CAIR defends its honor

The local Muslim-rights group fights for its reputation after Senator Barbara Boxer rescinds award

Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera said he wasn’t privy to information retained by the federal government, but that Basim Elkarra (pictured) “has been instrumental in helping us establish and maintain open lines of communication between the Muslim community and the police department.”

Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera said he wasn’t privy to information retained by the federal government, but that Basim Elkarra (pictured) “has been instrumental in helping us establish and maintain open lines of communication between the Muslim community and the police department.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Threats are nothing new for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. One arrived on December 31 in the e-mail box of Basim Elkarra, the executive director of CAIR’s Sacramento Valley chapter. It warned that what happened to Saddam Hussein, the recently executed former leader of Iraq, would happen next to Elkarra.

“It’s shaken me up,” Elkarra said.

Though Sacramento FBI Special Agent Karen Twomey Ernst said it was determined, “in short order by our office and the U.S. attorney general’s office that the threat was not credible,” it came at a time when Elkarra already was dealing with public criticism. He recently had received and then lost an award of merit from Senator Barbara Boxer’s office.

Boxer has never met Elkarra, who runs one of Sacramento’s most visible and active Muslim civil-rights organizations. In an e-mail to SN&R, Boxer said she had “been told [Elkarra] has been doing some very positive work in the community to foster a better understanding between people of different faiths.” Boxer’s office acknowledged this work by awarding Elkarra a certificate of appreciation last November “in recognition of outstanding service.”

But in December, Boxer abruptly rescinded the award, telling reporters she had “concerns” about CAIR. Her actions caused CAIR representatives to claim she had been influenced by anti-Islamic organizations regularly broadcasting accusations across the Internet.

Boxer told SN&R, “The public record is filled with many instances that caused me concern. But I don’t want to harp on the past.”

She said her decisions are “always based on the documented public record.”

A site called links to news reports suggesting that as many as five CAIR members, or past members, have been jailed or deported for supporting or doing business with terrorist groups or state sponsors of terrorism.

Elkarra denied that any member of CAIR’s staff had committed a crime while they were working with CAIR.

“CAIR can’t be judged by the acts of individuals who once worked for CAIR,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of CAIR, who’s helping Elkarra and the Sacramento chapter respond to Boxer.

“My staff routinely awards certificates of recognition and achievement to different people each year,” Boxer told SN&R. “Mr. Elkarra’s brother, who is a part-time intern in my San Francisco office, first came up with the idea, and my state staff approved the award without doing the proper research on the organization for which Mr. Elkarra works.”

Elkarra, who said his organization has plans to meet with Boxer to work out the misunderstandings, denied that his brother had made the recommendation, though he did work as an intern in Boxer’s office at the time.

CAIR is a national Muslim-rights organization with 32 chapters nationwide. Ayloush said CAIR’s stance against violence has led to a backlash on conservative blogs. “They’re upset that we stand against the war in Iraq.

“CAIR has 12 years of work exposing and combating extremism and terrorism,” Ayloush said. “The hurt comes from being accused of what we struggled against and were created to fight.”

Boxer’s award to Elkarra was not the first acknowledgement of CAIR’s contributions. In November of 2005 and September of 2006, Boxer commended CAIR San Francisco “for working to defend the rights of Muslim Americans” and “bridging the gap between people of all faiths in the United States.”

The Sacramento Valley chapter of CAIR has been part of a local effort by the Muslim community to educate other Americans about Islam in hopes of stemming future discrimination.

CAIR Sacramento’s 2006 activities included things like civil-rights activities, outreach activities to law-enforcement offices, lectures on Ramadan and Islam at universities, and work with hate-crimes task forces. The organization has been much honored. A list of the year’s awards not only included Elkarra’s award from Boxer, but also an “Outstanding Community Services Award” from former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

In a letter dated December 22, Nihad Awad, the executive director of CAIR, wrote to request that Boxer reverse her decision.

“On the subject of terrorism, CAIR has consistently and unequivocally condemned it,” read the letter. “I believe that research on CAIR that goes past the unending charges and innuendos that are an inevitable part of being a vocal, Muslim organization in the post-September 11th environment reveals a sound, law-abiding organization.”

“We received 15 calls to our Sacramento office,” Boxer said. “Seven in support of my decision and 12 opposed. We’re not revisiting the past. We are moving forward in a positive way with the entire faith-based community to do our part for a better America.”

One of those opposed sent a letter signed by 24 Florin Chapter members of the Japanese American Citizens League to Boxer requesting that she change her mind.

“Mr. Basim El-Karra, CAIR-Sacramento Valley, and other honorable Muslim Americans have earned our highest respect. They are the first line of defense for Muslim and Arab Americans in the fight against unjust scapegoating after 9/11, backlash and overzealous prosecution by the government. They deserve our firmest support. Their valiant work merits the highest recognition.”

Elkarra routinely faces protesters when he speaks publicly. One of the most vehement, he said, is a man from San Francisco who brought protesters to his recent lecture, “What you should know about Islam,” at UC Davis.

“The more bridges we build,” Elkarra said about the critic, “the more desperate he gets.”