American Muslim Organizations’ Mistakes Can Be Opportunities for Growth
by Sheila Musaji
Over the years, there have been a number of incidents involving Muslim organizations and their leaders and representatives that have been siezed on by the Islamophobic echo chamber to cast aspersions on Islam, and the entire American Muslim community.
In some cases, there may be a logical explanation. In some cases, it is possible that the facts have been misrepresented or distorted. If there is an explanation, then they owe it to the Muslim community to explain fully. In some cases, someone made a mistake. If they did make a mistake, then they owe it to the Muslim community to apologize for the mistake, and correct the problem that allowed that mistake to happen.
In every case, even in those of clear cut wrongdoing, dealing openly with the problem and correcting it, might turn a “scandal” into an “opportunity” to strengthen not only organizations, but the entire community.Here are a few examples of issues that have arisen and for the most part have not been dealt with appropriately:
In 1997, a coalition of Muslim groups petitioned to have the frieze of Prophet Muhammad in the Supreme Court building sandblasted. This effort was led by Nihad Awad and Ibrahim Hooper of the then newly formed CAIR. Here were the objections that CAIR expressed:
1. Islam discourages its followers from portraying any prophet in artistic representations, lest the seed of idol worship be planted.
2. Depicting Mohammad carrying a sword “reinforced long-held stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant conquerors.”
3. Building documents and tourist pamphlets referred to Mohammad as “the founder of Islam,” when he is, more accurately, the “last in a line of prophets that includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus.”
Even at the time, other American Muslims were surprised at objections to the frieze. More importantly, the question was considered important enough that a FATWA was requested. In response to a question about the permissability of this Supreme Court frieze, a lengthy FATWA WAS ISSUED by Sheikh Taha Jaber al-Alwani which can be read in full here in PDF. He says the fatwa is in response to the fact that some American Muslim organizations and individuals have expressed outrage” at the visual portrayal in that frieze. See The Frieze of Prophet Muhammad in the U.S. Supreme Court Building for a full background on this incident. As far as I know, these organization have never issued an apology. Here are critical passages from the Fatwa:
Still, despite these reservations, I have a great deal of gratitude and appreciation for those who insisted on including an image of our Prophet, Muhammad (SAAS), in that highly regarded site in the United States of America, in order to remind the whole world of the important contribution of the Prophet (SAAS). It is important that in a pluralistic culture like the United States he is symbolized as one of the select illustrious lawgivers who merit being honored.
... In a culture whose literary heritage is replete with disdainful images of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS), it is comforting to note that those in the highest Court in the United States were able to surmount those prejudices, and display his image among those of the greatest lawgivers in human history. Isn’t that effort a noble gesture that deserves from us, who believe in him as the Prophet and Messenger, every encouragement, esteem, and gratitude instead of disapproval, condemnation, and outrage?
... In following the Prophet’s (SAAS) example, we must remember that those who carved the frieze and placed it in the Supreme Court are not Muslims. So, it should not be expected that they would express what the Muslim believers usually express when they talk about the Prophet6 in his capacity as a Messenger of God (SAAS). As the Prophet (SAAS) himself respected freedom of conscience in his own dealings, so should we.
... My answer to this question is as follows: What I have seen in the Supreme Courtroom deserves nothing but appreciation and gratitude from American Muslims. This is a positive gesture toward Islam made by the architect and other architectural decision-makers of the highest Court in America. God willint it will help ameliorate some of the unfortunate misinformation that has surrounded Islam and Muslims in this country.
In 2003 when Abdurahman Alamoudi, the head of the American Muslim Council was arrested, Shahed Amanullah wrote about the scandal, but nothing from the American Muslim Council, the Muslim American Society, or any of the other national organizations with whom he had worked for years.
OPPORTUNITY: MPAC issued a statement which did discuss the importance of financial transparency, and the fact that “in the current climate, charges of dual loyalty can only be answered effectively if there is no financial connection between independent American Muslim groups and foreign funding sources, even if this has a negative impact on the ability of these groups to function.” However, this financial transparency is still not obvious with any national Muslim organizations. Regular financial statements should be posted on their online sites so that any Muslim can see where money is coming from and where it is going.
