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date: 01 October 2022

Council on American-Islamic Relationsfree

Council on American-Islamic Relationsfree

  • Vincent F. Biondo IIIVincent F. Biondo IIIDepartment of Religious Studies, Cal Poly Humboldt


The Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) is the premier civil rights organization for Muslims in the United States. Founded in Washington, DC, in 1994 with an emphasis on public relations and media communications, over two decades it has expanded to about two hundred employees at thirty-two offices in major US cities in nineteen states, according to its official website. The organization emphasizes that it is structured so that these offices operate independently. In addition to tracking hate crimes, these offices provide or arrange for legal services in areas such as civil rights, immigration, and homeland security. The story of the organization’s growth and success reveals key issues for American Muslim involvement in politics, including those surrounding the First Amendment and the intersection of religion and race. In 2016, the National Board named its first female Chair, Roula Allouch, a lawyer from Cincinnati, who in the University of Kentucky’s Law School alumni magazine was described as “the only Muslim in her class,” and a person who “knows how to put people at ease . . . to break down misconceptions [and] seek peace.” The CAIR Board has become more diverse and representative since its founding and has ventured into defending non-Muslims from civil rights violations.

Today CAIR describes its mission on its national website and in many state office annual reports as follows: “To enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.” While it is primarily a civil rights organization, since its founding the organization’s leaders have found it necessary to counter misinformation by introducing educational information about Islam. Key civil rights efforts it has engaged in include support for thousands of immigration and religious discrimination cases every year, documenting hate crimes in annual reports, and challenging anti-shari’ah legislation. CAIR further leads educational efforts by coordinating diversity training sessions, a public library project, and media appearances.


  • Islamic Studies

Figure 1. President George W. Bush speaks at the Islamic Center in Washington, DC on September 17, 2001. Photo by official White House photographer Eric Draper: this image is in the public domain.

Origins of CAIR in 1994

Six days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Palestinian American engineer Nihad Awad was standing beside George W. Bush’s left shoulder on the dais at the Islamic Center of Washington, DC (see Figure 1), when the President proclaimed, “They [American Muslims] love America just as much as I do.”1 This official call for Americans not to retaliate against Muslim neighbors by the President was critical to saving innocent lives. However, it was dissonant with the informal language from the South Lawn of the White House on the previous day, when the President had said, perhaps offhandedly, “This is a new kind of evil. And we understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” Only seven years earlier, Nihad Awad had cofounded the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) with Omar Ahmad, and his presence on a national stage demonstrated that CAIR was an important and respected civil rights organization in the United States. Fortuitously, as a part of strategic planning just one year earlier in 2000, CAIR had joined with other leading American Muslim organizations to organize the first bloc vote in support of the “family values” and “compassionate conservative” campaign of Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Immediately after September 11, drumbeats of war heightened across the nation and an “Axis of Evil” terminology was used by the President to group together unrelated ideologies (secular Sunni Iraq, religious Shi’a Iran, and communist North Korea) in the minds of the American people using religiously loaded language. The hastily written Patriot Act was signed into law by President Bush on October 26, curtailing the civil rights of American Muslims. Over the next year, violent hate-crime attacks by American civilians on their brown-skinned neighbors, including Latinos, Sikhs, Muslims, and even Christian Arabs, would bring the purpose of CAIR into sharper focus.

In published interviews, when asked which events provided the impetus for forming CAIR in 1994, Omar Ahmad and Nihad Awad have referred to the Steven Emerson documentary for PBS, Jihad in America, and a Nike John Williams billboard reading “They called him Allah,” as well as the campaigns for workplace accommodations for female headscarves (hijab) and Friday afternoon congregational prayer (juma).2 While it is important to recognize that each of these four issues were important in CAIR’s formation, there was also a more dramatic and nationally prominent event that motivated prominent Muslim leaders in Southern California to support CAIR’s early growth. During first-person ethnographic fieldwork in 2000, local leaders Dr. Maher Hathout at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles and Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi at the Islamic Society of Orange County both stated that the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the key event that caused leaders to question whether working hard to contribute to society professionally while maintaining a low public profile about matters of faith was the best tactic for integration. During the first twenty-four hours of national news coverage following the horrific murder of 168 people, including nineteen children, major news broadcasters blamed Muslims for the attack. Dr. Siddiqi, a local imam with a Ph.D. from Harvard in comparative religions said: “that really was a wake-up call.” Dr. Hathout agreed, emphasizing that Muslims in the United States should unify across ethnic lines to form institutions that assert a proud and unified American Muslim identity.3 In fact, CAIR began a series of high-profile published reports, including “A Rush to Judgment,” immediately following the attacks by Michigan white militia members Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.4

As this article intends to show, after initial public relations and media communications origins in Washington, DC in 1994, CAIR’s growth and evolution over the next quarter-century would take place in three stages, partly in response to current events. During its first decade, the attacks of September 11, 2001 would seriously alter or delay the trajectory of integration and result in hundreds of hate crimes against innocent American citizens. The resulting “war on terror,” which included US government efforts to increase public support for military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan abroad, influenced public opinion on domestic issues in the period 2005–2015. Thirdly, Donald Trump’s campaign strategy of opposing immigration from Muslim-majority nations led CAIR to prioritize civil rights further, including employment discrimination and immigration law.

