Facing Increased Anti-Muslim Sentiment, CAIR Stays Focused on Its Message
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is ramping up its efforts to track and combat anti-Muslim prejudice, with help from its chapters and student organizations nationwide. The recent murders of three North Carolina students only underscored the need for action, CAIR says.
The alert came during the early morning hours of February 11: Three Muslim students were gunned down, allegedly by a neighbor, near the campus of the University of North Carolina. Police initially suggested the shooting stemmed from an “ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” according to the Washington Post, but others called into question what role, if any, religion could have played.
Leaders at the Council on American-Islamic Relations leadership began working almost immediately to craft a response.
“Based on the brutal nature of this crime, the past anti-religion statements of the alleged perpetrator, the religious attire of two of the victims, and the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in American society, we urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case,” CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement.
Amina Rubin, communications manager at CAIR, said the group was careful in its initial comments. “We always have to keep in mind that we can’t make any assumptions about things that we don’t know,” Rubin, said of the statement. “We understand that a serious crime like this has to be investigated and that it takes time to find these things out, but we do believe that it’s important to find out if something is a hate crime [and] then for it to be treated as such by law enforcement, and for our community to see that we’re staying on top of the issue.”
Awad and another member of the organization made their way to Chapel Hill the day of the shootings to offer support to the victims’ families and to meet with local law enforcement.
The response is typical of the work that CAIR does as a domestic civil rights organization, Rubin said, but the need has become more urgent with the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country. CAIR is contending with negative perceptions of Islam and the Muslim community in the United States as news coverage is flooded with reports of Islamist extremism and the fight against organizations like the Islamic State.
“The things that go on in other parts of the world—that does get pushed onto us and our community,” Rubin said. “Those things affect us and affect the way Muslims in the United States are treated.”
To monitor and combat rising hostility toward Muslims, CAIR recently launched an awareness campaign online at Islamophobia.org, worked with more than 100 Islamic scholars to pen an open letter to the Islamic State denouncing their actions, and strongly advocates against what it describes as anti-Muslim legislation. But the group gets a huge boost from grassroots efforts that involve its regional affiliates. CAIR chapters build relationships with everyone from local legislators to campus-based Muslim student associations.
“We have chapters throughout the country in about 17 states,” said Corey Saylor, CAIR’s national legislative director. “We feel that this approach is best because our person in Washington state is going to know the landscape of Washington state far better than us here in DC. And then the national office generally will provide expertise on issues that may come up.”
The relationship structure has benefits for the national organization as well.
“I’m constantly learning new tricks and innovations with how to think about issues and even how to push the message out,” said Saylor. “It adds a lot of energy to the work that you do. When you get out into a community—just listening to the people there and their desire to do good, their desire to learn how things work so that they can be more effective, it really does refill the cup a little bit.”
The key to CAIR’s continued success at all levels of advocacy is its ability to stay on point with its messaging, Saylor explained.
“We have to make sure that we here in the United States don’t allow fear to change who we are, and that has always been our message,” he said. “When you start passing legislation intended to vilify a faith, you’re taking discrimination to whole new levels where we’re talking about undermining the First Amendment. America is strong because we embrace different faiths, and we are obligated as citizens to continue fighting to maintain the Constitution in the face of fear.”
Deah Shaddy Barakat, left, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, the three victims of the shooting at the University of North Carolina. (Handout photo)