State Sen. Larry Shaw takes pride in keeping a low profile.
"I fly beneath the radar," he says. "That suits my style."
It's an odd claim for a man who until three years ago was the highest-ranking Muslim elected official in the United States. (U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota snagged that distinction in 2006.)
At 59, Shaw remains the longest-serving Muslim elected official, and recently added another badge: The Democratic senator representing Cumberland County was elected chairman of the nation's leading Muslim civil rights advocacy group, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Shaw, who lives in Fayetteville, is soft-spoken. His voice is barely audible as he walks the hallways of the state legislature, a broad-shouldered former football player with a wide smile and a thinning tuft of white hair.
But as chairman of CAIR, which has a reputation of being one of the more aggressive Muslim advocacy groups, he may be forced into a higher-profile role. For several years, the group's financing has been under scrutiny, and a small group of critics has made a determined, but so far unsuccessful, effort to link it to Hamas, the ruling political group in the Gaza strip, which the U.S. government labels a terrorist organization.
More recently, CAIR was one of hundreds of Muslim individuals and groups named as unindicted co-conspirators in a terrorism-financing trial wherein a Texas charity was accused of helping to finance Hamas. CAIR rejects the accusation, and Shaw says his first order of business will be to clear the group's name.
"It's straight out of the playbook they use for all the civil rights groups," Shaw says, noting that Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights movement leaders were investigated by the government. "This is nothing new. If they had anything, they would have acted on it and shut us down."
Shaw says he has already asked to meet with top officials in the FBI and Department of Justice.
And he makes it clear he does not back Muslims reflexively. A keen observer of the Middle East and its conflicts, he is willing to criticize dictatorial Muslim countries as well as Hamas' practice of firing rockets into Israel.
"If they have grievances, this is not the way to get them addressed," Shaw says of Hamas. "Taking actions that endanger the lives of many is irresponsible." (MORE)