Two years ago on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater had an unusual guest speaker -- a Muslim.
Ahmed Bedier, head of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, discussed similarities between Judaism and Islam. He answered questions about the Koran. One woman called the talk "wonderful."
Yet Rabbi David Weizman now wishes he hadn't invited Bedier.
"In hindsight I would have asked my colleagues if it was a good idea," says Weizman, who drew flak from some members of Tampa Bay's Jewish community who have long been suspicious of CAIR. "Although the intentions were good -- for building bridges -- the concern was with the honesty and sincerity of the other side of the bridge."
The reaction to Bedier's appearance reflects the wildly disparate views of CAIR, seen by some as a positive force for interfaith dialogue and by others as a slick front for Muslim extremism.
Without question, the oft-quoted CAIR has become the best-known American Muslim organization since the Sept. 11 attacks. Its stated goal is to increase understanding of Islam and to protect the civil rights of America's 6-million Muslims.
To that end, Bedier -- one of CAIR's most media-savvy officials -- is a familiar presence on TV, recently questioning the treatment of two University of South Florida students indicted Aug. 31 on explosives charges. And he was often in the news as federal prosecutors pressed their case against former USF professor Sami Al-Arian, accused by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft of being the North American leader of a Palestinian terrorist group.
Though CAIR participates in many civic activities, its association with the Al-Arian case and other controversies subjects it to blistering criticism, much of it from staunchly pro-Israel groups and commentators. They say CAIR supports anti-Israel terrorism. That it espouses the intolerant Wahhabi brand of Islam.
"It's an accumulation of things that have led many of the Jewish organizations to the conclusion that CAIR is problematic," says Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in New York.
CAIR denies the allegations, calling them attempts to "demonize" Muslims. And some prominent American Jews question whether the anti-CAIR criticism has gone too far. . .
CAIR soared in prominence after the Sept. 11 attacks and the increased scrutiny that left many Muslims feeling under siege. But paradoxically as its profile went up, CAIR's revenues went down -- from $3.7-million in 2002 to $2.25-million three years later.
Some critics see the decline as evidence CAIR doesn't have much support even among the people it claims to represent. But the drop in money going to the national CAIR has been offset by contributions to its 33 local chapters. CAIR-Florida took in $802,000 last year, compared to $16,000 when it started in 2001, according to statements filed with the IRS.
"I think it shows we're a more grass-roots organization -- bottom up, not top down," Bedier says. "Ask the NAACP where they were 12 years into their start. Or the ADL." (MORE)