This article further explores the historical significance of CAIR within American Muslim politics and the larger ongoing debate about whether the United States is a cosmopolitan, pluralistic nation of immigrants based upon freedom of religion, or an isolationist, xenophobic nation exclusive to white Christians. With this question in mind, it is helpful to take a step back to remember, if only briefly, the long-standing and often neglected historical roots of Islam in the United States, in order to better understand the evolution of CAIR and its historical significance.

Figure 2. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an (1764, George Sale translation) from the Library of Congress. This image is in the public domain.

Historical Roots of Islam in America

From the start of the 20th century, Arab Americans in Detroit were helping to build cars for Henry Ford, and so many readers will be familiar with Dearborn, Michigan, America’s most concentrated Muslim community.5 Less well known, however, is the role that African Muslims played during the 16th-century sea navigation to the Americas and during the colonial era and the American Revolution. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were certainly familiar with Islam, as North African countries were the first to form formal diplomatic relations with the United States, while Muslim slaves or former slaves interacted with both men.6 There is a great deal of scholarship with various estimates, but for almost 400 years from 1500 to 1900, approximately one in five Africans brought Islam with them during the period of the transatlantic slave trade. Sylviane Diouf has described how an African American who was literate would likely have learned Arabic in a Quranic school in Africa.7 Because there was pressure to convert to Christianity in public, African Muslims influenced some expressions of African American Christianity, while Islam itself went underground. Because Islam arrived in the New World with the Spanish, it is as old in the Americas as Christianity. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri has published a comprehensive history of Islam in the United States for scholars, while Edward Curtis, Amir Hussain, and others have published shorter, more accessible volumes for students and general readers.8 Nadia Marzouki’s Islam: An American Religion is also instructive.9

This historical background is essential to understanding the context from which CAIR emerged in 1994. For decades a mosque was a gathering space for a group of Muslims with a particular language and ethnicity. In Los Angeles, working-class African Americans near the University of Southern California seldom mixed with wealthy Iranians in Beverly Hills, for example, and each group had distinctive issues of concern, whether these were urban socioeconomic issues of race and class on the one hand or immigration and foreign policy on the other. Adding to the complexity, most African American Muslims had left the Nation of Islam during the late 1970s and early 1980s and become mainstream Sunni Muslims under the leadership of Warith Deen Muhammad.10 The result is that most Americans were unfamiliar with Islam in general, and also the unique histories of its various ethnic subgroups. Eventually, perhaps, Americans will know at least as much about their various Muslim communities as they do Christian denominations.

Though it has been well documented elsewhere, Orientalism also existed in this context. As described in detail by Edward Said in 1978, Orientalism is the phenomenon whereby Europeans spread false generalizations in popular culture and media about an exotic and superstitious “orient” that needs to be conquered and saved by a more rational or civilized western culture, a theory used to justify military and economic subjugation.11 After the attacks of September 11, 2001, passive prejudices of Orientalism became more direct in the form of hate crimes, and so scholars began using the term Islamophobia.12 In other words, CAIR, like the related Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), faced several obstacles when it came to trying to form a national organization. Muslims were divided internally and faced obstacles of prejudice.

During its first years from 1995 to 2001, CAIR began to grow and secured early public relations victories by monitoring media portrayals. During those years, the immigrant American Muslim community was by some measures the most educated and affluent demographic group in the United States, being predominantly made up of doctors, engineers, and computer scientists who had been recruited to the United States following the Hart–Celler Immigration Act of 1965. (Note: Immigration patterns have changed since the 1990s, and today the community is more in line with America as a whole in terms of social class and education levels.) Ironically, at the Liberty Island signing ceremony, President Lyndon B. Johnson had stated that the Act would not alter America demographically. Surprisingly, however, it led to a second great wave of immigration of 30 million New Americans, from Latin America and Asia, predominantly to the sunbelt cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, and Tampa. It had been only ten years earlier in 1955 that sociologist Will Herberg had declared the United States a Judeo-Christian country following the successful post–World War II assimilation of Jewish and Catholic immigrants.13 Then in the 1990s, Diana Eck and others studied a new religious pluralism as Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and those of other faiths became a part of the American social fabric.14 Twenty years later, a political debate continues between competing narratives about the future identity and priorities of the United States. This debate is simultaneously occurring in many European countries, which have been more directly impacted than the United States by the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and North Africa following decades of massive war casualties.15

Whereas CAIR rose to prominence during its first decade by responding to racist stereotypes in mainstream media and organizing boycotts, the misdirected retaliatory violence after 9/11 added a new focus for the documentation of hate crimes in annual reports. This led to its opening offices and making volunteer lawyers available in most large cities, and an education project was organized to send educational materials to half of the nation’s 16,000 public libraries. CAIR would take on even more of a legal orientation from 2015 on, as Republican strategists and Donald J. Trump used a “terror watch list,” “Muslim travel ban,” and “anti-shari’ah legislation” as political tactics. This article seeks to highlight how some of the accomplishments of CAIR over three periods (1994–2004, 2005–2015, and 2015–2020) were a direct response to current events. The descriptions of particular anecdotes or cases are intended only as examples and do not imply relative importance or a proportionally representative sample of the whole.

