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An Interview with Corey Saylor

Corey Saylor is legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), with more than a decade of nonprofit political communications, legislative advocacy, and media relations experience. In this interview with Chrystie Swiney (The College of William and Mary), Saylor discusses some of CAIR's ongoing efforts to protect the civil liberties of religious minorities in the United States.

Chrystie Swiney: As the director of the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), can you tell us about what your work entails and your specific areas of expertise and responsibility? And can you tell us more generally about CAIR's key priorities as the largest Islamic civil liberties group in the United States?

Corey Saylor: I develop and implement best practices for combatting anti-Islam prejudice in the United States.

In the last three years this has primarily meant working to get Islamophobes treated with the same social disdain as anti-Semites and racists. I have also been active in combatting anti-Islam legislation nationwide and removing biased and inaccurate materials from law enforcement counterterrorism trainings.

I authored CAIR's new report, "Legislating Fear: Islamophobia and Its Impact in the United States 2011–2012,"which explores the funding and influence of anti-Muslim groups.

I have more than 16 years of nonprofit communications and advocacy experience. In the past I helped run successful advocacy campaigns against corporate giants such as Burger King and Bell Helicopter-Boeing when their actions or advertisements negatively impacted the American Muslim community. I am privileged to also serve as a member of the national board of directors of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ).

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a grassroots civil rights and advocacy group. CAIR is America's largest Islamic civil liberties group, with regional offices nationwide. The national headquarters is located on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

In 2005, a writer for the Indianapolis Star noted that CAIR has "a reputation for being something of a pit bull in protecting the civil rights of Muslims." I feel this is a great short-hand summary of our work.

CAIR lawyers and civil rights staff processed 3,000 civil rights complaints between July 2012 and July 2013. These cases range from workplace discrimination to a current lawsuit against the U.S. government for violating the rights of Muslim citizens at our borders. A 2010 anti-Islam law passed in Oklahoma was recently declared un-Constitutional following a lawsuit filed by one of our staff in that state. Our services are provided free of charge to our clients.

We are fortunate to be the most frequently cited American Muslim organization in the media. In a recent twelve-month period there were 2,556 references to the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the Nexis media database, a source that compiles most domestic print media as well as major international media.

We also bring our constituency's concerns to elected officials. CAIR experts from across the nation met with 163 congressional offices, including 100 Democratic and 63 Republican offices, during our 7th annual Capitol Hill days this past March. CAIR delegates discussed issues such as protecting children from bullies, immigration reform, and airport profiling.

I believe our efforts are important to ensuring that American democracy works for everyone. In fact, I assert that the American Muslims are on the front lines of protecting Constitutional ideals of a just and equal society.

Swiney: CAIR recently released its annual Islamophobia report entitled "Legislating Fear: Islamophobia and its Impact in the United States." One of the key findings is that the level of Islamophobia in the US has declined in the past year. What accounts for this positive development? And what have the trend lines been since the September 11th, 2001 World Trade Center attacks? Have they been as expected, a sharp incline following the attacks, followed by a gradual decline as time goes on? What explains the trend lines that you (and CAIR) have observed?

Saylor: Frankly, I was surprised when our survey of subject matter experts indicated a perceived reduction in Islamophobia in America. I was looking at a nationwide movement to pass laws targeting Islam, something I feel is a considerable threat an American democracy based on a notion of equal treatment under the law and here other experts were saying they saw some slight improvement.

A few points helped convince me our experts had a point.

CAIR first asked subject matter experts to rate Islamophobia in America in September and October of 2010. This period was the height of the national controversy over Park51, also known as the "Ground Zero Mosque." The controversy's proximity to the 2010 mid-term election made it a campaign issue. It was also right at the time of the planned burning of Qurʿāns by Florida Pastor Terry Jones, a story that also made international news. This period in 2010 can be seen as the Islamophobia network's greatest penetration into mainstream discourse to date. So a decline from that pedestal makes sense.

There were also positive developments that deserve notice. In 2011, after news outlets highlighted the use of anti-Muslim trainers and materials by law enforcement and the military the White House initiated major reform. In 2012, Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-MN) attempt to paint American Muslims engaged in public service as disloyal infiltrators was strongly rejected in a bipartisan fashion.

Finally, the majority of the anti-Islam legislation failed. This was often due to the work of interfaith coalitions and responsible legislators. Where bills did pass, they were so watered down as to have no real world impact that has been observed to date. The only bill that passed with language specifically targeting Islam was challenged in court and ruled un-Constitutional in 2013.