In 2005 CAIR doctored a photo by adding a scarf to a woman in the photo, Robert Spencer called it “Stalinism”, and the story was discussed widely on Islamophobic sites.
OPPORTUNITY: There was no response from CAIR or any other Muslim organization to this unfortunate incident. There should have been an apology issued.
In 2005 as part of CAIR’s distribution of packages of books on Islam to libraries, the Saudi revised version of Yusuf Ali’s Qur’an translation (which contains footnotes and commentary that many consider anti-semitic) was included in the package and was the translation that was being sent out to anyone who requested a free Qur’an. This happened, even though a 2001 donation of these Qur’ans to a Los Angeles school district by the Omar Ibn Khattab Foundation had led to a major scandal in which the L.A. school system pulled this translation from all of their libraries. The free Qur’an project now uses a new edition of the Muhammad Asad translation, thank God.
OPPORTUNITY: A year or so ago when CAIR re-started this program and sent out press releases I sent an email to Ibrahim Hooper asking which translation it would be, but never received a response. There is a real problem when we don’t even do our homework - or try to save money by using free translations donated by the Saudi’s, or whatever the reason was for getting the community involved in unnecessary scandals. There has not yet been an apology to the American Muslim community for this incident.
How many mosques and bookstores in the U.S. still have the Hilali-Khan Qur’an Translation on their shelves because they also were donated free of charge by the Saudi’s? This translation will definitely lead to problems for all of us. I know that it has been on the shelves of the largest mosque in Saint Louis, and that the individual in charge of the library there proudly showed me a large poster that they were going to put up which included the translation of Surah Fateha from this translation ”“Guide us to the Straight Way. The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who have earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).” (HK translation 1:1-7)” This in a library where they plan to hold interfaith meetings. I told the library director in person and in a letter how concerned I was about this and why - but don’t know whether or not he considered my concerns. He did not respond to my letter.
In 2007 when the Undercover Mosque Documentary came out. some Muslim Imam’s were caught on tape making inappropriate statements. In the course of the program there are short clips in which a number of different individuals are heard to make a number of extremist statements such as: —we hate the kuffar, and giving a definition of the word kuffar to include Christians and Jews; —Advocating segregation of Muslim children from non-Muslim children; —Saying that women are created ‘deficient’, women shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house without their husbands permission, and by the age of 10 women must wear hijab and if they don’t they should be hit;—AIDS is a Christian missionary conspiracy;—Calling democracy kuffarocracy. The explanations given to the documentary producers by mosque leadership included: - a separate group had rented the mosque for a program and they did not know what they would be talking about; the individual was a guest speaker and they did not know ahead of time what he would be saying; the views are not representative of the community, etc. Explanations given by the Imams included the ‘fact’ that the statements were taken out of context, or not the full statement, etc. This is unacceptable, after looking at both the documentary and the explanations it would seem that what is required is not an attempt to explain the unexplainable, but an apology.
MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Perhaps this documentary could serve as a strong incentive for serious discussions within local, regional and national Muslim organizations to produce some clear guidelines for dealing with this issue. Muslims in every community need to be encouraged to speak out strongly and clearly to their mosque leadership if they hear any speeches or khutbas that are extremist in nature. Muslims in every community need to check out the materials in their local mosque libraries and bring any extremist materials to the attention of mosque leadership. Muslims in every community need to let their leadership know that we will not tolerate extremism in our communities and that if the leadership doesn’t take action, then we will cancel our memberships and stop our financial contributions to mosques or Islamic organizations who allow extremists an opportunity to express their views. We need to let speakers know when they are out of line. We need to isolate the extremists, and to publicly condemn such extremist statements as those heard on this documentary. We know that there are those who are looking for something negative to publicize about the Muslim community, it makes no sense for us to allow such clowns to make it so very easy for them to do so. Also, our silence is taken as assent, not only by non-Muslims but also by young people in the community.
When the Islamic Thinkers Society/Revolution Muslim disrupted the Muslim Day parade in 2007, they were photographed displaying posters reading - “The Holocaust was a hoax” - “Muslims against Democracy and Western Values” - a sign calling for Khilafah - “Work for Peace - Ban the Talmud”, etc. They seem to be responsible for all the nasty signs that were photographed and widely published by Islamophobic groups.
MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Although few in number their extremist statements and misrepresentation of Islam seriously endangered all the Muslims in America. We need to be clear that in the words of the Pakistani song denouncing terrorism - Yeh Hum Nahin - This Is Not Us!!! These are Khawarij (extremists) and what they promote is a perverted version of Islam. If they are truly against democracy and Western values then they should not be in this country. If they (falsely) believe that the world is divided into dar al harb and dar al Islam and do not recognize dar al ahd (house of treaty) then they should not be in this country. If they are Muslims and are in this country on a visa or with a green card then they have an obligation under Sharia to honor the laws of this country as they have entered into a binding agreement by accepting the visa or green card. Since, we have no authority to force them to leave, the least we can do as Muslims is to speak out loudly and clearly and denounce them and their perverted interpretation of Islam. We need to make it clear to them and to any other Muslims confused by their rhetoric that this will not be tolerated.
The leadership of all the organizations that were involved in sponsoring this Muslim Day Parade never did speak out on this issue or make it clear that the Islamic Thinkers Society was not an official part of the parade and that their views were not acceptable. It makes no sense for us to allow a handful of extremists to become the focus of those wishing to demonize all Muslims. How can a handful of extremists gain more publicity than thousands of Muslims at this event? At the time of this incident I sent copies of my article about ITS to national Muslim organizations, and to the organizers of the Muslim Day Parade. Not one resonded either to me, or in print to the ITS.
Ultimately this group progressed to making threats against the creators of the South Park cartoon, posting praise for the Fort Hood massacre, and other genuinely extremist activities. Almost all of the members of the group are now in jail and their websites shut down. It is possible that much of this could have been avoided if a more proactive stance had been taken early on by the leadership of local and national Muslim organizations.[/url]
During the Holy Land Foundation trial in 2007, two of the claims most often used by Islamophobes to tarnish the entire American Muslim community were raised. The first is the infamous Muslim Brotherhood Document and the second is the Unindicted co-conspirator Designation. Just about every existing national American Muslim organization was tarnished by reference to these, and they have done little or nothing to put correct information in the public sphere. CAIR did publish a Legislative Fact Sheet: No Day in Court at this link http://www.cair.com/GovernmentRelations/IssuesandLegislation/NoDayinCourt.aspx but it is now a dead link. CAIR also published Top Internet Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories About CAIR in March 2012. This deals with a number of accusations made about CAIR specifically.
In 2008 a lawsuit was filed against CAIR alleging that a man named Morris J. Days who was represented as a lawyer for CAIR never was a lawyer and pocketed money which he collected from Muslims who had contacted CAIR’s Virginia branch office for assistance with their legal problems. The lawsuit alleges that beginning around June 2006, CAIR-Virginia employed Days as its “resident attorney” and “manager” of its civil rights department. Four plaintiffs – Rene Arturo Lopez, Aquilla A.D. Turner, Mohammed Barakatullah Abdussalaam and Bayenah Nur – claim they paid money to Days for legal assistance that they never received. On Nov. 23, an associate of Yerushalmi, retired U.S. Air Force investigator Dave Gaubatz, served notice of the lawsuit on CAIR executive director Nihad Awad and other CAIR officials at CAIR’s annual national fundraising banquet in Crystal City, Va. This allegation was raised on every Islamophobic site in the country, and thrown in the face of Muslims in order to disparage CAIR, and the Muslim community.
OPPORTUNITY: If CAIR has an explanation, they need to make it public, if they made a mistake, then they need to make a public statement and apology. CAIR does have a response to claims about CAIR PDF on its site but it does not speak at all about this or many other incidents, and it isn’t updated as new incidents happen. Note: This is the same Dave Gaubatz who later was involved with the “Muslim Mafia” incident.
The Alavi Foundation crisis in 2009 where an office building and several mosques owned by this organization were seized by the Federal Government because of its alleged ties to the government of Iran and for its financial dealings with Bank Melli which is a bank that U.S. citizens are prohibited from dealing with.
