Leader of US Muslim rights group fired for allegedly spying for anti-Muslim group
A state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a prominent Muslim rights group, has fired its executive director, accusing him of leaking confidential information to an anti-Muslim group.
CAIR-Ohio announced that its legal and executive director, Romin Iqbal, who had been leading the chapter since 2006, recorded meetings and shared information around its advocacy work with the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) - a group identified as a part of an "Islamophobia network" in the US.
"For years, Mr Iqbal was secretly sharing confidential information about our civil rights work - including surreptitiously recorded conversations, strategic plans and private emails - with anti-Muslim extremists," Nihad Awad, CAIR-National's executive director and co-founder, said in a statement late on Tuesday.
"He did this in violation of his ethical duties to the organization and his moral duty to protect the Ohio Muslim community."
The announcement came out of a third-party investigation conducted by a forensic expert retained by CAIR-National. The group said in a press release that Iqbal admitted to the allegations and that investigators concluded no other employee was aiding him.
Middle East Eye reached out to Iqbal but did not immediately receive a response.
The rights group also announced that amid the termination of Iqbal, one of its offices in Columbus, Ohio discovered that a credit card administered by the former director was used to make purchases from gun retailers. It said it also found a package mailed to its office containing parts for an AR-15 rifle.
"We recognize the difficulty of receiving this information and the unease it brings. We all feel betrayed by a once-trusted leader and advocate whom we relied upon," CAIR-Ohio's board of directors said in a statement on Tuesday.
"However, our mission to protect the civil rights of Ohio Muslims transcends any one individual. We want to assure the community that CAIR-Ohio’s local assets, operations, and infrastructure are safe and secure."
Decades of surveillance
The Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), founded by Steven Emerson, describes itself as a non-profit research group that reports on "radical Islamic terrorist groups". However, according to Georgetown University's Bridge Initiative, Emerson has had a "history of promoting falsified information and conspiracy theories about Islam and Muslims".
In its press release, CAIR added that the IPT was communicating with the office of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and provided assistance to Israeli intelligence.
"The Israeli government was collaborating with an anti-Muslim hate group," the organisation said.
The IPT told MEE in a statement that it "has never and will never monitor the wider American Muslim community" but added that it will not hesitate to report on groups like CAIR, which it accused of conducting "radical Islamist activity".
MEE reached out to the Israeli embassy in Washington for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
"The fact that there is an obsession with CAIR and its leaders and work in the right-wing, in anti-Muslim circles, and even among corrupt government actors, tells me we are doing something right. Our work to protect and empower the community frightens them and they think they can undermine it," Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR's San Francisco Bay Area chapter, said in a Facebook post.
After firing Iqbal, CAIR-Ohio appointed Amina Barhumi as the chapter's acting executive director and Lina Abbaoui as acting legal director.
“Civil rights organizations and movements for justice have been spied upon from within for decades,” Abbaoui told The Columbus Dispatch. “In particular, Muslim organizations have been the target of malicious surveillance attempts due to a continuous rise in Islamophobia over the past two decades.”
Muslims in the US have spent decades dealing with informants within their communities, being placed on government no-fly lists, and facing discriminatory policies.
The announcement from CAIR comes more than a year after another prominent Muslim organisation, Emgage, was found to have had links to pro-Israel groups including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has in the past worked with US law enforcement to spy on and target Arab-American groups.
According to an email seen by MEE, a day after a petition urging Muslim American organisations to #DropEmgage was created, Abbas Barzegar, CAIR's then-national research and advocacy director, wrote to a group of Muslim organisers urging them to "activate a mutual defense pact" in support of Emgage.
CAIR and a network of groups under the US Council of Muslim Organisations cut ties with Emgage in October 2020.
Still, to many activists, the email served as evidence that there was a lack of action among leaders in Muslim organisations to tackle issues they find to be harmful to their communities, particularly with regards to being subject to unwarranted surveillance.
CAIR said it is continuing its investigation into the situation surrounding Iqbal, and that it plans "to do everything that we can to protect American Muslims from the harm of hate groups".