This data was last updated on 12 June 2018.
History: The national branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was founded in 1994. CAIR is based in Washington D.C. and now has 32 branches across the country. The CAIR Massachusetts branch (CAIR-MA) was founded in June of 2015. Starting in 2016, CAIR-MA began to engage in more strategic long-term planning. This partially coincided with the November 2016 presidential election, but it was also a result of the organization’s natural growth after a year of institution building. Examples of this growth include the creation of a membership model based off of monthly donations and an increase in programming intended to help communities respond to Islamophobia locally.
CAIR-MA has also increased their network of referral attorneys and expanded their leadership team. CAIR-MA held its largest event to date on January 29, 2017 when they organized a response to the first iteration of President Donald Trump’s immigration ban, which targeted seven Muslim-majority countries. Approximately 25,000 people came to Copley Square to protest the ban. The event was organized and promoted over Facebook, an impressive feat given the large-scale turnout.
According to CAIR-MA’s Executive Director Dr. Robbins, one of the most important outcomes from the event was that CAIR collected several thousand e-mails, giving the organization access to a wide network of people who have self-selected as interested in the work of CAIR. While Dr. Robbins is proud of the event, he also notes that rallies have their shortcomings: “A massive rally is a nuclear option; it can have a good impact but we do not want to do it too often. I worry that people come to rallies and let off steam but don’t take tangible action steps, yet they leave the rally feeling like they have accomplished something and then let themselves off the hook for engaging in meaningful work afterward. Our goal was to help them channel their frustration into tangible, long-term outcomes.”
From a team of one, CAIR-MA’s staff has expanded to include a Civil Rights Director, a Government Affairs Director, a Director of Development and Community Engagement, and, most recently, a Youth Empowerment Coordinator.
Description: The CAIR-MA office is located in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. CAIR-MA currently shares its space with several other nonprofits. The office is cramped but the atmosphere is jovial; the environment feels more like a young tech-start up than a formal non-profit. CAIR has two main lines of work: legal recourse and community education. CAIR provides legal services to Muslims who have experienced discrimination or harassment on the basis of their faith. According to its Executive Director, the main concerns of CAIR-MA’s constituents are immigration and employment bias, FBI visits, and bullying in schools. Unlike other legal-based non-profits such as the American Civil Liberties Union, CAIR does not specifically look for legal cases that can become case studies; rather, their mission is to serve people who are suffering from discrimination.
Muslims can use CAIR’s website to report incidents, and CAIR-MA pledges to respond within one to two days. On average CAIR-MA currently receives one complaint a day, which is much more than they have the capacity to handle. CAIR-MA serves as many cases as they can, determined by the specializations and availabilities of their attorneys, and then refer the remainder of the complainants to other attorneys. Dr. Robbins stresses that his organization is careful to take into consideration factors such as income and language barriers when considering an appropriate attorney for referral. In addition to providing legal aid—both directly and in the form of acting as a guide to navigate available resources—CAIR-MA also conducts “Know Your Rights” trainings so that Muslims are well-informed about their legal rights as American citizens.
CAIR-MA looks for opportunities to weigh in on legislation that will impact Muslim Americans at both the local and state level. CAIR-MA also works to educate both Muslims and people of other faiths about Islamophobia. The organization recently introduced an ambassadors program that trains Muslims to reach out to their larger communities and combat stereotypes about Islam. CAIR-MA also hosts workshops to train attendees in writing effective letters to the editor for their local newspapers. CAIR-MA’s website provides a bevy of resources, including a directory of immigration services, which can be used both as a reference for those who are seeking services and for those who are looking to volunteer. The website also has a guide with recommendations on how law enforcement agencies and employers should engage with the Muslim American community.
Challenges: The name CAIR has come to be a flashpoint for the alt-right, who often associate the organization with an imagined quest for Muslim Americans to take over the United States. The consequences of this perception are serious, as CAIR-MA’s Executive Director Dr. Robbins has received numerous death threats from local hate groups such as Americans for Peace and Tolerance. Dr. Robbins is wary of legitimizing the alt-right by overly pandering to them, reasoning: “The NAACP does not debate the KKK on television.” At the same time, he believes that there is a particular group of people who espouse Islamophobic rhetoric but could change their minds if exposed to a different perspective. For now, CAIR-MA’s policy is to evaluate how to respond to such hate on a case-by-case basis.
CAIR-MA also faces challenges internal to the Muslim American community. CAIR-MA is more well known then ever, but they would still like more Muslims to be aware of their services. Dr. Robbins believes that some Muslim Americans are afraid to become civically engaged, or even to report incidents of bias, because of a concern that they will be perceived negatively and may lose citizenship or status in their communities. Another less common issue is that some Muslims are not certain if it is religiously permissible for them to vote in political elections. When confronted with this belief, CAIR-MA refers the person in question to a religious scholar who can address their questions and concerns. Occasionally, constituents will misunderstand and think that CAIR-MA can do any sort of legal work, such as resolve someone’s parking ticket, when in reality CAIR-MA’s mission is to help people with civil liberties issues.
Lastly, CAIR-MA receives many complaints about hate speech in the form of op-eds or newspaper articles, and though these may be hateful, they are still examples of free speech and therefore are legally protected.
Looking Forward: CAIR-MA hopes to do more work empowering Muslim youth to advocate for their own communities. The Executive Director also hopes to conduct more outreach to non-Muslims: “We want to do more to change the hearts and minds of the future, of five year-olds who right now have only heard about Islam in the context of terrorism, people who could commit a hate crime one day if their biases are left unchallenged.” While continuing to serve the legal needs of the Massachusetts Muslim community, CAIR-MA hopes to become more proactive in shaping the American perception of Muslims and Islam.