CAIR’s First Decade (1994–2004)

In 1997 Nike produced a Tim Hardaway Air Bakin’ athletic shoe that appears to have the word Allah (God) sewn into the heel in Arabic script (written right to left), while it also appears to read “Air” (written in English left to right). Writing for The Washington Post, Carlyle Murphy reported that Nike had recalled the shoes:

Nike’s action came after weeks of negotiations with the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Islamic advocacy group that had threatened to urge a boycott of Nike products by the worlds 1 billion Muslims. The Beaverton, Ore.-based company will call back more than 38,000 pairs of shoes in its distribution system and will accept potentially thousands of returns from retailers around the world.16

CAIR had other major public relations successes during its first decade, including one concerning a greeting card company. In 1994, pressure from CAIR caused the national chain of Hallmark stores to recall a Recycled Paper Greetings “get-well card” that read, “So, you’re feeling like Shiite. Don’t Mecca big deal of it.” In a show of interfaith solidarity, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America threatened a 5.3-million-member boycott of Hallmark.17

Also in 1994, CAIR recognized the cultural influence of big-budget Hollywood action movies portraying Arabs or Middle Easterners as one-dimensional villains. (Examples have been well documented by Jack Shaheen in Reel Bad Arabs.18) Another victory was the adding of a disclaimer by Twentieth Century Fox to the James Cameron film True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. In the film, British Pakistani actor Art Malik plays a particularly cruel terrorist leader. It was the number-one movie in America on its opening weekend and was the first movie in history with a $100 million budget. Other problematic movies in terms of racist stereotypes included Executive Decision starring Kurt Russell in 1996, and The Siege with Denzel Washington in 1998. Later in 2001, CAIR would succeed in convincing Paramount to change the villains in the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan film, starring Ben Affleck, The Sum of All Fears, from Muslims to neo-Nazis.

Beyond Hollywood, CAIR also helped with portrayals of Muslims in school textbooks, an effort also prioritized by Shabbir Mansuri and Susan Douglass of the Council on Islamic Education (CIE). For example, in 1997, at a cost of $15,000, Simon & Schuster’s children’s division recalled all 4,000 copies of Great Lives: World Religions after CAIR became aware of a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as hateful and promiscuous. The publisher’s spokesperson Andrew Giangola said, “We agreed that the book was unfairly negative and not properly balanced,”19 while the author refused to comment publicly on the content.

In addition to early public relations successes, typically taking the form of threatened boycotts of media companies, CAIR with Professor Ihsan Bagby produced helpful research for scholars in early 2001 by surveying 1,200 mosques for its report The Mosque in America: A National Portrait. This important CAIR publication provided a helpful window for scholars into the growth and successful public outreach of American Muslim communities across the United States. Furthermore, the report was especially useful because the US Census does not measure religion, and so estimates of the Muslim population range widely from 600,000 to 6 million, or more. These estimates tend to prioritize active, practicing, self-identifying Muslims, and may undercount by leaving out nonpracticing cultural Muslims, who may represent the majority. Before the 1990s, most American Muslims prayed in private homes or nondescript storefront prayer spaces. During the 1990s, perhaps a hundred purpose-built Islamic Centers were erected in major cities across the United States.20 CAIR’s report coincided with, and documented clearly, increasingly successful efforts by Muslims for Islam to be recognized as a mainstream American religion.

After the historic immigration wave from Asia and Latin America that had taken place from 1965 to 1980, during the 1990s the second generation of Muslim children born in America were coming of age and more confidently demanding their rights as full citizens. Efforts to study mosque and Islamic Center building continued. Whereas Dr. Bagby reported 962 mosques in 1994 and 1209 in 2001, the US Mosque Survey counted 2,106 in 2010 and 2,769 in 2020.21 (It is not always clear how the surveys distinguish between a private prayer space serving a dozen and a purpose-built Islamic Center serving thousands.) The building of Islamic Centers, many based on the total community model of nondenominational Christian megachurches, together with the opening of schools, the political lobbying of MPAC, and the civil rights, media relations, and educational efforts of CAIR all pointed to a successful entrance of Muslims into mainstream public life.22 On September 1, 2001, The US Postal Service issued a Ramadan “Eid” stamp featuring the calligraphy of Mohamed Zakariya and then First Lady Hillary Clinton began hosting annual Eid al-Fitr celebrations, marking the close of the daytime fasting month of Ramadan, at the White House. American Muslims seemed to have made it. In fact, just before 9/11 happened, a group of prominent American Muslim leaders had been invited to Washington to meet with President Bush, who intended to thank them for their support.

Figure 4. The United States Postal Service “Eid” stamp, released on September 1, 2001. Designed by American Muslim calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya. This image is in the public domain. Not related to CAIR, but emblematic of public sphere successes before 9/11.

