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With CAIR, compromise complicated

The American Muslim group's stated goal is understanding. But some don't trust it.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published September 23, 2007

In August 2006, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Tampa chapter hosted a meeting with local law enforcement and Homeland Security offcials to discuss travel security issues.
[Courtesy of Tampa chapter of CAIR]
[Courtesy of Anti-Defamation League]
THE ADL says this photo of CAIR executive director Nihad Awad speaking near a Hezbollah flag at a large 2002 antiwar rally in Washington shows CAIR "endorses rallies where support for terrorist groups was undeniable." Bedier called the authenticity of the photograph into question and contends that Awad never saw the flag or the individuals holding it at the rally.

Two years ago on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater had an unusual guest speaker -- a Muslim.

Ahmed Bedier, head of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, discussed similarities between Judaism and Islam. He answered questions about the Koran. One woman called the talk "wonderful."

Yet Rabbi David Weizman now wishes he hadn't invited Bedier.

"In hindsight I would have asked my colleagues if it was a good idea," says Weizman, who drew flak from some members of Tampa Bay's Jewish community who have long been suspicious of CAIR. "Although the intentions were good -- for building bridges -- the concern was with the honesty and sincerity of the other side of the bridge."

The reaction to Bedier's appearance reflects the wildly disparate views of CAIR, seen by some as a positive force for interfaith dialogue and by others as a slick front for Muslim extremism.

Without question, the oft-quoted CAIR has become the best-known American Muslim organization since the Sept. 11 attacks. Its stated goal is to increase understanding of Islam and to protect the civil rights of America's 6-million Muslims.

To that end, Bedier -- one of CAIR's most media-savvy officials -- is a familiar presence on TV, recently questioning the treatment of two University of South Florida students indicted Aug. 31 on explosives charges. And he was often in the news as federal prosecutors pressed their case against former USF professor Sami Al-Arian, accused by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft of being the North American leader of a Palestinian terrorist group.

Though CAIR participates in many civic activities, its association with the Al-Arian case and other controversies subjects it to blistering criticism, much of it from staunchly pro-Israel groups and commentators. They say CAIR supports anti-Israel terrorism. That it espouses the intolerant Wahhabi brand of Islam.

"It's an accumulation of things that have led many of the Jewish organizations to the conclusion that CAIR is problematic," says Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in New York.

CAIR denies the allegations, calling them attempts to "demonize" Muslims. And some prominent American Jews question whether the anti-CAIR criticism has gone too far.

"My general view is to look gently at organizations, knowing we all have complicated records," says David M. Elcott, executive director of Israel Policy Forum, a Manhattan think tank. "There have been real issues with CAIR, but at the same time there are ways CAIR could be worked with."

Rabbi Michael Paley says he has been looking into CAIR for months and "so far I cannot find any egregious activities."

"We should be concerned that we are alienating moderate Muslims and Muslims who are struggling to get a foothold in American society," says Paley, scholar in residence at the United Jewish Appeal Federation in New York. "If we do the one thing that has been so important to Jews in America, it will be to compromise."

Surge in prominence

Much of the controversy over CAIR stems from its roots in the Palestinian struggle against Israel. The Washington-based council was founded in 1994 by leaders of the Islamic Association of Palestine, a now-defunct U.S. organization accused of supporting Hamas, but never designated a terrorist group itself.

Most Muslims support the Palestinian cause, making it hard for CAIR to be detached, says Ihsan Bagby, a CAIR board member and University of Kentucky professor.

"CAIR tries to stay out of international issues, but they are dragged into it partly because the American Muslim community wants their voice to be heard on this issue because it is so important," Bagby says.

CAIR soared in prominence after the Sept. 11 attacks and the increased scrutiny that left many Muslims feeling under siege. But paradoxically as its profile went up, CAIR's revenues went down -- from $3.7-million in 2002 to $2.25-million three years later.

Some critics see the decline as evidence CAIR doesn't have much support even among the people it claims to represent. But the drop in money going to the national CAIR has been offset by contributions to its 33 local chapters. CAIR-Florida took in $802,000 last year, compared to $16,000 when it started in 2001, according to statements filed with the IRS.

