Poor George Orwell, dying before blogs were born. He'd have had a field day with the folks behind the Free Speech Summit, who have proven themselves adept at silencing debate. That summit was staged last night, not at the Delray Beach Marriott as originally planned but at an undisclosed location in Boca Raton. Though organizers wouldn't admit it, the tactic was clearly to avoid protesters, if not some more sinister, paranoia-driven threat. I wrote about the summit in a post yesterday afternoon, and by this morning, I'd received a note from Altaf Ali, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in South Florida.
Ali wanted to know the exact location of the noon news conference that summit speakers had scheduled for today. By the time I opened the message and phoned Ali, noon had come and gone. The news conference was over. My bad. I'd have happily given him Mapquested directions to the Hilton Suites on Glades Road in Boca.
The "plot" I reference in the headline above? Ali told me, "I wanted to go and ask them a few questions. I'm very disturbed by these hateful things they are saying." (e.g. The most prominent speaker, Netherlands parliamentarian Geert Wilders, has called Islam "the ideology of a retarded culture.") A questioner at a news conference? That's nearly as scary a prospect as CAIR going to Tallahassee to lobby, an event that prompted House Majority Leader Adam Hasner to fly into a panic last month. Hasner was among those scheduled to speak at today's news conference.
After the jump, Ali gets to exercise his right to free speech.
CAIR is the largest Islamic civil liberties group in the United States. It represents the nation's Muslim community on political matters but has also sought to broker an easing of tensions between Americans and the Muslim world. For example, CAIR aims to send a delegation to Iran to negotiate for the release of American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was recently sentenced to eight years in prison after a secret Iranian court found her guilty of spying. Saberi is a week into a hunger strike.
If organizers of last night's Free Speech Summit aimed to avoid dialogue, they succeeded. "We were planning to send a representative from CAIR to answer questions people might have had or at least offer a balance of viewpoints," says Ali. "But for some reason, it was changed to a secret location. Under the guise of free speech, this was an event geared to a certain segment of the community, and it was not open to the public."
Hasner, the Delray Beach state rep, has pointed out in his public remarks that the FBI last summer stopped consulting CAIR based on the organization's links to Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist outfit. Specifically, that link was Omar Ahmad, CAIR's chairman emeritus, who was also associated with the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood's Palestine Committee. Ahmad was on a long list of unindicted co-conspirators in the federal case against the Holy Land Foundation, whose members were convicted last year of illegally giving $12 million to Hamas.
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This accusation brought a rueful laugh from Ali. He doubts that a terrorist organization could operate in this post-9/11 climate without being pounced upon by the FBI, and he insists CAIR members would report terrorists in their midst. "We're an organization that not only advocates for the Muslim community but we're here to assist this country in any way we can, because this is our home," says Ali. "But there are some groups that don't want the Muslim community to be part of this republic."
It was under the Bush administration that the FBI broke off contact with CAIR, and Ali hopes that will change with Obama in the White House. He claims "an ethical, moral obligation" to assist agents looking for terrorists. "We are all Americans, and we will do whatever we can to help protect this country."
Last week, CAIR called for the resignation of Hasner as House Majority leader. "I question Mr. Hasner's allegience," says Ali. "Is he truly representing the American people? Because what he is doing is, to me, contrary to the goals of anyone who holds elected office. He should not use his position to portray Islam in such an evil way."
Of course, Hasner has the constitutionally protected right to say whatever he wants, so long as it doesn't incite violence. And the Free Speech Summit is absolutely legal. But for readers who commented in Hasner's defense in previous posts, I ask you: Given that all Americans are more-or-less threatened equally by Islamic extremism when it takes the form of terrorism, do events like the summit decrease that threat? Or is it possible they increase the threat by demonstrating Americans have paranoia toward the Muslim world, traits that an anti-American terrorist group could use for a recruiting tool?