Matteo Gemolo, a PhD candidate at Cardiff University
Known as one of the biggest American Muslim civil rights groups, The Council On American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has earned a reputation as one of the most controversial Islamic advocacy groups of our times. Leaders of the group have, for years, refused to address substantive concerns about their ties with extremist groups and terror finance entities. Aside from their out-in-the-open activities — which include defending American Muslims from ‘Islamophobic’ attacks and charity — CAIR’s executives have never explicitly denied their theocratic goals. To understand their more recent activities — such as collaborating with the faith-based firm Azzad Asset Management, Amana Mutual Funds Trust and the controversial Islamic Society of Baltimore — it is important to cast light on the political basis of CAIR’s very foundation.
Projecting a Moderate Image
In the early 1990s, CAIR’s current National Communications Director and spokesman Ibrahim Hooper declared that “Muslim political activism is still in its infancy… we have a lot of work to do.” Hooper — an American convert to Islam — went on to become one of the most influential and vocal figures in promoting Muslim values across the US. Born Douglas Hooper, he holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication. When interviewed, he often uses ambiguous language when cautiously delivering his arguments. He carefully stresses the importance of political action over violence and is always mindful to appear as a ‘moderate’. In a 1993 interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he said: “I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I wouldn’t like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future, but I am not going to do anything violent to promote that.”
Ten years later in 2003, he put out another (in)famous statement, defining Wahhabism as: “one of those terms which is invented to scare people about Muslim bogeymen”, adding that “it’s just all part of the extremely powerful right wing and their agenda right now to demonize Saudi Arabia and anything associated with Saudi Arabia.”
Hooper’s hypocritical attitude has been deeply embedded in the DNA of the organization that he helped fund in 1994. Behind the smokescreen of protecting fellow American Muslims from stereotypes and prejudices, CAIR has repeatedly refused to acknowledge any Quran-inspired forms of violence, constantly underplaying the role of religion in politics. Such underhanded tactics have been designed to promote an image of Islam that conveniently ignores its more radical fringes and portrays it as a religion of peace, freedom and tolerance in American society.
Hypocritical Stance on Free Speech
On the one hand, CAIR officially champions ‘freedom of speech and expression’ (as stated on their website as one of its core principles) when it comes to defending like-minded academics and backing, for instance, the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestments, Sanctions) movement. On the other hand, the same support for free speech seems to vanish when it runs counter to its own political agenda.
On June 2, 2020, CAIR filed a lawsuit in Arizona federal court against Maricopa Community College District and Professor Nicholas Damask, condemning the use of course materials which have, accordingly to CAIR, “the primary effect of disapproving of Islam.” CAIR cited a quiz in Damask’s online class in which links between Islamic doctrine and terrorism were made.
On October 19, 2011, CAIR co-signed a letter asking officials in US President Barack Obama’s administration to “purge all federal government training materials of biased materials (against Islam)” and “implement a mandatory re-training program for FBI agents, US Army officers and all federal, state and local law enforcement who have been subjected to biased training.” The letter was positively received by the Obama administration. Former US Attorney for the District of Oregon Dwight C. Holton came out with a strong public statement: “I want to be perfectly clear about this. Training materials that portray Islam as a religion of violence or with a tendency towards violence are wrong, offensive and are contrary to everything that this president, this attorney general and Department of Justice stands for. They will not be tolerated.”
Shaky Relationship with Law Enforcement
CAIR’s mistrust in American law enforcement agencies is equally well-known. In a poster published online by CAIR’s California Chapter (and later taken down under pressure from national headquarters), Muslims were invited to “build a wall of resistance / don’t talk to the FBI”, following the example of a caricature of the Statue of Liberty making the ‘shhh’ sign.
CAIR has also proved to be reluctant to establish healthy partnerships between law enforcement and community leaders, even when it came to fighting radicalization. According to a study conducted by George Washington University in November 2018, prison radicalization represented “a major factor in how the threat of terrorism will unfold over the next decade.” A program which would have involved Ta’leef leader Usama Canon and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department was subsequently launched with the goal of preventing radicalization in prisons. However, under pressure from CAIR, this program was cancelled. Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR believed that, instead of preventing extremism, the project was aimed at targeting and spying on members of the Muslim community. To the surprise of no one, in June of the same year, CAIR filed a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles for accepting a federal grant of $425,000 to tackle radicalization.
Ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood
Controversial stances are not new to executives of CAIR either. Omar Ahmad — a co-founder of the organization who had previously worked for the Islamic Association of Palestine, a precursor of CAIR (already accused of raising US money for Hamas) — declared in a public speech in California in 1998 that “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Quran is the highest authority in America, and Islam is the only accepted religion on earth.”
