Cover Story

Truth or CAIR

The Muslim public-relations group CAIR-Council on American Islamic Relations-has a tough sell in post-9/11 America. But if its goal is simply to promote Islam as a "religion of peace" and to distance American Muslims from terrorism, why can't CAIR begin with a simple acknowledgment that the terrorist threat to America is real? Instead, CAIR's modus operandi has been to attack Christianity with the same, simplistic broad brush it claims is tarring Islam

Issue: "Truth or CAIR," March 22, 2003

After 20 years of teaching a World Religions course at Conservative Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, Fla., Rev. Gene Youngblood thought it was time to take his lessons to the streets. In the wake of 9/11, he had some things to say about Islam, and the marquee outside his church gave him a ready platform.

So instead of posting mundane messages like service times or special speakers, Mr. Youngblood started using the sign to make pointed religious comparisons, such as "God had a Son. His name is Jesus. Allah had no son." A few calls trickled in, both pro and con, but for the most part the messages didn't seem particularly provocative.

Then, in January, Mr. Youngblood fired a verbal shot that reverberated from Washington to Riyadh. "Jesus forbade murder Matthew 26:52," read the sign. "Muhammad approved murder Surah 8:65."

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Florida Muslims, not surprisingly, thought that one went too far. A local imam argued that the passage ("Oh Prophet! rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the unbelievers") referred not to murder but to standing fast on the battlefield. He called on First Conservative Baptist to take down its sign, but Mr. Youngblood replied that the church was entitled to its freedom of speech.

That's when calls went out to Washington, and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) waded into the controversy. A news release accused the Florida church of "misinformation," and called on Floridians to "repudiate" Mr. Youngblood. "All Americans must band together to condemn hate speech designed to divide our nation along religious and ethnic lines," said Altaf Ali, executive director of CAIR's Florida chapter. "Any attempt to marginalize or vilify one religious community is an attack on all people of faith."

According to Mr. Youngblood, CAIR's call to arms provoked a worldwide backlash against the church. "We've had threats. We've had viciousness. We've had violence." He says one angry Muslim confronted him on the sidewalk, shouting that Allah would burn him in hell. A local Muslim cleric reportedly told him, "We're not going to come out there and hurt anyone, but we don't know what our people are going to do." And he claims the sign itself was vandalized more than a dozen times, until the sheriff's department finally put it under 24-hour surveillance.

None of this is especially surprising to the preacher. "Bitter hatred and animus are the very heartbeat of Islam," he says. "The Muslim approach is to scream 'foul' anytime something negative is said, but I'm here to say Islam is the most horrifying, dangerous thing on the horizon facing America.

"... Islam will dominate America. You can go around the globe, there's not a nation that Islam has ever started in but that it did not ultimately control. Ignorant, anemic, immature Christians don't understand the threat because they haven't studied the Word of God."

He may have had specific "ignorant" Christians in mind: The left-wing Florida Council of Churches rushed to condemn the anti-Muslim sign, and similar groups chimed in from across the country. But even those without a liberal theology might recoil from the kind of sweeping generalizations and vague conspiracy theories that Mr. Youngblood voices. After all, from the Jim Jones mass suicide in Guyana to the abortion-clinic bombings of the last few years, evangelicals are used to being slandered by the secular media whenever a religious zealot goes too far in the name of faith. No matter how outrageously a fringe group may misinterpret Scripture, everyone else who takes the Bible literally suddenly becomes an extremist as well.

Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a religious smear campaign knows that simplistic, broad-brush portrayals rarely do justice to a complex faith. So is CAIR merely setting the record straight and engaging in positive PR on the behalf of American Muslims? And if so, why is the group repeatedly accused of censorship?

WORLD wanted to explore those questions with CAIR, but multiple phone calls to two different spokespersons went unanswered. Others, it turns out, have had the same experience. Robert Spencer, an adjunct fellow at the Free Congress Foundation in Washington, says he called CAIR recently seeking comment on a Brooklyn mosque that was implicated in helping to fund al-Qaeda. The CAIR spokesman, according to Mr. Spencer, simply said, "I have no intention of promoting the anti-Muslim agenda for you," and hung up-a rather inarticulate response from a group that claims misunderstandings usually spring from a "reluctance on the part of Muslims to articulate their case."

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