Keystone Cronies: State Agency Colludes with CAIR-PA

Written by Hillel Zaremba

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Tasked with administering and enforcing the state's anti-discrimination laws, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) has become entangled in aiding an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in its goal of stigmatizing and silencing any criticism of Islam or Muslims, including those engaged in terrorism. 

The law that created the PHRC empowers it to "track incidents of bias that may cause community tension and to educate the general public, law enforcement, educators and government officials in order to prevent discrimination and foster equal opportunity." Occurrences labeled "bias incidents" are logged into a monthly "bias report" that is forwarded to the Pennsylvania State Police, who decide whether to investigate items appearing there.

lawfare1Thus, the PHRC generates a government-sanctioned report card on the level and types of intergroup tensions and possible hate crimes within the commonwealth. In the words of one PHRC official: "We use the bias report to inform the Legislature about trends and for our community education purposes."

In a better world, this course of action might be considered admirable. But in Harrisburg a system has evolved by which CAIR-PA,[1] the local affiliate of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an organization declared an unindicted co-conspirator in America's most significant terror financing trial, can manipulate data and push the pernicious myth that the U.S. is filled with hateful, anti-Muslim citizens.

How does it accomplish this? The PHRC convenes a working group, the Inter-Agency Task Force on Civil Tension, whose purpose is "to prevent and/or respond to bias-related incidents and the escalation of intergroup tensions" in Pennsylvania. It includes representatives from the FBI, state police, state attorney general's office, and numerous public and private advocacy organizations throughout Pennsylvania. One of these is CAIR-PA.

Beginning in 2004, and increasing in tempo from 2006 to the present, CAIR-PA has fed the PHRC items that it claims demonstrate bias against Muslims. These items then end up in the PHRC's bias reports with no apparent reflection on whether they truly constitute bias incidents, actually took place, or ought to appear in a report intended to focus on Pennsylvania.

CAIR-PA registered as a non-profit corporation in Pennsylvania in 2005 and was recognized as a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) entity in 2006. Annual reports from the PHRC record an uptick in bias incidents against Muslims coinciding with those dates and with CAIR-PA's growing relationship with the state agency: after a post-9/11 high in 2001-2002, such alleged incidents declined to an average of eight per year through 2005-2006, then increased again to the present, more than doubling to an average of 19 per year.

The problematic relationship between the two groups has come to light thanks to the efforts of State Representative Curt Schroder, who submitted a right-to-know request to the PHRC for correspondence between it and CAIR-PA at the behest of Islamist Watch (IW), a project of the Middle East Forum. The emails reveal a corrupting, overly friendly relationship between CAIR-PA and the PHRC, resulting in the government agency manipulating data on behalf of the Islamist group.

Examples of the unbecoming nature of this association abound:

CAIR continually claims it is a civil liberties organization watching out for Muslim Americans, which helps explain its presence on the Inter-Agency Task Force. The PHRC is aware of CAIR's troubling background but chooses to look the other way.

In June 2011, Islamist Watch supplied the agency with two sourced documents, one demonstrating governmental shunning of CAIR and the other illustrating CAIR's past questionable behavior in word and deed. IW pressed the agency to reassess the relationship. Its reaction? "[T]he PHRC does not anticipate any further response to you at this time." There is also clear evidence that the PHRC was aware of questions about CAIR before being contacted by IW.

It bears repeating that the PHRC has been charged with keeping accurate records of incidents with the potential to cause harm to the larger community. When such an agency becomes so closely involved with an advocacy group that it fudges or obfuscates data, real-world repercussions can ensue.

The most significant fallout from this dereliction of duty is the perpetuation of the notion that there is widespread "Islamophobia," which must then be combated through educational and legislative remedies, as well as changes in law enforcement behaviors. The problem extends beyond Pennsylvania, as a group with an agenda like CAIR and its allies can use this faulty data to declare that FBI and other statistics only reveal the tip of the anti-Muslim iceberg.

For example, in March 2011, testimony[2] was offered before the U.S. Senate by Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who claimed that FBI "numbers vastly understate the problem" of hate crimes against Muslims. Cohen blamed "limitations in the collection of data" and went on to testify that his group "compiled news reports" of anti-Muslim bias that prove an increase in this phenomenon (as if newspaper reports are unassailable truth). According to the PHRC's Doreen Winey[3] (director of education and community services and chairperson of the Inter-Agency Task Force), the agency also relies on news reports for collecting its data, which can result in travesties like the following.

An apparent mugging in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, was initially reported in an area newspaper as a possible hate crime because the victim was thought to be of "Middle Eastern descent." But in a subsequent communication to the PHRC from local police, the event was revealed to have been a drug deal gone sour. Notwithstanding this important correction, BI #24596 remains on the books as an example of "Islamophobia" for March 2010.

There are undoubtedly occurrences of real prejudice within the state, but most of the incidents provided by CAIR-PA do not pass any rational smell test. For example:

The picture that emerges from this survey of "bias incidents" is disturbing in the extreme. Not only do none of these items amount to expressions of bias per se, but it would seem that anybody who even raises a question about Islamists, let alone Islam, is smeared as a bigot. Ann Van Dyke, her colleagues at the PHRC, and their cronies within CAIR-PA have become the arbiters of free speech, the living embodiment of Orwell's "thought police."

