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CAIR-Ohio fires executive director for allegedly spying for an anti-Muslim hate group

Romin Iqbal has been fired by CAIR-Ohio for allegedly working with an anti-Muslim hate group. [WOSU file photo]
Former CAIR-Ohio executive director Romin Iqbal stands at a podium in front of a blue CAIR backdrop

UPDATED: 4:07 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021

The Ohio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says it has fired its executive and legal director citing what it says is evidence he'd been spying on the organization for years.

The Columbus-Cincinnati Board of Directors for CAIR-Ohio says it terminated Executive and Legal Director Romin Iqbal after being contacted by the national headquarters of CAIR. CAIR-Ohio says in a statement that a forensic investigation by an independent, third-party expert found "conclusive evidence that Iqbal had spent years secretly recording CAIR network meetings and passing confidential information regarding CAIR's national advocacy work to a known anti-Muslim hate group."

"It is a complete act of betrayal," Whitney Siddiqi, CAIR-Ohio community affairs director, said during a media availability Wednesday morning. "He was sharing confidential information, audio recordings of meetings with our national leadership and emails."

CAIR-Ohio says Iqbal admitted to working with the hate group when confronted with the investigation's findings. Iqbal, through his attorney, declined to comment for this story.

CAIR-Ohio did not name the group. However, CAIR's national headquarters says Iqbal was passing information to a group called the Investigative Project on Terrorism, founded by Steven Emerson. The Islamophobia Network and the Southern Poverty Law Center both say the group promotes anti-Islamic rhetoric. The SPLC further names Emerson as a "key misinformation expert" with ties to multiple extremest groups.

"We know this is heartbreaking; we know it's shocking. We know it is a feeling that, honestly, many of us can't describe right now," Siddiqi said. "But our work to protect Muslims, to defend Muslims, transcends any one individual, and, if anything, this has motivated us - this has reinvigorated us - to do the work that we do."

CAIR (national) says Iqbal was passing information to Emerson's group, and that the group "had spent years trying to infiltrate and spy upon prominent mosques and Muslim American organizations using 'moles' among their staff and volunteers." CAIR says the Columbus chapter was one of the targets. It also alleges its investigation discovered the IPT "was communicating with and providing assistance to Israeli intelligence with the office of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu." The release does not provide other details or evidence of that allegation.

CAIR-Ohio organization says the expert's investigation concluded Iqbal was not aided by anyone else in CAIR.

Iqbal has been with CAIR-Ohio for decades. He was hired in 2006 as an attorney and became legal director in 2014. He was elevated to the top position of executive director in 2018. CAIR-Ohio says he was suspended last week, the board voted to terminate his employment on Saturday and he was informed on Tuesday.

After firing Iqbal, the Columbus-Cincinnati board reports it discovered suspicious purchases from weapons retailers on a company-issued credit card he administered. Additionally the organization says a package containing parts for an AR-15 was mailed to CAIR-Ohio's Columbus office. The organization says law enforcement - Hilliard, Ohio police, where the Columbus office is located, and the FBI - is investigating.

A spokesperson tells WVXU the Columbus-Cincinnati board is contemplating legal action.

Cleveland CAIR

CAIR-Ohio’s Cleveland branch is already receiving messages of support and concern from the local community in the wake of the investigation, said Executive Director Julia Shearson.

“If anything, I think this is going to make us stronger,” Shearson said. “It’ll certainly make us enhance any gaps in our policies and procedures, we’ll learn from this and we will continue to go forward.”

The Cleveland branch was alerted to the issue relatively recently, Shearson said, as the investigation into Iqbal and his termination were handled by the national branch and the Cincinnati and Columbus branch.

Civil rights groups like CAIR often face threats from hate groups, Shearson said, and that’s been true throughout the country’s history. Anti-Muslim sentiment is something her organization is aware of and working to address, she said. But there’s plenty of support, too, Shearson added.

“There’s a whole side of America that I believe is much stronger,” Shearson said. “That’s the side of loving one’s neighbor, welcoming one’s neighbor, accepting and celebrating diversity and differences in the community.”

The incident is proof the work CAIR is doing is effective, she said.

“The main point of this is that we discovered this, and we’re a strong organization and we’re going to continue the work unhampered,” Shearson said.

The initial discovery was reported to media on Tuesday and more information was provided during the Wednesday morning availability.

Nabeel Raazi, Columbus-Cincinnati board chair for CAIR-Ohio says in a statement, "We were shocked and saddened to learn about this betrayal and incredible violation of trust. Our first priority is the safety and security of our community. We are now even more committed to defending and protecting Ohio Muslims from the anti-Muslim extremists who will clearly stop at nothing to try to harm us."

CAIR's Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland chapters are incorporated under the umbrella of CAIR-Ohio, however, the Cleveland chapter operates independently under its own board. The Cincinnati and Columbus chapters merged in 2020 and have one board that oversees Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus.

Amina Barhumi has been appointed as acting executive director and Lina Abbaoui as acting legal director for the region.

This story was updated with information from the national organization naming the anti-Muslim group. 

This story was updated again following a Wednesday morning media availability.

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