Letters: Were we unfair to CAIR?

The Council on American-Islamic Relations calls Jake Tapper's report "shoddy"; Tapper responds.

Published October 1, 2001 11:03PM (EDT)

Read the story.

In his inaccurate and deceptive hit piece on American Muslims, writer Jake Tapper used every trick in the book of shoddy journalism to falsely paint mainstream Islamic groups as supporters of terrorism.

The tone of the article reminded me of the inquisitional tactics used during the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, when many innocent individuals were accused of being part of Communist "front groups." All Tapper did was substitute "Islamic terrorist" for "Communist."

I would ask Tapper the same question posed to Sen. McCarthy by attorney Joseph Welch: "Have you no decency, sir?"

A decent and objective journalist would report the facts, not seek to manufacture them. Let us examine how what Tapper wrote correlates with reality.

Tapper says CAIR and other Muslim groups are protesting "'hate crimes' against Muslims and Arab-Americans." Why the use of quotes to set off the term "hate crimes," given the fact that at least three people thought to be Muslims or Arabs have already been killed in Arizona, Texas and California? Are the more than 600 anti-Muslim incidents reported to CAIR not worthy of the status of true "hate crimes?"

He also claims groups "CAIR and AMC [American Muslim Council] in particular would not be chosen as representatives by many Muslims." Where did he get this tidbit? Who are these "many Muslims?" CAIR is one of the most widely supported Muslim organizations in America.

In our own polls of American Muslim public opinion, we have been rated 8 or higher (on a scale from 1 to 10) by the vast majority of thousands of respondents. Hundreds of Muslims respond to CAIR "Action Alerts" in defense of civil rights or to challenge Islamophobic defamation.

Next comes this cheap shot: "In fact, there are those in American Muslim communities as well as law enforcement who consider CAIR and the AMC to be part of the problem." Now if "law enforcement" (notice the lack of specificity) has a problem with CAIR, it has never been brought to our attention. CAIR representatives meet regularly with officials from the Department of Justice, State Department and FBI. Some of these meetings have taken place since the horrific events of Sept. 11. (Does Tapper know more than President Bush, who met with CAIR representatives twice in the past two weeks?)

Tapper now takes us into an Orwellian world in which words no longer have meaning. He states: "Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of CAIR, refuses to outright condemn Osama bin Laden."

Oddly though, one paragraph later he quotes me as saying, "If Osama bin Laden was behind [the attacks], we condemn him by name." He then adds, "And what about prior acts of terror linked to bin Laden? Or that bin Laden has urged Muslims to kill Americans?" Well, if he had actually asked me those questions, I would have told him that I condemned them as well.

Tapper is nothing if not relentless in sticking to his agenda. He writes: "[CAIR representatives have] been quoted defending or exhorting organizations that the U.S. State Department classifies as 'foreign terrorist.'" He then quotes Steven Pomerantz, former FBI assistant director and chief of the FBI's counterterrorism section, saying CAIR's activities "effectively give aid to international terrorist groups."

Now we come to the unacknowledged source of "information" in this article. That source is Steven Emerson, a self-proclaimed "expert on terrorism" who has a long history of attacks on the American Muslim community and its leadership. The Pomerantz quote, and many others like it, comes directly from Emerson's Islamophobic playbook.

Now back to Tapper's wholesale use of Emerson's materials. (In fact, it is strange that Emerson was not given co-authorship on the article.)

Tapper wrote: "Particularly problematic is the attitude of CAIR and AMC toward Islamic terrorist groups. CAIR was critical of the conviction of Sheik Omar Abdul-Rahman ... CAIR went so far as to include the court conviction of Abdul-Rahman on a list of 'hate crimes against Muslims.'" This is a false claim of Emerson's that he has repeated many times over the past few years.

CAIR never supported Sheikh Omar or called his conviction a "hate crime." In fact, other than a one-paragraph mention in the 1996 CAIR report on Muslim civil rights, CAIR never dealt with this case in any shape or form. (The events leading to the trial occurred before CAIR even existed.) To quote from the 1996 CAIR civil rights report: "Lawyers defending Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman complain that his trial was far from free and fair." That is it. No mention of "hate crimes." No expressions of support for Sheikh Omar. (To view CAIR's 2001 civil rights report, go to www.cair-net.org/civilrights.