This report of slight improvement is encouraging, but it has not been a nice straight trend line as we move away from 9/11. It has been characterized by spikes in anti-Islam prejudice. As expected, there was a significant spike in bias incidents following the 9/11 terror attacks which eased over the following years.

In late 2009, CAIR reported "cautious optimism that America may be witnessing a leveling-off of the post-9/11 backlash against Americans of the Islamic faith." Bias incident data collected by CAIR in 2007 and 2008 supported that conclusion.

CAIR believes that the trends pointing toward a leveling off began changing around January 2009.

After the 2009 Presidential inauguration, the nation's tone became angry. This was on display during the national conversation over health-care reform. As a single example, Politico reported that Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) received a phone message saying snipers were being deployed to kill children of those who voted for health care overhaul.

The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a 2009 report noting, "the resurgence of the antigovernment militia movement across the country, which has been fueled by fears of a black man in the White House, the changing demographics of the country, and conspiracy theories increasingly spread by mainstream figures."

Violent extremist activities added fuel to this kindling. In late 2009, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan murdered a number of American service members at Fort Hood and a Nigerian man tried, and thankfully failed, to blow up an airplane heading toward the United States. In May 2010, another man failed in his planned mass murder when he attempted to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square.

As I already noted, in August and early September 2010 the dispute over Park51 and a Florida pastor's plan to burn copies of the Qurʿān kept Islam and Muslims front-and-center in the public consciousness.

Mixed in with this is the Islamophobia network, tapping into a pool of anti-Islam bias and spinning real concerns about violent extremism into fanciful tales of a horde of Islamic barbarians pouring through America's breached walls.

The genesis of the Park51 dispute is illustrative of the Islamophobia network's capacity. In December 2009, the New York Times published a front page story about the Cordoba project, a planned Islamic cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center attacks. That same month, while guest hosting Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviewed one of the key figures involved with the Cordoba project. Of the project Ingraham said, "I like what you're trying to do." There was no measurable public response to this coverage.

In May, 2010 a New York City community board unanimously approved the Cordoba project. Pamela Geller, a leading figure in the U.S. Islamophobia network, responded with a blog post titled, "Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction." The Ground Zero Mosque controversy was born.

Trends, spikes and troughs aside, polls consistently show that a sizable number of Americans hold problematic views toward Muslims. The public's favorable rating of Islam sank from 40 percent in July 2003 to 30 percent in August 2010 according to the Pew Research Center. A Time magazine poll released in August 2010 found, "Twenty-eight percent of voters do not believe Muslims should be eligible to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearly one-third of the country thinks adherents of Islam should be barred from running for President..." In May 2013, Pew reported that 42 percent of the American public says Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers. This is up from 25 percent in March 2002.

Swiney: The media is often blamed as being a source of Islamophobia in the US. Is there truth to this claim? How much credit can we give the media for fueling Americans' negativity toward Muslims/Islam? What can be done, and what has CAIR done, to influence the media's depiction of Muslims/Islam?

Saylor: Media is a broad term, but in general, yes. Many news outlets contribute to Islamophobia in the United States.

Media Tenor, a group which "statistically evaluates media data" had this to say recently:

Both European and North American TV news have shown a keen interest in Islam during 2013. More so, both regions are generating dire media coverage regarding the religion, more negative than global TV news has been generating coverage on other religious dialogue.

News outlets tend to highlight stories that put Islam in a negative spotlight. Peter King's first anti-Muslim hearing was called the "top Islam-related story of the year" for 2011 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. I believe it is fair to assert that in 2010 the controversies over the Ground Zero Mosque and Pastor Terry Jones's planned Qurʿān burning were the major Islam-related stories of that year.

In 2008, Media Tenor, found that "Islam is not only the religion that is the most frequently mentioned in television news in the United States, but also a significant share of the coverage is negative." Thirty six percent of statements about religion referred to Islam. The tone of the media coverage of Islam was negative 40% of the time, while statements about Christianity were negative 20% of the time. Media Tenor found "that two-thirds of the television coverage about Islam associates Muslims with extremism." (Media Tenor's report covered the period from January 2007–March 2008.)

The 2010 attack on an IRS facility in Austin, Texas illustrates significant questions about how both the media and society in general responds to terror attacks. In the Austin incident, Joseph Stack left an anti-IRS note then took a Piper Dakota airplane and flew it into a building housing IRS employees, killing one and injuring at least 13 other people. Stack's note indicates this attack was politically motivated. In my mind this fits most every definition of terrorism. However, law enforcement quickly said it was not terrorism. The story was a minor blip on the national news radar. Insert a Muslim into the equation and draw your own conclusions about where the story would have gone.

