Q&A with CAIR's Rashid Ahmad

The Sacramento BeeOctober 8, 2012 

Following the Sept. 11 killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Rashid Ahmad and other Muslim Americans have been asked by their non-Muslim friends why this happened.

Anti-American protests and violence erupted in more than 20 Islamic nations following the YouTube release of "Innocence of Muslims," a crude film depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a child molester, womanizer and killer. The video was made in Southern California and has been linked to Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a convicted felon arrested Sept. 27 on suspicions of probation violations.

Ahmad, who came to the United States from Pakistan in 1970 to study engineering at UC Davis, founded the Sacramento chapter of CAIR – the Council on American-Islamic Relations – in 2002. Sacramento CAIR defends the the civil rights of 60,000 Muslims in the Sacramento region, and has often spoken out against terrorist acts linked to Muslim extremists.

How are Muslim Americans reacting to the film and its violent aftermath?

When I saw the demonstrations and learned of the ambassador's death, I said, "Did these crazy people lose their minds? This guy (Ambassador Stevens) was trying to help the Libyans and they killed him." But now the U.S. government says it might have been a planned attack by an al-Qaida affiliate, and the Libyan people were also victims.

We are ashamed this happened and believe the reaction in the Muslim world is way out of line. But there's a huge debate in Northern California over what should happen to the filmmaker. Some say there should absolutely not be any prohibition against free speech.

People feel extremely hurt and offended by the film. In France, Germany and other European nations, there are laws against hate speech. Holocaust deniers and others who belittle Nazi crimes during World War II are subject to criminal penalties.

Just like there are laws against hate crimes in the U.S., there should be laws against hate speech that leads to violence or criminal activities.

Because of the film we've lost so many lives – the filmmaker has blood on his hands.

What do you tell your non-Muslim friends when they ask what's going on?

This trashy movie is just a trigger to an explosive situation. Some of my friends say the mullahs (religious leaders) in rural areas are to blame.

But in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Libya where unemployment, corruption, misery and injustice are so high, any spark will set off violence. The poor and desperate will listen to any firebrand, especially if they feel their leaders are American puppets.

In Turkey and Malaysia – stable, prosperous, relatively well-educated countries – there have been protests but no violence. If a country has built its own universities, bridges and hospitals, the people are less likely to destroy them.

Do Americans face a threat from Muslims?

There's no reason for there to be animosity between the U.S. and the Muslim world. America's a great country. People migrate here; we're accepted by everybody. I don't feel unsafe here and haven't heard of any anti-Muslim backlash.

But when Muslims look at U.S. foreign policy, they see a different face. If (Hosni) Mubarak – the Egyptian dictator propped up by the U.S. – was still in charge, you'd see more extreme protests.

Let's not ignore the elephant in the room – America's unbalanced support of Israel over the question of an independent Palestine.

Muslims believe all Muslims are one nation. If there's pain and suffering somewhere, we are supposed to help each other.

During the Afghan war against the Russians from 1979-89, even the U.S. supported that view, backing the mujahedeen, freedom fighters from all over the Arab world including (Osama) bin Laden. The words "jihad" and "crusade" have the same meaning.

America has to be seen as a fair superpower in dealing with Israeli-Palestinian relations.

CAIR's been invited to White House dinners, but two of its former leaders have been the subject of congressional hearings linking them to groups funding Palestinian terrorists. What's the truth?

Those accused of sending money to Palestinian terrorist groups were no longer with CAIR. And CAIR would never endorse that or any violent organizations.

Before CAIR, many Muslim immigrants lived life here like they were living in a motel: pay your rent, go work, stay in your room, do your own thing. CAIR's the most powerful, effective organization speaking on behalf of Muslims and getting them to participate in civic life.

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