Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) is now in Southern Mexico and Latin America
The Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. It is headquartered on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., with regional offices nationwide. Through civil rights actions, media relations, civic engagement, and education, CAIR promotes social, legal and political activism among Muslims in America. Critics of CAIR consider it to be pursuing an Islamist agenda.
The Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) was created as an “organization that challenges stereotypes of Islam and Muslims” (CAIR letter to Vice President Gore, 10/06/1995), a “Washington-based Islamic advocacy group” (Press release, 8/28/1995) and an “organization dedicated to providing an Islamic perspective on issues of importance to the American public” (Press release, 12/13/1995). Prior to establishing CAIR, its founders observed that “the core challenge [in America], that of stereotyping and defamation, was having a devastating effect on our children and paralyzing adults from taking their due roles in civic affairs” (“The Link,” a newsletter published by Americans for Middle East Understanding, February–March 2000). Within that understanding, they formed CAIR to challenge anti-Muslim discrimination nationwide.
Early years (1994–2001)
CAIR was founded in June 1994.
CAIR’s first office was located in Washington D.C., as is its present-day headquarters on Capitol Hill. Its founding was partly in response to the film True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger which Arab and Muslim groups condemned for its stereotyping of Arab and Muslim villains. The offices opened a month before the film’s release. CAIR’s first advocacy campaign was in response to an offensive greeting card that used the term “shia” to refer to human excrement. CAIR led a national campaign and used activists to pressure the greeting card company, which eventually withdrew the card from the market.
In 1995, CAIR handled its first case of hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women) discrimination, in which a Muslim employee was denied the right to wear the hijab; this type of complaint is now one of the most common received by CAIR’s civil rights department.
CAIR continued its advocacy work in the aftermath of the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. Following the attack, Muslim-Americans were subjected to an upsurge in harassment and discrimination, including a rise in hate crimes nationally; 222 hate crimes against Muslims nationwide were reported in the days immediately following the bombing. The bombing gave CAIR national stature for their efforts to educate the public about Islam and religious bias in America; their report was featured on the front page of The New York Times on August 28, 1995 and was subsequently mentioned on ABC World News Tonight.
In 1996, CAIR began “CAIR-NET”, a read-only e-mail listserve aimed to help American Muslims identify and combat anti-Muslim prejudice in the U.S. and Canada. CAIR-NET contains descriptions of news, bias incidents or hate speech and hate crimes, often followed by information as to whom readers may contact to influence resolution of an issue. CAIR also held its first voter registration drive in 1996; CAIR continues to encourage active political participation by American Muslims, for them to address political candidates and elected representatives with greater frequency.
In 1996 CAIR published a report The Usual Suspects regarding its perception of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media after the crash of TWA Flight 800. Their research showed 138 uses of the terms “Muslim” and “Arab” in the 48 hours after the crash in Reuters, UPI, and AP articles covering the incident. The official NTSB report said that the probable cause was mechanical.
In 1997 CAIR objected to the production of sneakers made by Nike with a design on the heel similar to the Arabic word for “Allah”. As part of an agreement reached between CAIR officials and Nike representatives, Nike apologized to the Muslim community, recalled the products carrying the design, launched an investigation as to how the logo came about, and built a number of children’s playgrounds near some Islamic centers in America.
In 1997, as depictions of Mohammed are seen as blasphemous by most Muslims, CAIR wrote to United States Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist requesting that the sculpted representation of the Prophet Muhammad on the north frieze inside the Supreme Court building be removed or sanded down. The court rejected CAIR’s request.
CAIR increased its advocacy work again after the September 11 attacks. In October 2001 CAIR stated that it was opposed to the Afghan campaign of the US. By January 2002, four months after the attacks, the CAIR said that it had received 1,658 reports of discrimination, profiling, harassment, and physical assaults against persons appearing Arab or Muslim, a three-fold increase over the prior year. The reports included beatings, death threats, abusive police practices, and employment and airline-related discrimination.”
