In a highly unusual move, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California has rescinded an award to an Islamic activist in her home state because of the man’s connections to a major American Muslim organization that recently has been courted by leading political figures and even the FBI.
Boxer’s office confirmed to NEWSWEEK that she has withdrawn a “certificate of accomplishment” to Sacramento activist Basim Elkarra after learning that he serves as an official with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) . After directing her staff to look into CAIR, Boxer “expressed concern” about some past statements and actions by the group, as well as assertions by some law enforcement officials that it “gives aid to international terrorist groups,” according to Natalie Ravitz, the senator’s press spokeswoman.
CAIR, which has 32 offices around the country and bills itself as the leading Muslim-American civil- rights group, has never been charged with any crimes, nor have any of its top leaders. But a handful of individuals who have had ties to CAIR in the past have been convicted or deported for financial dealings with Hamas—another reason cited by Boxer for her action. The senator directed her staff to withdraw the certificate—which she routinely gives to community leaders in California—and asked that a statement she had previously made endorsing CAIR be stricken from the group’s Web site, Ravitz said in an e-mail.
Ironically, just last month, Boxer had sent CAIR a letter in connection with its 10th anniversary fundraising dinner endorsing the group as a “constant support system for the American Muslim community” and praising it for its work on civil liberties. "As an advocate for justice and greater understanding, CAIR embodies what we should all strive to achieve," Boxer wrote in the Nov. 18 letter.
Boxer tells NEWSWEEK she never saw the letter to CAIR signed in her name or was even aware of the award to Elkarra before it was sent out. "I feel terrible about this," she says. "We just made a mistake. I was not in the loop. That was an automatic signature [on the letter]." But Boxer stands by her decision to withdraw the award and to distance herself from CAIR, saying she was influenced by previous critical statements about CAIR made by her Democratic colleagues Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York. "To praise an organization because they haven't been indicted is like somebody saying, 'I'm not a crook,'” Boxer says. “I'm going to take a lot of hits for this. But I'm just doing what I think is right."
The move outraged CAIR officials who charged that the liberal Democratic senator was responding to the writings of Joe Kaufman , a blogger who has expressed sympathy for slain Jewish extremist Meir Kahane in the past , and whose columns regularly appear on the Web site of conservative activist David Horowitz. CAIR has formally asked for a meeting with Boxer and demanded that she withdraw the action—which one top CAIR official said smacks of “Islamophobia.”
“This is an attempt to marginalize the largest and most mainstream Muslim organization in the country,” says Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR’s office in southern California. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”
Nihad Awad, CAIR’s top Washington official, vigorously denied the charges that CAIR has any links to terror groups and said the allegations are based on a “deliberate smear campaign” by individuals who cannot brook any criticism of the Israeli government. “We feel that the same crowd who is pushing these smears against CAIR is the same crowd as the neocons that pushed us into the Iraq war,” he says. “They are trying to smear the Muslim community and they are trying to silence its voice. This takes us back to the McCarthy era.”
The incident illustrates the political tensions that have repeatedly arisen in recent years when members of Congress and other political leaders deal with a number of leading Muslim-American groups—some of which have been accused of sometimes murky links to terrorist groups. The CAIR case is especially striking, however, because of its timing.
Just last month, CAIR threw fundraising dinners in the Washington and southern California areas that attracted several leading political and law enforcement figures—along with generating a slew of testimonial statements like that submitted by Boxer's office. At a banquet in Arlington, Va., the featured speakers included Joseph Persichini, the assistant director of the FBI in charge of the Washington, D.C., field office, as well as members of Congress and Keith Ellison , the just-elected Democratic representative from Minnesota who next week will become the first Muslim in Congress. The speakers at the dinner in southern California included J. Stephen Tidwell, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.
Ayloush and other CAIR officials have asked how Boxer’s concerns about possible terror links can possibly be true when two senior FBI officials are openly attending its fundraisers and seeking the group’s help in reaching out to the Muslim-American community. Awad, the group’s executive director in Washington, said that CAIR also has conducted “sensitivity training” courses for FBI and Homeland Security agents as well as local police officers around the country. “We train law enforcement officers on how to deal with the Muslim community,” he says.
But terror researcher Steve Emerson —a frequent critic of CAIR—says there has been a fierce internal debate within the law- enforcement community over the FBI’s outreach to CAIR, and adds that some agents he has heard from are furious about the presence of bureau officials at the group’s dinners. “There’s a major clash between field agents and headquarters over this,” Emerson says.
