocacy group in the U.S. like the Council of American-Islamic Relations?
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 (e.g. Sikhs, Copts, Assyrians); to encourage Muslims to be active civic participants where they are politically marginalized; and to build coalitions and partnerships with other community organizations where shared problems beg for common solutions. Only a grassroots organization that is widely supported by the community it represents can accomplish that.
What does CAIR do? What are some recent projects launched by the group?
CAIR challenges the internal inhibitions and external prejudices that impede American Muslims from materializing as equal civic participants in the American democratic process. CAIR also focuses on educational initiatives that promote dialogue and mutual understanding. Nationally, CAIR projects include the Muslim Cares campaign which encourages Muslims to volunteer in their communities in order to know their neighbors and increase their positive contributions to society at large. Local projects include the Employment Discrimination project which advises victims on their rights as employees, the Youth Leadership Symposium which promotes civic responsibility among Muslims students, and the CAIR-Chicago Voter Education Guide 2006. The Open Mosque Series runs detailed features on local mosques in an attempt to strengthen the bonds between the various Muslim and non-Muslim communities of Illinois.
Tell me a bit about you. What did you do before joining CAIR? Why did you join?
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, and sometimes, even disdain. Like many young Muslims, I had been impressed with CAIR’s principled advocacy on behalf of our community; I didn’t have to think long when invited by my friend Yaser Tabbara to help jumpstart a Chicago office. It was the creative liberty to build a Chicago institution from the ground up that really drew me in.
You recently were promoted from being spokesman of CAIR-Chicago to being head of the Chicago office. How do you like your new role? Is it more challenging than you imagined?
I can’t complain, I am blessed with a superb staff of talented and dedicated activists, seventy-five percent of whom are women. CAIR-Chicago is also grateful to receive widespread support from Illinois’ diverse Muslim communities. It’s amazing to think of how much has been accomplished in the 2 years we have been around. You get a sense of how far we’ve come when you see the incredible diversity of the dozen of interns who work at our office every year, only forty percent of whom are Muslim.
What is the source of the latest criticism/accusations being launched against CAIR at the national level?
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. The problem is that a second look is seldom taken by gullible consumers of their fabrications – the latest victims being some in the GOP.
(CAIR put up a document directly addressing all these urban legends at: www.cair.com/urbanlegends.pdf)
Is CAIR linked with Hamas and Hezbollah?
No, CAIR is not associated with Hamas, Hezbollah, or any other foreign group. CAIR is an independent American institution, established by Americans for the purpose of advocating on behalf of American Muslim issues and interests. CAIR is committed to a non-violent advocacy for justice and equality. CAIR unequivocally condemns all acts of violence against civilians by any individual, group or state.
Does CAIR pursue an extremist Islamist political agenda? Is CAIR influenced by a Wahabbi or orthodox Saudi interpretation of Islam?
You’d 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. CAIR is a grassroots expression of the American people that is quite comfortable in its skin. I think some out there do not understand that CAIR is a union of many autonomous and legally independent chapters; as such CAIR is run by hundreds of people who are much too diverse in their ethnic, professional, and political affiliations to harbor any agenda beyond advocating for justice and mutual understanding. Conspiracy theories will be just that and right now Muslims make for a convenient lightening rod.
How much money has CAIR accepted from individuals or foundations associated with wealthy Arab governments like Saudi Arabia? What has the money been used for? Why take large donations from foreign entities like Saudi Arabia when many non-profit Islamic organizations have faced problems post-9/11 because of this?
All CAIR chapters, which are independent corporations, solicit contributions only from people residing in the states where they are incorporated. For example CAIR-Chicago’s entire budget is raised through local donations and grants. Neither CAIR chapters nor the National office solicits or accepts money from any foreign government. The CAIR National office does on occasions 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 towards supporting existing CAIR projects (openly touted on our websites) 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 Al-Waleed 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 Computers, Amazon.com, Donna Karan International and Motorola. Bin Talal owns significant fiduciary interests in each of these American companies. Finally, there is nothing criminal or immoral about accepting donations from foreign nationals. The U.S. government does it. Ivy League universities do it as well (some have received millions from Bin Talal no less). As do most American corporations and many non-profit organizations. CAIR has received support from people of different faith backgrounds. At the end of the day, CAIR discloses its funding details in annual reports that are fully compliant with state and federal laws and regulations; on top of that, our offices voluntarily seek regular external audits.
What are CAIR's views on Muslim women and the hijab or head-covering? What are CAIR's views on Muslim women in leadership roles?
CAIR has no official hijab policy; it is left for female employees to decide. We have activists who wear the hijab and others who do not. CAIR supports Muslim women in leadership roles. Many CAIR chapters are lead by women Executive Directors and Chairwomen. Several leading CAIR spokespeople are also women. We are ardent proponents of meritocracy: people are entitled to reap the full rewards of their talents, skills, and hard work with no bearing as to their race, gender, or social class.
What do you believe is the key dilemma faced by Muslims in the U.S. today?
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. Too much time and effort is lost in having to defend ourselves, we much prefer to focus our energies on constructive rather than defensive initiatives that show who we are rather than who we are not.
At this time does CAIR have any plans to support or endorse any presidential candidates such as Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama?
CAIR chapters are 501©3 not for profit organizations that do not endorse political candidates. CAIR National also does not endorse any political candidates. In my individual capacity, I can say that I am impressed by Barack Obama. He brings an element of freshness that shows promise of moving our country beyond the fear-mongering politics that has both paralyzed and polarized the nation. I think Obama can inject a sorely-needed sense of hope into America.
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