The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is America's largest Muslim civil liberties advocacy organization that deals with civil advocacy and promotes human rights. It is headquartered on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., with regional offices nationwide and in Canada.
Through media relations, lobbying, and education, CAIR presents what it views as an Islamic perspective on issues of importance to the American public, and seeks to empower the American Muslim community and encourage its social and political activism. Annual banquets, through which CAIR raises the majority of its funds, are attended by American politicians, statesmen, interfaith leaders, activists and media personalities.
The organization was dealt a significant blow to its reputation in the United States after it was named an unindicted co-conspirator in a Hamas funding case. The FBI no longer works with CAIR outside of criminal investigations due to its status as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case.
Mission and offices
CAIR's mission statement is "to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding".
CAIR’s literature describes the group as promoting understanding of Islam and protecting Muslim civil liberties. It has intervened on behalf of many American Muslims who claim discrimination, profiling, or harassment. Its stated core principles include supporting freedom of religion, protecting all Americans' civil rights, and encouraging inter-faith dialogue. CAIR believes that "the active practice of Islam strengthens the social and religious fabric of our nation."
CAIR is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization with affiliates in 19 states (many of which manage multiple offices), and 33 chapters in the US and Canada (CAIR-CAN). CAIR and its affiliates are managed by board members from 50 American cities, and combined employ more than 70 full-time staff, serving millions of American Muslims. CAIR annual reports are available to all members and donors, as well as internet users online.
Early years (1994-2001)
CAIR was founded in June 1994 by three officers of the Islamic Association of Palestine (IAP)—Omar Ahmad (IAP President; became CAIR President), Nihad Awad (IAP PR Director; became CAIR Secretary & Treasurer), and Rafeeq Jaber (IAP Chicago Chapter President; became CAIR Vice President). Also, Ibrahim Hooper, who assisted Awad's media efforts, became CAIR's communications director. IAP was an Islamist organization that was later revealed to have raised money in the US for Hamas, though it billed itself as "a not-for-profit, public-awareness, educational, political, social, and civic, national grassroots organization".
In 1994 CAIR investigated and sought to resolve what it views as incidents of anti-Muslim insults and stereotypes in films, documentaries, greeting cards, and commercials. CAIR has continued to inform depictions of Muslims nationwide. It objected to a representation of Muhammad with a sword carved on a wall in the U.S. Supreme Court building; though it was unable to be removed, literature handed out on tours of the building was revised to reflect greater respect for Islam and Muhammad.
In 1995, CAIR handled its first case of hijab (the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women) discrimination, in which a Muslim employee was denied the right to wear 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 terrorist attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Following the attack, Muslim-Americans were subjected to more harassment and hate crimes; 222 hate crimes against Muslims nationwide were reported in the days immediately following the bombing.
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 incidents or news, often followed by information as to who 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 1998 CAIR convinced Nike to remake a line of sneakers with a design on the heel similar to the Arabic word for "Allah" .
CAIR joined other Muslim groups in condemning the September 11 attacks in 2001 "within hours of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center", which its considers to be consistent with its general approach to terrorism. As evidence, CAIR points to a paid advertisement it took out in the Washington Post condemning 9-11 and terrorism in general.
CAIR increased its advocacy work again after the September 11 attacks. In October 2001 CAIR stated that it was opposed to the US's Afghan campaign. 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."
In its 2002 civil rights report, CAIR concluded that "the status of Muslim civil rights has deteriorated sharply", and complained that "the sweeping actions of the government have disturbed the lives of individuals and ethnic and religious communities.” The largest percentage of complaints had to do with alleged profiling of Muslims at US airports.
CAIR has conducted investigations, issued reports, held press conferences, filed lawsuits, and organized political action to protest aspects of U.S. counterterrorism policy.
In 2002 CAIR launched an effort to "put quality materials about Islam in all 17,000 public libraries in the United States." The initiative was funded with an initial $500,000 contribution from Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, whose donation to the Twin Towers Fund was refused by then-Mayor Rudy Guliani because it came with a letter attributing US support for Israel for the 9/11 attacks.
In 2003 CAIR employee Randall "Ismael" Royer was arrested for his role in the Northern Virginia jihad terrorist network.
In 2004 CAIR launched a "Not In the Name of Islam" petition in order to "disassociate the faith of Islam from the violent acts of a few Muslims." It encouraged Islamic organizations, mosques, and individuals to sign it. The petition repudiated terrorism and any group that committed such acts, citing a portion of the Quran that told believers to stand for justice even if it was against friends or family. The petition was posted on CAIR's homepage, and garned over 690,000 signatures before being taken down in a sitewide renovation in 2007.