OPPORTUNITY: This is again a case where financial transparency and also simple legal advice might have averted a major scandal. How is it possible that a foundation with millions of dollars in assets did not know that US. citizens are prohibited from dealing with this bank? No American Muslim organization should be accepting or donating money to any foreign government entity. And, information about the source of all funds should be easily available to the community in order for us to decide who to support or not support.
In 2009, Nihad Awad of CAIR wrote a fundraising request letter to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. A copy of the text of the letter is here. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. cited this letter in a 2011 Congressional hearing, and it has been used many times to claim foreign funding for CAIR and other American Muslim organizations. In CAIR’s publication on dispelling false rumors, item #4 says
While the majority of CAIR’s financial support comes from American Muslims, CAIR is proud to receive the support of every individual—whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or of another faith background—who supports the organization’s mission of promoting justice and mutual understanding.
This willingness to accept support from foreign nationals exists as long as there are no “strings” attached to the donation. The U.S. government, corporations and many other non-profit organizations—such as the American Red Cross—routinely receive money from foreign nationals.
CAIR is frequently criticized for receiving $500,000 from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men. That money was donated specifically to CAIR’s Library Project, a program designed to distribute a set of books on Islam, the majority of which were written by non-Muslim academics, to libraries so that people can learn more about Islam. ...
The incident of the Qadafi letter is not mentioned and the explanation does not clarify the issue.
Recently, the book “Muslim Mafia” came out written by Dave Gaubatz, whose son had gotten a job at CAIR and then stole information and copied files on which the book was based. None of the charges in the book are serious, but how could such an important national organization not do their homework in finding out who this supposed “convert” using a phony name was? As TPM Muckracker points out “David Gaubatz, a former Air Force investigator and Arabic speaker, who dispatched his son Chris to grow a beard and go undercover as a Muslim to obtain an internship at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.”
OPPORTUNITY: A $20 employee background check would have turned up discrepancies in whatever application this fellow filled out. Also, a public statement on the part of CAIR explaining the situation to the community would have been very well received.
Inappropriate books and literature at mosques and Islamic bookstores. As Shahed Amanullah has pointed out: “Now we hear news from Australia that some irresponsible booksellers were selling books with racist views and one promoted terrorism - complete with an endorsement by Osama bin Laden on the cover. And a small Islamic bookstore in Leeds where two of the London bombers were known to have met has been found selling jihadi videotapes. Especially in the wake of the recent attacks in London, these kinds of materials in Muslim-owned bookstores is more than just irresponsible - it perpetuates the views and violence we all claim to oppose and leaves us open to accusations of intolerance once the media finds us red-handed with these books in our hands. So why are books like these offered for sale? Some, like the bookstore in Leeds, really want to promote violent jihad. Most, however, I found to be simply ignorant of the items they are carrying. While the typical American bookstore is staffed with people steeped in the literary arts, I found that most Muslim bookstores are run by businesspeople rather than bibliophiles. Unfortunately, they tend to place orders for a variety of books from distributors without being selective, and stock their shelves with whatever shows up. This can result in offensive books being put on display by otherwise well-intentioned people. The good news is that having a community with bad businesspeople, however unfortunate, is preferable to having a community with people who support terrorism. The bad news is that there’s still a lot of trash to clean up.”
OPPORTUNITY: Our community has two choices - we can let organizations like Freedom House rummage through our bookstores and mosques, holding up the most incriminating material they can find as evidence of “Muslim hatred”, or we can be informed consumers that police our own institutions and insure that racist or violent material doesn’t pollute our community. We should have a list of controversial materials that is available to local communities so that they don’t inadvertently have materials that may cause a problem.
Note: As happens too often, because such issues are not dealt with they repeat themselves. A bookstore in Canada was the most recent incident of issues with the content of books being sold.
