On October 31, the Ohio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) held its 1st Annual Muslim Day at the Capitol – not to be confused with the Islamic Day in Ohio held during the same month, or the Meet a Muslim Day, Hijab Day, and National Muslim Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill held earlier this year. Participants were provided with "training, support, and education for a full day of civic engagement" as CAIR officials lobbied Ohio lawmakers.
CAIR-Cleveland co-founder Isam Zaiem was among the 70 participants to attend the event, which included a statehouse tour and 45 minutes of lobbyist training. On Facebook, the Syrian-born CAIR board member enthusiastically promised to "purchase tickets for the first 10 young activists" and provide transportation to the event.
Strangers unfamiliar with Zaiem's radical associations and his history of support for controversial Islamist causes would have been wise to seek alternative transportation to CAIR's inaugural Muslim Day at the Capitol. In fact, moderate Muslims and Ohio lawmakers should have skipped the event altogether. CAIR has been designated a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates, and both the FBI and the Columbus Police Department cut ties with the Islamist interest group after it was named by federal prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator during the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) terrorism financing trial.
Promoting Extremism and Defending Terror
Zaiem's work as the co-founder and board member of CAIR-Cleveland fits his Islamist worldview. At a CAIR-Cleveland banquet event featuring a "Mother's Day Tribute," the extremist preacher Sheikh Alaa Elsayed was selected to speak on a day honoring motherhood. As an expert on Muslim matrimony, Elsayed is known for supporting controversial Islamist doctrines such as polygamy, which he described as "a beautiful flower" that "not every man can handle." He also advised husbands to be discreet with their wife-beatings so as to "never leave a mark."
Elsayed is not the only Islamist courted by Zaiem's CAIR-Cleveland chapter. Islamist choir singer Monzer Taleb was invited to speak at a 2009 fundraising event, despite previously performing for a band which toured America and collected money for Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist group. Like CAIR, Taleb was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the HLF trial, in which prosecutors submitted a video of Taleb singing "I am from Hamas."
Zaiem appears to have a history of defending terror operatives. When the FBI raided a Cleveland-area mosque where an accountant named Abrar Haque was suspected of funding terrorism, Zaiem's response was to cry Islamophobia. "Not only in Cleveland but across the country, there's a perception that law enforcement, post-9/11, have been targeting Muslims and Arabs," Zaiem said.
Haque was eventually convicted on more than 60 counts, including conspiracy, fraud, and money laundering. Zaiem remained unconvinced of the seriousness of these crimes, telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "What happens to one of our mosques happens to all of our mosques ..."
Zaiem should know. After Imam Fawaz Damra, the leader of Ohio's largest mosque, was deported in 2007 for his involvement with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, he was briefly detained by Israeli border authorities while attempting to return to Palestinian territory. Zaiem lamented this inconvenience, calling the detention "a complete mystery" and worrying that "the imam has vanished off the face of the Earth."
(Israeli officials were understandably cautious about allowing Damra into the Palestinian West Bank. The Cleveland imam's name is listed among 170 possible co-conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and he appears in a 1991 videotaped speech urging a crowd to attack Jews in Israel, who he called "the sons of monkeys and pigs.")
Outside of the Ohio State House, Zaiem's extremism has not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, locals caught on to Zaiem's unsavory associations and his sympathy for Islamist activism. In July, an event titled "Know Your Muslim Neighbor" featuring Zaiem was suddenly scrapped without explanation, prompting the CAIR-Cleveland mainstay to deplore the cancellation as "pressure from bigots who think that freedom of speech does not apply to me as well!!!"
Yet opposing Zaiem does not require bigotry. Zaiem uses his right to free speech in indefensible ways—for example, defending Islamists who try to murder police officers. When Eren Beyah shot at construction workers renovating a church near his home, a police standoff followed. Beyah fired on officers several times, and after numerous attempts to end the confrontation through non-lethal force, police entered the residence and fatally shot him. Zaiem responded by condemning the Cleveland police and demanding "a thorough and impartial investigation into Police tactics in this matter."
And in 2016, Zaeim posted a tweet calling on President Barack Obama to "issue a medical parole" for Imam Jamil Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown), a black-nationalist Muslim firebrand with a long history of terrorism, inciting riots, and engaging in police shootouts. Al-Amin was imprisoned in 2000 for murdering a police officer who was serving a warrant for his arrest.
Friends in High Places
On the October 31 lobbying day at the Ohio State House, the CAIR-Ohio delegation made sure to consult with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). The senior Ohio senator is a longtime ally of CAIR. At a 2011 banquet hosted by the Islamist group, Brown offered a congratulatory written statement that both Brown's office and CAIR refused to publicize despite multiple formal requests to see the remarks.
In 2010, Zaeim donated $500 to Brown, which has no doubt encouraged the senator's apologias for Ohio Islamist groups such as CAIR. Like his CAIR associates, Brown is keen to obfuscate the link between terrorism and radical Islam. After Brown rebuked Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse (R) from the Senate floor for arguing that the U.S. is "at war with militant Islam," Sasse responded by asking his critic if "there is any connection between our enemy and Islam?" Brown punted. "I guess — I don't know — I'm not here to debate this," he answered. "I don't know exactly what that means, 'a connection between our enemy and Islam.'"
Zaiem has a history of supporting other lawmakers that fall on the radical fringe of society. He gave money to self-identified socialist and Lakewood City Council candidate Tristan Rader, and apparently jeopardized CAIR's 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation – which forbids endorsement of political candidates – by appearing in a campaign commercial on behalf of CAIR to endorse the young Democrat.
Under Zaiem's stewardship, CAIR-Cleveland is successfully advancing an Islamist agenda in Ohio. Zaiem has the attention of the State's most prominent local and federal lawmakers. By opening their doors to Zaiem and CAIR, Ohio legislators have legitimized Islamists who defend extremists and terror operatives, allowing the Islamists to falsely present themselves as the representatives of ordinary Ohio Muslims. This must be stopped.
Benjamin Baird is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. He is an Army infantry veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and holds a degree in Middle Eastern studies from the American Military University.