Spokesman Jeff Rathke seemed unaware that one of the two groups, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has long been engaged in outreach programs with the U.S. government.
He said the administration was “seeking to gain more information on why” the UAE had included include CAIR and the Muslim American Society (MAS) on the list. Others among the more than 80 groups listed ranged from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL).
CAIR and MAS have expressed shock at the move, with MAS saying it would look to the U.S. government to help.
“We’re aware that two U.S.-based groups, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society, were included on the list,” Rathke said. “We’re engaging UAE authorities” on the matter.
“The State Department works...with CAIR all the time, no?” a reporter asked. “I mean, there’s all sorts of outreach programs between the government and CAIR, right?”
“I don’t know offhand whether we have a particular—” Rathke began, before being told that CAIR has also worked with the FBI, and that CAIR officials have been invited to State Department-hosted iftars – Ramadan fast-breaking meals – “in years past.”
“I don’t have that information at my fingertips,” Rathke said. “But at any rate, we’re engaging UAE officials. These are U.S.-based groups so of course our – we are not in the lead then for domestically-based groups generally.”
CAIR did not respond Monday to queries.
CAIR officials have been invited to iftars for years, mostly at the State Department – going back to at least 2002, when Secretary of State Colin Powell was the host – but also at the Pentagon. CAIR has itself hosted iftars on Capitol Hill.
Last summer the State Department’s assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, Nisha Biswal, held a meeting at the department with CAIR interns.
The State Department article described CAIR as an “advocacy group that seeks to promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in America and present an Islamic perspective on issues of importance to the American public.”
Some of the department’s outreach articles have even included a link to CAIR’s website.
When President Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington six days after al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11, CAIR executive director Nihad Awad joined him, and appeared in a White House photograph of the event.
Both CAIR and MAS have known controversy: MAS was founded by Muslim Brotherhood members in the 1990s, while CAIR was named by the Justice Department in 2007 as “unindicted co-conspirators” in its case against the Holy Land Foundation in Texas, subsequently found guilty of raising money for Hamas.
CAIR and MAS are not the groups whose inclusion on the UAE terrorist list caused a stir. Islamic associations in Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden were also listed, and Norway’s foreign ministry said it would lodge a protest with the UAE government over Det Islamske Forbundet’s presence on the list.
The Muslim Association of Britain threatened legal action over its inclusion.
Some of the European groups listed have links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which UAE and several other unelected regimes in the Gulf view as a threat to their rule.
Egypt’s foreign ministry welcomed the UAE’s decision to put the Muslim Brotherhood on the terror list. The veteran Islamist organization won presidential elections and ruled Egypt for a year until toppled by the military in July 2013. The UAE move follows earlier ones by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to outlaw it a terrorist organization.
Another group placed on the UAE list was the International Union of Muslim Scholars, a Qatar-based organization headed by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born cleric viewed as the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader.
On Monday the IUMS called on the UAE to remove it from the list, saying its inclusion was “not based on any analysis or investigation, whether legal, logical or rational.”
The U.S. government has barred Qaradawi from entering the country, and the U.S. Treasury Department in 2008 added the Union of Good, a coalition of charities led by Qaradawi, to a list of organizations sanctioned for links to terrorism.
The department said at the time some of the funds raised were going to Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, and that some had “compensated Hamas terrorists by providing payments to the families of suicide bombers.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last September, UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al-Otaiba said the fight against terrorism must go beyond ISIS and “confront dangerous Islamist extremists of all stripes across the region.”
“A successful campaign to defeat Islamist extremism in the long term must confront the transnational networks and organizations that breed and support hatred and violence in the name of religion,” he wrote.
“Backing these support networks and organizations is a sophisticated ideological, financial and communications complex that includes countries, charities, companies and individuals. It uses social media, religious centers, banks and false fronts,” al-Otaiba said. “It must be choked off through an organized program of better intelligence, more-aggressive law enforcement and tougher sanctions.”