On Dec. 10, 2015, the Council on American-Islamic Relations evacuated its Washington, D.C., office after being sent an envelope containing white powder and a threat. The group then faced something it had never experienced: broad public sympathy.
“We were seeing personal messages coming from people we do not know,” marveled Nihad Awad, the group’s co-founder and executive director. “People sending donations to CAIR that are not Muslim, with very nice messages, people saying, ‘Please, this is my small contribution, but I want you to know you're not alone.’”
That wasn’t the only new thing happening at the group’s dingy headquarters in a Capitol Hill townhouse. Awad said he got dozens of calls from members of congress and non-Muslim clergy. Then he made his first appearance on a Sunday morning political talk show — a key elite credential — after 21 years leading the organization. The next day, the head of CAIR’s Florida Chapter, Hassan Shibly, was invited to a meeting of Muslim leaders at the White House, the first time in many years CAIR has been represented at a gathering of that sort. It was CAIR’s third White House visit this year, after many years of being locked out.
It took Donald Trump to bring CAIR into the political mainstream. His rise, and a new wave of anti-Muslim politics and actions, focused a new kind of public attention on American Muslims and their defenders. And it made CAIR — complicated and uncompromising — inarguably central.
CAIR has a deep organization that would be the envy of most civil rights groups: some 35 staff lawyers and a wide national network. It has become, for many American Muslims, the first call in crisis. When “clock kid” Ahmed Mohamed’s family wanted an apology and a payment from his Texas school district, they turned to CAIR. And a CAIR lawyer was the first person Syed Farook’s family called to help them navigate the media and the investigators seeking answers after the mass shooting in San Bernardino.
But CAIR has also failed to get a seat at the most important tables of American politics and media. Its access has been limited by open conflict with the FBI over surveillance of U.S. Muslims, but also by ties in its early years to militant and Islamist groups; by taking an interest in foreign policy, in particular the liberation of Palestine — a third rail in current American politics; and by its mixed identity as a civil rights group and a faith-based organization.
CAIR devotes much of its resources to civil rights — but it also sometimes seems to act as an arbiter of what exactly Islam is, and does not draw a clear line between religion and politics. The group’s 2013 budget, the most recent available in standard nonprofit disclosure forms, reflects a split between civil rights–focused lawyering and communications work, and an educational department that spends more than those two combined, among other things mailing out thousands of Qur'ans.
Awad’s longtime spokesman and partner in activism, Ibrahim Hooper, explained to BuzzFeed News how the group’s religious character intersects with its civil rights work. “I’ve had calls from people saying, 'I was thrown out of a bar because I’m Arab' — and we’re not going to take that case,” said Hooper. CAIR also once turned down the case of a woman who said she’d been denied a job dealing cards in a Las Vegas casino because she wears a headscarf. “Good luck with that. At a very basic level, we’re not going to support things that are absolutely prohibited in Islam.”
He also said that while they will defend women who want to fully cover their faces with a Niqab, they don’t issue statements on those cases because “we don’t believe it’s a thing you have to do.”
“Our goal is to be respected, not to be accepted,” Awad said this week in an interview in an overheated CAIR conference room. He sat in the least comfortable chair at the long table, and paused to turn on a clunky air conditioner. “If people are coming now to respect CAIR, I welcome that. But we don't seek acceptance and we don't seek to apologize for anything. We are proud American Muslims, we are proud of the Constitution, and sooner or later American Muslims are going to be at the table.”
Awad, now 54, was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. He came to the United States at 23 to study engineering, and with with rimless glasses, indifferent suits, and a clunky digital watch, he looks more like the engineer he was training to be than the campus activist he became. CAIR’s enemies — who are many, and were joined by presidential candidate Ben Carson, who called them a “terrorist group” last week — point to Awad’s support for Palestinian militants in the early 1990s and his sharp criticism of Israel as part of a case that CAIR is the American arm of a global Islamist movement.
The organization he built is complicated — structurally and politically. Awad heads the Washington office, with an annual budget of $3.3 million in 2013. Much of the group’s energy resides in local chapters in 20 states, which are pledged to align with CAIR’s stated principles, but are independently incorporated, raise their own money, and operate with day-to-day autonomy. “CAIR is like McDonald’s,” explains Awad.
