World & Nation
AP The Wire
Comics & Games
Home & Garden
Advertise with the Times
Muslims' growing voice
By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer
When Ahmed Bedier heard about the Seminole podiatrist arrested last August with an arsenal of weapons, explosives and a hit list of area mosques, he picked up the phone. "We have a major story here," he said. "What's the next step?"
Leaders of the Council on American-Islamic Relations were on the other end. The next step was posting the story on CAIR's Web site, so Muslims nationwide would hear about it. They later called the U.S. attorney general's office and Gov. Jeb Bush's people. Florida's Muslim community wanted more information: Were they in danger? Was Robert Goldstein only the tip of an organized plot against them?
Four days after the arrest, Bush held a teleconference with Islamic leaders. He told them he had ordered the state Department of Law Enforcement to call mosques from Key West to Pensacola.
CAIR, an 8-year-old grass roots organization that started out combating Muslim stereotypes in movies and discrimination in the workplace, has become the voice for Muslim rights.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, discrimination complaints have poured into its 21 chapters and liaison groups and its national office in Washington, D.C. Membership and contributions more than doubled, to 15,000 and $2.5-million, respectively. Plans are under way to expand CAIR's presence in central and northern Florida.
But as its membership and budget prosper, so, too, do CAIR's adversaries. Some say the organization is trampling free speech rights and belittling an ongoing threat of terrorism by fanatic Muslims.
CAIR presses on, nonetheless.
In recent months, CAIR has taken on a Tallahassee newspaper columnist and an editorial cartoonist, a Baptist preacher in Jacksonville, Western Union and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"The caseload expanded so much, it exploded, basically," said CAIR founder Omar Ahmad from his home in San Jose, Calif. "The issues we deal with are so much bigger and serious."
Debate over a cartoon
Someone who saw Doug Marlette's political cartoon on the Internet called CAIR. Marlette, who works for the Tallahassee Democrat, had drawn a man in Muslim garb carting a missile in a Ryder truck, similar to the one used by 1995 Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. "What would Mohammed drive?" the cartoon read. It was a play on the "What would Jesus drive?" movement started by religious environmentalists who want to discourage people from buying gas-guzzling SUVs. The Democrat posted the cartoon on its Web site edition.
CAIR countered with an "action alert" on its Web site that petitioned Muslims to protest with calls and e-mails to the paper. More than 4,500 did over the next few days.
"We have built a large infrastructure, a large network," Ahmad says. "We utilize the Internet in a very efficient way."
Newspaper executives pulled the cartoon from the Web site the same day; the cartoon never made it into the next day's printed edition. But that didn't end the matter. The cartoon was still circulating, featured on a CAIR news release, so more and more Muslims could see what the paper might have printed had CAIR not intervened. At least one outraged Muslim contacted Democrat political writer and columnist Bill Cotterell.
Cotterell's reply said in part that Arab nations need to get over the creation of Israel and make peace. "OK, they can squat around the camel-dung fire and grumble about it, or they can put their bottoms in the air five times a day and pray for deliverance; that's their business," Cotterell wrote. "And I don't give a damn if Israel kills a few in collateral damage while defending itself. So be it."
The woman who received that e-mail called CAIR. Another action alert was issued, this time about Cotterell.
Cotterell apologized, saying he wished he had never written those things. The newspaper suspended him for a week without pay, and executive editor John Winn Miller issued a formal apology, also posted on CAIR's Web site.
Media pundits weighed in on the debate. CAIR had used political correctness to stop free speech, some said. Marlette responded in an editorial titled "No Apologies for Free Speech." The cartoon was not a comment against Islam, but rather the distortion of the religion by "murderous fanatics," he said.
"My cartoon has prompted a firestorm of reaction orchestrated by a lobbying group called CAIR," he wrote. The objective of political cartooning, Marlette said, is "to jab and poke in an attempt to get at deeper truths, popular or otherwise. The truth, like it or not, is that Muslim fundamentalists have committed devastating acts of terrorism against our country in the name of their prophet."
CAIR praised Cotterell's suspension but lamented that Marlette wasn't sanctioned, too.
"We are for freedom of speech, but it's not freedom of speech to misinterpret me in any way," Ahmad said. He questioned whether the newspaper would have even considered printing a cartoon that depicted African-Americans or Jews in a negative light.