CAIR has conducted investigations, issued reports, held press conferences, filed lawsuits, and organized political action to protest aspects of U.S. counterterrorism policy.
From 2002 to 2004 CAIR organized the Library Project, an effort to provide resources about Islam to US libraries. The initiative sent a set of 18 books and tapes to public libraries written by Muslim and non-Muslim authors on Islamic history and practices, as well as an English translation of the Quran. As of December 2004, CAIR received 7,804 sponsorships for the $150 set. The project was funded in part by a $500,000 donation from Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
In 2005 CAIR coordinated the joint release of a fatwa by 344 American Muslim organizations, mosques, and imams nationwide that stated: “Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives. There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism. Targeting civilians’ life and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram or forbidden—and those who commit these barbaric acts are criminals, not martyrs.” The fatwa cited passages from the Quran and hadith that prohibit violence against innocent people and injustice, and was signed by the Fiqh Council of North America. Authors Kim Ezra Shienbaum and Jamal Hasan felt it did not go far enough in that it did not address attacks on military targets.
Also in 2005, following the Qur’an desecration controversy of 2005 at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, CAIR initiated an “Explore the Quran” campaign, aimed at providing free copies of the Quran to any person who requested it. Nearly 34,000 Americans requested a copy.
In 2006, during the protests over cartoons depicting Muhammad, CAIR responded by launching an educational program “Explore the Life of Muhammad”, to bring “people of all faiths together to learn more about the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and to use mutual understanding as a counterweight to the tensions created by the cartoon controversy”. It provided free copies of a DVD or book about the life of Muhammad to any person who requested it. Almost 16,000 Americans requested materials. In June 2006, CAIR announced a $50 million project to create a better understanding of Islam and Muslims in the US. ($10 million per year for five years), in a project to be spearheaded by Paul Findley, a former US Congressman.
California Senator Barbara Boxer in December 2006 withdrew a “certificate of accomplishment” originally given to former CAIR official Basim Elkarra after Boxer’s staff looked into CAIR, and she became concerned about some of CAIR’s past statements and actions, and statements by some law enforcement officials that it provides aid to international terrorist groups.
In May 2007, the U.S. filed an action against the Holy Land Foundation (the largest Muslim charity in the United States at the time) for providing funds to Hamas, and federal prosecutors filed pleadings. Along with 245 other organizations, they listed CAIR (and its chairman emeritus, Omar Ahmad), Islamic Society of North America (largest Muslim umbrella organization in the United States), Muslim American Society and North American Islamic Trust as unindicted co-conspirators, a legal designation that can be employed for a variety of reasons including grants of immunity, pragmatic considerations, and evidentiary concerns. While being listed as co-conspirator does not mean that CAIR has been charged with anything, the organization was concerned that the label will forever taint it.
In 2007, the organization was named, along with 245 others, by U.S. Federal prosecutors in a list of unindicted co-conspirators or joint venturers in a Hamas funding case involving the Holy Land Foundation, which in 2009 caused the FBI to cease working with CAIR outside of criminal investigations due to its designation. CAIR was never charged with any crime, and it complained that the designation had tarnished its reputation. It has also been criticized for allegedly publishing propaganda
In response, National Association of Muslim Lawyers and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, saying that the move to list the largest Muslim organizations in America as unindicted co-conspirators was an effort to smear the entire Muslim community. They also stated that the list breached the department’s own guidelines against releasing the names of unindicted co-conspirators.
On October 22, 2007, the Holy Land Foundation trial ended in a mistrial. CAIR stated that the reason for the mistrial, and no convictions on any of the charges, was that the charges were built on “fear, not facts.” All defendants were convicted upon retrial in 2008.