The Impact of 9/11 on Muslim Americans

In addition to the event with President Bush (shown in Figure 1), CAIR immediately issued a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post on September 16, 2001, condemning the attacks. CAIR’s public condemnations of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 clearly counter the mainstream media narrative that Muslims did not condemn the attack. The advertisement is quoted in full here because of its historical significance:

We at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), along with the entire American Muslim community, are deeply saddened by the massive loss of life resulting from the tragic events of September 11th. American Muslims unequivocally condemn these vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families, friends and loved ones of those who have been killed or injured. We also extend our gratitude to all the heroic firefighters, police officers and emergency medical workers who continue to risk their lives in the ongoing rescue and relief efforts. We join with all Americans in calling for the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators of these crimes. May we all stand together through these difficult times to promote peace and love over violence and hate.23

Fear among the American people was high, and amidst a military mobilization, some media audiences overlooked this and other public condemnations. CAIR and others recognized that this was an important educational opportunity to try to teach Americans that 1.6 billion Muslims in 180 countries were not a unified monolith. CAIR launched a library project offering to send a package of books and DVDs to every public library, and about half, or 8,000, did request and receive them. Here is the list of seven books (and nine DVDs) sent by CAIR Missouri:

The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary; No God but God by Reza Aslan; Muslims in American History by Jerald F. Dirks; Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time by Karen Armstrong; What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John Esposito; National Geographic’s 1001 Inventions and Awesome Facts from Muslim Civilization; Lost Islamic History by Firas Alkhateeb; and nine DVDs: Enemy of the Reich: A Muslim Women Defies the Nazis; Islamic Art: Mirror to the Invisible World; Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Actually Think; Muhammad Legacy of a Prophet; Allah Made Me Funny: The Movie; Talking Through Walls; Prince Among Slaves; American Muslims: Fact vs Fiction; Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain.

During the two months following the attacks of September 11, 2001 it was not safe for American Muslims to appear in public places as the number of complaints of harassment and hate crimes reported by CAIR reached 1,700, including several murders. Though hate crimes usually involve verbal and physical assault and property crimes such as vandalism, graffiti, and arson attacks, they became an official category of crime in their own right. While it was gathering momentum during its first decade, what really propelled CAIR into the national spotlight were its annual hate-crime reports, which encouraged reporting and prosecution. The FBI and Southern Poverty Law Center had been monitoring these for years, but FBI data depends on self-reporting by local law enforcement, which may undercount these kinds of crimes and which may lack the resources to determine intent, when religion, ethnicity, social class, culture, politics, and psychology combine as contributing factors. Muslim victims of discrimination may feel more comfortable reporting to CAIR and their national network volunteer legal team, which has propelled CAIR into a position of national leadership. For example, in January 2002, CAIR reported 1,700 complaints from members to the House Judiciary Committee.

It is worthwhile describing the role of CAIR in two hate crimes in particular; not because these are qualitatively the most important, or represent all of CAIR’s work, but because by only quoting statistics we sometimes fail to see the human tragedies and costs on the ground, for victims primarily and perpetrators secondarily. In Tallahassee, Florida in 2002, Charles D. Franklin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to twenty-seven months in federal prison for driving his truck into a mosque’s doors and shouting slurs, causing more than $3,000 in damage. CAIR highlighted the event as a hate crime, raised funds to repair the damage, and worked with police to obtain additional protection for the mosque.24 In Tampa, Florida, podiatrist Dr. Robert J. Goldstein was sentenced to twelve years for stockpiling twenty to thirty bombs (C4 and napalm, including some with timers), grenades, thirty to forty guns, and detailed plans (three pages with a map of bomb placements, drawn up with the help of three accomplices), with the intent to attack a local mosque.25 The plot and cache were shared with police by his wife during a domestic violence call on August 22, 2002. In response CAIR and Governor Jeb Bush coordinated increased security for 100 houses of worship in Florida.

In addition to property crimes and bomb plots, violent assaults also occurred. In Yorba Linda, California, on February 22, 2003, a group of twenty led by two white supremacists used baseball bats to beat a Muslim teenager almost to death.26 Months earlier in New Bedford, Massachusetts, four white teenagers ordered pizza with the intent to rob the Hindu American graduate student delivery person Saurabh Bnalerao. Upon on his arrival, assuming he was Muslim, they told him to “Go back to Iraq,” and beat, burned, and kidnapped him; though he was able to escape with his life.27 Both of these events occurred as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq. In response CAIR published a nine-page “Muslim Community Safety Kit” and circulated it widely.28

