A US congressional candidate has become the latest legislator to label the country's largest Muslim rights group a "terrorist" organisation.
Republican Josh Mandel, who is also Ohio treasurer, claimed on Wednesday that the Council on America-Islamic Relations (CAIR) "is Hamas".
Mandel posted an article on social media in reference to the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip.
America's largest Muslim rights organisation, CAIR:
The Council on America-Islamic Relations is the United States' largest Muslim civil liberties organisation.
It is non-profit and its advocacy is conducted at the grassroots level.
CAIR was founded in Washington, DC in 1994 and its first chapter opened in San Francisco in 1995.
The group's founding principles include "protecting the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of faith."
The group is decentralised.
Each chapter has an independent board of directors and nearly all funding comes from community donations.
While many have accused CAIR of being a front for such disparate groups as Hezbollah and Hamas - armed groups in the Middle East with vastly different ideologies - no firm proof has ever been produced to support these claims.
Nihad Awad, CAIR's executive director, said in 1994 that he supported Hamas' social programmes more than those of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation during a talk on the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.
He rejected "radical" elements within the group.
Hamas took credit for its first suicide bombing in April 1994, and wasn't labelled a "terrorist organisation" by the US state department until 1997 .
The group has since discontinued suicide attacks.
Awad disavowed Hamas in 2006. "My position and CAIR's position is extremely clear: We condemn suicide bombings. We are mainstream American Muslims," he said.
The caption read: "If Council on American Islamic Relations is for it, it is probably bad for America. What a horrible organisation."
A day later, he said on Twitter that CAIR also had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
His comments follow Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz's announcement of the "Muslim Brotherhood (MB) Terrorist Designation Act", which aims to label the Islamic political, religious and social movement, founded in Egypt in 1928 and active across the Muslim world, as a threat to national security.
Along with the Brotherhood, several "affiliates", including CAIR, are named.
Julia Shearson, the executive director of Cleveland, Ohio's CAIR office, said she was not surprised.
Mandel, who is running for a seat in the senate, "wants to have a higher office than he has now, and he's going to use the ladder of Muslim hate to get there", she told Al Jazeera.
"Unfortunately, it is a popular tool these days."
CAIR has spent years dispelling rumours about its ties to foreign groups, Shearson explained.
This "subtracts from the real meat and potatoes work we need to do", she said.
The article Mandel posted was written by the Washington, DC-based Center for Security Policy (CSP).
J Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), referred to the CSP as "an extremist think-tank headed by anti-Muslim conspiracist Frank Gaffney".
The SPLC is an American nonprofit legal advocacy organisation specialising in civil rights and public interest litigation.
Shearson continued: "CSP is pushing for the Muslim Brotherhood to be labelled a terrorist organisation using outlandish conspiracy theories which are also used against CAIR … it's all the xenophobic dog whistles about Muslims who don't belong here."
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Adam Soltani, CAIR Oklahoma's director, told Al Jazeera that a campaign to smear the organisation has been growing "for years".
The election of Donald Trump, the president's subsequent "Muslim ban", and plans to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a "terrorist" group has simply highlighted the issue, he said.
Oklahoma State Representative John Bennett has "accused CAIR of being Hamas or Muslim Brotherhood" for years, Soltani said.
"Bennett also accused mosques of being terrorist recruiting centres without evidence. That seems to be common among those with Islamophobic views."
READ MORE: US court refuses to reinstate Trump's Muslim ban
Last October, Bennett held an "interim study" - a fact-finding session on which future legislation will be based - entitled "Radical Islam, Sharia Law, the Muslim Brotherhood and the radicalisation process".
Reverend Dr William Tabbernee, the executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, a group that works with CAIR-OK, attended Bennett's meeting.
He told Al Jazeera that Bennett invited a panel of "experts" largely comprised conspiracy theorists who "had no idea" about the tenets of Islam.
Bennet referred to members of the Islamic community as "terrorists", Tabbernee said, adding that "all of that is total nonsense".
Fear in Islamic community
Both Soltani and Shearson said propaganda was having an effect, and moves against the Muslim Brotherhood could be used as fuel to further target Muslims.
Hate crimes against Muslims have risen nationwide. Last August, an Arab man was killed in a racist attack in Tulsa.
In December, a pig carcass was dumped outside a mosque in Lawton, Oklahoma. Also in December, in Ohio, a teenaged boy was shot in Cleveland after his assailant reportedly called him a "terrorist".
In January this year, a profane message against Arabs and a swastika were painted on a family home in Toledo.
"Members of the Muslim community are afraid," Shearson said. However, she welcomed a recent uptick in interfaith volunteers and new donors.
Lauding members of the Jewish, Christian and other communities that rallied around their Muslim neighbours, she said: "This kind of support has been a very positive development."
Follow Creede on Twitter: @creedenewton
Source: Al Jazeera