Another bit of Emerson's work is the false claim that Imam Siraj Wahhaj, one of the most respected and popular American Muslim leaders, is a CAIR board member and that he is somehow an anti-Western zealot. Tapper perhaps forgot to mention that Imam Siraj was once asked to give the prayer opening for a session of Congress. And another little point -- he is not a CAIR board member.

And yet more Emerson-inspired claims. Tapper wrote that "Hooper ... refused to discuss questions about a series of 1994 meetings that CAIR coordinated for Bassam Alamoush." Perhaps one reason I did not discuss that issue is because it was never raised in the interview. It is always somewhat difficult to respond to questions that are not asked. (At the time of his visit, Alamoush was speaker of the democratically-elected parliament of a nation having warm relations with the United States. CAIR did not sponsor his visit.)

The article echoes Emerson's use of the late Seif Ashmawy to attack CAIR. Of course Tapper did not reveal that Ashmawy was a close associate of Emerson or that he was featured in Emerson's "Jihad in America" video as early as 1994.

Tapper also quoted me as saying that, "criticism [of CAIR] comes their way from other Muslims for not speaking out against terrorist organizations or human rights abuses in Muslim countries, not for necessarily voicing support."

Suffice it to say that I never said this. I did tell Tapper that we would "condemn" (there's that word again) any human rights abuses by Muslims or people of any faith anywhere in the world. I also told him that we "condemn" any act of terrorism, in any form, by any party. (During the interview, I actually asked Tapper to count the number of times I used the word "condemn" because I knew that no matter how many time I used it, it would not be enough for me to pass his McCarthy-like test of loyalty.)

He falsely claimed I referred to a "Zionist conspiracy." The term came from Tapper, not from me. When I heard him use it in our conversation, I explicitly told him that that was his reference, not mine.

He claims that CAIR has a hierarchy in which some civilian victims of terrorism are "innocent" and others are not. We do not hold this belief and I did not explore that theory with Tapper because it is insulting by its very nature.

He claimed I "criticized" the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks. I did not. Unless by criticism he meant monitoring the civil rights of American Muslims to make sure that all legal procedures are being followed. Within hours of the attacks, CAIR signed on to a joint statement by Muslim groups that read in part: "We join with all Americans in calling for the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators. No political cause could ever be assisted by such immoral acts." As noted above, we have since met with officials of the Justice Department and the FBI on issues related to the attacks.

The list of distortions, misrepresentations and inaccuracies outlined above is by no means exhaustive, and does not include inaccurate references to other Muslim groups.

I think Tapper tipped his hand as to why he objects to CAIR when he wrote: "USA Today, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Fox News Channel and Salon -- as well as hundreds of media outlets throughout America in search of expertise, information and a moderate face for Islam -- have sought out CAIR and AMC executives in recent weeks." It sounds like someone is upset that Muslims are finally gaining a voice in American society.

Ours is a seven-million-strong multi-ethnic faith community. (See "About Islam and American Muslims," http://www.cair-net.org/aboutislam.asp) "The Mosque in America: A National Portrait," (www.cair-net.org/mosquereport), the largest study of its kind, showed the number of American mosques grew by 25 percent in the past seven years and that mosques are becoming dynamic centers for political, as well as spiritual mobilization.

Muslims, like every emerging ethnic or religious minority in this country, have to struggle to take their proper place in the American social and political arena. It is a pity that struggle will have to overcome the active hostility of a vocal minority.

As the Monty Python crew used to say, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition."

-- Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations

Jake Tapper responds: There's a lot to address in Hooper's letter; let me first apologize for one error in my story. I wrote that CAIR had called the conviction of Sheik Omar Abdul-Rahman, whom U.S. authorities deemed the ringleader of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, a "hate crime." In fact, in 1996 CAIR published a book called "The Price of Ignorance" which dealt with the "status of Muslim civil rights in the United States." That book listed "incidents of anti-Muslim bias and violence," on which CAIR included the trial of Abdul-Rahman, which ended with his conviction for conspiring to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel and other New York City landmarks. CAIR listed the trial on that list of "incidents of bias and violence" because Abdul-Rahman's lawyers said that his trial had been "far from free and fair." They did not call it a "hate crime." I regret the error.

The rest of Hooper's complaints, however, have no merit, and in fact typify the type of obfuscation CAIR regularly engages in when faced with criticism.

Hooper claims I somehow have twisted his words over his inability to offer an unqualified condemnation of Osama bin Laden. He does so by -- again -- refusing to offer an unqualified condemnation of bin Laden. Hooper also never even mentions Hamas and Hezbollah, despite the fact that a major part of the story -- and point of serious concern among Muslim critics of CAIR -- is that CAIR and the AMC tacitly support these groups, which the U.S. State Department classifies as "terrorist" for killing Israeli civilians in terrorist acts and, in the case of Hezbollah, American soldiers.

Also notice that Hooper continues to refuse to clarify CAIR's position on the "innocence" of the civilian victims of terrorism. Fundamentalist supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah are known to consider Jews and Israelis evil, and therefore justify murdering them, even children. They do not consider it to be terrorism. But instead of clarifying that that is not the position of CAIR, Hooper writes that that the group does not believe in a "hierarchy in which some civilian victims of terrorism are 'innocent' and others are not." Again, why the obfuscation? If CAIR believes killing civilians -- including Jewish and Israeli civilians -- is terrorism, and wrong, why not just say so? Surely most American Muslims would have no problem condemning bin Laden with no qualifications. Why can't Hooper?

Hooper denies that Imam Siraj Wahhaj "is a CAIR board member." Maybe it depends on what the definition of "board member" is; Hooper himself has previously confirmed that Wahhaj "is a member of our advisory board."

Hooper asks: "Are the more than 600 anti-Muslim incidents reported to CAIR not worthy of the status of true 'hate crimes?'" He's claiming that by placing the term "hate crimes," in quotes, I've somehow suggested they don't exist. Not true; there is no question of the accuracy of these horrific reports. The term was in quotes because it refers to a specific type of crime. There simply was no judgment being passed by using quotation marks. He asks "Who are these 'many Muslims?'" unlikely to want to be represented by groups like CAIR. I'd suggest a reader return to my original story for examples, including Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani (who Hooper makes no mention of in his letter) of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, who in 1999, gave a speech to the U.S. State Department warning of the growing power of Osama bin Laden's organization, and deploring the extremism of American Muslim organizations. Does Hooper believe Shaykh Kabbani -- or, for that matter, the numerous Muslim and Arab-Americans I interviewed for this story -- also is "anti-Muslim" for deeming CAIR and the AMC extreme?

Hooper also argues extensively that the hidden force behind my story is Steven Emerson, a man he clearly has much contempt for. I didn't mention Emerson in the story, nor did I ever even communicate with the man for this story. I don't even know Emerson. Hooper's continued criticisms of Emerson in his letter seem, at the very least, odd.

He claims I never asked about Bassam Alamoush. In fact, I did and was cut off because Hooper said he had already given me enough time. Still, even here Hooper does not express any regret for CAIR's coordination of a series of lectures in the U.S. for Alamoush, who has called the killing of Jews "a good deed."

Finally, I never quoted Hooper using the term "Zionist conspiracy." I used it to characterize his own description of how criticisms of CAIR tend to be orchestrated by "the pro-Israel lobby," a characterization that, even more now, seems completely apt.

If I were Hooper and someone had written a story illustrating how and why American Muslims were concerned that CAIR was too extreme in its views , I might devote my time and energy towards clearing up any misunderstandings. But Hooper's letter poses more questions that it answers. Which seems to be its point. And in the end, that's why I wrote the story about the numerous Muslims and Arab-Americans who have grave concerns about CAIR's speaking on their behalf during this very difficult time.

By Salon Staff

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