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Sen. Boxer rescinds award to Islamic activist

The man rep­re­sents a group some con­tend is extrem­ist. Sup­port­ers say right-wingers are just try­ing to silence Amer­i­can Mus­lims.

by Ashraf Khalil

Sen. Bar­bara Box­er has rescind­ed an award her office gave to a Sacra­men­to Islam­ic activist after crit­i­cism that the group he rep­re­sents — the Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Islam­ic Rela­tions — holds extrem­ist views and has ties to inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions.

“I’m say­ing the four words that every elect­ed offi­cial hates to say: ‘I made a mis­take,’ ” the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­c­rat said in a tele­phone inter­view Fri­day. “I hope they won’t believe that I did this to hurt the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty…. We just have to be more care­ful when we reach out.”

The U.S. sen­a­tor’s office rescind­ed a “cer­tifi­cate of achieve­ment” award­ed in Novem­ber to Basim Elka­r­ra, head of the coun­cil’s Sacra­men­to office. The rare pub­lic rever­sal fol­lows charges from right-wing activists that Box­er was court­ing Mus­lim extrem­ists by asso­ci­at­ing with the group.

The con­tro­ver­sy high­lights the com­plex­i­ties fac­ing lead­ing Amer­i­can Mus­lim groups in their deal­ings with elect­ed offi­cials — and vice ver­sa.

It recalls a sim­i­lar dis­pute sur­round­ing a deci­sion by the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Human Rela­tions Com­mis­sion to give an award to Dr. Maher Hathout last fall. A senior advi­sor to the Mus­lim Pub­lic Affairs Coun­cil, Hathout also faced charges of extrem­ism. After a bit­ter two-week pub­lic bat­tle, Hathout nar­row­ly avoid­ed hav­ing the award rescind­ed. In a rare revote, only four of the com­mis­sion’s 14 mem­bers vot­ed to reaf­firm Hathout, with the major­i­ty either absent or abstain­ing.

Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Islam­ic Rela­tions offi­cials say they and oth­er Mus­lim orga­ni­za­tions have been tar­gets of an ongo­ing, and some­times effec­tive, cam­paign to silence and mar­gin­al­ize Amer­i­can Mus­lim voic­es.

“There is a mar­ket for Islam­o­pho­bia right now,” said Hus­sam Ayloush, head of the coun­cil’s South­ern Cal­i­for­nia office. “It’s the same group of right-wing extrem­ists who are inter­con­nect­ed and feed off each oth­er and keep recy­cling the same alle­ga­tions.”

The con­tro­ver­sy start­ed when Joe Kauf­man, a Flori­da-based activist and long­time crit­ic of the group, post­ed an online arti­cle attack­ing the award to Elka­r­ra. Kauf­man, who runs a web­site called CAIRwatch.com, has long con­tend­ed that the coun­cil active­ly encour­ages and sup­ports groups such as Hamas and Hezbol­lah — both of which are on the U.S. gov­ern­men­t’s ter­ror­ism watch lists.

“We believe this orga­ni­za­tion should be shut down and that no elect­ed lead­ers should have any­thing to do with them,” Kauf­man said.

One of the largest Amer­i­can Mus­lim polit­i­cal groups, the coun­cil has seen its pro­file and mem­ber­ship soar in the last five years. The group had only eight offices as of Sept. 11, 2001. It now has 32, along with an active lob­by­ing arm based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Found­ed in 1994, the coun­cil describes itself as the coun­try’s lead­ing Mus­lim civ­il rights and advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion. Its local chap­ters have tax-exempt non­prof­it sta­tus, and its lead­ers deny any ties to Hezbol­lah or Hamas.

Box­er, who said she was unaware of the ini­tial deci­sion by her office to hon­or Elka­r­ra, said inde­pen­dent research by her office lat­er revealed trou­bling infor­ma­tion about the orga­ni­za­tion.

“It’s the vol­ume of things, not any one thing,” she said. “There’s a long list.”

That list includes sev­er­al indi­vid­ual coun­cil mem­bers who have been indict­ed on ter­ror­ism-relat­ed charges, as well as harsh crit­i­cism of the orga­ni­za­tion by some of Box­er’s con­gres­sion­al col­leagues. In 2003, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D‑Ill.) said the coun­cil was “unusu­al in its extreme rhetoric and its asso­ci­a­tions with groups that are sus­pect.”

In recent years the coun­cil has drawn a care­ful­ly cal­i­brat­ed line on ter­ror­ism — strong­ly crit­i­ciz­ing indi­vid­ual attacks and sui­cide bomb­ings but refus­ing to label Hamas or Hezbol­lah as ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions.

It’s also quick to con­demn Israeli attacks in Lebanon and the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries and label them as ter­ror­ism against civil­ians.

That crit­i­cism of Israel, coun­cil offi­cials say, is what’s real­ly fuel­ing the cam­paign against their group. Noth­ing short of endors­ing Israeli pol­i­cy, they say, will spare them from alle­ga­tions of extrem­ism.

“The minute we crit­i­cize Israel, then we become a non­mod­er­ate group,” Ayloush said. “You become pub­lic ene­my No. 1.”

The group also has a com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with fed­er­al law enforce­ment agen­cies. For­mer FBI coun­tert­er­ror­ism chief Steven Pomer­antz once said the coun­cil’s activ­i­ties “effec­tive­ly give aid to inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ist groups.”

But coun­cil rep­re­sen­ta­tives say they fre­quent­ly meet with senior FBI offi­cials, and the group has helped train FBI agents in how to inter­act with the Amer­i­can Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty.

Kauf­man, who reg­u­lar­ly con­tributes to the influ­en­tial web­site frontpagemag.com, denies asser­tions that he’s seek­ing to defame all Mus­lim groups. But he also said that none of the major Amer­i­can Mus­lim orga­ni­za­tions qual­i­fy as mod­er­ates in his view. The web­site touts a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions, such as “Big Lies: Demol­ish­ing the Myths of the Pro­pa­gan­da War Against Israel” and “The Truth About Muham­mad, Founder of the World’s Most Intol­er­ant Reli­gion.”

The coun­cil has respond­ed to Box­er’s snub by demand­ing a meet­ing with the sen­a­tor — an option Box­er said she would wel­come — and ral­ly­ing sup­port­ers of var­i­ous faiths. Among those sup­port­ers is Eliz­a­beth Sholes, direc­tor of pub­lic pol­i­cy for the Cal­i­for­nia Coun­cil of Church­es, who has worked per­son­al­ly with Elka­r­ra in Sacra­men­to.

“They’ve issued mul­ti­ple dec­la­ra­tions against extrem­ism and vio­lence both in the Mid­dle East and in the Amer­i­ca Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty,” Sholes said of the Mus­lim coun­cil. “I have found them in every instance to be absolute­ly ded­i­cat­ed to the issues of peace and jus­tice.”

The Mus­lim coun­cil is also encour­ag­ing sup­port­ers to con­tact Box­er’s offices to protest the deci­sion. A spokes­woman for Box­er said that as of Fri­day after­noon, the sen­a­tor’s offices in Wash­ing­ton and Cal­i­for­nia have received 19 calls on the issue — 15 of them against the deci­sion to rescind the award.

But Ayloush acknowl­edged that the sit­u­a­tion rep­re­sents a set­back for the group’s attempts to make inroads into Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment and soci­ety.

“For us, the award has lit­tle val­ue,” Ayloush said. “It’s the sym­bol­ism of a pro­gres­sive Demo­c­rat giv­ing in to pres­sure from right-wing Islam­o­phobes.”


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