Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2002 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

NY Mayor Bloomberg appoints to Human Rights Commission counsel to Arab group accused of condoning terrorism

By Benjamin Smith | A member of New York City’s Human Rights Commission is under fire for his position at a group that has been accused of condoning terrorism, and has peddled conspiracy theories about the September 11 attack.

Omar Mohammedi is general counsel to the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. He was appointed October 15 to be one of 14 members of the city's Human Rights Commission, charged with enforcing the city's anti-discrimination laws.

Jewish leaders - including another member of the Human Rights Commission - yesterday criticized the appointment, while an Islamic group has launched a petition drive in support of Mr. Mohammedi.

"The mayor is making a mistake," said a spokesman for the American Jewish Committee, Kenneth Bandler. "This is an organization that condones terrorism and its officials should not be appointed to any government commission."

Mr. Mohammedi, a lawyer who specializes in employment discrimination, did not return phone and e-mail messages. A spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg, Edward Skyler, defended the appointment.

"We are appointing an individual, not an organization," Mr. Skyler said. "This guy has never said a controversial thing in his life. He's about as controversial as milquetoast."

Mr. Skyler said the city's Department of Investigations had vetted Mr. Mohammedi, and the city also ran his name past federal officials at the State and the Treasury Departments.

Mr. Mohammedi's main role with the Council on American Islamic Relations, CAIR, has been in aiding Muslims who have been questioned by the federal authorities. "He has been very helpful in defending those whose rights have been trampled," said Al Haaj Ghazi Khankan, head of CAIR's New York chapter.

While Mr. Mohammedi has not been at the center of controversy, CAIR has long attracted criticism. People linked to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, founded the group in the early 1990s. Although its officials say they don't support terrorism, CAIR officials have defended Hamas and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Mr. Khankan did not return calls seeking his organization's positions on the Middle East conflict, but he was quoted in the Jewish Week last October making fine distinctions between Hamas's killing of Israelis above and below the military age of 18. "Those who are below 18 should not be attacked," he said.

The group has also circulated a petition calling on the federal government to unfreeze the finances of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which has been accused of funneling money to Hamas.


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Mr. Skyler said CAIR's New York chapter is "not as controversial as the national chapter."

CAIR's most visible function in New York is defending Muslim civil rights. It has also lobbied against smoking and gay marriage.

But one long-time critic of CAIR in Washington, Steven Emerson, called City Hall's distinction "ludicrous."

"That's like saying that the New York chapter of the KKK is not as controversial as the national chapter," he said.

The New York chapter's Web site displays an unusual response to the September 11 attacks, a letter to the editor of the New York Times written last October 5.

The letter, which CAIR suggested its members send the paper, questions whether Mohammed Atta and other Muslims were responsible for the attacks and speculates on who really benefited - echoing theories that the Bush administration or the Israelis orchestrated the attacks.

"The important questions are: Who is impersonating these three Muslim Arabs? Why are Muslim Arabs been implicated in this terrorism? And, who could 'benefit' from this horrific tragedy?" it asks. "Definitely mainstream Muslims by the consensus of Islamic religious scholars since the dawn of Al-Islaam could NOT be the culprits."

CAIR was also the co-sponsor of a forum at Brooklyn College in 1998 where a crowd chanted "No to the Jews, descendents of the apes."

Another member of the Human Rights Commission, Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, raised questions about Mr. Mohammedi's appointment.

"If in fact CAIR does have close ties to known terrorist organizations, then the presence of its general counsel on the Human Rights Commission of New York City would seem to me very problematic," said Rabbi Lookstein. "The most elementary human right is the right to live and not to be blown to bits."

Mr. Mohammedi's ties to CAIR appear initially to have passed under the radar of most Jewish organizations. However, CAIR's national office sent out an appeal on October 17:

"Representatives of the pro-Israel lobby are pressuring officials to withdraw the appointment of Omar T. Mohammedi to the New York City Commission on Human Rights," the e-mail said.

"Those who oppose Muslim political participation are using falsehoods and distortions to smear Islamic leaders in an attempt to silence our voice in this country. We call on the American Muslim community to send positive messages of support for Mr. Mohammedi's appointment to New York's mayor and Commission on Human Rights," read the statement, quoting CAIR's executive director Nihad Awad.

Mr. Skyler said the city received 200 letters in support of the appointment, and only one in opposition.

A spokesman for the main office of CAIR in Washington, Ibrahim Hooper, called the controversy over Mr. Mohammedi's appointment "old news."

"There were some objections raised from segments of the pro-Israel lobby, and they were basically rejected," he said. "We think he's qualified, and obviously the city thought he was, too."

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Benjamin Smith is a staff writer for The New York Sun, where this article first appeared. Comment by clicking here.


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