CAIR and MAS leaders attended Obama outreach meeting with new director Minha Husaini
October 10, 2008
Controversial activists attended Obama Muslim meeting
Posted on Thursday, October 09, 2008 10:32 PM ET
By Jim Popkin, NBC News Senior Investigative Producer http://deepbackground.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2008/10/09/1525564.aspx
The Obama campaign's Muslim outreach director participated in a meeting in mid September that was attended by several controversial Muslim activists, NBC News has learned. The Obama campaign now concedes that was a misjudgment, and that its top Muslim staffer would not have attended the meeting if she had known the full participant list beforehand.
"Would a campaign staffer have attended if they were aware of the complete list of attendees? No," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt in an email statement to NBC.
The Muslim outreach meeting
Several participants told NBC News that Husaini and other speakers delivered a standard Obama campaign pitch. "They said, ‘We're here to get the concerns of Muslim voters and let everyone know that the Obama campaign does want the support of the Muslim community,' " recalled one participant, who requested anonymity. The meeting was not advertised and some attendees got text phone messages notifying them that day of the meeting's location, the participant said.
Nearly a month later, the meeting is drawing controversy--and not because of anything said at the meeting itself.
Also attending the meeting was Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is a Muslim-American civil rights group that has, as its website states, "consistently and persistently condemned terrorism and the killing of innocent civilians." Nonetheless, the group has many critics, especially in law-enforcement circles, and is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism financing case.
In an interview on Thursday, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said that the group has filed a legal brief seeking to have its name removed from the list of unindicted co-conspirators in the federal terror case. "Obviously we see it as politically motivated and a cheap way to stigmatize" CAIR and other Muslim groups, Hooper said.
Hooper said that CAIR has consistently condemned "every act of terrorism" by groups including Hamas and Hezbollah. But he would not answer whether CAIR condemns those designated terrorist groups themselves. "I've already answered your questions," he said, and abruptly ended the interview. Nihad Awad, the executive director, did not return a call seeking comment.
"Yes, when I knew they were coming it made me uncomfortable," the attendee said. "There was some hope it wouldn't get out" into the media, the attendee added. "There was some concern within the Obama camp that some of these people coming may be a political liability."
Chicago-based lawyer Mazen Asbahi also attended the meeting. He is the Obama campaign's former Muslim outreach coordinator, who abruptly resigned in August after the Wall Street Journal and websites that track fundamentalist Islam began questioning Asbahi's involvement in an Islamic investment fund and various Islamic groups. When reached by NBC News, Asbahi would not comment about the September gathering or his brief stint eight years ago on an investment fund board which also included a fundamentalist imam.
When informed that Asbahi had attended the recent meeting, an Obama spokesman said: "Mazen Asbahi resigned from his role as the campaign's Muslim American outreach coordinator and was replaced--he is not an employee of the campaign and does not speak on behalf of the campaign."
The Obama campaign has been delicately trying to court Muslim American voters in key battleground states while simultaneously knocking down Internet rumors that attempt to link the presidential candidate to radical Islam. Sen. Obama is a Christian.
Obama campaign reaction
Obama's Staff Slips Up With Muslim Outreach
The Obama campaign said it was a mistake for an outreach coordinator to join a meeting last month attended by leaders of two controversial Muslim groups as it seeks votes from large Muslim populations in swing states. Minha Husaini, newly named as head of the campaign's outreach coordinator to Muslims, attended a discussion session Sept. 15 with about 30 Muslim leaders and community members in suburban Washington, the Obama campaign confirmed. Participants included leaders of the Council of American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society, which have been cited by the government in the past for ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. In August, the campaign's previous coordinator, Mazen Asbahi, resigned over a similar issue, pointing up one kind of challenge facing the campaign: pursuing the votes of the Muslim community while not perpetuating any misunderstandings about Sen. Barack Obama's religion. Sen. Obama is a Christian. Mr. Asbahi, who also attended the meeting now entangling Ms. Husaini, resigned after questions arose about his brief tenure on the board of an Islamic investment fund along with a controversial Illinois imam.
At the time, campaign officials said he was stepping down because he didn't want to become a distraction for the campaign. Thursday, campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, responding to questions about the September session in Springfield, Va., said Ms. Husaini wouldn't have attended had she known that Council of American-Islamic Relations and Muslim American Society leaders were going to be there. "This meeting was not organized by the campaign," he said. "Our outreach staff attends many meetings in the course of each day, and they accepted an invitation from community leaders to attend." The campaign declined to make Ms. Husaini available for comment. Winning over Muslim voters is important to the campaigns of both Sens. Obama and John McCain as they try to gain support from large Muslim communities in the key states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Mr. LaBolt said campaign workers' efforts are aimed at acquaint Muslim voters with Sen. Obama's positions and to work on voter turnout. "We have a whole faith outreach effort that includes interacting with mosque leaders," he said. One attendee at the Springfield meeting was Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation. The Justice Department has asserted in court proceedings that the society's organizers were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a global group promoting political Islam. Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, also attended the session, as did the group's legislative director.
The government named CAIR an unindicted coconspirator in the Justice Department's racketeering prosecution last year of alleged Hamas fund-raisers. CAIR said the designation was unjustified; the case ended in a mistrial, but is being brought again by the government. Mr. Awad declined to comment. Mr. Bray didn't respond to a request for comment. The Obama campaign said it couldn't comment on Mr. Asbahi's attendance at the session.