"I think it shows we're a more grass-roots organization -- bottom up, not top down," Bedier says. "Ask the NAACP where they were 12 years into their start. Or the ADL."

The Anti-Defamation League, with revenues 10 times those of CAIR, was founded 74 years ago to fight anti-Semitism. Today it is one of CAIR's biggest critics, alleging it hasn't done enough to distance itself from Hamas and other groups committed to destroying Israel and killing Jews.

"CAIR is out there saying it is the organization that represents the Arab-Muslim community in the United States on human rights issues, on civil rights issues," says Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director.

"What we're saying is that if you want to be there, there is a very high standard in terms of your position on terrorism. You either oppose it or not. I want to hear them condemn the terrorism of Hamas and Hezbollah."

CAIR condemned the 2002 Passover bombing by Hamas that killed 29 Israelis, and has denounced terrorism in general without naming groups other than al-Qaida. It has also spoken against anti-Semitism including Iran's Holocaust denial conference.

In an open letter to Foxman last month, CAIR accused the ADL of "smearing" it with "defamatory assertions." It also questioned why the Jewish organization didn't criticize Israel for harming innocent civilians during last year's war with Lebanon.

To some observers, the contentiousness reflects the opposing ways Jews and Muslims see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- as Israel's fight for survival or Palestinian resistance to Israeli oppression.

"The reason CAIR can't condemn Hamas with precision is because Hamas has social services aspects," says Paley of the United Jewish Appeal Federation. "And it should not be the job of CAIR to support Israel. That's my job, I'm a rabbi, I love Israel. But that's not the role of CAIR. CAIR is a Muslim organization."

'Nothing nefarious'

A frequent CAIR critic is historian and commentator Daniel Pipes. Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, he reportedly told the American Jewish Congress that he worried that the "increased affluence and enfranchisement of American Muslims ... will present true danger to American Jews."

CAIR says that Pipes' writings are full of distortions and innuendo.

In a March 2006 article, "Islamists Fooling the Establishment," Pipes said there is a "side to CAIR that has alarmed many people in positions to know. The Department of Homeland Security refuses to deal with it."

Yet less than six months later, CAIR's Tampa chapter hosted a meeting of law enforcement personnel that included three top Homeland Security officials. The FBI's Tampa chief also attended.

In the same article, Pipes tried to link CAIR to Palestinian terrorism by way of $250,000 it received from the Islamic Development Bank to build its Washington headquarters.

"CAIR's decision to accept (the bank's) funding is unfortunate," Pipes writes, "given the bank's role as manager of the Al-Quds and Al Aqsa Funds, established by 12 Arab countries to fund the Palestinian intifada and provide financial support to the families of Palestinian 'martyrs.'"

The article does not mention that the main purpose of the bank, based in Saudi Arabia, is to finance roads, dams, hospitals and other projects throughout the world.

Pipes also criticizes CAIR for accepting $500,000 from Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia that was used to buy books about Islam for U.S. libraries. That contribution and the bank financing belie CAIR's claim that it does not receive support from any foreign group or government, Pipes writes.

Communications director Ibrahim Hooper says CAIR was referring to terrorist groups and state sponsors of terrorism, not individuals and banks.

"It's just a plain statement that we're not a government-supported entity," he says. "There's nothing nefarious about it."

'Urban legends'

The Pipes article also alleges that CAIR has a "key role in the Wahhabi lobby" -- what Pipes calls a network of organizations, usually supported by Saudi donations, "whose aim is to propagate the extreme version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia."

As evidence of CAIR's role, Pipes continues, its "affiliates regularly speak at events sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella organization of the Wahhabi lobby."

CAIR members do attend society events. But so do non-Muslims. At the society's recent convention, one of the main speakers was a rabbi who heads America's largest Jewish denomination.

Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society, says her organization recognizes Islam's many schools of thought, whereas Wahhabism considers most other Muslims nonbelievers and puts severe restrictions on women. And the society's only connection with Saudi donors since 2001 was partnering with Indiana University on a fellowship program funded by Prince bin Talal.

