‘Completely shattered that trust’: Columbus Muslim leaders shocked by allegations against Romin Iqbal

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City officials and leaders of Columbus’ Muslim communities said they were shocked and devastated by the news that the executive director of a local civil rights organization has been accused of covertly working for years with a known anti-Muslim group.

On Tuesday night, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national Muslim advocacy and civil rights group, announced that it had fired Romin Iqbal, the executive and legal director of its Ohio chapter, for allegedly leaking confidential information to a Washington D.C.-based anti-Muslim nonprofitcalled the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT).

Following Iqbal’s termination, staff members at the chapter’s Columbus office, located in Hilliard, said they found suspicious purchases from ammunition and gun retailers in recent weeks using a CAIR credit card at Iqbal’s disposal. On Monday, they said they also discovered a suspicious package mailed to the local office containing parts for an AR-15 rifle.

Iqbal has been with CAIR since 2006 and has been outspoken against Islamophobia during his time with the organization. In fact, a part of the organization’s work involves monitoring and combatting anti-Muslim groups, according to Nihad Awad, CAIR’s national executive director.

Allegations of Iqbal’s misconduct were especially devastating to local Muslim communities because Iqbal had been a trusted leader, said Imran Malik, a first-generation Pakistani immigrant and an interfaith director at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, a cultural center and mosque located in Hilliard.

“The majority of our Muslim community are first-generation immigrants, so working with them, building trust is very important,” Malik said. “This is someone who was trusted as a leader, a caretaker and was put on a pedestal. And this just completely shattered that trust that would take years and years to rebuild.”

Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said the city is committed to combatting hate and Islamophobia that are harming communities in Columbus and beyond.

“I am disturbed, alarmed and discouraged by the persistent hate and anti-Islamic behavior in our world, in our community,” Ginther said. “We must redouble our resolve to keep each other safe from evil elements who seek to do others harm. I pray for peace for our brothers and sisters of all faiths, especially at this holy time of year.”

Muslim community leaders devastated by breach of trust

Hassan Omar, president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio, said he had worked with Iqbal to help hundreds of Somali residents address civil rights complaints.

Many times, community members would come to Omar if they had experienced faith-based discrimination –– if their employers refused to let them pray and adhere to other cultural customs, for example. And Omar would put them in touch with Iqbal to consider potential legal actions. They spoke on the phone just two weeks ago over a new case, Omar said.

“I was absolutely shocked when I saw the news,” Omar said. “He’s always showing emotions whenever he met with us and showing that he’s trying to fight the fight for the people.”

Iqbal has carried local Muslim residents through some of the hardest times, Omar said. In November 2016, for example, when a Somali refugee carried out a terrorist attack at Ohio State University –– prompting heightened scrutiny over the city’s Muslim population –– Iqbal was there to help residents recover in the aftermath, he said.

“He was there when the crisis was at its highest points, and people always share all their information with him,” Omar said. “You can’t tell the people, ‘I’m helping,’ you but you’re actually hurting them. I have to tell the whole community about this. I’m sure there are other people out there who are trying to target us.”

Nicol Ghazi executive director at Columbus-based social services agency Muslim Family Services of Ohio, said she has also referred cases to CAIR-Ohio when her clients experienced civil rights issues.

While news of Iqbal’s termination came as a shock, Ghazi said her staff is well aware of groups with hate agendas trying to intimidate local Muslim families.

“We see groups that would come into central Ohio and try to intimidate or protest,” Ghazi said. “Like many religious institutions in central Ohio, we’re sensitive to those threats. And as a community, sadly, there have always been people out there that have thought to attack us and disparage us, and we are always on alert about that.”

A time to reevaluate advocacy groups’ internal structures

Community leaders are also urging CAIR and other advocacy groups to reevaluate their internal compositions to make sure that they do not bring in bad actors.

“This is going to be a learning process internally for our communities that we rethink who do we put forward as our ambassador, as our advocate, as a decision-maker,” Malik said. “There has to be a more diligent process of vetting that needs to go into these kinds of community decisions.”

The Rev. Timothy Ahrens, a senior minister at Columbus’ First Congregational Church, said organizations should aim to restructure themselves so that an incident like this does not happen again. He has worked closely with the Muslim community for decades along with Malik and other interfaith leaders, though he said he personally did not know Iqbal.

“We do have a lot of trust in people at the leadership level,” said Ahrens. “And now maybe we got to the point where we might have removed checks and balances in an organization because of our trust level.

“You’ve given over a lot of information in confidence to somebody who turns on you …and this is a trust that is broken in relation to a hate group, whose agenda is to destroy the Muslim community and to tarnish them in every way,” he said. “That takes time to repair, but you can also restructure organizationally in a way that’s healthier in the long run.” 

CAIR is asking local mosques and community members to stay vigilant and ramp up their security measures. Meanwhile, the Columbus Community Relations Commissionis encouraging residents to report discrimination and civil rights cases to the city.

“No one should experience discrimination or feel unsafe because of their religious beliefs,” said Carla Williams-Scott, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods. “Should you experience discrimination, the Community Relations Commission is here to help.”

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