Human rights board: Rhetoric tops reality
Source: Florida Times Union, Editorial, April 25, 2010.
The biggest contract in city history awaits a City Council vote Tuesday. Hard choices on budget cuts and city fee hikes of all kinds loom because of next year's $58 million budget gap.
But the hottest issue facing council right now is whether members should put University of North Florida finance professor Parvez Ahmed on an unpaid board that most city residents probably don't know exists: The Jacksonville Human Rights Commission.
Ahmed is many things: A Ph.D., a recent Fulbright Scholar and a Muslim from India who speaks to groups locally, nationally and overseas about resolving ethnic and religious conflicts through dialogue and mutual respect. He is a husband and father of two children.
He's also a former national board chairman of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim civil rights group that's a lightning rod for controversy.
He left that group in 2008 after a fallout over its direction and leadership. Nevertheless, his ties with CAIR have prompted detractors to depict Ahmed as an extremist and terrorist sympathizer.
For those who know him as a soft-spoken, professorial type, the characterization as an extremist simply does not compute.
Same man, different views
The state chapter of the Anti-Defamation League says Ahmed's views are divisive and he has defended anti-Israeli terrorist groups. ACT! for America, a group concerned about threats from radical Islamic terrorists, says Ahmed's past associations, views and positions make him an unacceptable choice for the commission.
Even Adam Hasner, Florida House majority leader from Delray Beach, has called local Jacksonville officials regarding concerns about Ahmed's appointment.
Meanwhile, an all-star cast of local supporters - including OneJax, the Community Foundation Inc., the NAACP and UNF President John Delaney - touts him as a highly respected voice of reason who promotes understanding, unity and tolerance among people of different religions, cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
Ahmed denies he has supported terrorism or advocated violence in any way, either before, during or after his involvement with CAIR. He was its volunteer board chairman from 2005-2008 and the state CAIR's board chairman from 2002 to 2005.
He said he condemns all violence, that his positions have been taken out of context and distorted.
Talking about terrorism or seeking to understand its dynamics does not make Ahmed a bad guy, nor is that the same as endorsing or advocating it.
In the same sense, the mere questioning of Ahmed's past associations and positions do not necessarily make critics into bigots or haters.
This issue's spiraling emotional rhetoric overshadows reality.
Consider the position
Ahmed isn't being pitched for secretary of state or ambassador to the United Nations.
Mayor John Peyton nominated him to be one of up to 20 volunteer board members of a commission that typically meets once a month.
Its job isn't to tackle Middle East conflicts. Its main business is to promote fair treatment and equal opportunity for all local residents regardless of their race, religion, national origin, sex, age or disability.
It investigates and helps settle discrimination complaints about jobs, housing and businesses.
Actions of the board require a majority vote of board members.Its power is mostly advisory.
Anyone who serves on any public board should be of good character and, preferably, have relevant experience.
We have seen no evidence that Ahmed has condoned violence or terrorism. There is plenty of evidence he has been involved in many positive community activities, from helping local charities to speaking at local places of worship about mutual understanding.
Delaney said UNF has not received any subpoenas, requests for documents or other inquiries from any investigating authorities about Ahmed during his years there.
Deputy Chief General Counsel Cindy Laquidara said she found no criminal complaints against Ahmed and just a few "garden variety" civil complaints involving national CAIR during Ahmed's leadership. Those involved services the group provided and were not directed at Ahmed.
She said she did not do a complete background check on him, but that the city doesn't do one for any nominee to a city board.
City Council member John Crescimbeni said he called a former veteran FBI agent who headed the Jacksonville office, who was "astounded" at some of the allegations against Ahmed and had seen no evidence to support them.
Crescimbeni said a call to the U.S. Attorney's Office "provided comfort to me as well."
It should be noted that the FBI has severed its ties with CAIR. But Ahmed did, as well. And he has worked with the FBI and law enforcement on diversity issues.
The council has haggled over Ahmed's appointment for weeks, with Councilman Clay Yarborough going far as asking him whether he would support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, if he were appointed.
"Absolutely, yes," said Ahmed, a U.S. citizen.
CAIR is a controversial group. Middle East conflicts are the world's thorniest. Ahmed's opinions about them won't appeal to everyone.
But those aren't relevant in regard to serving on this commission.
One appointment is not going to make or break this board and its mission.
And the noise surrounding Ahmed's appointment should not keep City Council from confirming him.
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