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."
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."
If CAIR is feeling a little defensive or overwhelmed these days, it's understandable. Since its founding nine years ago, the group has quickly become perhaps the leading advocacy organization for American Muslims. CAIR doesn't publish its budget figures, but newspaper reports estimate annual contributions at $2.5 million and membership at some 30,000. Its paid staff has grown from two to 35, and untold volunteers help out in state and local chapters around the country.
Since 9/11, CAIR's work has largely centered on combating what it sees as a rising tide of negative stereotypes about Muslims. In "Islam in America," a year-long series of full-page ads that started running in The New York Times on Feb. 16, CAIR is seeking to emphasize the constructive role of Muslims within a diverse culture and to show how Islam holds many beliefs in common with Christianity and Judaism. The most recent ad, for instance, directly addresses the issue of terrorism, calling it "a tactic employed by deluded individuals" and stressing that "it is not condoned by Islam or any other religion."
Such messages may be especially important at a time of increased tension between America and the Muslim world. In the wake of 9/11, CAIR listed 1,717 "anti-Muslim incidents" in its 2002 Civil Rights Report. The total included such relatively minor inconveniences as "profiling" at an airport, but there were also hundreds of cases of verbal threats, harassment, and physical attacks.
With Washington gearing up for war in the Middle East, American Muslims are gearing up for increasingly hostile treatment at home. Muslim students in California, for instance, were shaken recently by a rash of expletive-laden graffiti on campus, including messages like "Muslims will be shot on San Jose State University campus on March 10, 2003." And according to CAIR, in recent weeks the abuse has escalated from ugly threats to cases of actual physical violence in Georgia, New Jersey, and South Carolina. The worst case came in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Feb. 22, when an 18-year-old Arab man was attacked by 20 assailants wielding knives and baseball bats as they shouted obscenities and religious epithets. Weeks later he was still hospitalized, recovering from multiple stab wounds and delicate surgery to reconstruct his face.
Evangelical Christians, who have long been stereotyped as ignorant and backward, can well understand the resentment Muslims feel when they are stereotyped as dangerous and anti-American. But instead of appealing to a shared experience that might bridge a cultural gap between Christians and Muslims, CAIR chose to drive home a verbal wedge between the two groups.
"We believe this recent increase in attacks on American Muslims is a direct result of the barrage of pro-war and anti-Islam rhetoric coming from right-wing and evangelical leaders," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR's Los Angeles chapter, following the Yorba Linda attack.
Mr. Ayloush didn't explain the "direct" link between evangelical leaders and a bunch of foul-mouthed teenagers, nor did he cite any sermons that might have sent some church youth group into the streets seeking blood. But it was hardly the first time that CAIR singled out evangelical Christians as the source of Muslims' problems. Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and the Southern Baptist Convention have all been cited as Islamophobes and hate-mongers.
Indeed, critics charge that CAIR routinely responds with labels rather than logic when faced with legitimate questions about the Islamic faith. Doug Marlette found that out the hard way. The editorial cartoonist for the Tallahassee Democrat drew an Arabic-looking man at the wheel of a Ryder rental truck like the one Timothy McVeigh used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. In the rear of the truck was an ill-concealed missile, and the caption underneath read "What would Mohammed drive?"
CAIR protested at once, pressuring the paper to pull the cartoon from its website before it could even make its way into the next day's print edition. More than 4,500 angry calls and e-mails poured in, and a political columnist who defended the cartoon was suspended for a week without pay.
Mr. Marlette fired back with an editorial of his own. Unlike Mr. Youngblood in Jacksonville, he wasn't making any sweeping condemnations of Muslims as a whole, but only the "murderous fanatics" who distorted the Islamic faith. The very purpose of political cartooning, he said, was "to jab and poke in an attempt to get at deeper truths, popular or otherwise. The truth, like it or not, is that Muslim fundamentalists have committed devastating acts of terrorism against our country in the name of their prophet."