In 2005 CAIR coordinated the release of a fatwa 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 was notable, however, in that it did not condemn attacks on military targets, and is not—like other fatwas—binding on Muslims everywhere.
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.
check from Holy Land Foundation to CAIR
In May 2007, the US 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 300 other organizations, they listed CAIR (and its chairman emeritus, Omar Ahmad), Islamic Society of North America (largest Musim umbrella organization in the United States), Muslim American Society and North American Islamic Trust as unindicted co-conspirators.
The FBI, in a letter to Congress, has indicated that it named CAIR an unindicted co-conspirator due to transcripts, testimony, and other evidence showing a relationship between CAIR and its founders with the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Committee. While being listed as unindicted co-conspirator doesn't mean that CAIR has been charged with anything, the organization was concerned that the label will forever taint it.
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.
The Investigative Project on Terrorism reported that on August 7, 2007, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent testified at the Holy Land Foundation trial that CAIR was "listed as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Palestine Committee", that it had received money from the Foundation (conflicting with Nihad Awad's Congressional testimony), and that co-founders Awad and Omar Ahmad were "listed as individual members [of] the Brotherhood Palestine Committee in America."
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."
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-NC), Trent Franks (R-AZ), John Shadegg (R-AZ), and Paul Broun (R-GA) wrote Attorney General Eric Holder on October 21, 2009, that they were very concerned about CAIR's relationships with terrorist groups, and requesting that the DOJ provide each Congressman 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-CA), "appalled", said "I urge the rest of my colleagues to join me in denouncing this witch hunt." She was echoed by Keith Ellison (D-MN), 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-OK) and Congressman Patrick McHenry (R-NC), then wrote IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman on November 16, 2009, asking that CAIR be investigated for excessive lobbying and failing to register as a lobbying organization.
CAIR condemned the Fort Hood shooting and expressed prayers for the victims and condolences for their families.
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 setup a meeting with the FBI on December 1, and the families shared their sons' computers and electronic devices with FBI agents. A US law enforcement official described them as models of cooperation. CAIR hoped the event would ease "strained" relations of American Muslims with the FBI.
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.
CAIR officials are often interviewed by major national, local, and international media on news programs involving Muslims in America. In five years CAIR officials were cited over 11,000 times by media, including CNN, MSNBC, BBC, ABC, Fox, NBC, CBS, Washington Post, USA Today, and the New York Times. Editorials written by CAIR officials are published nationwide.
Partners and relationships
CAIR officials have met or regularly meet with current and former US Presidents, members of their respective administrations, members of the United States Congress, governors, mayors, members of state legislatures, and county commissioners. Several CAIR affiliates have received proclamations and citations from mayors and county commissioners.
The organization itself has received praise from congressmen and women to top military officials such as General Wesley Clark, who “applaud[ed] its efforts to ensure that all Americans…are treated equally and given the same constitutional rights.” CAIR also regularly meets with national, state, and local law enforcement officials.
CAIR has conducted diversity/sensitivity training on Islam and Muslims for the FBI, US Armed Forces, several local and state law enforcement agencies, and many US corporations.
CAIR works in close cooperation with other civic and civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, NAACP, Hispanic Unity, Organization of Chinese Americans, Japanese American Citizens League, Sikh Mediawatch, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and Resource Task Force.
CAIR has also formed a partnership with the National Council of Churches and held discussions with representatives of the National Association of Evangelicals. In 2003, the Ohio chapter of the ACLU gave its annual Liberty Flame Award to the Ohio chapter of CAIR "for contributions to the advancement and protection of civil liberties."
CAIR is also a member of the American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC), created in 1999, along with the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), American Muslim Council (AMC), and Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPC). AMPCC's primary concern is to coordinate the member organizations on activism and lobbying.
Reverend Jesse Jackson was a keynote speaker at CAIR's 15th annual banquet.
Critics of CAIR, including six members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, have alleged ties between the CAIR founders and Hamas. The founders, Omar Ahmad and Nihad Awad, had earlier been officers of the Islamic Association of Palestine (IAP), described by a former FBI analyst and Treasury Department intelligence official as "intimately tied to the most senior Hamas leadership."
Both Ahmad and Awad participated in a meeting held in Philadelphia on October 3, 1993, that involved senior leaders of Hamas, the Holy Land Foundation, and the IAP. participants went to great length and spent much effort hiding their association with the Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas]." Participants at the meeting discussed forming a "political organization and public relations” body, “whose Islamic hue is not very conspicuous."