In my opinion, the coverage generated by Fox News requires a hard look. The Public Religion Research Institute1 included the following points in a report published in September 2012:

  • "There is a strong correlation between trusting Fox News and negative views of Islam and Muslims. This pattern is evident even among conservative political and religious groups."
  • "Among all Republicans, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) say that Islam is at odds with American values. Among Republicans who most trust Fox News, more than 7-in-10 (72 percent) believe that Islam is at odds with American values."
  • "Among Republicans who most trust other news sources, less than half (49 percent) say Islam is at odds with American values, making their attitudes roughly similar to the general population."
  • "A similar effect can be seen in beliefs about American Muslims and the establishment of Shari'a law. Nearly 6-in-10 (58 percent) Republicans who most trust Fox News believe that American Muslims are trying to establish Shari'a law in the U.S. Again, the attitudes of Republicans who most trust other news sources look similar to the general population."

CAIR has undertaken several campaigns and methods to help balance and inform media coverage of Islam.

In 2007, CAIR produced "American Muslims: A Journalist's Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims." Essentially, this is a stylebook that gives a basic overview of the faith and its adherents. We offer this publication free of charge to media professionals, and have distributed more than 35,000 copies so far.

We have had some success with public service announcements (PSAs). Our "9/11 happened to us all" PSAs featured a Muslim firefighter and medical responder who aided victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Hearing these two tell their emotional stories helped humanize Muslims for many Americans who had only been exposed to stereotypes and caricatures.

We act as a voice for our constituency by releasing press statements about issues relevant to our work. Along with this, we train our staff and community leaders—current and future—in being professional and effective in their dealings with the media.

This simple strategy resulted in the author of a 2012 academic study on the growing influence of anti-Muslim hate groups saying, "The only major U.S. Muslim organization that has achieved a high level of media influence is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is now working to rebuff the recent rise in anti-Muslim messages within the American public sphere."

We do our work with the awareness that many Americans associate our faith with violent acts they see in the news. The 9/11 attacks and subsequent images of violent extremists committing horrors they claim are justified by Islam has left a very negative image of the faith in the eyes of the general public. Even though Al Qaeda and its ideological affiliates have killed more Muslims than people of other faiths, our entire faith still gets blamed for their monstrosities.

I liken our position to that of Japanese Americans, the only other minority in this country blamed for an attack on this nation. They were placed in internment camps after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks. Given that a 2004 study by Cornell University found that "27 percent of respondents said that all Muslim Americans should be required to register their location with the federal government," I thank Japanese Americans for their struggle against collective punishment, which likely eased the Muslim experience after 9/11.

I also point out that it took until 1976 for a U.S. president to acknowledge that the internment of Japanese Americans was a "national mistake."

This requires us to recognize that we must take a long view in dealing with media bias. That does not imply passive acceptance of it, it is a simple recognition that this is not a TV program whose plot will be neatly tied up in 30 minutes with time allotted for commercials.

I am currently working on CAIR's third report on Islamophobia in the United States, and for this report we are closely looking at how to re-introduce Islam to America. Our goal is to provide local communities with best practices and a training program. We will also provide expert insight on strategies to take on a national level.

Frankly, any real solution will take financial resources. We cannot rely on media, particularly given the partisan leanings of much journalism in America today, to change its attitude from "if it bleeds, it leads," to a more balanced representation of Islam and the rather boring, law-abiding lives the vast majority of Muslims lead.

Paid media will be an important—if expensive—component of any successful campaign. I know ideas for reintroducing Islam to America exist within CAIR. I also know that all American Muslim institutions are significantly underfunded.

Swiney: In 2011 and 2012, 78 bills or amendments designed to vilify Islamic religious practices were introduced in the legislatures of 29 states and the U.S. Congress. Can you give us some specific examples of these proposed bills or amendments? What is fueling this legislative activity: who or what is behind it? Is this a new development, is it connected to the 9/11 attacks, or did it begin prior to 2001? How do you typically respond to such proposals: what is your strategy, what arguments to you employ, and what tools do you employ to combat misguided legislation?

Saylor: Generally, one man with a history of anti-Islam prejudice wrote a template bill for a group that appears to exist only on the internet. That template bill is then pushed by organizations committed to spreading fear and prejudice about Islam.

