More than 100 Somalis quit their jobs this past May at a Nebraska meatpacking plant due to conflicts between their work schedules and the daily requirements of Islamic prayer. A week later, about 70 of those workers returned to the Swift & Co. plant in Grand Island determined to seek accommodation. Instead, they got the same message as before: no walking off the production line, except for standard breaks.
Jama Mohamed, one of several employees fired in June for ignoring that rule, claims supervisors rudely interrupted his prayer, shouting for him to stop before taking his mat and grabbing him by the collar of his shirt. Another fired worker claims that the hostile environment drove some Muslims to cease praying at work altogether.
Enter the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national Muslim-rights advocacy group. CAIR promptly drafted a complaint for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that the plant's failure to provide special breaks at sunset for Islamic prayer violates civil-rights laws.
In an effort to resolve the matter quietly, Swift & Co. has offered to reschedule Muslim employees for shifts earlier in the day that do not conflict with Islamic prayer requirements. But that accommodation has not appeased CAIR, which appears determined to perpetuate a conflict.
Omar Jamal, a national advocate for Somali Muslims and fierce critic of CAIR, has witnessed such uncompromising tactics before. As director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, Jamal watched up close last fall as the politically minded leaders of the Muslim American Society (MAS) used a largely apolitical group of Somali Muslim taxi drivers to provoke a civil-rights showdown at the Twin Cities airport (see "Get out of the cab," Nov. 11, 2006).
Jamal, who recently visited Grand Island to learn details of the conflict firsthand, believes CAIR is operating with a similar political agenda. "They're really out of line," he told WORLD. "The plant has been very accommodating on many issues."
Throughout the country, CAIR regularly invokes civil-rights laws to seek special accommodation for Islamic practices. That strategy has worked in some areas, especially on college campuses: The University of Michigan in Dearborn recently approved the installation of Islamic foot-washing stations in some of its public bathrooms, and Georgetown University maintains special student housing that promises "an Islamic living environment."
Such allowances might appear inconsequential, but M. Zuhdi Jasser, founder and director of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, says CAIR's endgame is nothing short of imposing Shariah, or Islamic law: "Many of us have grown up Muslim in this country and have done our prayers while being a minority and have never asked for a changing of the entire schedule to fit our personal religious requirements," he said. "The problem is CAIR now has made it their agenda to use accommodation as an instrument for cultural divisiveness and to use democracy as a mechanism for slowly putting in Islamism on issues related to Shariah."
Jasser told WORLD that peaceful Muslim groups like CAIR, MAS, and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) may not condone the violent means of Islamic terrorist organizations, but they share many of the same political goals: "They are apologetic about these organizations and will not condemn them ideologically."
Recent federal investigations suggest the connection may go deeper than shared political commitments. The Justice Department named CAIR, ISNA, and the North American Islamic Trust as unindicted co-conspirators last month in a federal case against a U.S. Muslim charity accused of funneling million of dollars to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas (see sidebar).
Such allegations, coupled with past convictions of CAIR staffers for terrorist associations, may suggest a deeper agenda than simply protecting U.S. Muslims from discrimination. Jamal worries that Somali immigrants are especially vulnerable to being incrementally co-opted into radical Islamist causes. "CAIR has found a huge number of immigrants susceptible to fear and isolation and is really taking advantage of that," he said. "They want Somalis to believe that any other entity has mean intentions toward them, and that CAIR is the one saving them, rescuing them."
Jasser agrees that groups like CAIR use the politics of victimization to push moderate Muslims into isolated ghettos away from assimilation into American society. "They're exploiting not only some of the naiveté of Muslims but some of their lack of understanding of the beauty of constitutional law and our Bill of Rights and our Establishment Clause. They're saying, 'We're being persecuted, and we should dig our heels in the sand and claim our rights, whether it's the time to pray, whether it's for food, whether it's for who we carry in our cabs, whatever it is.'"
Such tactics also repel non-Muslim Americans, muddying distinctions between democratized forms of Islam versus radical and violent Islamism. "The vast majority of Americans are not beginning to understand the differences," Jasser said. "It's still a new lexicon for American citizens who are just trying to figure out why these people keep targeting us."
Federal prosecutors in Dallas opened the largest terrorism-financing trial in the country's history July 24, accusing the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development of funneling $12.4 million to Hamas after 1995, when the United States declared the Palestinian group a terrorist organization. U.S. attorneys charge the nation's biggest Muslim charity with functioning as a terrorist fundraising tool from its inception in 1987.
Attorneys representing five former Holy Land officials aim to prove otherwise with evidence of food, medical care, and shelter provided to needy families in war-ravaged regions. That most of that aid flowed into the Palestinian territories, the defense argues, is natural given the amount of conflict there and does not prove direct support for Hamas.
U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish took extra precautions to ensure a fair trial, summoning a 750-person jury pool for intense quizzing on their general sentiments toward Muslims and knowledge of Islamic terrorism. During the selection process, several prospective jurors said they feared the possibility of terrorist retaliation should the verdict fall against Holy Land officials. None of those jury candidates made the final cut.
Still, some jury experts suspect that if several people had the gumption to mention their fears of retaliation, many others likely harbor such concerns secretly. The defense has done little to assuage such potential unease: Lawyer Joshua Dratel argued during opening statements that comments by Holy Land officials in support of Hamas are constitutionally protected and not prosecutable. "You can stand up in front of the courthouse now and read the Hamas charter and say you agree with every word of it, and that is not illegal," he said.
Assistant U.S. Atty. James T. Jacks has tried to keep jury members' minds focused on the Holy Land Foundation's alleged illegal activity. U.S. law expressly forbids financing terrorist groups, regardless of political sentiments.
The Justice Department appears increasingly intent on enforcing that law: On the same day prosecutors brought opening arguments in Dallas, federal authorities raided two other Muslim charities in Dearborn, Mich., with suspected ties to Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. FBI agents say they will continue to crack down on terrorist front groups operating under different names in the United States. But as with the Holy Land Foundation, which authorities shut down in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, getting to trial can take years.