In 2011, CAIR’S tax exempt status was terminated by the IRS for failure to file required tax forms, reputedly for several years. At that time, Rep. Frank Wolf provided a copy of a 2009 letter to the IRS from CAIR executive director Nihad Awad to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, in which he appears to solicit money for a CAIR project, and asked that the IRS investigate whether CAIR has illegally received or solicited funds from foreign governments or agents. You can see a copy of the letter here. The letter read in part I am pleased to send to Your Excellency in my name most solemn assurances of thanks and appreciation for the efforts you exert in the service of Islam, Muslims and all mankind through your initiative to teach Islam, spread the culture of Islam, and solve disputes, for which you are known internationally. Today we ask Your Excellency that you have precedence in supporting and backing the launch of the “Muslim Peace Foundation” which is concerned with the concept of dialog and coexistence based upon the principles of mutual understanding and respect among the followers of the divine [i.e. Abrahamic] religions. The “Muslim Peace Foundation” was registered in Washington, the Capital, as a non-profit organization. ... We anticipate—with the help of God—through scientific and practical awareness programs that this effort will be the most widespread and largest of its kind in the West. We have also pointed out in the attached founders’ message that the advisory bodies in the Foundation have estimated an annual operating budget of 15 million dollars with an immediate budget for founding and launch limited to 5 million dollars. To continue this Foundation in the long run we are also endeavoring to set up a Waqf which will support the budget of the Foundation for many years, We hope to be able to announce the launch of the “Muslim Peace Foundation” with an official celebration at the start of the new year, in which will participate major personalities of the American and international public.
MISSED OPPORTUNITY: The donation form on the CAIR site no longer says “donations are tax deductible”, it now only says “donations to CAIR qualify for zakat”. The organization has not other than that said anything to clarify this incident, or to deny the letter or its contents. Since the organization says that it does not take money from foreign governments, this letter (if legitimate) creates a major credibility issue.
Note: 7/30/2012 CAIR has regained it’s tax exempt status. The Huffington Post reports that “The Washington, D.C.-based CAIR and its related foundation were two of about 275,000 nonprofits that lost tax exempt status last year for not filing tax returns for three years in a row. Last month, the Internal Revenue Service sent a letter to the CAIR-Foundation Inc., saying the nonprofit had regained its tax-exempt status. “We are obviously pleased that all the paperwork issues have been resolved and our tax-exempt status has been restored,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for CAIR. Hooper did not know the details of what paperwork, including tax returns, had been filed.”
In 2011, after Osama bin Laden was killed, Muslim American Society-Freedom (MAS-Freedom) issued one of many statements by American Muslim organizations, however Khalilah Sabra, the MAS-Freedom National Immigration coordinator issued a second statement that seemed to praise bin Laden. This was picked up by Steven Emerson and entered the Islamophobia echo chamber. A complete background on this incident is at Steven Emerson/MAS/Khalilah Sabra Incident
OPPORTUNITY MISSED: MAS issued a press release saying that MAS-Freedom was being closed due to financial difficulties, and no further explanations for this entire incident have ever been made.
In July of 2013, there was a major controversy over whether or not Muslims should attend the White House or other government Iftars. The article Iftar Wars?: To Attend or Not To Attend has details about the various arguments presented on both sides of this issue.
In July of 2013, a number of allegations were made against (and denials of wrongdoing on the part of) ISNA-Canada and the ISNA Development Foundation (IDF). he Star in Canada published a detailed article Star Investigation: Federal audit raises concern that Canadian charity funded terror. That article reports that it is alleged that the Canadian government’s charities watchdog “is now threatening to revoke the charity status of Mississauga’s ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) Development Foundation.” And that “A Canada Revenue Agency audit revealed the foundation shipped more than $280,000 to a Pakistan-based agency, cash the government fears went to supporting the Hizbul Mujahideen — a militant group that seeks the secession of Kashmir from India. The foundation “facilitated the transfer of resources that may have been used to support the efforts of a political organization . . . and its armed wing,” the CRA said in a letter to the charity outlining its findings.”
In September, 2013, it was reported that [url=http://www.bramptonguardian.com/news-story/4121277-islamic-group-s-charity-status-revoked-over-suspected-terror-ties/]
Islamic group’s charity status revoked over suspected terror ties[/url]. The article noted: ”... The government stripped ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) Development Foundation of its ability to issue charitable tax receipts after auditors found the Mississauga organization, based on the south Service Rd. in Clarkson, sent more than $280,000 overseas.
