Grassroots: CAIR Columbus Defends Muslim Civil Rights
As the division seems to widen between people of different faith and color, one organization is working to bridge the gap. The national organization Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) started a Columbus chapter in 1997 with the purpose of educating non-Muslim Americans on issues that impact the Muslim community. After 9/11 and the resulting shift in the political landscape, CAIR has had to change focus. Although education is still a fundamental aspect of the group, they now channel most of their energy toward protecting Muslim civil rights.
“We get a lot of civil rights cases. We get a lot of cases of employment discrimination. We get a lot of cases of discrimination coming from our government,” said Romin Iqbal, Legal Director for CAIR Columbus. “We get hate crimes. We get pretty much everything… Housing discrimination.”
Government discrimination, Iqbal said, manifests in “secret lists” kept by the federal government that identify certain immigrants whose citizenship status should be delayed. This delay in granting citizenship can last years, and for no reason at all.
To combat the uptick in discrimination and hate crime cases, CAIR provides legal services and will file lawsuits on victims’ behalves. While they work at a state level, CAIR is also involved in advocacy. Members travel to Washington, D.C. to put pressure on lawmakers to make policy changes that end government-led discrimination.
They’ve also dealt with the impacts of President Donald Trump’s executive orders that have enacted travel bans on people coming to the states from majority-Muslim countries.
“We deal with people in Columbus who are stuck abroad or have families stuck abroad, or have members of their family who are ill and need to come to America for treatment, or are refugees who need to come here, are living in difficult situations around the world, and they have families here,” Iqbal said. “So, what we deal with really is the aftermath and the results and consequences of things like the travel ban, where local people are affected and then obviously they come to us for help.”
Funded entirely by Columbus and Central Ohio residents, CAIR finds its support from a diverse group. While the majority of their donors are Muslim, Iqbal said a significant number are of different faith or no faith at all. CAIR also partners with local organizations to reach out to residents who may need help. Faith-based groups, secular groups, and progressive groups who share CAIR’s views on immigration and refugee acceptance all work together to connect affected families with CAIR’s services.
CAIR Ohio is split into three areas: Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. At each of the offices they operate with a relatively small staff — there are just three full-time employees at the Columbus office — and a horde of charitable volunteers. These volunteers contribute time inside and out of the office, running phone banks to remind people to register to vote, as well as helping with event setup and execution.
The environment within which CAIR operates is mixed. Attitudes toward Muslims and Islam have ranged from open and welcoming to hateful and violent. Usjid Hameed, Legislative and Outreach Coordinator, is a relatively new employee. Although he started at CAIR only two weeks ago, he said the organization has played a large role in shifting Columbus culture.
“I feel like a lot of people at first would call Columbus tolerant, but I don’t think that word does it justice,” Hameed said. “I feel it’s more compassionate almost, and I’m sure that CAIR Ohio has played a role in that.”
To volunteer, donate or find more information, visit cair-columbus.com.