It is also possible to conjecture that American Muslim leaders were aware of the success of the Anti-Defamation League in terms of cooperating with law enforcement to protect American Jews against hate crimes. After 9/11, the national security apparatus was interested in visiting local mosques to “counter violent extremism” or prevent “radicalization.” This was based on a misunderstanding, since criminals tend to be “un-mosqued.” But without a formal, institutional hierarchy, such as exists for the Catholic Church, law enforcement was unsure who to approach for improved cooperation. Unintentional communication challenges also hindered this effort. Islam does not have a centralized authority or spokesperson. Perhaps 85 percent of mosques in the United States are unlabeled local prayer spaces in private homes, strip malls, or industrial parks. Prayer is often led by a senior elder or the person most knowledgeable in Arabic. Some wealthier communities can afford a purpose-built Islamic Center with a trained imam who leads prayer and counsels on faith, and an executive director who is fluent in English and American culture who manages finances, legal, and outreach. These more focused facilities were eager to open up to law enforcement to dispel false stereotypes and misinformation. One Islamic Center in Fresno, California welcomed local and federal law enforcement and politicians and interfaith leaders on a monthly basis. However, most do not have these resources, so while it seemed natural for law enforcement to turn to mosques for spokespeople, the mosques were not necessarily equipped for this purpose. CAIR provided a network of support for local mosques without full-time directors in order to help them to navigate changing relations with local police and the FBI. High-profile CAIR training sessions occurred at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, the Department of Homeland Security, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and West Point, among numerous other locations.

By the time of its ten-year anniversary report in 2004, CAIR had expanded from one office in Washington, DC to having autonomous offices in thirty major North American cities. Their 2002 “I am American” public service announcements reached 10 million views, and another of their campaigns included an American Muslim Girl Scout troupe from Santa Clara, California.29

Figure 5. After 9/11, CAIR led several nationally prominent public relations efforts, including this one to dispel false stereotypes and assert everyday American-ness.

After American Muslims were implicated falsely in both the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the lower Manhattan World Trade Center bombing in 2001, the need for CAIR to increase its media and education outreach became apparent. In its second decade, CAIR would increase its legal services significantly.

CAIR’s Second Decade (2005–2015)

During its second decade, from 2005 to 2015, CAIR continued its civil rights and educational outreach efforts and expanded its volunteer legal support nationwide. Following the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, immigration issues became a key part of civil rights litigation. CAIR grew during these years to 200 employees, including seventy full-time staff across local offices, and stepped up its efforts in the courts, including submitting a case to the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2011, regarding a GPS that had been placed on a man’s car without a warrant in in Santa Clara, California.

Another example of a civil rights case that gained national attention during this period stemmed from an event that occurred on November 20, 2006, at the Minneapolis airport. Six imams performed salat, or one of the five daily prayers, before boarding a 6:30 p.m. US Airways flight to return home to Phoenix following a conference. After they boarded the plane, a passenger complained to the pilot about their actions, and they were removed from the plane in handcuffs by the FBI and airport police. Former New York CAIR president and attorney Omar Mohammedi represented the plaintiffs in filing the lawsuit. Congress passed a law in 2007 in an attempt to protect the arresting officers, but the court ruled that civil rights had been violated, and the case was settled out of court on behalf of the imams. US District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled:

When a law enforcement officer exercises the power of the Sovereign law over its citizens, she or he has a responsibility to operate within the bounds of the Constitution and cannot raise the specter of 9/11 as an absolute exception to that responsibility ... no reasonable officer could have believed they could arrest the Plaintiffs without probable cause.30

Meanwhile, CAIR continued pursuing religious accommodation cases involving workers’ rights. A key issue is the festival calendar, including prayer or fasting during Ramadan. Just as Christian employees can request Easter and Christmas off work, or Jewish employees for Yom Kippur and Passover, CAIR made the argument that American Muslims should likewise be allowed to take time off work for their religious holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, at the close of Ramadan and Hajj, respectively. Similarly, CAIR advocated on behalf of Muslim employees to argue that companies or organizations should allow Muslim employees to pray during their break times. In 2005, in Nashville, Tennessee, a Dell computer factory banned sunset prayer during break time and thirty-one Somali Muslim employees walked off the job. CAIR was able to serve as a mediator in this workplace legal dispute, and also as legal counsel, and helped to resolve it. Former CAIR legal director Arsalan Iftikhar was able to help secure reinstatement, back pay, and religious accommodations for the employees.31

In another case at the Swift meatpacking company near Denver, Colorado in September, 2008, 120 Somali workers were fired after requesting that their lunch break be moved to sunset to coincide with the breaking of the fast, since during the month of Ramadan observant Muslims will fast during daylight hours and share a prayer and meal at sunset.32 CAIR offered to help and provided a volunteer attorney, Rima Kapitan, who filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Rima was also involved in a similar case in Nebraska, assisted by CAIR Chicago Staff Attorney Rabya Khan.33 CAIR has also produced educational materials for employers to help prevent future incidents like these.

To give another example, eight years later in 2016, at the nearby Fort Morgan plant, Cargill pay a settlement of $1.5m to 138 Muslims who had been denied prayer breaks and fired.34 In California, a common accommodation is to allow American Muslims to begin work one hour earlier or stay one hour later during the work week, so that they can attend the weekly congregational prayer at noon on Fridays.

Vandalism, graffiti, and even arson attacks against mosques continued during these years. On August 6, 2012, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was razed to the ground by a conservative Christian during Ramadan shortly after an interfaith meeting with Episcopalians had taken place there.35 In Madera, near Fresno, a local school bus driver vandalized the local mosque. (Both attackers had also vandalized local Planned Parenthood offices in their respective communities.)