Critics also point to a July 1994 meeting identifying CAIR as one of the four U.S. organizations comprising the working organizations of the Palestine Committee of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization and supporter of Hamas. At a 1994 meeting at Barry University, Awad said that he was "in support of the Hamas movement". CAIR has responded by noting that Hamas was only designated a terrorist organization in January 1995 and did not commit its first wave of suicide bombings until late 1994, after Awad made the comment.
Daniel Pipes and investigative reporter Steven Emerson accuse CAIR of being a front for Hamas, having ties to terrorism, as well as "offering a platform to conspiratorial Israel-bashers." The Anti-Defamation League and Emerson have also accused CAIR of having a long record of propagating antisemitic propaganda. Journalist Jake Tapper criticizes CAIR for refusing to condemn specifically Osama bin Laden and Islamic extremism, but rather making only vague and generic criticisms.
Pipes has accused CAIR of demanding that a billboard declaring Osama bin Laden "the sworn enemy" be brought down in 1998 as "offensive to Moslems", denying bin Laden's responsibility for the Africa embassy bombings, calling the conviction of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers "a travesty of justice," calling the conviction of the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman a "hate crime", calling the extradition order of suspected Hamas terrorist Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook "anti-Islamic", calling President Bush's closing of the Holy Land Foundation for collecting money used to support Hamas "unjust" and "disturbing", praising and defending convicted murderer H. Rap Brown as well as convicted attempted murderer Adnan Chaudhry, and their LA office head calling Israelis "zionazis"; he also quotes the FBI's former chief of counterterrorism Steven Pomerantz saying that CAIR "effectively" gives aid to international terrorist groups.
CAIR has also raised suspicions by raising its annual budget of around $3 million (as of 2007) in part through large donations from people and foundations identified with Arab governments. And some Muslims criticize CAIR for being overly conservative from a religious standpoint, for example by taking the disputed position that all Moslem women are required to veil their hair.
Omar Ahmad, Co-Founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, made Islamic supremacy statements like Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faiths, but to become dominant. The Koran, the Muslim book of scripture, should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on Earth." and CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said:"I wouldn't want to create the impression that I wouldn't like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future."
Responses to criticisms
CAIR suggested that "the statements and agendas of our detractors will show that they represent the extremes in our society." CAIR also stated on its website that in 2004 an FBI agent said "false claims originate from one or two biased sources," and that a senior FBI official said CAIR would just have to live with them. In early 2007, the New York Times said that more than one U.S. government official "described the standards used by critics to link CAIR to terrorism as akin to McCarthyism, essentially guilt by association." At that time (prior to the Holy Land trial), the Times called efforts to link the organization to Hamas and Hezbollah "unsuccessful," citing a retired FBI official who was active through 2005 and who suggested that while "of all the groups, there is probably more suspicion about CAIR", you don't get "cold hard facts".
The Times also noted that even though a handful of its former members had faced prosecution, no criminal charges had at the time ever been linked to CAIR. The article further suggested that because CAIR's Washington chapter has repeatedly issued controversial statements, it has been difficult "for senior government officials to associate with the group."
CAIR also says that accusations against it have their roots in its refusal to endorse the US's blanket condemnation of Hezbollah and Hamas, though it says it did criticize Hamas for civilian deaths.
Senator Boxer's 2006 decision "provoked an outcry from organizations that vouch for the group's advocacy, including the ACLU and the California Council of Churches. "They have been a leading organization that has advocated for civil rights and civil liberties in the face of fear and intolerance, in the face of religious and ethnic profiling," said Maya Harris, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California.
A book entitled Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That's Conspiring to Islamize America by Paul David Gaubatz and Paul Sperry was published in October 2009. According to the Charlotte Observer, it portrays CAIR "as a subversive organization allied with international terrorists."
Consequently, CAIR brought a federal civil lawsuit against Dave Gaubatz and his son (who had obtained the book's CAIR source documents as a CAIR intern) for allegedly stealing the documents. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly concluded that the Gaubatzs "unlawfully obtained access to, and have already caused repeated public disclosure of, material containing CAIR's proprietary, confidential and privileged information," which CAIR says included names, addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of CAIR employees and donors. As a result the judge ordered Gaubatz to remove certain documents from his website. Judge Kollar-Kotelly also said that CAIR's employees have reported a dramatic increase in the number of threatening communications since the release of Mr. Gaubatz's book.
Gaubatz agreed in early November to return more than 12,000 pages of disputed CAIR records while the judge considered the lawsuit, but in late November before he could do so the U.S. Government, which previously had no role in the lawsuit, filed a motion in the case under seal, and FBI agents served the Gaubatzes' attorneys with a grand jury subpoena demanding the CAIR records. The Politico noted: "In an interesting twist, despite the book's harsh claims that CAIR is part of a 'jihadist network,' the suit does not allege libel or defamation."