No one is spared the PHRC's righteous indignation. A Jewish temple disinvited a CAIR representative once it had learned more about the group's background: BI #34383. Commentator Dennis Prager opined on the suitability of Congressman Keith Ellison swearing his oath of office on a Qur'an: BI #23466. An online article questioned the motives of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish expatriate with a history of Islamist statements, who runs a network of schools across the U.S.: BI #24906.

In a September 2011 phone conversation with the PHRC, IW asked whether steps were taken to determine whether a reported incident actually occurred, before it is logged with a bias number; the answer was "no." When asked what forensic credentials PHRC investigators possess, the answer was "none." In addition, those accused of having engaged in a bias incident are not afforded any due process to refute the charge, nor is a bias incident, once entered, ever expunged from the record, even if it is determined to have no merit.

Thus BI #34357 remains on the books, despite being essentially debunked. The entire sordid story can be read here, but briefly, individuals associated with Philadelphia's Masjid Al-Jamia (including CAIR-PA's outreach director, Rugiatu Conteh) alleged that Islamophobes had repeatedly tried to block worshippers from entering the mosque in the summer of 2010. No police record of such behavior ever came to light, though two evangelists were arrested for preaching outside the building in July. They were eventually acquitted of all charges; Conteh, who claimed to have been at the mosque during one of the alleged protests, never showed up to tell her tale in court. Nonetheless, CAIR's national office and the University of California-Berkeley's Center for Race and Gender relied upon the unverified story in a 2011 report documenting "Islamophobia."

CAIR-PA's too-close relationship with the PHRC is further manifest in the matter of "hate mail." It could perhaps be argued that if an organization receives a torrent of expletive-filled letters, it is the target of group hatred and that such behavior merits concern. But that does not appear to be the case with CAIR-PA, despite its and the PHRC's attempt to frame its experiences in that fashion:

This is not to say that CAIR-PA or other Muslim groups have never received spiteful letters. The question is: do these occasional letters contribute to an atmosphere that threatens the safety and stability of the larger community? The answer, based on the incidents recorded by the PHRC, is painfully obvious.

At the same time, CAIR-PA is guilty of the unreflective prejudice it condemns, yet it remains a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force. Referring to a 2010 profanity-filled letter sent to the imam of the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley (BI #24788), CAIR-PA's Khawaja wrote: "If [the purported sender's] name is actually Joe Martin, the offender is most likely white." When discussing the World of Islam book series previously mentioned, CAIR described the publishing partner, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, as "a right-wing, pro-war think tank." Referring to the Peter King congressional hearings, Khawaja tweeted: "If ur minority and havent figured that GOP is bastion of racism and bigotry, get ur head out of ur ass." Apparently, malicious characterizations give offense only when the receiving end is an Islamist organization.

Unpleasant as it may be, the tone of CAIR-PA's less-than-civil ruminations is not the fundamental issue. Freedom of expression is. CAIR should be permitted to malign white people or Republicans if it so wishes; it must not, however, be permitted a forum — and an influential relationship — to shut down others' rights to free speech. By registering sporadic and generally innocuous private communications as bias incidents, by credulously accepting CAIR-PA's allegations as truth, by labeling all who question the behaviors of Islamists or even Islam itself as bigots, the PHRC is guilty of inflating the number of anti-Muslim acts, fueling the "Islamophobia" industry, and threatening public discourse on controversial issues.

As long as the PHRC's method of doing business, especially its reliance on CAIR-PA, is not reformed, the citizens of Pennsylvania will continue to suffer. Setting aside the waste of taxpayer dollars for an agency that uses the shoddiest research methods imaginable, the PHRC, in collusion with CAIR-PA, besmirches the commonwealth's reputation by creating the impression that it suffers from rampant anti-Muslim bias. This, in turn, can have important legislative and law enforcement repercussions affecting the quality of life within Pennsylvania. Simultaneously, the PHRC helps spread the dubious meme of nationwide "Islamophobia," providing it with the patina of governmental endorsement.

As thought and criticism come under attack by these fatally flawed gatekeepers, legislators may be encouraged to view perfectly legitimate critiques as "hate crimes" and enact laws infringing on public expression. Police may err on the side of caution, shutting down dissenting voices, because they perceive that free speech laws do not apply equally in cases involving Islamists. Such a chilled atmosphere may also hinder law enforcement from conducting necessary investigations, for fear of giving offense.

The PHRC and CAIR-PA are fostering an environment of thought control, where no criticism of Islamists or troubling aspects of Islam is tolerated. This is a path that all Pennsylvanians should resist, including those Muslim Americans who oppose CAIR's agenda of false victimization and whose voices need to be heard the most.


Hillel Zaremba is a research fellow at Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

[1] The branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations examined here calls itself variously CAIR-PA and CAIR-Philadelphia. For purposes of this report, we use only CAIR-PA.

[2] The PHRC absurdly tagged the testimony as BI #24934, even though Cohen's statement has practically nothing to do with Pennsylvania and is, in fact, against anti-Muslim bias. Cohen does mention an unnamed Pennsylvania educator whose "history program had come under attack by several parents because they believed the text was 'advocating a positive "indoctrination" of Islam.'" The PHRC's Van Dyke corresponded with Khawaja about this and the latter admitted he "can't pinpoint whether or not we have heard from that PA history teacher, but that is a VERY common occurrence w/ parents disparaging of any curriculum that is not critical of Islam or Muslims." (Moein Khawaja, email to Doreen Winey, April 19, 2011.) Thus, despite no outside corroboration — even from CAIR — the item was logged as a bias incident.

[3] Doreen Winey, telephone interview with author, September 21, 2011.

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