In the 1990s, CAIR focused largely — even primarily — on the rights of women wearing headscarves. They joked that they should be called the “hijab defense league,” recalled Hooper. On Sept. 17, 2001, Awad was among the Muslim leaders who met with President George W. Bush as the White House sought to make clear it distinguished American Muslims from the terrorists who brought down the twin towers.
But their moment as one of the official representatives of the diverse, disorganized, and ethnically and culturally divided American Muslim community quickly passed. Awad’s instincts are for confrontation, not conciliation, and the group then staffed up on lawyers and became the go-to defenders both for Muslim Americans facing a backlash and discrimination and for Muslim Americans swept up in the Bush administration’s "war on terror." They became a regular antagonist of federal prosecutors and the FBI. The Justice Department, meanwhile, investigated their ties to, in particular, the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas — Awad has said he backed the group only before its 1990s suicide-bombing campaigns — and named CAIR as an unindicted co-conspirator when it charged the largest U.S. Muslim charity, the Holy Land Foundation, with funneling money to Hamas. CAIR was never charged with anything, but the federal statement has dogged the group.
(You can spend days on the internet reading people arguing about CAIR. If you’d like the case against them, here is a recent memo from the Anti-Defamation League describing its “anti-Israel agenda” and detailing allegations of ties to militant groups, and an op-ed by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey accusing CAIR of downplaying extremism. Here is CAIR’s point-by-point response to much of the criticism. Also worth reading are 2012 defenses of the group from critics inside and outside the Muslim community.)
The FBI has a formal policy of not cooperating with CAIR except on specific cases, though Hooper said they talk to the bureau almost daily on civil rights issues. Other federal agencies — and now the White House — work with the group. An administration official issued a bland statement when asked about the group’s inclusion, but there’s a heated running debate inside the White House about whether or not to embrace CAIR, two sources familiar with the debate said.
Awad — whose words appeared on federal wiretaps in 1993 in an investigation into fundraising for Hamas — says he doesn’t know whether the FBI is still keeping him under surveillance. “I don't know, I hope they're not. But I think they may. I'm an open book, it's a waste of resources. It's shameful.”
But he has studied the history of the American civil rights movement, and sees himself and his group in that tradition. “I was not born yesterday. I know what the civil rights movement go through even in the 21st century,” Awad said. “I’ll never compare myself to Martin Luther King, but Martin Luther King — today we celebrate his birthday and federal employees take that day off, including FBI who spied on him.”
The U.S. political hostility to CAIR, and its organized opposition, is tied in part to the group’s roots in Palestinian activism, and its refusal to compromise, or soften its tone, on Israel. That’s not something Awad, who described Israel last year as "the biggest threat to world peace and security," is about to soften on. “Many people will say Israel has been the passcode” to mainstream acceptance, he said. “I think that will change.”
He does, though, say his own “thinking has evolved” on the subject, and that CAIR is actively trying to build working with “anyone who is really serious about peace,” including a prominent left-leaning rabbi with whom he had a call scheduled that day.
Still, CAIR, which tends to compare itself to civil rights advocacy groups like the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League — eludes easy analogy, because of the broad portfolio it takes on, and also because of its explicitly religious mandate.
The question of whether faith, or foreign policy, should be allowed to get in the way of civil rights work is clearly a matter of some debate inside the organization, and different officials answer questions about those questions differently. But CAIR approaches issues that others see in secular terms — as profiling of Pakistani immigrants, for instance, or surveillance of Palestinian activists — as questions connected to faith. The group, he said, defends Muslims’ “religious rights.”
Awad declined to directly engage the two examples offered by Hooper of cases CAIR wouldn’t take, involving anti-Arab discrimination and an observant Muslim working in a casino who wasn’t allowed to wear her headscarf.
“That call goes to the lawyers, not to me,” he said. “The critical case is the civil rights case. I'm not going to defend that person’s religious or nonreligious choice of going to the bar or not; if someone is attacking him because of his religious identity, I'm obligated to defend his civil rights. I have not tackled this case myself, and luckily it goes through the lawyers. The lawyers have the objective criteria and they defend the right person.”
And CAIR’s decentralized chapters include more conservative and more liberal leaders, and — like the U.S. Muslim community broadly — are in the midst of a generational transformation.