One senior law-enforcement official, who asked not to be identified talking about a sensitive matter, agrees that there is a “split in FBI culture” over the bureau’s relationships with CAIR and says that some agents "hold their nose" when it comes to dealing with the group. But he said other top law-enforcement officials believe it is essential for the FBI to establish better relations with the Muslim community—if for no other reason than to encourage cooperation and the flow of information on terrorism investigations. "In some cities, CAIR is the only [Muslim] group or the dominant group," the official says.
When asked about the attendance of the two top FBI officials at the recent CAIR dinners, John Miller, the bureau’s chief spokesman, responds: “They were invited. It was an opportunity to engage in positive community outreach to the Arab-American and American-Muslim community.” Miller acknowledges that FBI officials “don’t agree with CAIR on every issue. We have serious disagreements with them on a number of issues. But the important thing is we try to maintain open dialogue with all these groups.”
The dispute over Boxer’s award began earlier this month when Kaufman, who runs a one-man group in Florida called “Americans Against Hate,” posted an article about the Boxer-CAIR connection on the Web site of Front Page Magazine , a publication sponsored by David Horowitz. Kaufman noted that Boxer’s office had put out a press release mentioning it was giving a certificate of achievement to Elkarra, 27, who serves as executive director of CAIR’s Sacramento office. The certificate was being given “in recognition of his efforts to protect civil liberties and to build bridges among diverse communities in California.”
Kaufman said in an interview that one of his goals is “to shut CAIR down.” In his article in Front Page, he charges that the group is “connected to Islamic extremism” and notes that two men previously associated with the group have been convicted of terror-related charges and two others have been deported. He also contends that Elkarra himself was a “radical” who had accused Israel of being an “apartheid” and “racist state” and that he had “defended” a northern California man who had trained for jihad in a Pakistani terrorist camp.
Boxer was unaware of the certificate to Elkarra that had been given in her name by staff members in her California office and only learned of it “when she came across a story on Horowitz’s blog,” according to the e-mail from Ravitz, the senator’s spokeswoman. After review by her staff, Boxer was particularly concerned by claims that CAIR had refused to condemn Hamas and Hizbullah and recognize those groups as terrorist organizations,” Ravitz said.
In response, CAIR e-mailed to NEWSWEEK a number of past statements in which it condemned suicide bombings and terror attacks. On Oct. 4, 2003, for example, CAIR issued a statement condemning a suicide bombing at a restaurant in Haifa, Israel, that killed 19 people, including three children. “CAIR condemns this vicious attack in the strongest possible terms,” the statement read. “The bombing is particularly loathsome, coming as it did on the eve of the Jewish community’s holiest day.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry accused the group Islamic Jihad of being behind the attack.
But CAIR Executive Director Awad refuses to say whether he would also condemn Hamas—which has taken credit for similar attacks in Israel—as a group or even whether he considers it a terrorist organization like the U.S. State Department does. “We condemn these groups when they committed acts of terrorism,” he says. “But I’m not going to play the game of the pro-Israel lobby just so they can put words in our mouth. Our position is very clear.
"The entire issue is going back to Israel," Awad adds. "If you love Israel, you're OK. If you question Israel, you're not. If that is the litmus test, no American Muslim and no freedom-loving person is going to pass that test."
Awad also dismisses claims that CAIR members or officials have been convicted of terror-related charges, saying all the cases cited by Kaufman involve individuals who had only loose ties to the group in the past. One of the cases cited by Kaufman was Ghassan Elashi, a marketing executive in a Texas computer company and a founding director of CAIR's Texas chapter, who was convicted last year of financial dealings with Mousa Abu Marzook, a self-admitted leader of Hamas who now lives in Damascus. Another case involved Rabi Haddad, a former CAIR fund-raiser in Michigan, who was deported after being accused by Justice Department officials of providing funds to Hamas. “They were former members,” says Awad. “This is guilt by association.”
Caught in the middle was Elkarra, who recently received a fax from Boxer’s office informing him that the certificate he had gotten just a few weeks earlier was being rescinded. He says the news was especially disappointing because he recently spoke at a local synagogue as part of a CAIR-funded project to build relations with the Jewish community. He also rejects the idea that he is an extremist, noting that—contrary to Kaufman’s allegations—he never defended a Lodi, Calif., man accused by the FBI of training for jihad in Pakistan. He simply raised questions about the handling of the case by the Justice Department similar to those raised by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as a number of news organizations. “It is disappointing that [Sen. Boxer] has succumbed to these extremists,” Elkarra says.
Kaufman, for his part, couldn’t be more pleased. “We are proud of Sen. Boxer,” he says. “By taking back this award, the senator has shown that she is conscious of the extreme problems that Basim Elkarra and his group, CAIR, pose to the public.”
Horowitz, whose Web site first got Boxer’s attention, says, “I’m pleased that Boxer listened to us. The fact that Democrats are finally waking up is good.”