Sen. Barbara Boxer has rescinded an award her office gave to a Sacramento Islamic activist after criticism that the group he represents -- the Council on American-Islamic Relations -- holds extremist views and has ties to international terrorist organizations.
“I’m saying the four words that every elected official hates to say: ‘I made a mistake,’ ” the California Democrat said in a telephone interview Friday. “I hope they won’t believe that I did this to hurt the Muslim community.... We just have to be more careful when we reach out.”
The U.S. senator’s office rescinded a “certificate of achievement” awarded in November to Basim Elkarra, head of the council’s Sacramento office. The rare public reversal follows charges from right-wing activists that Boxer was courting Muslim extremists by associating with the group.
The controversy highlights the complexities facing leading American Muslim groups in their dealings with elected officials -- and vice versa.
It recalls a similar dispute surrounding a decision by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission to give an award to Dr. Maher Hathout last fall. A senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Hathout also faced charges of extremism. After a bitter two-week public battle, Hathout narrowly avoided having the award rescinded. In a rare revote, only four of the commission’s 14 members voted to reaffirm Hathout, with the majority either absent or abstaining.
Council on American-Islamic Relations officials say they and other Muslim organizations have been targets of an ongoing, and sometimes effective, campaign to silence and marginalize American Muslim voices.
“There is a market for Islamophobia right now,” said Hussam Ayloush, head of the council’s Southern California office. “It’s the same group of right-wing extremists who are interconnected and feed off each other and keep recycling the same allegations.”
The controversy started when Joe Kaufman, a Florida-based activist and longtime critic of the group, posted an online article attacking the award to Elkarra. Kaufman, who runs a website called CAIRwatch.com, has long contended that the council actively encourages and supports groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah -- both of which are on the U.S. government’s terrorism watch lists.
“We believe this organization should be shut down and that no elected leaders should have anything to do with them,” Kaufman said.
One of the largest American Muslim political groups, the council has seen its profile and membership soar in the last five years. The group had only eight offices as of Sept. 11, 2001. It now has 32, along with an active lobbying arm based in Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1994, the council describes itself as the country’s leading Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. Its local chapters have tax-exempt nonprofit status, and its leaders deny any ties to Hezbollah or Hamas.
Boxer, who said she was unaware of the initial decision by her office to honor Elkarra, said independent research by her office later revealed troubling information about the organization.
“It’s the volume of things, not any one thing,” she said. “There’s a long list.”
That list includes several individual council members who have been indicted on terrorism-related charges, as well as harsh criticism of the organization by some of Boxer’s congressional colleagues. In 2003, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said the council was “unusual in its extreme rhetoric and its associations with groups that are suspect.”
In recent years the council has drawn a carefully calibrated line on terrorism -- strongly criticizing individual attacks and suicide bombings but refusing to label Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations.
It’s also quick to condemn Israeli attacks in Lebanon and the occupied territories and label them as terrorism against civilians.
That criticism of Israel, council officials say, is what’s really fueling the campaign against their group. Nothing short of endorsing Israeli policy, they say, will spare them from allegations of extremism.
“The minute we criticize Israel, then we become a nonmoderate group,” Ayloush said. “You become public enemy No. 1.”
The group also has a complicated relationship with federal law enforcement agencies. Former FBI counterterrorism chief Steven Pomerantz once said the council’s activities “effectively give aid to international terrorist groups.”
But council representatives say they frequently meet with senior FBI officials, and the group has helped train FBI agents in how to interact with the American Muslim community.
Kaufman, who regularly contributes to the influential website frontpagemag.com, denies assertions that he’s seeking to defame all Muslim groups. But he also said that none of the major American Muslim organizations qualify as moderates in his view. The website touts a variety of publications, such as “Big Lies: Demolishing the Myths of the Propaganda War Against Israel” and “The Truth About Muhammad, Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.”
The council has responded to Boxer’s snub by demanding a meeting with the senator -- an option Boxer said she would welcome -- and rallying supporters of various faiths. Among those supporters is Elizabeth Sholes, director of public policy for the California Council of Churches, who has worked personally with Elkarra in Sacramento.
“They’ve issued multiple declarations against extremism and violence both in the Middle East and in the America Muslim community,” Sholes said of the Muslim council. “I have found them in every instance to be absolutely dedicated to the issues of peace and justice.”
The Muslim council is also encouraging supporters to contact Boxer’s offices to protest the decision. A spokeswoman for Boxer said that as of Friday afternoon, the senator’s offices in Washington and California have received 19 calls on the issue -- 15 of them against the decision to rescind the award.
But Ayloush acknowledged that the situation represents a setback for the group’s attempts to make inroads into American government and society.
“For us, the award has little value,” Ayloush said. “It’s the symbolism of a progressive Democrat giving in to pressure from right-wing Islamophobes.”