Chicago Business (CRAIN'S): In trying to build bridges, he finds a much deeper divide

Former businessman learns the difficulty of being Muslim in post-9/11 U.S.

Ahmed Rehab walked away from the business world to become a spokesman for American Muslims — and walked into a firestorm.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Rehab was a consultant at Arthur Andersen in Chicago. In the wake of the attacks, he feared Americans would direct discrimination, distrust and worse toward Arabs and Muslims.

Three years later, with the U.S. engaged in a full-scale war in the Middle East and fears of further plots by Islamic extremists still running high, a college friend approached Mr. Rehab about starting a local chapter of the non-profit Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

“I gave it one day’s thought,” says Mr. Rehab, now 29. By then, he was running his own business, selling customized computers. He eventually sold the business and became executive director of CAIR’s Chicago chapter.

REACHING OUT

Mr. Rehab, who was born in Cairo and lived in Manchester, England, before moving to suburban Norridge at age 15, organizes coffee shop gatherings for Muslim and Jewish artists. He runs cultural sensitivity training courses, monitors unfair treatment of Muslims in the media and advocates on issues like immigration reform. He offers mediation services to Muslims who feel they’ve been discriminated against in their jobs and comes to the aid of Muslims who encounter racism.

Mr. Rehab has also tried reaching out to the Jewish community. After vandals damaged an Uptown synagogue in February, he led a CAIR contingent that showed up to help in the clean-up effort, including removing anti-Semitic graffiti.

Gaby Machabanski, advocacy coordinator for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, calls CAIR one of “the few groups that are still trying to maintain a relationship between Muslims and Jews.”

But for all Mr. Rehab’s attempts at bridge-building, he may have underestimated the divide in American culture.

COUNTERING ACCUSATIONS

After joining CAIR, Mr. Rehab became a target of militant Internet sites and pro-Israeli bloggers who accused the national group of affiliating with and supporting terrorists. Mr. Rehab and his staff were compelled to prepare a memorandum refuting the accusations.

In Chicago, criticism of CAIR has come from less caustic sources, like the Anti-Defamation League’s Chicago chapter, whose associate director, Adam Schupack, attended a July 22 rally organized by CAIR in protest of the Israeli attacks in Lebanon. One of the speakers urged solidarity with Lebanese resistance — which Mr. Schupack took to mean Hezbollah, the Lebanese group classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Mr. Schupack says he was dismayed that neither Mr. Rehab nor anyone from CAIR disavowed the remark.

“If you’re a civil rights group, you need to condemn all forms of terrorism, and we don’t feel CAIR has done that consistently,” Mr. Schupack says.

Mr. Rehab says CAIR denounces all terrorism and accepts the government’s description of Hezbollah as a terrorist group. He also admits that constantly defending his and CAIR’s motives isn’t what he signed up for. “It’s very frustrating,” he says.

However, Mr. Rehab is realistic. In the post-Sept. 11 world, being a Muslim in the U.S. isn’t easy.

“Being an American citizen is a full-time job,” he says. “Your rights are there but in order to be on equal footing, you have to put up the effort.”

©2006 by Crain Communications Inc.