Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has placed a more intense focus on interreligious dialogue. Although it's easy to scoff at some of the "Kumbaya" excesses that have gone along with this effort, it has produced many positive results. Catholics have come to a greater understanding of the institutions that make up other cultures. And as the faithful learn more about the religions practiced by their neighbors, they can better appreciate the fullness of truth protected by the Church.
In recent decades, and especially since September 11, that effort has turned toward Moslems. Sales of Catholic guides to Islam have been impressive, and parishes and Islamic centers around the United States have opened their doors to each other in a spirit of friendship.
The zeal to build trust and greater understanding, though, has led to carelessness. During the past year, at least two dioceses, Cincinnati and Detroit, have co-hosted events with local chapters of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization with alarming ties to international terrorist groups.
In January of this year, Imam Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR in Michigan, and Msgr. John Zenz, moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Detroit, took turns addressing the topic of religion and violence at an interreligious forum. And twice last year, the Catholic Social Action Office of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati co-sponsored events with the Cincinnati chapter of CAIR.
CAIR has aggressively marketed itself as a "Moslem NAACP" since the terrorist attacks of September 11. Would that it were so. Steven Pomerantz, President Clinton's former chief of counterterrorism, has said "CAIR, its leaders and its activities effectively give aid to international terrorist groups."
An illuminating report from Daniel Pipes, a Middle East scholar and former member of the President's U.S. Institute for Peace, explains why Catholics should be wary of entering into dialogue with CAIR. Let's start with this interesting fact from the report: "At least five of [CAIR's] employees and board members have been arrested, convicted, deported, or otherwise linked to terrorism-related charges and activities."
Ties between CAIR and terrorist organizations are longstanding. The Holy Land Foundation, which the federal government has charged with channeling funds to Hamas, provided CAIR with some of its start-up funding a dozen years ago.
And CAIR's founding personnel were closely linked to the Islamic Association of Palestine (IAP), which was begun by Ibrahim Abu Marzook, a senior Hamas operative. Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's omnipresent communications director, was once an employee of IAP.
Although much of CAIR's financial support comes from domestic sources, a substantial amount comes from the Middle East. The Saudi embassy in Washington reports that in 1999 the Islamic Development Bank, a Saudi-headquartered operation that provides funds to the Palestinian Intifada and to the families of Palestinian "martyrs," gave CAIR $250,000 to purchase land for its headquarters in Washington, D.C. That same year, CAIR received $500,000 from Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal during a fundraising trip to the Middle East.
Dr. Pipes' report describes CAIR as "an integral part of the Wahabbi lobby." Wahabbism is the militant, anti-Western brand of Islam promoted and exported by the Saudi government. "CAIR affiliates regularly speak at events sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an umbrella organization of the Wahhabi lobby."
CAIR has mastered the modern art of playing the victim. The group's list of complaints concerning "Islamophobia" is almost endless. (No doubt this essay will be added to it.) The "hate crimes" included in its annual report on the violations of Moslem civil rights in America have been described as "fabricated, manufactured, distorted or outside standard definitions of hate crimes." Indeed, CAIR even called the trial of Omar Abdul-Rahman, the mastermind of the 1993 World Train Center bombing, a "hate crime."
Unfortunately, Catholics interested in genuine dialogue have few alternatives to CAIR. The group has amassed an impressive war chest of funds that it uses to market itself as the de facto voice of American Moslems. Regardless, the Church's first obligation in these matters is truth. That may be unfashionable, and it may require us to look harder to find suitable partners in the Islamic community. But if we're serious about interreligious dialogue, we must make the effort.