He doesn’t know exactly where the certificate is. It may be in a drawer, or it may be in a cabinet or a closet. “It’s locked up somewhere,” Basim Elkarra says. Elkarra, 27, who heads the Sacramento office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, lets out a small laugh as he says this, aware of the irony that an award that caused so much controversy and outrage is now hidden from public view.

The story of Elkarra, the certificate and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is about regrets, politics and official pronouncements that mask a cold reality. It’s also a story about American Muslims, their most prominent civil rights organization and its most willful detractors, one of whom wants nothing more than to shut it down. . .

Within weeks, a vocal opponent of the council, Joe Kaufman, condemned the honor, saying that the council has “direct ties to Hamas,” the Palestinian organization that the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization. Days later, after reading Kaufman’s pleas, Boxer rescinded Elkarra’s award, saying that the council had not adequately condemned Hamas or Hezbollah. (Boxer never asked for the certificate’s return, which is why Elkarra still has it in his Sacramento office.)

The council, which is sometimes called CAIR, rebutted Kaufman’s claims, but the war of words between the organization and the senator continued until both sides met last month in Boxer’s Washington office. Afterward, they announced they were “moving forward.”

But judging from interviews with council officials and Kaufman, the imbroglio has simply entered a new phase: retrenchment. Kaufman is keeping a close eye on Boxer to make sure she doesn’t reach out again to the council, but the senator is scheduled to continue her face-to-face dialogue with the council in April, this time in California. In the meantime, council officials still feel slighted from their last confab with Boxer. No one, it seems, is happy.

“There was no attempt to give CAIR the courtesy of a fair hearing,” says Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the group’s Southern California office and one of several council officials who met with Boxer in Washington last month to resolve the issue.

“The purpose of the meeting was for us to go there and really present our response to the smears and distortions. Unfortunately, it became apparent that neither the senator nor her senior staff reviewed CAIR’s responses. The focus was how to save face for the senator with the civil rights community. We moved forward in the interest of keeping (alive dialogue between) the community and Sen. Boxer.”

Elkarra also has bad feelings about the series of events that culminated in Boxer’s decision to rescind his award, saying that “a prominent Democrat is getting information from Islamophobes.” Referring to the conservative Web site, to which Kaufman contributes and which has called Boxer “the nation’s dumbest Democrat,” Elkarra says, “She’s getting information from sites that attack her. How could she do that?”

Boxer was not available for comment, but her spokeswoman, Natalie Ravitz, said by e-mail that the senator “is now looking forward to working with the civil rights community to promote better understanding of all faiths.”. . .

In Kaufman’s connect-the-dots, guilt-by-association finger-pointing, the council is a virtual mouthpiece for Hamas, even though the organization has since its inception condemned suicide bombings in Israel, even though council officials (including Awad) have met with President Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and even though the FBI has itself praised the council’s work.

“Boxer shouldn’t give this group any time at all,” Kaufman says. “Instead, she should work to shut down this organization because of its direct ties to Hamas.”

Ayloush calls Kaufman’s charges “ludicrous and baseless,” but he credits Kaufman for indirectly helping the council: Because of the brouhaha over Boxer’s award to Elkarra, the council received an outpouring of support from Jewish, Christian and other non-Muslim Americans who believe Boxer caved in to Kaufman and other anti-council hardliners.


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