By Aaron Marshall / January 2004
As the French ambassador spoke to the Columbus business group about his country's position on Iraq, his remarks were frequently punctuated by cheering.
Was the staid luncheon crowd that excited by Jean-David Levitte's take on the war? Au contraire.
The commotion last Thursday was actually coming from two floors below, where more than 100 Muslim women were protesting on an icy downtown street corner.
What turned them out was a French campaign to ban all forms of religious symbols, including the hijab—the traditional religious head scarf worn by many Muslim women.
Who turned them out was Jad Humeidan, executive director of the Ohio chapter of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"It wasn't too hard," said Humeidan, who had assembled the crowd via e-mail and a weekly newsletter passed out at area mosques. "For the sisters, it was their calling."
If you thought it would be a cold day in hell before a throng of Muslim women turned out for a political protest in Columbus, well, at least you were right about the weather.
It was yet another PR victory for Humeidan, a media-savvy 29-year-old who has become the spokesman for the tens of thousands of Muslims living in Ohio.
Need a Muslim guy to come talk to your school or civic organization? Humeidan's your guy. And when the media need a Muslim opinion to round out a story, Jad's their dude. It's a job that brings long hours and plenty of time on the road.
For instance, last week after the hijab demonstration, Humeidan got word that a Muslim religious leader in Cleveland had been arrested for lying about ties to terrorist groups.
"Jad was up here immediately to respond to that situation," said Chris Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, which presented CAIR with a civil-rights award last year.
"He always seems to be on the spot."
CAIR, which started its Ohio chapter in 1998, has plans to open offices in Cincinnati and Dayton, joining those already in Columbus and Cleveland.
"It's been interesting to see how rapidly the organization has developed," said Link. "In my mind, one of the bright sides of democracy is that an advocacy group can develop and take leadership so quickly."
Since 9-11, Muslims have frequently visited CAIR's Northwest Side office with stories of job and housing discrimination, ethnic intimidation and racial profiling by law-enforcement agencies.
In the weeks following 9-11, Columbus-area Muslims were subject to a handful of hostile acts, including vandalism at a downtown mosque.
"The very overt acts…have dissipated, but yet at the same time we're seeing a lot of cases of discrimination," said Humeidan, who has been CAIR's executive director since January 2001.
CAIR investigates complaints and attempts to bring both parties together to settle the dispute. If mediation doesn't work, CAIR refers people to the Columbus Community Relations Commission or another appropriate governmental agency. If legal action is necessary, CAIR has a list of attorneys that provide free or heavily discounted services.
"Before Sept. 11, the most we would have would be three or four cases open at a time," he said. "After Sept. 11, I think we have over 100 cases open at this time."
They're settled less frequently than he would like.
"This is very sad to say, but a lot of companies and attorneys know that a Muslim is going to have a very hard time winning a trial, and they are willing to let it go to a jury trial."
Jim Stowe, executive director of the Community Relations Commission, said Humeidan is "well-respected" and praised CAIR for bringing the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and area Muslims together for a meeting in the weeks following 9-11.
However, CAIR does have detractors. An anti-CAIR group has sprung up on the Internet, and a few conservative columnists have asserted that the organization has ties to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Humeidan called the charges false and said many are based on old statements of CAIR's national leadership taken out of context.
"CAIR has consistently condemned terrorist actions," he said.
Humeidan, who was born in Cleveland but grew up in the Palestinian West Bank, has first-hand experience with the increased scrutiny many Muslims face.
Partly because he has held a pilot's license since 1994, he was questioned by the FBI in the weeks following 9-11. It was an experience he found "intimidating and humiliating."
"I'm an American citizen. I have family members that have fought in wars for this country. Yet I'm having to prove my loyalty to this country just because of my ancestry," he said. "I felt so outraged that this was happening."
But what would Humeidan say to those Americans who aren't bothered by the increased scrutiny of Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants following the tragic events of 9-11?
"It's kind of sad to see that we are ripping the Constitution apart and the Bill of Rights apart just so we can ensure security," he said. "If you don't have justice, you will never have security."
Though he gives frequent speeches and interviews, Humeidan said it's hard for him to be Mr. Muslim.
"I never liked speaking in public," he said. "To this day, I do dozens of radio and TV interviews every week, and I never listen to them or watch them."
Humeidan's personal road to activism was launched when he was an Ohio State student studying aviation and computer science.
He was outraged in 1998 when the university bowed to pressure surrounding a planned speaking engagement for PLO leader Yasser Arafat. At the last minute, it was decided that then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was needed to balance Arafat's appearance. In the end, neither leader spoke.
"I was thinking: Why is that when somebody else wants to speak, it's OK, but when the Palestinians want to bring somebody, then you have to balance it out?" he said.
Monday afternoon, Humeidan led a small group of Muslims in walking with hundreds of other Columbus residents in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. march.
"I have gone to about seven or eight of these marches, and I'm telling you, it's always on the most freezing day of the year," he said with a grin.
He believes American Muslims are treading the same path today that African-Americans took in the 1960s.
"This is also our struggle, and we have to continue fighting in this struggle," he said.