Introducing Muslim Advocates - the Muslim-American civil rights group that CAIR should have been. Founded by the National Association of Muslim Lawyers (NAML), they are hitting precisely the right note in their mission statement about seeking freedom and justice for all. They have hit the ground running, by producing this excellent video titled "Got Rights?":
Watch This Video: It will give you crucial Information about how to protect you and your family when approached by law enforcement.Since the terrorist attacks of 9-11, Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and South Asians have endured particular scrutiny by law enforcement -- and in some cases, questioning and searches that infringe fundamental rights at the core of the Constitution. In this climate, it is vital that members of our communities inform themselves about our rights as Americans.Then, Take Action: Share the video with your family and friends; and visit our website to tell us about your experiences with law enforcement.To change discriminatory policies, we first need to educate our fellow Americans about our experiences. Help stop racial and religious profiling.
Brilliant. They also invite you to share your story with them if you've been denied your rights or had an otherwise unjust encounter with the law.
The importance of this group cannot be overstated. For 15 years, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has failed to really make a case for muslim American civil rights. The failure of CAIR to articulate a national civil rights argument on behalf of muslims has not gone unnoticed - leading CAIR's chairman to resign in frustration (though he certainly deserves some of the blame). CAIR's membership has been steadily dwindling as well.
Is CAIR now irrelevant? Not neccessarily. I've defended CAIR many times because while their national leadership has been inept and controversy-prone, the local state chapters do important work in compiling information about muslim civil liberties violations that would otherwise go unnoticed, as well as basic community outreach, humanitarian work, and of course damage control. MA can step in to fill the gap at the national level but probably won't be able to replicate CAIR's infrastructure on a state-by-state chapter level, at least not for a while. I don't see MA as being capable of doing the community outreach/open-mosque/interfaith yeoman's work, either. The ideal situation would be for genuine reform within CAIR and have these two organizations work independently, but cooperatively, towards the same goals.
My friend Shahed Amanullah recently mused on a number of ways in which CAIR might reform:
a) Change the name. It has the connotation of “American” and “Islamic” being mutually exclusive.
b) Be more selective about the civil rights issues that are taken up, because there are some times when people are just being jerks and not necessarily anti-Muslim. And some actions (i.e. the “flying imams” lawsuit) have ended up having a net negative impact on public opinion about Muslims.
c) Be more broad about the issues taken up. There’s more to being Muslim in America than the right to wear hijab and pray at work.
d) Explicitly reject all foreign funding, like MPAC has done since its founding.
e) Have at least one proactive/positive initiative (outreach, training, community building) for every aggressive one (i.e. lawsuits).
f) Take a different attitude towards the media - the current CAIR attitude towards the media is far too hostile and uncooperative, and it feeds on itself.
g) Push for the inclusion on younger/more diverse leadership, with special attention given to those who were born and/or raised in the US.
h) Focus on Muslim life in America, and leave foreign policy to other Muslim groups. Both are worthy causes, but the pursuit of both at the same time hurts the efficacy of each one.
i) Stop trying to be another ISNA (i.e. stop adding parallel programs that step on the toes of other groups, and stop positioning yourself as an umbrella group for all Muslims.). Focus on what you do best - defending civil rights of Muslims.
j) Thoroughly vet all staffers for anything in their past that can drag down the organization as a whole. (Not trying to discredit past work that people may have done, this is simply a cost-benefit analysis that weighs the skills one brings to the table vs. the obstacles it can place in the way of the larger org goals).
With the advent of MA, CAIR might as well outsource all or part of (b) above to them, as far as lobbying at the national level and engaging in PR work. Of course, at the local level, it's the data collected by local CAIR chapters that MA will need to have access to in order to make their case.
Overall, what CAIR needs is bold ideas and fresh leadership. I know the perfect man for the job as CAIR Chairman but he's already declined to be drafted :) Ultimately though the creation of MA bodes well for muslim-American organizations in general, as long as these orgs realize they are all on the same team and "representing muslim American issues" is not a zero-sum game.