The Canadian government fears the cash may have supported the Hizbul Mujahideen, a violent militant group that seeks the secession of Kashmir from India. ...”
See ISNA-Canada Charity involved in another controversy for details of all that is known to date about this controversy.
Opportunity unknown: Both the ISNA Canada, and ISNA US organizations issued statements, that were not particularly satisfying. At this point, the results of the government audits have not been released. Even after the charity lost its’ status, there were no further statements issued by ISNA. That is a shame because this controversy was discussed at length by every Islamophobic site in existence.
Between the 1990’s and 2014, there have been numerous attempts to form a Muslim Umbrella Organization representing Islamic organizations across the country, and across ethnic and sectarian lines.
Missed Opportunity: A number of such organizations have been formed and disbanded over the years, and the current organization, the Muslim Taskforce changes members regularly. In none of the incarnations of the various umbrella groups have all communities been represented, and the African-American community, particularly the Mosque Cares (W.D. Muhammad’s group) is glaringly absent after the 1990’s. There are no Shia organizations included. There are no Sufi organizations included. There are no women’s organizations included.
In many cases the composition and activities of these umbrella organizations have been misrepresented.
See How Hard Is It To Establish a Real Muslim Umbrella Organization? for a detailed discussion of the history of the failure to create such an organization.
In July of 2014, the issue of whether or not to attend the White House Iftar was again raised, but this time the debate was much more contentious, and the debate on social media became very angry. There were twitter hashtags for #whitehouseiftar and for #whitehouseiftarboycott. There was a Facebook page calling for a boycott and protest. And, there was a petition calling for a boycott. This year the debate raged even more after the event because of remarks made by the President, and the Israeli Ambassador.
MPAC was the only major national organization that made an official statement laying out why they chose to attend, and who published a statement after the event expressing their concerns about President Obama’s remarks at the Iftar. A few individual attendees posted statements about why they attended.
This controversy was noticed internationally, and Tariq Ramadan posted remarks about the controversy. All of the details about this controversy are laid out as updates to the original 2013 article Iftar Wars?: To Attend or Not To Attend.
In August of 2014, Prof. Tariq Ramadan published an article Why I will not attend the ISNA (August 2014) and RIS (December 2014) conferences. His article provoked an almost immediate social media storm. Other well known scholars and activists in the North American Muslim community have also jumped into this discussion: Dr. Sherman Jackson wrote a letter to Tariq Ramadan asking him to reconsider. Imam Suhaib Webb wrote Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Dr. Sherman Jackson and Two Illnesses that Plague Our Organizations and Institutions.
This controversy is very recent, and it is unknown at this point how it will play out.
On 8/12/2014, ISNA published a statement ISNA President’s Letter to the American Muslim Community in response to this controversy.
And, here are some examples of issues that have been dealt with appropriately:
Mohammad Ashraf of the Canadian branch of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) said he would ban Laleh Bakhtiar’s Qur’an translation.
OPPORTUNITY SIEZED: Ingrid Mattson, who was at the time the President of ISNA issued an excellent statement and carried the translation at the ISNA convention in the U.S. This is an example of a situation that was handled in an appropriate and professional manner, quickly and publically.
Warith Deen Umar made anti-semitic statements at the 2009 ISNA Convention which were picked up by the Islamophobia echo chamber and created some difficulties for interfaith dialogue.
OPPORTUNITY: ISNA released an excellent statement. Their response was appropriate and professional. The only concern is that not only ISNA, but all Muslim organizations need to have some sort of system in place to make such incidents much more unlikely. Back in 2003 the Wall Street Journal had published an article about this same Imam: “Over a quiet dinner at an Indian restaurant in upstate New York, Warith Deen Umar offered his views of Islam and the Sept. 11 attacks. “The hijackers should be honored as martyrs”, he said. Our national organizations need to maintain files with information such as this to check out possible speakers?
Islamic Relief Worldwide was sued by an employee that had been let go. During the course of the lawsuit, this individual published articles making claims against the organization and its’ leadership that could have done serious damage to yet another charity.
OPPORTUNITY SIEZED: Islamic Relief issued a Press Release spelling out the details and background of the entire situation, and answering the claims that had been made individually.
First published in 2005 and updated