CAIR is often rightly perceived as two-faced. While part of their workload deals with anti-defamation, civil rights and the dissemination of ‘an Islamic perspective on issues of importance to the American public’, the group has ties with members the Muslim Brotherhood and its spiritual leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who blessed the organization for its charitable giving (Zakat). The group is also tied to the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) — a Hamas front group which has both donated to CAIR and received funds from CAIR after the 9/11 attacks.
In November 2014, CAIR was listed as a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates, along with the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS. At first glance, the designation might appear rather extreme. CAIR has often intervened against death fatwas and local episodes of extremism. For example, in 2006 it called on the government of Afghanistan to ask for the immediate release of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan citizen who was facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity. CAIR supported his cause by writing a statement in which a number of Quranic verses were cited to provide a religious basis for his case against the accusation of apostasy. In the same year, CAIR officially condemned the burning of churches in Nigeria by Muslims angered over the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten Prophet Mohammad cartoon controversy. They gave a $5,000 check to the Catholic community in Nigeria to help with the cost of repairing the church. What is more, CAIR executives often issue statements to promote peace, freedom of religion and condemn violence.
Ties to Sharia-based Financial Institutions
But beyond such humanitarian appeals (mainly dealing with the small fry), CAIR teams up with influential and rather controversial companies, including the faith-based firm Azzad Asset Management located in Falls Church, Virginia. Azzad offers halal investments and financial planning to fellow Muslims who wish to invest money under Islamic principles of Sharia law. Following halal investing guidelines established by AAOIFI (the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions), Azzad offers services such as Zakat — the financial obligation every Muslim must pay on surplus wealth above a certain amount (Nisab) – and ‘purification’, a procedure which promises to cleanse haram incomes (such as alcohol and tobacco stocks) while making donations to charities.
To ensure AAOIFI requirements are respected, Azzad has an active three-member Sharia advisory board which includes Dr. Mohamed Adam El-Sheikh, a Sudanese activist from the Muslim Brotherhood, former regional director for the Islamic American Relief Agency (cited by the Treasury Department as having ties with Al-Qaeda) and imam and director of the Islamic Society of Baltimore. The latter is known as a mosque which often hosts speakers who openly promote ‘a radical but disciplined message on jihad’. What is more, during El-Sheikh’s administration, the same mosque actively called on its members to financially support Chechen jihadists and other terror finance entities, including Benevolence International Foundation and the website Qoqoz.net, operated by the Caucasus Emirate terrorist organization.
‘Putting faith in Islamic mutual funds’ is one of the core missions of CAIR. Amana Trust Growth and Amana Income represent two of the largest Islamic mutual funds with which CAIR has been working since its foundation. Their combined asset base has risen from $37 million in 2002 to $450 million today. Both funds are managed by Saturna Capital which has three Sharia advisors, all of which are or have been connected to the global Muslim Brotherhood. In particular, Salah Soltan is known for his extreme views. He was later deported after federal authorities decided to suspend his application for American citizenship. His long list of anti-Semitic statements includes the infamous fatwa he issued on August 2011 on Al Jazeera calling for the killing of the Israeli ambassador. He said: “as someone who has studied Islamic law specializing in Islamic jurisprudence, I am calling to kill the [Israeli] ambassador, not just expel him.”
Various donors connected to extremists and terrorist groups have repeatedly funded CAIR since its birth. As early as 1994, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), which was accused of providing support to Hamas (as reported by the IPT, The Investigative Project on Terrorism), made its first $5,000 donation to CAIR, becoming a subject of controversy during a 2003 civil deposition. In its effort to build its $3.5 million headquarters in Washington, D.C., CAIR received both ‘moral and financial support’ from the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) — a Saudi-supported group which encourages Muslims to “teach our children to love taking revenge on the Jews and the oppressors…and make jihad for the sake of Allah.”
Although CAIR puts on a ‘moderate’ face for the US public, its undeniable ties to many extremist organizations has made it a rather ambiguous institution. It tries to defend the doctrine of Islam under the guise of fighting Islamophobia, as recently exemplified by their empty cries against the 2019 Disney movie-remake of Aladdin. However, it does little to fight radical and violent extremism within the American Muslim community. The deafening silence surrounding many cases of Islamic fundamentalism and CAIR’s ambiguous relationship with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups risk to harm members of the same community CAIR wishes to defend, making it even more difficult for the American public to differentiate between the diverse and rival political embodiments of Islam and extremist fringe groups.