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New CAIR leader draws starkly different reactions

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 02:23 PM

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At an age when most of his contemporaries are still trying to find themselves, 24-year-old Hassan Shibly has a life full of experiences he says have put him on a clear path.

He came to this country at 4 from his native Syria, settling with his family near Buffalo, N.Y. He was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security while a political science major at the University of Buffalo, vacationed in Syria during the Israel-Lebanon conflict of 2006, studied law at the University of Buffalo and clerked for two judges.

Now Shibly has a new challenge. On June 1, he took over as executive director of the Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, founded in 1994 to "challenge stereotypes of Islam and Muslims," according to the group's website.

Shibly, who leads the group from its offices on 56th Street south of Temple Terrace, says his goal is to battle the fear of the unknown, which leads to "hatred, violence and discrimination."

Shibly says his family left Damascus, where they had a "comfortable" life, because his father, a periodontist, "would not carry the … line" for the ruling Ba'athist party.

A temporary position at the University of Buffalo became permanent for Shibly's father. The family settled in and Shibly attended public school, then enrolled in the University of Buffalo, where he majored in politics before obtaining his law degree there.

Those who knew Shibly back then describe a bright, highly motivated student who was eager to engage in interfaith discussions, stood up for the rights of Muslims, wasn't afraid to stand by his beliefs and enjoyed a good debate without getting contentious.

"Hassan is brilliant, courteous, eager to promote understanding," says Charles Lamb, a former assistant minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Youngstown, N.Y. "He and I were able to develop trust to the point that we could be blunt, almost offensive, but totally frank without animosity or harm to our relationship."

Tilman Lanz, who teaches courses in Islam at the University of Buffalo, says he met Shibly when he first arrived to teach in 2005.

"He was the most brilliant undergraduate student I ever had," says Lanz. "He was a very vocal person, very good in arguing, very good in making his point."

It was about that time in Buffalo that Shibly turned to activism and the controversy that comes with it.

In December 2004, Shibly and his mother traveled north to Toronto to attend the "Reviving The Islamic Spirit" convention.

When they returned, they were among about 40 Muslims from the conference detained by Customs agents. The experience, says Shibly, was frightening and enraging.

"I thought I was in the local mosque," Shibly recalls. "That's because many of the people I saw being detained went to my local mosque. It was terrifying."

Many of those detained were kept for hours, says Shibly. Some were questioned by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Others were "frisked very harshly, with no explanation."

Shibly says the incident crystallized his activist nature. He, his mother and three other Muslims filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security demanding that they not be treated the same way when returning from the 2005 conference.

The suit was dismissed by a federal district court judge, who called the situation "unfortunate but not unconstitutional."

Customs and Border Patrol investigators, ruled the judge, "had reason to believe that these conferences would serve as meeting points for terrorists."

Shibly – who as a law student interned for two judges, one a liberal, Democratic Christian man, the other a conservative Jewish woman – has no regrets about suing.

"Any suit where you stand up for your rights is successful," says Shibly.

In 2006, a family trip back to Syria landed Shibly on the fringes of a devastating war and in the middle of an enduring controversy.

In an interview in the University of Buffalo's "Generation" publication, Shibly talked about the fear and concern expressed by friends and families and of wanting to go to Lebanon to "help drive ambulances." But one paragraph in particular became a touchstone for Shibly's detractors.

"Hezbollah is basically a resistance movement supported by people in Lebanon, both Muslims and Christians," Shibly is quoted as saying. "It is not merely a military institution; it provides a lot of social services for people of all different faiths. They're absolutely not a terrorist organization; their targets have always been military targets. They wear uniforms and operate overtly. Under American just war theory, since they have a political base and popular support from the people, any war against them is illegitimate."

Hezbollah, also known as Hizballah, is an Islamic movement formed after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Many countries, including the United States, consider it a terrorist organization.

In a June 21 article headlined, "CAIR Taps Hizballah Apologist for Tampa Office," terrorism investigator Steve Emerson writes that Shibly "has a track record of defending terrorist groups and acting as an apologist for radical Islam. Following the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, Shibly granted legitimacy to Hizballah by characterizing it as a 'resistance movement' that provides valued social services to the Lebanese people."

Today, Shibly dismisses the criticisms, saying that not only were his statements about the group made as an impressionable 19-year-old, but that the movement does have popular support and remains both a terrorist and guerilla organization.

Shibly says he does not condone the organization's terrorist acts, which he defines as "acts committed against any civilian for political objectives.

"The Prophet Mohammad forbids the killing of civilians," says Shibly.

These are busy times for Shibly. Not only is he studying for the bar exam, but he is stepping into a position that has been vacant since March, 2010, when Ramzy Kilic stepped down to become CAIR's media and communication's director.

Shibly says his primary goal is to make CAIR "a legal, civil rights advocacy organization.

"I want to make sure that the protections in the Bill of Rights are for everyone," says Shibly.

For him, the matter is not just professional.

"I have two young children," says Shibly. "I do not want them to grow up in fear of their personal safety and security or afraid of their own identity."

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