David Yerushalmi, is an attorney with U.S. Islamophobia network inner core groups the Center for Security Policy and the American Freedom Law Center. In the American Spectator in 2006 Yerushalmi asserted, "Our greatest enemy today is Islam." Yerushalmi is also a founder of the Society of Americans for National Existence, a group that once advanced a policy advocating incarceration for "adherence to Islam."

Yerushalmi wrote American Laws for American Courts (ALAC), the template for many anti-Islam bills introduced across the nation, for the American Public Policy Alliance (APPA). While the APPA has a professional-looking website, its Washington, D.C. address is a UPS Store. APPA has a minor Facebook presence, with less than 100 friends as of early 2013.

Yerushalmi's bill is then pushed at the state-level by groups like ACT! for America, the Eagle Forum and to a lesser extent Pamela Geller's Stop the Islamization of America.

In its 2011 IRS filings, ACT! for America celebrates its role in the passage of anti-Islam bills in Arizona and Tennessee. In 2008, ACT! for America founder Brigitte Gabriel told the Australian Jewish News: "Every practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim."

Tennessee's anti-Islam bill was given to legislators by Tennessee Eagle Forum President Bobbie Patray. Texas Eagle Forum president Pat Carlson testified in favor of that state's anti-Islam bill in 2013.

In December 2012, an Alaska ethics panel recommended that Karen Sawyer, former chief of staff to state Rep. Carl Gatto be fired after it found "she used state resources to help an anti-Islamic group." According to the panel's findings, Sawyer allowed David Heckert of Stop Islamization of America to "use the Wasilla legislative information office and equipment for work related to his organization."

It is not new for legislators to attempt to single out minorities for prejudicial treatment. Anyone who attended a civics class in the United States knows the Jim Crow principle of "separate but equal." Past efforts to target religious based schools include Oregon's Compulsory Public School Attendance Bill. In that instance, the "initiative's main target" was Roman Catholics.2 The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all Chinese immigration to the United States.

Appropriate measures for addressing anti-Islam legislation vary from state-to-state. That said it generally involves a combination of media, legal and political advocacy, along with forming coalitions with groups that value free religious exercise.

Some of the most important allies in rolling back anti-Islam legislative efforts have been Catholics and Jews. Also, depending on the language in the bill, business advocates have been great allies as they recognize that international contracts may be signed with Muslim-majority nations.

Sometimes, a public approach is adopted. Shortly after a press conference held by CAIR-Minnesota and interfaith groups, Republican State Senator Dave Thompson withdrew his bill, which had been written using American Laws for American Courts as a template, saying, "It was never my intent to introduce legislation that was being targeted to any one group."3

In other places, a quiet program of meeting with elected officials gets the job done.

In other states, there have been bitter fights. Tennessee can serve as an example. The bill as originally introduced would have essentially banned practicing Islam in that state. The campaign that followed deserves a paper of its own. Interfaith coalitions played a strong role in opposing the bill, but I will summarize by saying that while the bill ultimately passed, it was so heavily modified that it no longer targeted Islam and has had no reported real world impact. The bill's passage was a win for those who have vilification of Islam as a goal as they passed a bill whose intent was to smear Islam, but a win for people of conscience in that the final bill did not codify that vilification. The latter win is the more significant of the two.

Swiney: What do you envision as the future of American-Islamic relations in the US? With the ending of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the passage of time from the 9/11 attacks, do you expect the positive trend lines (captured in the recent Islamophobia report) to continue? Or are these events irrelevant to the current trend lines? What can and should Muslims, and specifically Muslim-Americans, do to encourage the positive trends, and what can non-Muslim Americans do to help end Islamophobia as well?

Saylor: I believe that we will see a continued cycle of negative spikes, such as during the national controversy over Park51, but that the general trend will be toward the positive. The experience of other minorities in the United States convinces me that prejudice against Muslims will never fully go away, but it will continue to decline. CAIR's vision looks toward the time when being Muslim carries a positive connotation in society and Islam has an equal place among many faiths in America's pluralistic society.

To me, the most important step in encouraging the positive trend is re-introducing Islam to America, changing the basic perception of what Islam is and the type of character its adherents manifest.

A 2009 Gallup study supports this assertion, "personal affiliation with a Muslim may help to soften extreme prejudice, but is not enough to eliminate it." Gallup added, "One's perception of the faith is as strongly associated with tolerance, as is one's perception of the characteristics of the faith group in general. Those who associate attributes such as gender issues, peace, and interfaith acceptance with Muslims are more likely to claim no prejudice against the faith group." 4

Before he became a prophet, Muhammad was known as Al-Ameen, the Trustworthy. His reputation for wisdom had people in Mecca turning to him for solutions to community problems before he started receiving revelation.

