As the newly elected national chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Jacksonville's Parvez Ahmed has his work cut out for him. The 41-year-old University of North Florida professor has to convince the media to write fair stories about Islam, get government and big business to honor Muslims' religious and civil rights and persuade Americans that Islam is not a faith of violence. "Our mission is to promote an accurate image of Muslims -- not just a good image, because a good image can be manufactured," Ahmed said. Doing that means "becoming more of a public face" as he leads the group's continuing growth, works to foster interfaith relations, builds political coalitions and puts out public relations fires, Ahmed said. "The role of the chairman is to head this whole effort up," said Ahmed, who was elected to a three-year term May 13 after the board's founding chairman, Omar Ahmad, retired.
Ahmed's involvement with the council began shortly after it was founded in 1994. Ahmed, a native of India who was then living in Pennsylvania as a graduate student, said he believed in the council's mission to improve the lives of American Muslims. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he got more involved and led the formation of a chapter in central Pennsylvania. "We found the Muslim community under tremendous siege and scrutiny" after the terrorist attacks, he said. He moved to Jacksonville in 2002 to teach finance at UNF and quickly became chairman of CAIR's Florida chapter. In early 2004 he was named to the council's national board of directors. In the past three years he has been a spokesman for Muslim issues in the state, writing letters to the editors of the Times-Union and other newspapers. CAIR is perhaps the most well-known Muslim organization in the nation, celebrated by some, bashed by others and not afraid to take on government, business and the media when it feels Muslim rights are endangered. It has 32 chapters in a dozen states and a paid staff of about 50. The organization has blown the whistle on anti-Muslim violence, battled governments over the right of Muslim women to wear head scarves in driver's license photos and worked with companies such as Nike and Dell to establish workplace religious freedoms.
Ahmed said the organization's mission also is educational. "Anytime we see a negative we try to think very hard to find a positive," he said. Most recently, the council launched an "Explore the Quran" campaign to counter the fallout from the now-retracted Newsweek story saying U.S. troops desecrated copies of Islam's holy book. The campaign offers free Qurans to anyone who asks for them. After 9/11, the council launched a petition campaign declaring Muslims' condemnation of terrorism. It more recently sponsored open houses in American mosques to counter stereotypes fostered by the ongoing war in Iraq, Ahmed said. (MORE)