Troubles at CAIR

By Todd Buchanan

This Ramadan, Muslims are doing what they have always done during this special month: striving to grow in faith, and be better Muslims. This Ramadan coincided with the trial and conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. May that conviction be the beginning of long, long overdue change.

 When we name an evil or an injustice, like racism, we have a responsibility to search our own hearts for any trace of it. Being human, we are adept at explaining our own shortcomings as something else. One who never imagined himself to be racist per se may yet divide the world into two kinds of people, one inherently more deserving of Allah’s love than the other.

But even more challenging for us, as Muslims, is our obligation to confront injustice regardless of who is perpetrating it, regardless of whether it is racism, classism, or sexism.

On April 15, in the final days of the Floyd murder trial, NPR published an article by Leila Fadel, who had been covering events in Minneapolis, concerning allegations of gender bias, sexual harassment and misconduct, hostile working conditions, and general mismanagement in the national and some local offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Her sources were former employees and board members of CAIR. (see: Civil Rights Org CAIR Accused Of Ignoring Alleged Misconduct : NPR)

Leila Fadel is highly credentialed, and neither she nor NPR would lightly air such allegations in a time when Islamophobia is still alive and well. Fadel’s article is rich with denials of impropriety by CAIR officials, the categorical nature of which seems to lend credence to the testimony of many women who once felt honored to work for CAIR.

Aslam Abdullah, scholar and editor of the Muslim Observer, told Fadel that these women do not trust that CAIR will address their grievances in a fair manner, and many have refused to cooperate with an investigation currently being conducted by an employment law attorney associated with CAIR, according to one former employee.  Abdullah regards as credible many allegations of “harassment, sexual misconduct or unfair treatment by senior men within CAIR or CAIR affiliates”, according to Fadel. (For some of these women’s testimonies and their proposed reform of CAIR, go to: WE CAIR – Coalition for Accountability & Islah-Reform)

Thus, it appears that an organization whose mission is to champion the civil rights of Muslims and others facing discrimination is itself regularly mistreating female employees.

No doubt, there is a wide range of Muslim views on the matter of gender equality. But there should be no debate when it comes to CAIR, whose tenth and final Core Principle reads: “CAIR supports equal and complementary rights and responsibilities for men and women.” Not only are women at CAIR entitled to equal treatment and opportunities as men. As well, men are obligated to respect their dignity.

Fadel’s article only touches on CAIR management’s suppression of an attempt by employees to unionize in 2016-17, and its retaliatory conduct afterward. This was not American Islam’s finest hour.

It is beyond dispute that CAIR presents itself as a civil rights organization first and foremost. Indeed, in every press release by CAIR national, we read that CAIR is “the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization”. Yet, in opposing the establishment of a union, CAIR management spent thousands and thousands of donor dollars to persuade the National Labor Relations Board of something that would surprise every one of those donors, that it is “organized and operated exclusively for religious, education and charitable purposes”, and was thus not obligated to accept collective bargaining and abide by other employer/employee rules under the National Labor Relations Act.

CAIR’s attorney literally argued that requiring the organization to engage in collective bargaining with its employees would “compromise [its] constitutional free exercise of religion”.  The Board decided in favor of the employees and scheduled a vote to determine if they wanted to unionize (National Labor Relations Board, Case 05-RC-186732).

But the vote never took place; the seven union organizers were gone by then. “All of the employees leading the effort to unionize were treated horribly,” according to the same former employee cited above. “Some broke and resigned. Others were terminated, or forced to resign in exchange for hefty severance packages and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence them. These individuals have gone through trauma. Some left Islam or the Muslim community.”

Muslims know that the Most Merciful sides with the disadvantaged, and the National Labor Relations Act is based on the premise that absent government regulation, employers enjoy an unfair power advantage over employees. To maintain, as CAIR did, that requiring it to accept collective bargaining would compromise Islam is hardly worthy of the faith. Indeed, it barters revelation for a trivial gain.

CAIR has championed many, many victims of injustice. None of that work is diminished by the allegations of its mistreatment of employees. But neither those many accomplishments, nor the clear need for organizations like CAIR to persevere, can justify American Muslims overlooking a glaring injustice by CAIR itself, if indeed these allegations pan out.

The only way for the Muslim community to know which allegations are valid is for CAIR to agree to a review by an impartial panel, acceptable to those who have made allegations of impropriety, which can investigate all such claims, with all NDAs waived. The panel should be empowered to make public its findings as well as recommendations for structural reform and personnel changes at CAIR.

Immediately, CAIR management should reverse itself on the right of employees to unionize, and cooperate fully in that project.

In the name of Allah, who knows all that is revealed and all that is concealed, CAIR is due for a fair and thorough investigation. The organization, and the American Muslim community, will emerge better for it.

               If you attend a mosque, please share this essay and the sample letter below with fellow congregants, and urge your leadership to send the same or a similar letter to CAIR national and affiliated chapters. Please share it also with any friends elsewhere who might be interested. You may comment on either item below.

To the National Board of Directors of the Council on American-Islamic Relations:

We, members of the Shura of the Islamic Center of _____________, appreciate the vital civil rights work CAIR has done for American Muslims since 1994. When Muslims face discrimination and mistreatment, they know where to turn.

Recently, we have been troubled by allegations of unfair treatment of women, sexual harassment, anti-union policies, and insufficient oversight and accountability at some regional CAIR chapters and the national office, as reported by Leila Fadel of National Public Radio on April 15, 2021. Fadel is an accomplished journalist, and her sources include former employees and board members of CAIR, and qualified individuals who are familiar with such concerns over the years.

With anti-Muslim incidents still common in the United States, the timing of such reports is not ideal for CAIR. Nevertheless, Allah knows all that is revealed and all that is concealed, and to strive for justice in this world is as incumbent upon Muslims as is the certainty of justice in the world to come. These concerns deserve a fair hearing by a credible, independent panel, acceptable to those known to have made allegations of impropriety.

Such a panel should be free to investigate any and all concerns by former and current employees and board members, and to make recommendations to you, the board of directors, for both personnel and structural changes, to guarantee a secure and positive work environment for all and equal opportunities for women in the organization.

We urge you to appoint a panel for this purpose and to lift all non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) so that former and present employees and board members can speak freely with the panel without threat of legal retaliation.

With no further delay, we urge you to reverse course on an employees’ union, and cooperate fully. It is quite unbecoming of a civil rights organization to oppose unionizing efforts of its own employees.

We reiterate that we regard the work of CAIR to be very important, and for CAIR to remain a credible champion of civil rights it must be fully transparent and willing to make the necessary changes to retain the trust of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

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