What is the Council on American-Islamic Relations?

Bucks Co. Courier-Times
By Rebecca Guterman
Bucks County Courier Times

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is the “most pre-eminent and largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the country,” according to the Philadelphia chapter’s executive director, Jacob Bender.

It began 20 years ago and now has 30 chapters across the country, about half of which have attorneys on staff. The Philadelphia chapter started in 1994.

The council has a two-pronged mission, as Bender described it: One, legal protection of civil rights; and two, advocating for and educating the public about the Muslim community.

Through local mosques, the council hosts anti-bullying workshops for students and parents, and Know Your Rights workshops specific to civil rights issues that could affect Muslims, like when you do or do not have to remove a hijab, or headscarf.

In the fall, CAIR is taking on a campaign to make Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan, a holiday for public school students in Philadelphia, according to Bender. He said more Muslim students attend public schools there than Jewish students, but students already get the day off for the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, and day of atonement, Yom Kippur.

The organization also tries to fight stereotypes it believes are perpetuated in the media, such as Muslims are intrinsically violent.

“We’re now commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I when the Christian nations shot each other across wasteland from trenches and killed 60 million people. Both sides marched in battle with the blessings of their respective churches,” he said. “There are Muslims who are violent and have used religion as a justification for violence just as there are Christians and Hindus and Jews and Buddhists and atheists — all of whom utilized violence to achieve certain political goals.”

Many members draw their support of the organization from the U.S. Constitution and its protection of civil rights.

Northampton resident Eyad Takiedine has been a supporter since he attended the annual banquet a few years ago. “They (the Council) actually protect the civil liberties of our communities and it’s all in the Constitution,” he said.

Nivine Rihawi, a Middletown resident and executive committee member of the council, has not personally faced discrimination but said it is important to fight for those who do.

“CAIR is an organization that is very near and dear to my heart not only as a Muslim, but also as an American woman,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should suffer, whether Muslim, Jew or anything else.”

To that end, she is chairing efforts to lead a symposium for Muslim women’s empowerment next year.

Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, often do not work with CAIR because of past accusations that it supports terrorist groups, according to 2013 Jewish Forward article. However, Bender said the main opposition has been from extreme right-wing groups.