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For Bedier, avoiding wrong fights is crucial.
By SHERRI DAY, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007
[Brian Cassella | Times (2005)]
Some people liken Ahmed Bedier to the Rev. Al Sharpton: A rabble rouser, controversy seeker and media magnet.
Bedier, head of the leading Muslim advocacy group in Tampa, shrugs off the comparison. After all, his is not a national platform and, so far, he's avoided a political albatross like the 1987 Tawana Brawley incident that haunts Sharpton.
Still, at a time when many people look distrustfully at Muslims, Bedier realizes he can't afford missteps. He fights a dual battle for Muslims' rights and favorable public perception.
Some in the public have questioned the causes adopted by Bedier and the Central Florida chapter of the Council on American and Islamic Relations.
This summer, Bedier appeared to support Ahmed Mohamed and Youssef Megahed, two University of South Florida students who were arrested near a South Carolina naval base after authorities accused them of carrying low-grade explosives in their car. The men said they were just on a road trip with fireworks.
Responding to requests from Megahed's parents, Bedier told the media that the men deserved due process. Later authorities said Mohamed had made a video demonstrating how to turn a remote control toy into a detonator. Both men now face federal explosives charges.
With more information, Bedier said, he would have crafted a better response. Still, he has no regrets about speaking out early.
"The biggest Muslim organization in town saying 'We don't have a comment' on such a big story of the day sends the wrong message like they're hiding something," said Bedier, 33. "It's almost like choosing the lesser of two evils."
And Thursday, the parents of USF student Karim Moussaoui showed up on CAIR's doorstep. Bedier ordered CAIR staff members to take the couple, who were visiting from Morocco for their son's graduation, to a federal court appearance. He also told them how the American legal system worked. Moussaoui had been arrested earlier that morning on charges of violating his student visa by posing for a photograph holding a gun at a shooting range in July. He had visited the range with Megahed and Mohamed.
"All this stuff is not something that we planned, but every day it's something different," Bedier said. "Just because we're providing a service does not mean we are defending or supporting. We're a resource to many people. That's not un-American."
Also, recently CAIR rallied against the Pinellas County School system and law enforcement after Hannah Chehab, a sixth-grade girl, claimed a classmate had ripped off her head scarf in class and threatened to shoot her. Police ultimately dropped their investigation, declaring that there was insufficient information to substantiate Chehab's claims.
Bedier insists the decision by police to back off did not negate Chehab's complaint. CAIR did due diligence before taking on the case, he said.
"We interviewed the girl," Bedier said. "We looked at her report card. She looked like a good student. She's never been in any trouble, so we felt comfortable. We have no reason to doubt her story. ... We can't wait for a child like Hannah to be shot for us to take action. If people report matters to us and we think it's a major concern, our obligation is to take up those matters."
It is cases like these that have people, including some in the local Muslim community, looking warily at the group and the controversy and attention it often brings.
"There may be some shortcomings here and there, I guess," said Dr. Husain Nagamia, a heart surgeon and chairman of the Tampa Bay Muslim Alliance, an umbrella organization for 22 Islamic groups. "But you have to look at the overall performance and the overall function that they have done. We think they have done a very good job. They have created a better understanding between Christian, Muslim and Jews."
Nagamia likened CAIR to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group.
"The view many have is that CAIR represents the Muslims, especially for civil rights and when difficult issues arise, they turn to CAIR to represent them," said Mohammad Sultan, the director and imam at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay area in Tampa.
Bedier, who manages a four-person staff in Tampa, said he consults with a local board of directors and national leaders before accepting a case.
The group gets about 10 requests for help a week. Some go before the media. Others are resolved in private. And perhaps an even larger number are turned down, Bedier said, noting a request recently from a Lakeland family that wanted help with a shooting at its home. After investigating, CAIR found that the shooters claimed to have been going to the house to buy drugs.
The advocacy group also inserts itself into some issues, such as the spring torching of a West Tampa mosque or a house burning in Sarasota, when its leaders feel those involved need representation.
This year, Bedier said his office has received more than 90 legitimate reports of anti-Muslim incidents. They vary from employment issues to hate crimes. Before taking on a case, the CAIR staff reviews the complaint, interviews those involved, and attempts to determine if the issue is valid and if the complainant has a clean background.
Even with its vetting process, missteps occur.
Bedier regrets, for example, taking public a 2004 incident in which USF basketball player Andrea Armstrong claimed her coach forced her to quit the team after wanting to wear a head scarf and long pants during play.
Although Bedier says he believed Armstrong and the university ultimately re-instated her to the team, the basketball player was not completely forthcoming. She did not tell CAIR that her family did not know she had converted to Islam.
After CAIR helped Armstrong regain her spot on the team and her religious rights, she moved back to Oregon and renounced Islam.
"She wasn't ready, and that's just too much to ask for somebody to go through that type of stuff," said Bedier, noting that Armstrong complained of harassment and stalking after the case went public.
Still, Bedier pledges to continue to advocate for Muslims' rights, whether the cases resonate with the public or not.
"We want to be seen as part of the solution and not part of the problem," he said. "We don't want to just go out there, and make noise just to make noise. We want to make things better."
Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or email@example.com.
The Central Florida Chapter of the Council on American and Islamic Relations is the principal civil rights advocacy group for bay area Muslims. Here is a snapshot of its case load.
About 10 requests per week, or 500 to 600 cases a year.
Number of Anti-Muslim Incidents Confirmed and Investigated:
* 2005: 55
* 2006: 64
* 2007: Not yet calculated but expected to reach 100.
70 percent of cases resolved in favor of Muslim complainants.
Source: Council on American and Islamic Relations
[Last modified December 15, 2007, 23:14:00]