The infamous church sign
A CAIR board member in Jacksonville saw the sign outside First Conservative Baptist Church:
Jesus forbade murder
Matthew 26 -- 52
Muhammad approved murder
Surah 8 -- 65.
He called Altaf Ali, executive director of CAIR's Florida chapter, in Miami. Ali joined in on a conference call with the church's pastor, the Rev. Gene Youngblood.
The conversation started politely enough, Ali says.
"We're calling you regarding the sign you have out there," he said. "We want you to understand that by no means does Islam condone murder."
Youngblood countered that the sign was a matter of free speech.
The sign quotes a surah, a passage in the Islamic sacred text, the Koran.
"Oh Prophet! rouse the Believers to the fight," it reads. "If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding."
Ali says that Youngblood refused CAIR's request for a meeting.
Youngblood, a biblical apologist, says he has taught courses on world religions. First Conservative routinely teaches comparisons of Christianity and other beliefs. The church has recently studied Islam and posted such comparisons on the sign, which has been vandalized more than a dozen times, Youngblood said in a press release. Church members have been threatened, he said.
"First and foremost, I want the world to know that we love the Muslim people," the release said. "We would like to see multitudes of them come to know the Son of God, Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. . . . We stand firmly on our First Amendment Right: The Freedom of Speech is Fundamental to American Liberty."
CAIR sent out a press release to non-Muslim religious leaders throughout Florida. Soon, news of the sign had circulated to churches and mosques as far away as California.
Support poured in for CAIR. Newspapers wrote stories about the sign. Some leaders wrote or called Youngblood in protest.
From the Rev. Fred Morris, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches: "I want to repudiate in the strongest terms possible the outrageous and hateful expressions of the First Conservative Baptist Church in Jacksonville, as they accuse the Prophet Muhammed of approving of murder."
And this from the Rev. Alan Jones of San Francisco's United Methodist Mission: "Just wanted to let you know that there are many Christians . . . such as myself who are horrified by the Jacksonville church."
Muslims were the bad guys in the 1994 movie True Lies, plotting to thwart Arnold Schwarzenegger's heroics. But real-life Muslims said the movie was stereotypical and inflammatory.
Omar Ahmad, an engineer in California, was one of them. He was tired of book writers, media, movie producers and corporate executives spewing misleading images of Muslims.
He called Nihad Awad and Ibrahim Hooper, Muslims with whom Ahmad had chatted at conferences. Muslims needed an advocate, an organized political voice in America, they agreed. They started CAIR, which is classified as a nonprofit social welfare organization. They set up headquarters in Washington because it is a "high profile" area, Ahmad said.
CAIR has grown steadily. It started with two paid employees and now has 35, including lawyers and a paid communications staff.
Others volunteer for CAIR, such as Bedier in St. Petersburg, who learned about the group last year. A CAIR director flew in from Washington to give a workshop at Bedier's mosque in Pinellas Park. The event encouraged Muslims to be open about their faith and opinions. Before then, Bedier said, he had never thought about talking with the media and government officials.
"I didn't really know all my options and how effective I could be," he said.
Soon afterward, the Goldstein case broke. Then came the three Muslim Arab-American medical students stopped by police on Interstate 75 in south Florida in September. The men were detained for 17 hours after a Georgia woman told police she overheard them make vague threats at a Shoney's north of Atlanta. Authorities searched their car but found nothing. CAIR organized a news conference during which the students denied the woman's claim.
Today CAIR is involved in other initiatives, some far-reaching.
For example, leaders are talking with Western Union about its policies. Companies that transmit money are required to check the customers' names against a list issued by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. The list includes terrorists, narcotics traffickers and other people with whom American businesses are generally forbidden from dealing.
An African-American Muslim in New York named Muhammad Ali (not the boxer) recently tried to wire $80 to relatives. Ali's name matched one on the list. Western Union asked him to provide photo identification and to state his country of birth. The company said it is required by law to make sure their customers are not the people on the list, so asking for additional identification was necessary. CAIR says the policy unfairly discriminates against Muslims.
CAIR leaders also are urging Muslims to contact President Bush and tell him not to give more tax money to Israel. It is organizing forums to educate Muslims about regulations that require males 16 and older on temporary visas from certain countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, to register with the INS. Abdullah Hatahet, a student at the University of South Florida, missed his registration deadline by one day and faced deportation.
"The work is becoming overwhelming with these INS issues," Bedier said. But CAIR's work is necessary, he says. "If Muslims are going to be in America, then they have to get involved in the system."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.