Will you withdraw your support from terrorist-connected CAIR?

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An open letter to Mr. Montel Williams from Middle East Forum

Dear Mr. Williams,

We would like to thank you for opening a conversation with your condemnation of the Council on American-Islamic Relations- New York’s (CAIR-NY) behavior in attacking law enforcement on behalf of Akayed Ullah’s family. We support the comments you expressed in your initial tweet. We were saddened, then, to see that tweet deleted because, it seems, you thought the support of an anti-Islamist organization is less palatable than holding groups such as CAIR to account.

We think you are mistaken in this case, and we are keen to discuss this matter frankly with you. We hope this letter will explain our outlook and work regarding Islamism, justify our concern about CAIR, and serve to encourage further constructive conversation between us.

The Middle East Forum shares your belief in confronting bigotry wherever you find it. It is because of this commitment that we work to study and challenge Islamism, and champion moderate and reformist Muslim voices.  

We believe that there is a vast difference between Islam, a religion that emphasizes prayer, charity, and self-reflection, and Islamism, a totalitarian political ideology that justifies violence and promotes hatred towards Jews, Christians, the LGBT+ community, and minority Muslim sects.

We believe CAIR is a key example of a nonviolent Islamist organization. While CAIR claims to be a civil rights group that advocates on behalf of American Islam, in reality, it is an un-elected Islamist body, with little mandate from American Muslims. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, around 88% of American Muslims did not say that CAIR represents their interests.

From its very beginning, CAIR has been linked to terrorism and threats to America’s national security. CAIR was founded in 1994 by three officials of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), which was later found to be a front for the terror group Hamas during the 2008 Holy Land Foundation terror financing trial. During that trial, federal prosecutors designated CAIR as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” Since the trial, the FBI has banned outreach with CAIR.

In addition, six senior CAIR officials (Randall “Ismail” Royer, Ghassan Elashi, Bassem Khafagi, Rabih Haddad, Nabil Sadoun, and Muthanna Al-Hanooti) have been arrested, convicted, or deported for terrorism-related crimes. And in 2014, the United Arab Emirates—itself a pious Muslim country—designated CAIR as a terrorist organization because of its Islamist links.

Beyond these ties to terrorism, many of the group’s current staff and officials espouse fundamentally illiberal ideas. The Anti-Defamation League believes CAIR is a key promoter of anti-Jewish sentiment. Indeed, during the early 1990s, when CAIR executive director Nihad Awad ran IAP, the organization distributed a pamphlet (stamped with its logo) called “America's Greatest Enemy: The Jew! And an Unholy Alliance!” Awad allowed the pamphlet to be distributed at the December 1994/ January 1995 Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA) conference in Chicago—which, incidentally, was the same conference at which Muhammad Siyam, a high-ranking Hamas official, told the crowd, “Finish off the Israelis! Kill them all! Exterminate them! No peace, ever!” And, in 2004, a federal judge even ruled that IAP was among three organizations that are legally responsible for the Hamas murder of a Jewish teenager in Israel.

CAIR also employs and partners with Islamist preachers and activists who incite hatred against the LGBT+ community. Siraj Wahhaj, for example, is a former member of CAIR’s advisory board and one of CAIR’s most regular speakers (he was a keynote speaker on December 9 at CAIR’s annual banquet in Santa Clara). Wahhaj has said: “I don't believe any of you are homosexual. This is a disease of this society. … You know what the punishment is, if a man is found with another man? The Prophet Mohammad said the one who does it and the one to whom it is done to, kill them both.” In 1992, Wahhaj threatened to burn down a LGBT-friendly mosque in Toronto.

Other regular CAIR speakers include Suhaib Webb and Omar Suleiman, who have respectively described homosexuality as “an evil inclination” and a “repugnant, shameless sin.” CAIR’s Florida branch director, Hassan Shibly, is one of CAIR’s most prominent national figures. He has described  homosexuality as “evil” and among “quick ways to earn God's wrath...”

Just a few weeks ago, Shibly also endorsed Khatme Nubuwwat, a violent international Islamist network entirely dedicated to inciting violence against Ahmadiyya Muslims, a peaceful and much-persecuted Islamic sect. In fact, those Muslims who do not fit into CAIR’s narrow box are liable to be cast out and smeared. In 2015, Sumayyah Dawud claimed that CAIR-Arizona dropped her as a client after learning of her transgender status. And Muslim women seeking to raise the issues of honor killings, female genital mutilation, and women’s second-class status in the Middle East were disrupted in their efforts to screen Honor Diaries, a documentary CAIR opposed and labeled “Islamophobic.”

In contrast, the Middle East Forum partners with moderate Muslims and supports their work. Our friends at the Quilliam Foundation, for example, are pluralistic Muslims who oppose Islamist groups, work to challenge the growing problem of radicalization, and support the separation between mosque and state. There are many such progressive Muslim groups that care just as much as any other American about protecting the rights of minorities and adhering to the rule of law. The Muslim Reform Movement, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and the American Islamic Congress, are all admirable groups that foster peaceful Muslim thought and oppose the radicals and enablers of hate speech within their faith.

Mr. Williams, we understand that your concern with these matters is driven by a deep patriotism. You are right to challenge anti-Muslim sentiment—it is un-American to demonize a people because of their faith. But by supporting CAIR, we believe you are not helping Muslims; you are inadvertently legitimizing Islamists, to the detriment of truly moderate Muslims everywhere. We ask that you cease your support for CAIR and work with reformist Muslim groups instead.

We hope this is the beginning of a productive conversation. We are keen to discuss these matters further with you and introduce you to some of the wonderful Muslim organizations and activists in this country working to free their faith from the grip of Islamism.

We look forward to hearing from you.



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