With the legal arena being the primary method of recourse for crimes against American Muslims, CAIR has also recognized that improved education can help to prevent crimes that are motivated by a combination of ignorance and fear. CAIR Maryland in 2015, for instance, celebrated an 11-year-old Montgomery County Public School student who had circulated a petition for Eid al-Fitr to be recognized by the school. More recently, the same school district has been working to avoid scheduling Advanced Placement examinations on this day, as this would preclude tens of thousands of American Muslim students from participating, and they may make the holiday an official school holiday.36 In October, 2014 in Los Angeles, California, Hussam Ayloush and Laila al-Marayati (representing a separate organization), led two Saturday workshops for twenty-four LA Unified School District teachers, introducing the topics of “Islam” and “Women in Islam.”

CAIR’s expansion of its legal efforts during its second decade cemented its status as a key civil rights organization. Public relations and educational outreach continued during these years, but the foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the subprime mortgage crisis, dominated the news headlines. When 9/11 occurred in 2001, experts correctly predicted a surge in misguided and illegal hate crimes. Surprisingly, however, hate crimes continued to increase at high rates all the way through CAIR’s second decade (2005–2015). Then, in 2015, anti-Muslim rhetoric became a prominent political tactic, taking the form of “law-and-order” language.

To give an example from Tampa, CAIR Florida Executive Director and attorney Hassan Shibly has spoken about how State Senator Alan Hays may not realize that promoting discrimination contributes to hate crimes.37 In 2012, Senator Hays introduced “anti-shari’ah” Senate Bill (SB) 1360 and CAIR started an interfaith coalition that helped to ensure it would not pass, though Hays would help to pass a closely related SB 386 two years later.38 (Hays also helped to pass SB 864 so that local schools could avoid using state textbooks that were approved in Tallahassee, but that had been deemed by local parents to be too favorable to Islam.) This would become a bigger issue during the Trump campaign. Under Steve Bannon’s guidance, the populist campaign in 2015 used language that evoked white nationalism and fears of an invasion of brown-skinned criminals from Latin America and the Middle East. The experts who predicted that this rhetoric would result in a large uptick in hate crimes would be proven correct. From 2015 to 2020, CAIR would focus its legal efforts on three political tactics: the terror watchlist, the Muslim travel ban, and anti-shari’ah legislation.

The Trump Years: 2015–2020

During Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, hate crimes against American Muslims increased significantly.39 In September 2019, CAIR published its “Bias Brief” on the impact of the Trump campaign; it which described 10,015 incidents that had taken place between 2014 and 2019, including 1,164 violent hate crimes.40 During Trump’s campaign and first year in office, reported incidents doubled from 1,300 to 2,600 in less than two years. California had by far the most incidents with a third of the total, followed by Florida and then Texas. During this period, 148 mosques were vandalized, and on March 24, 2019, the Escondido mosque in San Diego suffered an arson attack. The attacker was a white 19-year-old, who would go on to shoot an orthodox rabbi and murder a woman in a Poway synagogue three weeks later, in an attempt to recreate the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh and mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.

In Fresno, California on Christmas weekend 2015, a 17-year-old boy and 22-year-old accomplice beat up 68-year-old Amrik Singh Bal, a Sikh farm worker, at 7:00 a.m. in the morning at a local bus stop, saying, “ISIS ... terrorist ... let’s get him,” before crashing their Dodge Challenger into him and breaking his collar bone; the attack was captured on video by private security cameras.41 CAIR did not get involved in this specific hate crime, but it is representative of cases nationwide at that time.

Civil rights violations also increased. As only two examples of many, at the University of Washington, Seattle, a female freshman was hit in the face with a glass bottle while exiting a classroom, for wearing the hijab. This occurred on November 15, 2016, one week after the presidential election. At an Applebee’s in Coon Rapids, Wisconsin, on October 30, 2015, a Somali American woman received seventeen stitches after being hit in the face by a glass mug, by a woman who admitted she did not like the woman’s hijab or use of Swahili in the restaurant.

Other civil rights cases are not as dramatic but can still have an impact. On November 5, 2019, in Denver, Colorado, Gazella Bensreiti went to the Denver Nuggets basketball game to accompany her eight-year-old daughter, who had been invited to perform the national anthem with her classmates, but the pair were denied admission because of the mother’s headscarf. According to CAIR lawyer Gadeir Abbas, this violates Title II of the Civil Rights Act. CAIR California issued a thirty-six-page school-bullying report called “Singled Out” that surveyed 1500 American Muslim teenagers and found that 500 said they felt unwelcome or disrespected at school or online. Whereas one in five had reported being bullied before the 2016 election, this doubled to two in five after. In 2018, CAIR California cosponsored an anti-bullying bill, AB 2291, and on April 23, 600 students visited the state capitol in Sacramento to advocate for it.

Individual cases involving CAIR legal support continued across the United States. In 2018 in Alaska prisons, CAIR gained inmates of Alaska prisons the right to study Qur’an, attend Friday prayer, and fast during Ramadan. In 2019 in Augusta, Georgia, an African American waitress sued her employers successfully when they reduced her hours after warning her not to wear a headscarf.