That distinction wasn't good enough for CAIR, which called on the Democrat to sanction its cartoonist. When media pundits defended the cartoon as a matter of free speech, CAIR was unmoved. Said one spokesman: "We are for freedom of speech, but it's not freedom of speech to misinterpret me in any way."
Anyone who has traveled in the Middle East lately knows that's a debate that has divided the Islamic world. Yet CAIR, despite its avowed goal of fostering a proper understanding of Islam, pretends the debate doesn't even exist. In CAIR's formulation, all true Muslims are peaceful and serene, and any Christian who doubts that is a bigot. Indeed, while CAIR has issued numerous statements over the years naming evangelical "Islamophobes" and criticizing "Christian leaders ... engaged in deliberate distortion of the [Quran] and Islamic beliefs," it has never in its press releases criticized by name a single Muslim cleric calling for holy war against America and the infidels. It's as if the fundamentalist movement that threatens to take over the entire Muslim world doesn't even exist in CAIR's world.
The February speech in which Osama bin Laden called again for the destruction of America provides a clear example of CAIR's skewed approach. The speech was broadcast in the Middle East at the start of Eid, a three-day religious celebration surrounding the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. The bin Laden address was widely referred to throughout the Middle East as the "Eid speech" or the "hajj speech." Yet when Attorney General John Ashcroft responded to the speech by raising the nation's threat level to orange and warning Americans against terrorist attacks timed to coincide with the religious holiday, CAIR blasted him for the "unnecessary linkage of hajj to terrorism.... Hajj has nothing to do with terrorism. To imply otherwise is an insult to the American Muslim community. Attorney General Ashcroft needs to clarify his position on this important issue," CAIR said in a news release. The release never even mentioned that it was Mr. bin Laden, rather than Mr. Ashcroft, who sought to politicize and radicalize the hajj.
Mr. Spencer likens the CAIR approach to a Baptist pastor who teaches that no Christian tradition has ever believed in transubstantiation, and charges that anyone who suggests otherwise is a bigot and a hatemonger. That pastor would quickly become a laughingstock, because the facts of history so clearly contradict him. Better, says Mr. Spencer, to simply acknowledge that Baptists and Catholics disagree, and then show why the other side's position is wrong.
But CAIR sometimes seems to have trouble deciding exactly which side it is on. The group claims it does not "support terrorism in any way, shape, or form," but its executive director, Nihad Awad, has stated publicly: "I am a supporter of the Hamas movement," one of the leading terrorist groups fighting to overthrow the State of Israel. And he's hardly the only terrorist sympathizer among CAIR's ranks: Siraj Wahaj, a member of the organization's advisory board, volunteered as a character witness on behalf of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik convicted of conspiracy in the first World Trade Center bombing. (Mr. Awad wrote that the trial was a "travesty of justice," and CAIR included the sheik's conviction in a list of "hate crimes against Muslims.")
"In all its actions and statements," according to a November 2001 press release, "CAIR seeks to reflect the mainstream beliefs and views of the Muslim community in North America.... We do not support directly or indirectly, or receive support from, any overseas group or government." Yet just days later, Saudi Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal announced a $500,000 gift to help CAIR place pro-Muslim literature in 17,000 public libraries across the United States. Despite its claims of independence, CAIR accepted the Saudi donation without a murmur.
CAIR may have a perfectly good answer as to why it accepted a foreign donation in apparent violation of its own policies. Likewise, it may have plausible explanations for its ties to Hamas and its support for Sheikh Abdel-Rahman. There may even be a good reason why the organization refuses to condemn Muslim terrorists by name, and why it continues to refer to the al-Qaeda operatives of 9/11 as "alleged" hijackers.
Regrettably, the self-appointed spokesmen for American Muslims wouldn't speak to WORLD on those-or any other-topics. But in the long run, CAIR won't win much sympathy by ignoring the questions or attempting to censor the questioners. If the organization truly hopes to "promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in America," it will have to start with a little image work of its own.