WASHINGTON _ Upon entering the new headquarters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), you will see a huge blue painting decorated with a quote from the Islamic bible, the Quran, written in the Islamic alphabet:
“A goodly word (is) like a goodly tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches (reach) to the heavens.”
The passage defines the mission of CAIR, an Islamic organization that advocates civil rights for American Muslims. Since its founding in 1994, CAIR has tried to present positive perspectives of Muslims and the Islamic religion to the American public.
“We're sort of like the NAACP in some ways,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of CAIR.
The non-profit group also contributes to the advancement of Islamic believers. One of its latest endeavors is the opening of a training center, in its new headquarters near Capitol Hill.
CAIR announced the formation of the American Muslim Leadership on June 14. The center is the first facility to offer Muslims training in political lobbying, grass-roots activism, public relations and anti-discrimination methods. Training will take place in the form of workshops and seminars.
Participants in the center are members of the Muslim community who are required to have a record of community activism. They also must be nominated by local or national Muslim leaders.
“The center has been thought about for a number of years. For a long time there was a void in the training of Muslims,” Hooper said. He added that the center is not a revolutionary concept.
“Other advocacy groups (like the NAACP) have formed centers like this,” he said. “But for the Muslim community, it is revolutionary, because Muslims have never had anything like this before.”
This is one of many ventures CAIR has undertaken to aid American Islamic members. Some of CAIR's efforts have ranged from lobbying U.S. politicians on behalf of Muslim issues, to fighting Muslim discrimination in American workplaces, to challenging media stereotypes of Islamic members.
Last year, CAIR helped a Muslim member of the New York State Park Police win his job back, after he was suspended for refusing to shave his beard. Also, CAIR was recently successful in persuading the Los Angeles Times to remove a multi-million dollar ad that had bikini-clad women on a beach juxtaposed with Muslim women in Islamic clothing. Muslims around the country had found the ad's image, along with its slogan, “Connecting Us to The Times,” to be offensive.
The Washington, D.C., headquarters is equipped with a communications department, a civil rights office, a community outreach office, a publications center and a miniature information technology center. There is also an internship training center, where interns and other individuals can gain experience in anti-discrimination work and political activity.
CAIR also has regional offices in New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and other major cities. Other chapters are forming.
The organization also publishes “CAIR News,” a quarterly newsletter, and “Hajj and Ramadan Publicity Resource Kits,” which are handbooks used by Muslim leaders.
CAIR's executive director, Nihad Awad, said he is optimistic that the center will create a bridge of communication between members of Islam and the nation's capital.
“We hope that moving here will help us open windows for the Muslim community on Capitol Hill, and also open windows for Capitol Hill to the Muslim community,” Awad said.
Reps. David Bonior (D- MI) and Debbie Stabenow (D- MI), spoke at the ceremony. They have been aiding CAIR in its campaign against secret evidence hearings, a practice that CAIR says has been used to target Muslims and Arabs in immigration issues.
A May 12 Washington Post editorial discusses the case of a Kurdish doctor who, along with several fellow resistance fighters, was brought to the U.S. to be saved from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But soon they were detained by the U.S. government because of secret evidence that alleged they worked for a Middle Eastern intelligence group.
“You (CAIR) have always been there religiously and strongly,” Bonior said. “You have compassion. You have a deep sense of commitment. And I can't tell you how much that means in a town where often those ingredients are absent from our debates.”
“We need your voice. We need your prayers. We need your advocacy here,” said Stabenow. She added that she has also taken up residence in CAIR'S three-story office building, using the third floor as her re-election campaign headquarters.
Omar Ahmad, board chairman of CAIR, said CAIR's new facility signifies the six years of work the organization has done. He also said the American Muslim Training Center will not only train American Muslims, but also Muslims from abroad.
“This is a prominent first step towards more work (in the Muslim community),” Ahmad said.