ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: CAIR responds resolutely as 9/11 puts its faith to the test

Since 1994, CAIR has employed a well-rounded plan in its role as a top Muslim voice in the US. Sherri Deatherage Green finds this strategy has proven invaluable as it faces heightened attention post-9/11.

Since 1994, CAIR has employed a well-rounded plan in its role as a top Muslim voice in the US. Sherri Deatherage Green finds this strategy has proven invaluable as it faces heightened attention post-9/11.

When September 11 threw a high-beamed spotlight on Islam, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) didn't squint in the glare. The most personal and sensitive of topics - religion - suddenly seemed connected to a tragedy of unthinkable magnitude. Many reporters who rarely covered theology scrambled to understand Islam and how its American adherents responded to and were affected by the terrorist attacks. CAIR became arguably the most outspoken among a handful of organizations to which journalists turned for the Muslim perspective. CAIR was founded in 1994 by local activists in the Washington, DC area who felt the need for a "professional Muslim voice," particularly on civil rights issues, recalls Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's communications director and one of its original members. The organization's goal was to "promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in America." The necessity of such a mission grew not only from the religion's minority status in the US, but from Muslim immigrants' hesitancy to get involved in politics or public debates after moving here from non-democratic countries. "We work to explain what your rights are here, what kind of civic responsibility you have, how to participate even at the local level," explains communications coordinator Hodan Hassan. CAIR offers leadership training and workshops on topics such as media relations, coalition building, and community development, she adds. The composition of CAIR The organization consists of a 25-person staff in Washington and 10 other chapters throughout the country. A civil rights unit at the Washington headquarters fields and mediates complaints of discrimination and harassment. Workplace disputes might involve accommodations for Muslims' daily prayer times or restrictions on women wearing veils. The two-person PR team of Hooper and Hassan work with the civil rights division to identify and publicize cases illustrating broader issues, such as Middle Eastern men being asked to get off airplanes shortly after 9/11. And when companies don't satisfactorily respond to workplace complaints, for example, CAIR sometimes issues action alerts encouraging letter-writing campaigns. CAIR also employs government relations director Jason Erb, who tracks legislation, works with agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, coordinates projects with other Islamic organizations, and rallies grassroots support for political issues. Publications director Yusuf Stroehmier oversees development of reports, including an annual update on Muslim civil rights which documented a spike in reported cases of discrimination, harassment, and racial violence after 9/11. Stroehmier's division also publishes guides for employers, schools, hospitals, and correctional facilities on Muslim practices and religious accommodations. CAIR recently published its North American Muslim Resource Guide, which serves as an almanac of civic groups, mosques, schools, and community services. Intensifying efforts after 9/11 Before 9/11, CAIR strove to establish itself as a credible spokes-organization in the eyes of religion writers and other journalists covering issues such as labor relations and civil rights. CAIR regularly sent "Islam-Infonet" e-mails to journalists, as well as "CAIR-Net" postings to Muslims throughout the US. Hooper began sending daily news updates to both e-mail lists after 9/11, along with occasional action alerts rallying supporters to write letters to lawmakers or media outlets or otherwise apply grassroots pressure. "It just evolved from the sheer volume of information," Hooper recalls of the decision to send daily e-mails. "We couldn't limit ourselves to one item per message anymore." Some reporters describe those daily e-mails as voluminous and overwhelming, but the messages kept CAIR fresh on their minds. Media-call volume tripled, and Hassan transferred from the civil rights division to help out with press relations. "I'd be talking with The Washington Post with The New York Times on hold, and somebody would come in and say, 'You've got a call from CNN,'" Hooper says. Since then, CAIR has spoken out as an advocate of Muslim detainees, against waging war on Iraq, and with indignation about fundamentalist Christians' unfavorable depictions of the prophet Muhammad. It embarked on a quest to provide books on Islam to 17,000 libraries nationwide. It also took Fox News to task for what it sees as an unfair and sensational pattern of putting Muslims on the defensive against talk-show guests like Pat Robertson. CAIR's website (www.cair-net.org) distills some of its primary messages. Its FAQ and facts pages clarify Islamic beliefs, estimate the American-Muslim population at about 7 million, stress gender equality under Islamic law, and distance the Muslim community from Louis Farrakhan. The site also addresses word usage and style. For example, it points out that "Arab" and "Muslim" aren't synonymous, and that "jihad" doesn't mean "holy war," but rather its literal meaning is "to strive, struggle, and exert effort." CAIR encourages reporters to use the term "Islamic activist" instead of "fundamentalist," "radical," or "extremist," deeming such words stereotypical and pejorative. Responding to criticism Like any group taking strong stands, CAIR has its share of critics. The most vehement link it to militant groups. "It's to be expected when you play in the big leagues," Hooper says of the criticism, which he often links to Israeli sympathizers. "It's part of the political game. It's just something you must get used to if you're going to do this kind of work." More polite dissenters challenge CAIR's assertion that it offers consensus positions representing mainstream Islamic thought in America. Azar Nafisi, an Iranian visiting professor and director of the Road to Democracy project at Johns Hopkins University, says Islam's diversity and lack of hierarchy make defining "mainstream" difficult, if not impossible. "I don't accept any organization who claims to be representing mainstream Islam," says Nafisi. "I think they are representative of the ideas of certain political activists." Reporters recognize the difficulty of distilling Islamic viewpoints into sound bites, although one East Coast religion writer describes CAIR as responsive and a "reliable voice." Others in the heartland more often seek perspectives from local Muslims, some of whom distance themselves from CAIR. Some reporters question CAIR's objectivity and credibility since the group seldom acknowledges problems within Islam. Before 9/11, most concerns about the faith from outsiders centered on treatment of women in some Islamic countries, such as Afghanistan. Nafisi faults CAIR for not taking a stronger stance against such oppressive regimes. Hooper, however, notes that CAIR concerns itself with domestic issues and "doesn't work with overseas organizations." Yet CAIR has taken strong stances against Zionism and has accused US lawmakers of "pledging allegiance to Israel." "We've always taken the position that opposition to the brutal policies of Israel is in America's interest," Hooper says. Most positions CAIR takes, like most issues affecting Muslim Americans, aren't controversial, says Hooper. He says CAIR's goals and methods really haven't changed much since 9/11. "We just want to represent an Islamic perspective on issues of importance to the American public," he explains. --------------------------- Council on American-Islamic Relations Communications director Ibrahim Hooper Communications coordinator Hodan Hassan Government relations director Jason Erb Publications director Yusuf Stroehmier

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