One of the world's richest men, the prince "is the least Wahhabi Saudi," says Mattson, a professor at Hartford Seminary. "He has an all-female staff who he forbids from wearing a head scarf even in the middle of Riyadh."

To counter claims by Pipes and other critics, CAIR recently issued a rebuttal of "urban legends." Among them: CAIR supports terrorism because its Web site linked in 2001 to the Holy Land Foundation, a now-defunct Muslim charity on trial in Texas for allegedly funneling millions of dollars to Hamas.

Critics say CAIR steered donors to Holy Land under the guise of helping victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. But the foundation was not under investigation then and "to claim intent other than a sincere effort to aid victims of tragedy is dishonest," says CAIR, noting it has linked to the Red Cross, too.

Critics have also made much of the fact CAIR is among 300 Muslim organizations and individuals named as "unindicted co-conspirators" in the Holy Land case, a move that permits prosecutors to introduce statements that might otherwise be considered inadmissible hearsay. CAIR has asked the government to remove it and others from the list, saying it "damaged their reputations" without legal recourse.

Al-Arian spokesman?

When South Carolina deputies arrested two Muslim USF students Aug. 4 after finding what appeared to be an explosive device in their car, Bedierdownplayed suggestions of terrorism.

"Had they been two white kids, nobody would be asking those questions," he told reporters. But when the pair were indicted on federal charges, Bedier took a more neutral tone.

"Evidence doesn't lie," he said Aug. 31. "Evidence will also lead to the truth."

The Egyptian-born Bedier knows critics are eager for any sign CAIR condones terrorism. Although he says they never met, he's been called a "spokesman" for Al-Arian, the former USF professor accused of supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad. After a federal jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight counts and deadlocked on nine others, he pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiring to provide services to the PIJ and received a 57-month sentence.

"We never came out and necessarily defended him, but our position was that people should have their day in court," says Bedier, 33, who managed a dental clinic before joining CAIR in 2003.

Shortly after the sentence, though, an anti-CAIR blog jumped on Bedier for his televised comment that there was "nothing immoral' about Al-Arian's association with the PIJ. Bedier later said he meant there was nothing illegal because the PIJ had not yet been designated a terrorist organization.

The Al-Arian case focused an often harsh spotlight on CAIR. But it also helped make CAIR's Florida affiliate the organization's second largest, after California.

Bedier, who earns $48,000 as executive director of the Tampa chapter, works out of a free-standing office in Temple Terrace, not far from USF. CAIR raised $60,000 and borrowed the rest of the building's $300,000 cost from a local group headed by a Brandon doctor.

The chapter's main job is helping Muslims who feel they've been victims of hate crimes or discrimination. But Bedier's activities have included raising money to rebuild churches burned by Muslims angry at Pope Benedict XVI's allegedly pejorative comments about Islam.

As for Bedier himself, "I found his words always directed toward peace and reconciliation among peoples," says Rev. Robert Gibbons, former vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

CAIR has been far less successful building bridges to Tampa Bay's Jewish community. Barry Augenbraun, a guest with Bedier on a recent radio show, says he was "shocked" when Bedier insisted that Arab armies did not invade Israel after it declared independence in 1948.

"That set back any attempt I have to continue a dialogue with him," says Augenbraun, co-chair of the local Jewish Community Relations Council. "It's very difficult to talk to someone if I can't rely on them relating to historical fact."

After the show, Bedier acknowledged that Arab nations "attacked" Israel while still disagreeing they "invaded." But the real issue, he says, is that some critics will never accept CAIR unless "we put Israel first and we're not willing to do that."

Nor is that surprising, says Rabbi Weizman, whose Clearwater synagogue hosted Bedier for the first - and perhaps only - time in 2005.

"I think CAIR's mission is something like that of the Anti-Defamation League," Weizman says. "And there is a need for that because it is American to have a voice in this country and prevent persecution of a certain group. It's just human nature that these groups have some conflict with each other."

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

[Last modified September 22, 2007, 22:12:15]

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