Just to give a sense of the scope of what CAIR is doing: In 2019 CAIR California reported 2,500 outreach and education meetings, 1,300 immigration cases, and 800 civil rights intakes. Nationally during 2019, “CAIR offices received more than 3,300 calls for help, of which 1,061 demonstrated evidence of alleged bias, religious discrimination, or hate activity.”42

Since the Trump campaign of 2015, the scope of CAIR’s efforts has increased. Three national issues in particular have come to demand a great deal of resources. These are the terror watchlist, the Muslim travel ban, and anti-shari’ah legislation.

A national CAIR report shows five key legal and public relations victories during 2019. In addition to generating 90,000 news articles and a report on the Islamophobia funding network, CAIR offices provided free legal services to more than 5,000 people and, in the Bahia Amawi case, defeated an anti-BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) pledge for employment law in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas. Most significantly, perhaps, in the Anas Elhady case, CAIR lawyers convinced a federal judge to declare the terror watchlist unconstitutional on September 6, 2019.

The legality of the terror watchlist, or “Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB),” of which “the No-Fly List” is a part, was called into question by Congress’s 2013 End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA). The overturning of this list in 2019 is probably the most internationally significant legal accomplishment of CAIR in its twenty-five-year history. The case was known as Elhady v. Kable in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria.43 It was a three-year lawsuit; on September 4, 2019, CAIR lawyer Gadeir Ibrahim Abbas exonerated twenty-three US citizens who had been on the list without their knowledge. In April 2015, Anas Elhady had been returning from Canada when he was handcuffed and interrogated for ten hours and had had to be taken to hospital for emergency life support.

The presidential campaign of Donald Trump during 2015 was based partly on the notion of discouraging and preventing brown-skinned people from Latin America and the Muslim world from entering the United States. A “Build the Wall” effort combined with a Muslim travel ban, Executive Order 13769—signed on January 27, 2017, during Trump’s first week in office—stopped the arrival of an estimated 100,000 immigrants per year from Muslim majority nations Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Sudan. Critics questioned the legality of banning travel based on faith commitment or race. The Supreme Court upheld the Executive Order, also known as “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”

Finally, twelve states have passed anti-shari’ah legislation, which is a sort of symbolic statement.44 The controversy began in November 2010, when over 70 percent of the voters in Oklahoma passed an anti-shar’iah ballot measure that was overturned by the courts.45 Missouri voters also passed a ballot measure that was vetoed by the Governor. North Carolina and Alabama voters passed similar measures. In September 2017, the Haas Institute at UC Berkeley produced a report which documented 194 anti-shari’ah bills in the fifty states since 2011, with eighteen of these being enacted. Of the primary sponsors, 373 were Republican and nine were Democrat, which shows this issue to be highly partisan.46 More recently, ninety-eight Democratic leaders in Washington and two Republicans signed a document supporting CAIR.

Whereas David Yerushalmi was cited as having authored the anti-shar’iah bill that was submitted in several states, CAIR tried to dive deeper into private family foundations’ public disclosure documents to try to learn who was funding anti-American Muslim advertising and legislative campaigns. The remarkable 2019 Islamophobia report “Hijacked by Hate” examined nonprofit foundation donation filings to identify specifically 1,096 funders in anti-Muslim media who had contributed $1.5b over three years in the period 2014–2016. Even without exact figures, one might imagine that $1.5 million per day can buy a lot of carefully targeted Facebook ads.

This makes it very difficult to separate facts from opinion on the Internet. For example, Ghassan Elashi, a member of CAIR in Texas, was criticized for donating money personally to the Holy Land Foundation, a charity in the Middle East. On the one hand, a private individual is free to donate to a legal charity; however, because of the volatility of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Holy Land Foundation has been investigated frequently by the governments of Israel and the United States as to whether any humanitarian aid can ever “on the ground” also involve military aid. Legal cases against the Holy Land Foundation are very difficult to untangle as the federal government can change the legal status of certain groups from year to year and legal appeals can continue for decades. Also, key court documents are heavily redacted, or confidential, making it impossible to be informed on the issue.

In a more recent turn of events, in 2019, CAIR filed lawsuits in Maryland and Texas on free-speech grounds, in cases where employees had been required to sign a pledge not to join the BDS movement as a term of their employment. This shows how CAIR continues to evolve in response to current events and constantly changing political leadership and trends. In the 2018 midterm elections, for example, as many as thirty-four Muslims were elected to state or local office, the largest number ever; the total included new members of Congress who were Arab American and Somali American.

American Muslim Identity in a Pluralistic Nation and the Future of CAIR

A key part of the early success of CAIR was its media savvy and interfaith outreach. Instrumental were figures such as Ibrahim Hooper. Though not one of the two cofounders of the organization, Hooper was a veteran CBS news producer in Minnesota and convert to Islam who made himself widely available for media appearances. Professor Ihsan Bagby at the University of Kentucky, who had earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, added academic authority to CAIR’s 2001 report, “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait.” Though CAIR started small, it had the right staff at the right moment and its success is partly due to successful collaboration with the ACLU, and politicians and law enforcement in Washington.

