The Council on American-Islamic Relations' (CAIR) campaign of discrediting critics reached a new low last week, when it called two Minneapolis activists "anti-Muslim" for their participation in a seminar which included a discussion about an Islamic terrorist group in Somalia.
Both Omar Jamal and Abdirizak Bihi are Muslims. But CAIR's Minnesota chapter attacked them over their involvement with a seminar on Somali culture and their communities in America held Thursday in St. Paul. It was sponsored by the Center for Somalia History Studies, an organization founded earlier this year by former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.
The seminar, which cost $150 per person to attend, covered a wide array of topics including "Clans and Sub Clans"; "The Ethiopia Issue"; "Black Hawk Down"; "Youth Gangs"; "Transition to America" and "Somali Culture."
One subject in particular incurred CAIR's wrath. It was entitled, "Al Shabaab: An Islamic Extremist Terrorism Organization." Al-Shabaab is an al-Qaida affiliate.
CAIR and nearly 30 other groups, ranging from the Minnesota chapter of the Muslim American Society to local mosques and Somali community organizations, complained that the description of al-Shabaab "fails to distinguish between Islam and terrorism."
CAIR-MN President A. Lori Saroya warned that conference attendees "will receive inaccurate and biased information about Muslims and Somalis." She expressed concern that the seminar would result in "a lot of bias and misinformation. "
Fletcher said before the conference that he had invited CAIR to attend to give its perspective. Saroya denied the group had received an invitation, but added that Somali groups wouldn't attend because that would give "legitimacy" to Bihi and another Shabaab critic: Jamal, a former activist in the Twin Cities who currently serves as a member of Somalia's United Nations delegation.
"These individuals, who have no credibility in the Somali community, are going to be educating law enforcement," the CAIR-MN letter read.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin, who attended part of the conference, wrote that it "seemed like a pretty straight-forward history lesson." An hour of the daylong presentation was dedicated to al-Shabaab, "but considering that 20 young Somali men have been lured from the Twin Cities to fight with the organization, it only seemed logical. Very little was about religion, and I saw no criticism of the Muslim religion, only of terrorist acts," he added.
CAIR's Minnesota chapter previously came under fire for refusing to criticize al-Shabaab.
CAIR's comments about Bihi and Jamal amount to "character assassination," said Tom Lyden, a reporter for Fox 9 News in Minneapolis. The two are targets because they "were the first to blow the whistle on the effort to recruit Minnesotan Somalis for terrorism in Somalia," he said.
Three of the men who disappeared from the Twin Cities in recent years "would later become suicide bombers in Kenya and Somalia for the terror group al-Shabaab," Lyden wrote on his blog. "That stance earned them a seat on CAIR's bad side."
The attacks against Bihi are particularly unfair, Lyden wrote. Bihi has fought a tenacious and often lonely fight against jihadist recruitment in the Twin Cities, and Lyden pointed to the activist's devotion to helping Somali neighbors in need. It is not uncommon to find Bihi devoting his time to translating for a Somali mother who needs social services or helping someone who wants to send money to relatives in Somalia.
Bihi has repeatedly blasted CAIR for attempting to muzzle local Somalis who take a public stand against al-Shabaab. In June 2009, he was among 50 people who protested outside a CAIR ice-cream social event for discouraging local Somalis from cooperating with the FBI. "We don't want anyone to come to our community and tell us to shut up," Bihi said.
His teenage nephew was among the Minnesota Somalis killed while fighting for al-Shabaab. In a subsequent interview with the Investigative Project on Terrorism, Bihi criticized CAIR and local mosque officials for putting roadblocks in the way of Somali cooperation with the FBI.
Lyden believes CAIR's real objection is to Bihi's "outspoken stance that some local mosques have fostered an environment that encouraged the radicalization of young Somali men" – a story he has reported on with regard to the Abubakr as-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis.
The House Homeland Security Committee staff reported that on July 5, a Saudi cleric who had denounced al-Shabaab at that mosque was assaulted by men shouting "Allahu Akhbar" ("God is Great"). The assault was widely reported on jihadist websites, with Islamists overseas learning about the incident before most residents of the Twin Cities area.
For close to three years, Lyden wrote that he has tried unsuccessfully to elicit a comment from CAIR about the missing Somali youth who have left Minnesota to fight for al-Shabaab. But CAIR hasn't said a word. "For an organization that is supposed to represent Muslim Americans, I think that silence is particularly strange," he added.
CAIR and its allies have shown much less reticence about slurs and ad hominem attacks on non-Islamist Muslims.
In April, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a close political ally of CAIR and a frequent speaker at its fundraisers, told a largely Muslim audience in Rochester Hills, Mich. that the "only reason" Bihi had been invited to testify before Congress on jihadi recruitment was "because he fits the narrative of people who want to defame you."
Another CAIR target was Muslim scholar Khalid Duran, who has written that CAIR's hyperbolic attacks on his work elicited death threats from Jordanian Islamists.
In recent years, CAIR and its allies have focused on Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Jasser's group advocates distinguishing between mosque and state and he often challenges Islamist leaders and their views.
For that, Ellison suggested that Jasser was an Islamic "Uncle Tom" during an October 2009 Capitol Hill forum. Blacks "are familiar with people who would seek to ingratiate themselves with powerful people in the white community and would then turn them on the rest of us and give license to attack us all," he said. And he was concerned that someone might "snatch my 13-year-old daughter's hijab off, call her a horrible name, spit on her because of something you said, Dr. Jasser. I worry about that."
In a debate last May, CAIR-Chicago boss Ahmed Rehab called Jasser "a sock puppet for the axis of Islamophobia in this country," adding that "Everybody who supports you hates Islam." And people who welcome the most shameful slurs directed at non-Islamists like Jasser apparently appreciate CAIR's work. Fans of a Facebook page entitled "Zuhdi Jasser is a Clown and an Uncle Tom" Muslim list CAIR as an organization that they like.