The co-founder of the nation’s largest Islamic civil rights organization will speak in Lexington tonight.

Nihad Awad, 44, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, will help the group’s Kentucky chapter celebrate its first anniversary.

“CAIR is probably the most dynamic, effective Muslim organization in America and that success is attributable mostly to Nihad,” said Ihsan Bagby, a University of Kentucky professor and a member of the Council’s board of directors.

Since launching CAIR in 1994, Awad has become a leading voice for the Islamic community, testifying on Capitol Hill and appearing on CNN and C-SPAN.

Quoted in papers around the world, he met with President Bush shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and personally delivered aid to Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Last month, Awad helped publicize a new fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, denouncing terrorism.

Ashraf El-Ezz, vice chairman of CAIR’s Kentucky chapter, says Awad is a good speaker who isn’t easily rattled.

“He’s a very mellow person … He’s not the kind of person who loses his temper in interviews, and he’s very well respected by the Muslim community all over the country and even overseas,” El-Ezz said.

Awad’s speech is entitled “Common Ground in the Face of New Challenges.”

This is his first appearance in Kentucky, a state with a growing Muslim presence.

An estimated 3,000-5,000 Muslims live in central Kentucky, Lexington CAIR leaders say.

In its first year, CAIR Kentucky has organized sensitivity training sessions for local law enforcement officials and journalists.

The group held a blood drive and donated food and clothing to the homeless in collaboration with the Catholic Action Center.

CAIR has also made inroads with local educational and interfaith organizations, its leaders say.

Awad said his visit is a way to show support for the Kentucky chapter and to help boost the group’s visibility.

“Needless to say, it’s a challenging time, because our faith has been misused by some people and our faith has been misunderstood by many people,” Awad said.

But education can help increase “mutual respect and understanding,” he said. “Those who know more about Islam respect it more.”

One thing Muslims and non-Muslims share is a deep patriotism, Awad suggests. “We know our country, we love it and we’re loyal to it,” he said.


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