Two weeks ago, the National Post and I were served with a notice of libel by the Canadian branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR. The Post and I are not alone. Over the past year, CAIR's Canadian and U.S. branches have served similar libel notices on half a dozen other individuals and organizations in the United States and Canada. Each case has its own particular facts, yet they are linked by a common theme: That we defendants have accused CAIR (in the words of the notice served on me) of being "an unscrupulous, Islamist, extremist sympathetic group in Canada supporting terrorism."
Lawyers for individuals and newspapers served with libel notices will normally urge their clients to avoid any comment on the matter--to avoid even any acknowledgement that they have been served. This is usually good advice. A notice of libel is not a lawsuit, but a warning of a lawsuit to come. If the potential defendant keeps quiet, the potential plaintiff will often drop the suit altogether.
But wise legal advice often comes at a cost, a cost in public information. So I was heartened that the National Post's lawyers have encouraged the paper and me to continue with this important story.
CAIR is understandably protective of its reputation. Until recently, it has had considerable success winning acceptance in the United States and Canada as something close to an official spokesman for local Muslim communities. CAIR has been influential in advocating for a sharia court to arbitrate divorces and other family-law matters in the province of Ontario. CAIR's strong criticisms of Canada's anti-terror legislation have won respectful hearing in Ottawa. Any reporting or commentary that cast doubt on CAIR's carefully cultivated image would deeply threaten the group's mission.
What is that mission? The public record offers some clues:
CAIR was founded in 1994 by alumni of an older group, the Islamic Association for Palestine. The IAP, founded by senior Hamas figure Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, calls for the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state under Islamic law in Israel's place. (In 1996, CAIR would condemn the U.S. government's decision to deport Marzook as an "anti-Islamic" act.)
CAIR's first executive director, Nihad Awad, publicly declared himself a supporter of Hamas at a 1994 forum at Barry University in Florida.
One of CAIR's original advisory board members, Siraj Wahhaj, served as a character witness for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Rahman is the blind Egyptian cleric convicted in 1995 of conspiracy to bomb New York landmarks. CAIR described Rahman's conviction as a hate crime.
CAIR's founding chairman, Omar Ahmed, also an IAP alumnus, is said to have declared at a public event in California in July, 1998: "Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran . . . should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth." Ahmed has since disputed the accuracy of the quote--five years after it was reported by a California newspaper.
After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, CAIR's Web site featured a link titled, "Donate to the NY/DC Disaster Relief Fund." The link connected to the Web site of the Holy Land Foundation, a charity closed down by the United States three months later as a Hamas front.
Over the past 10 years, CAIR has grown rapidly. It now claims a total of 29 affiliates, including CAIR Canada. CAIR's media savvy won it much official attention after 9/11. With that attention, however, also came a higher degree of scrutiny.
Since 9/11, three CAIR associates in the U.S. have been indicted on terrorism-related charges.
In September, 2003, CAIR community relations director Bassem K. Khafagi, pleaded guilty on immigration and bank-fraud charges, in Detroit. Khafagi interestingly co-owned a print shop with another man who has since been charged with illegally sending goods into Iraq.
Randall Todd Royer, a communications specialist at CAIR's Washington headquarters, pleaded guilty in January, 2004, to belonging to the Kashmiri Lashkar-i-Taibi terrorist group and illegally acquiring firearms and explosives in order to train for terrorist missions against India. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
A founding member of CAIR's Texas chapter, Ghassen Elashi, was convicted of conspiracy and money-laundering charges in connection with the shipment of high-technology items to Syria and Libya in July, 2004.
This record has drawn increasing notice in the United States. CAIR officials were invited to join President Bush at his September, 2001, visit to Washington's mosque, but were omitted from the invitation list to the 2003 and 2004 White House Iftar dinners (an Iftar meal is the fast-breaking at the end of a day in Ramadan). New York Senator Chuck Schumer has charged that CAIR members have "intimate links to Hamas." Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, a political leader noted for his sensitivity to Islamic concerns, has said that CAIR is "unusual in its extreme rhetoric and its association with groups that are suspect."
CAIR Canada describes its relationship with CAIR as "close but distinct." It is not clear what this means. On its Web site and in its publications, CAIR lists CAIR canada as one of its local affiliates, giving it the same stauts as a state or regional CAIR chapter. CAIR Canada has its own board; so do many of CAIR's local chapters. It should of course be stated that no criminal charges have ever been filed gainst CAIR Canada or any of its officers.
These are the facts behind the commentary that the National Post and I have published. They are facts that the Canadian public and Canadian officials are entitled to know. The National Post and I are confident that Canada's courts will agree that no proper interest would be served by suppressing them.