“There had been a disconnect at times with the younger generation perceiving CAIR as an older generation, and less in touch with what they’re dealing with,” said CAIR's chair Roula Allouch, a 35-year-old Cincinnati lawyer and a member of that second generation of children of immigrants. She, too, said the case of someone being thrown out of a bar was a hard one, to be judged on a case-by-case basis — but also that CAIR’s leadership is weighing a change in direction.
“I don’t know that that will continue to always be a case that we don’t focus on,” she said of the bar example. “There’s no goal or desire to become secularized,” she said, but added, “I want everyone within the community, regardless of their level of religious observance, to feel connected to and protected by CAIR's work.”
Linda Sarsour, a New York activist who often works with CAIR, said she sees a generational shift toward “social justice” causes that have included, in particular, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Awad attended the funeral of Michael Brown. A generation of American-born Muslims is less divided by the ethnic and sectarian differences — between immigrants and native-born, and between, black, Arab, and South-Asian Muslims — that has made the very notion of an American Muslim community elusive. Coalition-building “is the wave of the new generation,” she said.
There are more difficult generational questions there: CAIR was notably silent, for instance, on the central generational issue of the last several years, marriage equality, though it has worked with LGBT groups on anti-bullying legislation. The issue of marriage equality “hasn’t come up” and “we haven’t said a word” on it, says Hooper. Here, too, there are diverse views inside the group. Zahra Billoo, the high-profile 32-year-old executive director of the group’s San Francisco area office, said she personally supports marriage equality but that her local organization is neutral. She also noted that a “logical extension” of the legal principle could be used to advocate for Muslims in polygamous marriages, but that that isn’t a priority for the organization “while mosques are being firebombed.”
Some of the shift toward clearer focus on the civil rights of Muslims in the United States — and away from foreign policy and faith — are playing out in those local chapters. Billoo said she’d faced complaints from more conservative local Muslims when her office brought a lawsuit on behalf of a woman seeking to wear her hijab to work at Abercrombie & Fitch. “We heard from community members saying, 'But why did she want to work there, that’s such a gross place?'” They brought the lawsuit anyway.
CAIR's loose structure leaves space for internal debate. For instance Shibly, the executive director of the fast-growing Florida chapter, said he doesn’t think mailing out Qur'ans is a particularly good use of resources and that his chapter doesn’t do it.
“CAIR is not monolithic,” he said. He also rolls his eyes at the allegations that CAIR is the American arm of a global Islamist movement. “We find all these accusations funny — the idea that I'm secretly Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, brushing off “all this old-generation foreign policy, Middle East garbage that has nothing to do with me.”
CAIR, he said, “isn’t a religious organization at all.” One of his top staffers, he pointed out, had published an article rejecting the idea that Islam requires women to cover their heads. He hired her despite their disagreement on the subject.
Still, some remain skeptical that CAIR can successfully cast itself as an inclusive, mainstream organization.
“Their approach can sometimes reinforce stereotypes and certainly buys into too narrow a narrative about what Islam is or is not — very socially conservative and not representative of many Muslim Americans," said Hussein Ibish, a former spokesman for the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee and longtime CAIR skeptic. "Because of these attitudes and the political constituency from which a few of their core leaders emerged, they have some political and ideological baggage that much of the Muslim American community has no reason, shouldn't and wouldn't want to carry.”
CAIR isn’t about to get simpler, but the debates over the organization have been, in some sense, superseded by CAIR's sheer capacity to defend a community that is, more obviously than it has ever been, under a kind of public attack. It is far from the only Muslim advocacy group, but it’s much the best known, best funded, and best at inserting itself into the media conversation.
“Donald Trump did us a favor in highlighting the level of anti-Muslim rhetoric that is acceptable in this country,” said Shibly. As a result of it, his chapter is getting more calls than ever.
Federal statistics show Muslims as the second-most likely targets of religiously based hate crimes in 2014, after Jews, who make up more than half of reported cases. This year, anti-Muslim incidents have tripled, according to a recent California State University study.
Back at the conference room in Washington, Awad said he thinks the current moment is testing the United States, rather than testing CAIR.
“History books will write those moments,” he said. “They will see who played games with people’s fear, who manipulated fear, and who stood out. How the Muslim community will be dealt with, how it will be treated, will define what kind of America we have in the 21st century."