Muslims Make History in Washington


WASHINGTON - History was made here this week when the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) inaugurated its new headquarters in the heart of Washington, D.C. At the dedication, CAIR officials unveiled a first-of-its-kind Leadership Training Center, which will function year-round to train and enhance leadership skills among Muslim community leaders in North America.

The event was attended by a surprisingly wide array of people--from the Imam of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina to curious non-Muslim onlookers who are tenants and neighbors of the building.

"The Muslim community has long needed a formal leadership training program," said CAIR Board Chairman Omar Ahmad as he introduced the center. "As the North American Muslim population and political influence continue to grow, so does the need for effective leadership." He also pointed out CAIR's Summer Internship Program designed to encourage a spirit of community service in Muslim youth.

The beautiful three story, 33,000 square foot building, purchased by CAIR late last year, sits majestically on the corner of New Jersey Ave. S.E. and E Street, just a few blocks south of the Capitol building. CAIR occupies most of the first floor, which also includes a media reception room, and the entire second floor. The remainder of the space is leased.

"The move of CAIR to Capitol Hill is an indication that the Muslim community is engaging itself at a very high level of political participation," said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad at the grand opening

Ambassadors of Muslim countries and representatives of Muslim organizations were among the many distinguished guests at the event. Several members of Congress, including Congressmen Tom Campbell (R-CA) and James Moran (D-VA) also came to lend their support.

"I have worked with your organization (CAIR) on a number of issues - secret evidence most prominently, but a host of other issues like airport profiling and religious discrimination, and you have always been there: religiously, strongly, with passion and a deep sense of commitment. I can't tell you how welcome that is in a town where these things are often absent in our debates," said Rep. David Bonior (D-MI)

"Your voice needs to be here, close to the Capitol on a continuing basis, where you can be sharing your concerns as they relate to civil rights and human rights," said Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Stabenow, who currently represents Michigan's 8th District in the House and is challenging Senator Spencer Abraham for his Senate seat in November. She also talked the issue of secret evidence, about which she said, "We need to have every congressman sign onto (the repeal legislation). We need a bill in the Senate...we need your voice, we need your prayers, we need your advocacy."

Perhaps most movingly, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said, "America has an historic role to play in the future of this planet. We are the place where diverse peoples can come together and live in peace and harmony to show the world there's a better way. And unless Islam is part of that mix, America has not met its historic obligations ... You have an important role to play - to make sure that America lives up to that great dream, to make sure America does the right thing domestically and internationally."

Among the honored guests were Dr. Salah Bin Humed, Imam of the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah and Shaykh Hussein Al-Sheikh of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, both of whom CAIR's work.

The move into political activism indeed marks a turning point for the organization, which, until recently, focused primarily on defense of civil rights and correction of media bias in the coverage of Muslim-related issues.

CAIR was founded in 1995 in a small office in Washington just one month before the release of the Hollywood film, "True Lies". CAIR founders went right to work by combating the negative images of Islam portrayed by the filmmaker.

A few months later, a greeting card defaming the Shi'a community appeared in Washington, D.C.. The get-well card showed a Muslim woman with a face veil on the cover. On the inside the card read, "So you're feeling like Shiite. Don't Mecca big deal out of it." And CAIR was back at work on another major national campaign which eventually led to a settlement with the greeting card company. It was these early cases that helped CAIR's staff establish a formula for dealing with major corporations.

There followed campaigns with PBS over the series "Jihad in America," work on the community's behalf following the Oklahoma City bombing and numerous other efforts.

The highest profile victory was surely with the athletic giant Nike, which recalled thousands of pairs of athletic shoes bearing logos that resembled the word "Allah" in Arabic, and also agreed to provide sensitivity training to its employees and to donate playgrounds to Islamic schools.

CAIR currently has regional offices in southern and northern California, in Dallas, Texas, in Columbus, Ohio, in New York and in Canada. The newest office, in southeastern Michigan, opened this week.

Due to high interest from the Muslim community, CAIR has extended the open house of its Washington facility through the weekend of June 17 &18, 2000. Community members are encouraged to bring their families for a tour and to learn more about CAIR's work. The office is located at 453 New Jersey Ave. S.E in Washington.

M. Kay Siblani is an American Muslim activist and a freelance writer. Her work has been published in the Detroit Free Press and other major U.S. newspapers. She is a new regular contributor to

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