We Muslims must consider this.

As I have already noted, most Americans were introduced to our faith on 9/11, watching airplanes slam into buildings. That was followed by repeated media images of crazy men in caves threatening Americans with a violent, brutal death.

Adherents of Islam, barring a tiny minority, know that such monstrosities are heretical. The positions of Al-Qaeda and its ideological adherents are incompatible with Islam.

But I wonder how many of our neighbors retain that image of planes and crazy people in their deeper emotional places and remain unsure if we are trustworthy. They may harbor, even unwanted, a concern that perhaps the bigots who claim Muslims are an existential threat to America are right.

Muslims must, each as an individual and in partnership with institutions like CAIR, strive to become known in America as the Trustworthy. We do this by upholding the Constitution for everyone. We do this by being a benefit to other humans and preventing harm from coming to them.

For American Muslims as individuals this leads to two primary recommendations.

First: Put your faith into action. Do something positive, however small, on a consistent basis. In a well-known saying, Prophet Muhammad instructed Muslims, "Whoever sees something evil should change it with his hand. If he cannot, then with his tongue; and if he cannot do even that, then [he should hate it] in his heart. And that is the weakest degree of faith." (Sahih Muslim) We should not just hate bigotry in our hearts; we should use all legal and peaceful means available to us to change it with our actions.

Second: Muslims should avoid responses that play into the agendas of those seeking to smear our faith. In an interview for CAIR's report Same Hate, New Target community leader Asad Ba-Yunus said, "The best thing I could always suggest to an individual is to act by example. Their example must be one that is calm and collected. Reflect the teachings of Prophet Mohammad—even in the face of his greatest enemies and critics and people who threw garbage on him, he treated people with the utmost respect and dignity."

Psychologists have shown that people tend to look for things that reinforce their preconceptions. If a Muslim loses his temper in traffic and starts yelling, onlookers may be more inclined to think "see, that's how they are" rather than "traffic makes people nuts." Unfair? Likely. Reality? Yes.

American Muslim institutions must implement these simple points on a wider scale and then build a movement based on them.

I would reject characterizing this as attempt to win a popularity contest. Our goal cannot be to get everyone to friend Islam on Facebook. Our goal must be to get Islam seen as a positive force in society, a goal that has more "show" than "tell" associated with it.

This sometimes means sacrificing short-term popularity. When a CAIR staffer filed suit against the 2010 anti-Islam bill that passed in Oklahoma its core was a straightforward First Amendment issue. As passed, the bill singled Islam out for government sanction. Filing the suit garnered a lot of ill will. Among Muslims, some argued that we should not make waves, just let it go. Others said that we as a community lacked the legal expertise to win even such a clear cut case. Outside our faith, the move was viewed as an attempt to subvert the Constitution or to oppose the will of Oklahoma's voters.

This decision to act was based on the principle that government should not be involved in people's religious practices. The action entailed risk: both a loss of popularity in some quarters and the potential of a bad court ruling that resulted in a bad precedent for similar cases. However, if our goal is to be viewed as protecting our fellow humans from harm, in this case government infringement on the ideal of free religious exercise, then this action was crucial.

In terms of how people of other faiths, or no particular faith, can contribute to eroding Islamophobia, we simply ask that they continue to stand for American principles. There is no doubt in my mind that without such allies the position of American Muslims would be dire.

Finally, and likely most importantly, encouraging the positive trends must be tied to the broader movement of defeating prejudice in our society. Prejudice's lens may target Muslims today but it will turn to another group in the future. Muslims cannot in good conscience secure goodwill for ourselves in America and then turn a blind eye to the plight of others.

I plan on offering more specifics on actions in our next report on Islamophobia in America, which is due out in 2014.


1 Daniel Cox, E.J. Dionne, Jr., William A. Galston, and Robert P. Jones, What It Means to Be American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years After 9/11(Washington: Public Research Institute and Brookings Institute, September 6, 2011), available at: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2011/9/06-american-attitudes/0906_american_attitudes.pdf.

2 "Pierce vs. Society of Sisters (1925)," The Oregon Encyclopedia, available at: http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/pierce_vs_society_of_sisters_1925_/.

3 Susie Jones, "MN Muslims Protest Senate Bill, Claim Discrimination," WCCO CBS Minnesota, March 5, 2012, available at: http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2012/03/05/mn-muslims-protest-senate-bill-claim-discrimination/.

4 Gallup. "Religious Perceptions in America: With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes Toward Muslims and Islam," 2009.

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