Council puts friendly face on Islam

Yasser Moten grew up loving his Islamic religion, but hating the negative stereotypes some associated with it.

As an adult, he decided he could continue being frustrated or try to do something to change those perceptions.

So when he heard the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, was opening a Las Vegas office and looking for an executive director, he jumped at the opportunity.

"I wanted to help people understand Islam, to be educated about what it is and isn’t," the 27-year-old Valley High School and University of Nevada, Las Vegas grad said.

Part of CAIR’s stated mission is to enhance understanding of Islam, whose followers say is an often misunderstood religion.

CAIR is also a civil rights group that steps in to help Muslims who have been the targets of discrimination.

But CAIR has faced its share of controversy, and not everybody is welcoming the chapter with open arms.

"Usually I distance myself away from organizations that are controversial," said Aslam Abdullah, director of the Islamic Society of Nevada. "Some ordinary people have concerns and questions" about the organization.

CAIR has been accused of having ties to terrorist groups and of being a front for Muslim extremists.

Critics say the group was established with financial help from the Holy Land Foundation, which the federal government has alleged was a terrorist fundraising group.

One of CAIR’s former employees is serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison for weapons charges related to what government officials said was a Virginia-based Islamic terrorism network.

CAIR has defended itself on its Web site with a page titled "De-Mystifying ‘urban legends’ about CAIR."

Moten said CAIR condemns all acts of terrorism and prides itself on its strong relationship with law enforcement.

"If anyone has any concerns about our organization, I’ll go with them to the FBI," he said.

Local FBI spokesman David Staretz said his office welcomes CAIR to the community.

"We understand that they have an important mission in increasing the awareness of the Islamic culture," he said. "We look forward to building a relationship with them."

Staretz would not comment further or specifically discuss controversies linked to CAIR.

CAIR is a nonprofit with 33 offices and chapters nationwide. It has ties with other civil rights organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

"It’s an organization that is deeply committed to principles of fairness and equality," said Gary Peck, ACLU of Nevada’s executive director. "They’re interested in ensuring that everyone’s basic rights are respected."

Peck commended CAIR for supporting the ACLU in its representation of Steve Riback, a Metropolitan Police Department detective who filed a federal lawsuit against the department after he was prohibited from wearing a cap or beard in observance of his Orthodox Jewish beliefs.

Moten said CAIR decided to open in Las Vegas because of the area’s growing Muslim population, estimated at 18,000. The office’s opening was not a response to any increased local complaints about civil rights violations from Muslims, he said. In fact, local Muslim leaders say Las Vegas has welcomed Muslims.

Still, Moten’s small downtown office has been busy mediating between several Muslim women and employers who weren’t allowing them to wear the hijab, or head scarves, at work.

Moten said such instances usually result from misunderstandings about Islam, which emphasizes modesty.

"We are there to help Muslims and to educate non-Muslims about Islam."

He attributes the criticism of CAIR to its success as a civil rights organization.

"CAIR is the most vocal (organization) in challenging anti-Islamic discourse," he said. "The people who are advocating anti-Islamic views are doing it so their views can be noticed. If CAIR was spineless and didn’t challenge anyone, we would be left alone."

The organization has come under fire in part because one of the founding members of the board of directors of its Texas CAIR branch, Ghassan Elashi, is the Holy Land Foundation’s former chairman. The foundation was once America’s largest Muslim charity, but was shut down by the Treasury Department in 2001. Government officials have alleged it was raising money for terrorist groups.

CAIR was named one of 300 "unindicted co-conspirators" in the case against Holy Land. Also named were the Islamic Society of North America and other prominent Muslim-American leadership groups.

A federal judge this month declared a mistrial on most charges in the case after jurors said they couldn’t reach a unanimous decision on them.

Randall "Ismail" Moyer, who once worked for CAIR, pleaded guilty in 2004 to weapons charges related to what government officials said was a terrorism network with ties to the Lashkar-e-Taiba group seeking to drive India out of Kashmir.

On its Web site, CAIR points out that Royer pleaded guilty to weapons, not terrorism, charges. CAIR claims Royer was no longer working for the group when actions to which he pleaded guilty took place.

As for Elashi, CAIR’s Web site says he was just one of "hundreds of board members and employees" and thousands of members. "It would be illogical and unfair to hold CAIR responsible for the personal activities of all these people."

CAIR says tying former employees’ or board members’ activities to the organization amounts to guilt by association.

Moten said CAIR has been the target of critics because the group challenges the status quo, and those who do so have "always been demonized."

He said it is CAIR’s job to fight for civil rights and any controversy about the organization doesn’t bother him.

"I know what CAIR stands for, what it does, so I have a clear conscience," he said.

Abdullah said Muslim groups in general have had to deal with perception problems in the post-Sept. 11 world.

"The reality is that there are grudges against Islam itself or against mainstream Muslims, based upon historical prejudices that exist," he said. "Many point fingers to serve their political interests and to perpetuate the politics of fear."

But Nevadans have done a good job "listening to Muslims," Abdullah said. "People are making determined efforts to understand. When people are presented with the facts, they can make their own independent judgments and decisions."

Abdullah said while his and other organizations already have been doing the work CAIR came to the valley to do, people are willing to give the new chapter a chance.

"If they prove their relevance to the community, the community will accept them."

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis @reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0285.

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