One of the ways to measure when a religious community has become mainstream is when it has enough confidence and resources to help others outside its own faith or ethnic community. In 2001 and again in 2016, Japanese Americans and Jewish Americans, citizens and lawyers, formed human chains around mosques, citing “never again” because innocent people had been rounded up at night and deported or imprisoned without charge. Less dramatically, in Sacramento, California, a non-Muslim African American high-school basketball coach had his truck vandalized with racial slurs, and it was CAIR that stepped forward to defend his rights and help him, perhaps realizing that unpunished or unheard crimes against one lead to a decline in moral standards generally.

This brief overview of CAIR attempts to describe how a fledgling organization in the right place and time in 1994 was able to expand and become more inclusive over a quarter-century using effective public relations campaigns, educational outreach, and civil rights legal assistance. These efforts occurred at the same time as the second generation of post-1965 immigrants were transforming the United States demographically, but not yet ideologically, from a Judeo-Christian nation to a pluralistic nation, as Diana Eck described in A New Religious America in 2002. More recently, Robert P. Jones has portrayed how the new religious pluralism challenges the narratives of white supremacy and Christian nationalism that have influenced the United States since its founding.

CAIR, then, while only one organization among many, is positioned at key junctures where religion and politics and religion and race overlap. The optimistic will say that religion does not see race, and that Islam helps people to feel they are part of a larger community. So, on the one hand the American Muslim community may emphasize unity across ethnic lines, whether African American, South Asian, Arab, Iranian, Indonesian, Somali, or other backgrounds. Yet there is also important diversity within each ethnic or national subgroup.

In political terms, nations build historical and ideological narratives, which are taught in schools and promoted on PBS or Fox News, for example. The three historical facts that Islam has been part of the American story since Columbus; that America has benefited from immigration from all over the world; and that the founding fathers separated church and state in order to expand, not lessen religious freedom, are facts that may not fit neatly into popular narratives of nationalism or exceptionalism involving race and/or religion.

In the near future, Islam is likely to become the largest religion in the world, with data from the Pew Forum generally considered the most reliable here, and most American and European readers of this text already have Muslim neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and customers. As Diane Moore and Ali Asani in Boston and Adam Dinham in London (and others) have argued, religious literacy benefits everyone and may very well be an essential part of education. Interfaith dialogue and joint social service charity projects conducted across lines of race and religion have also proven mutually beneficial.

Review of the Literature

A definitive scholarly account of CAIR including interviews with national and local leaders and dozens of volunteer lawyers has yet to be published. A new book published after this article was written and that may come closest to filling this gap is Emily Cury, Claiming Belonging: Muslim American Advocacy in an Era of Islamophobia.47 Most recent overviews of Islam in the United States, by Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Edward E. Curtis, IV, Amir Hussain, and Nadia Marzouki include a paragraph or page repeating similar basic facts widely available on the Internet. Articles by Evelyn Alsultany, “Selling American Diversity and Muslim American Identity through Nonprofit Advertising Post-9/11,” and Grace Yukich, “Muslim American Activism in the Age of Trump,” contain a greater level of detail.48

Primary Sources Available Digitally

As a public relations organization specializing in media relations, CAIR publishes online reports prolifically. Many of the state offices make their annual report available to the public for free online. These contain documentation summarizing efforts during the year. There are also annual meetings that are covered by local journalists. The most impactful publication of CAIR historically was probably Ihsan Bagby’s Mosque Report of 1994.49 Written by a college professor, this document helped early scholars of Islam in the United States to better understand the efforts of post-1965 American Muslims to enter into mainstream public life through mosque, school, and political and civil rights institution building. Second, annual hate-crime reports played a key role in collecting data state by state in order to shine a light on the transformation of Orientalism into Islamophobia after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The successful effort to collect donations of approximately $300 each to distribute packages of sixteen books and DVDs to over half (8,000 of 16,000) of America’s public libraries provides a helpful window into primary sources that CAIR and its member branches support. Other useful sources include Rabiah Ahmed, A Decade of Growth, Ihsan Bagby et al., The Mosque in America, Barzegar and Arain’s Hijacked By Hate, and CAIR’s report A Rush to Judgment.50

Further Reading

  • Abdullah, Zain. Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Alsultany, Evelyn. “Selling American Diversity and Muslim American Identity through Nonprofit Advertising Post-9/11.” American Quarterly 59, no. 3 (September 2007): 593–622.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, ed. Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Howell, Sally. Old Islam in Detroit: Rediscovering the Muslim American Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Mann, Gurinder Singh, Paul Numrich, and Raymond Williams. Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America: A Short History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Moore, Kathleen M. The Unfamiliar Abode: Islamic Law in the United States and Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Morales, Harold D. Latino and Muslim in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Whitehead, Andrew L., and Samuel L. Perry. Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
  • Yukich, Grace. “Muslim American Activism in the Age of Trump.” Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review 79, no. 2 (2018): 220–247.