In 2008, the FBI discontinued its long-standing relationship with CAIR. Officials said the decision followed the conviction of the HLF directors for funneling millions of dollars to Hamas, revelations that Nihal Awad had participated in planning meetings with HLF, and CAIR’s failure to provide details of its ties to Hamas. During a 2008 retrial of the HLF case, FBI Special Agent Lara Burns labeled CAIR “a front group for Hamas.” In January 2009, the FBI’s DC office instructed all field offices to cut ties with CAIR, as the ban extended into the Obama administration.
U.S. Congressmen Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), and Paul Broun (R-Ga.) wrote Attorney General Eric Holder on October 21, 2009, that they were concerned about CAIR’s relationships with terrorist groups, and requesting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) provide a summary of DOJ’s evidence and findings that led DOJ to name CAIR an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism trial. The four Congressmen also wrote House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms Wilson Livingood a letter the same day asking that he work with members of the House Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Intelligence Committees to determine if CAIR was successful in placing interns in the committees’ offices, to review FBI and DOJ evidence regarding CAIR’s Hamas ties, and to determine whether CAIR is a security threat. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), “appalled”, said “I urge the rest of my colleagues to join me in denouncing this witch hunt.” She was echoed by Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, in a speech that included a statement by the House’s Tri-Caucus. The four Republican Congressmen, joined by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Congressman Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), then wrote IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman on November 16, 2009, asking that CAIR be investigated for “excessive lobbying”. CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper welcomed the scrutiny from Republican lawmakers, and said, “We’ve always stayed within our legal limits [for lobbying]. If anything, we don’t have enough staff to lobby as much as we legally can.”
CAIR pointed to an arrest of five men in Pakistan on December 10, 2009, as a “success story” between Muslims and Muslim community organizations (like CAIR) and American law enforcement authorities. When the five men left Washington for Karachi on November 28, the families of the men discovered an extremist videotape. Worried, they contacted CAIR, which set up a meeting with the FBI on December 1, and the families shared their sons’ computers and electronic devices with FBI agents. A U.S. law enforcement official described them as models of cooperation. CAIR hoped the event would ease “strained” relations of American Muslims with the FBI.
Hours after it was announced by President Barack Obama that Osama bin Laden had been killed, CAIR put out a statement: “We join our fellow citizens in welcoming the announcement that Osama bin Laden has been eliminated as a threat to our nation and the world through the actions of American military personnel. As we have stated repeatedly since the 9/11 terror attacks, bin Laden never represented Muslims or Islam. In fact, in addition to the killing of thousands of Americans, he and Al Qaeda caused the deaths of countless Muslims worldwide. We also reiterate President Obama’s clear statement tonight that the United States is not at war with Islam.”
In January 2012 CAIR’s Michigan chapter took a stance along with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in defending four Muslim high school football players accused of attacking a quarterback during a game. The players were allegedly targeted for criminal prosecution over the attack because of their ethnic origin. A judge later dropped the charges after deciding they had no merit.
The Washington Post wrote: “CAIR and the Muslim American Society are not alone in their shock. Diverse groups across Europe were also added to the list, leaving many observers perplexed at the scope and sheer scale of the list. Norway’s foreign ministry has already publicly requested an explanation as to why one of the country’s largest Islamic groups, the Islamic Organization, was included, and on Monday, the U.S. State Department said they would be seeking more information from the U.A.E.”
In November 2015, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced legislation to the Senate designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The legislation refers to CAIR’s status as unindicted co-conspirators in the Holy Land Foundation trial, but the legislation never made it out of committee. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives.
Projects and media
CAIR conducts research on the American Muslim community, releasing annual reports on public opinion and demographic statistics on the community, as well as annual Civil Rights reports concerning issues such as hate crimes, discrimination, and profiling. It also sponsors voter registration drives and outreach, and interfaith relations with other religious groups in America.
Local CAIR chapters such as the Michigan chapter organized a “Remember Through Service” campaign which was a video and billboard media campaign which featured positive representations of Muslim-Americans including a Muslim first responder during the September 11th World Trade Center events.