Salam Al-Marayati began working at the Muslim Public Affairs Council more than 20 years ago, and his is a job that only seems to get more demanding
Al-Marayati was 3 when his family moved to the United States from Iraq; as the president of the L.A.-based national group, he's become a cultural translator and a kind of human shield between misperceptions of the Muslim faith and several million believers living here. Invoking the Koran (he's holding one in the picture) and the Constitution, he plays offense and defense, making himself available for reporters, politicians and law enforcement, and blogging on matters like the Ft. Hood massacre.
It's a balancing act that engages local and international politics, religion and culture, internal and civic and public relations, all of it performed on a tightrope that quivers after every terrorist attack and attempted attack by Muslims
What is Job 1 for you?
To educate people about what American Muslim identity is.
In the 1960 U.S. presidential campaign, some people asked whether John F. Kennedy was an American or a Catholic first. Islam is not structured like Catholicism, but you must get that question too.
Correct, and our answer is that it's a false choice. We are Americans and Muslims. Our citizenship is making us stronger Americans because Islam has a strong principle of social responsibility, and living in America makes us stronger Muslims because we can think on our own, which is what the Koran tells you.
When something like the Times Square incident happens, many people think: Muslims are at it again. How do you alter that reaction?
I think we have gotten through [to most people]. We've made progress in the counter-narrative. Al Qaeda represents the cult of death, that tells [young people] to go die on behalf of leaders who sit in their self-righteous thrones and exploit the grievances of Muslims. The Muslim American tradition promotes the theology of life, to engage constructively [to] address the grievances.
Some say the condemnation of that cult of death has been a little perfunctory.
I understand that perception. On our website, you'll see all the condemnations. The mosque in America has become an asset to society, to interfaith groups, to law enforcement, in terms of preventing Al Qaeda from having [a] foothold in America. We see the battlefield now on the Internet.
You're concerned about young Muslim men being recruited that way.
Any alienated youth -- there's a tendency to shun that person. We can't do that. We have to intervene and engage that young person, through the Internet, having imams and others do PSAs, chat sessions, Facebook.
Muslim parents in Virginia contacted the FBI after their sons disappeared; the sons were arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of trying to join terrorist groups.
When [parents] see something happening that is a risk to [their sons] and maybe a larger group, they will come to us. The majority of Muslims in America, including young Muslims, are civically engaged and working to prevent isolation. The Somali youth[s] in Minneapolis [who left to join an Al Qaeda-linked group] felt alienated. They were not accepted by other African Americans because they were considered to be of a foreign culture. The red flag was alienation. Somehow recruiters were able to take them from their families.
How nuanced is the relationship with law enforcement?
It requires great coordination. We have programs called the National Grassroots Campaign to Fight Terrorism. The LAPD and NYPD are at the forefront. Every Muslim leader has stated publicly that if [people] see any threat or danger to society, they will connect with law enforcement.
Is there any reluctance to do that?
If there's a feeling that people's civil rights will not be respected, that innocent people will be dragged in and by association turned into suspects.
When something happens that affects the Muslim community, do people gravitate to the mosque?
After every crisis the mosque is full because they want to hear the message of the leadership. A mosque is not just a place of worship; it has to be a community center. We should look to the mosque as an asset to American society.
What's your definition of terrorism? Should we also talk about, say, Christian terrorism, like the man who murdered Dr. George Tiller?
Terrorism is the use of violence against a civilian population to terrorize them in order to achieve a political goal. If we're going to use religious labeling, then it should apply to everyone [when] they invoke their religion. Really, we're talking about ideological violence; it's not religion per se.
When you saw that plane crash into the IRS offices in Texas, what did you think?
Everybody worries in the first hours, until there's definitive reporting; I pray it's not a Muslim. For our community, we are concerned about the reaction if it is a Muslim.
What's the difference between Muslims in Britain and Muslims here?
Muslims in Europe are treated as ethnic enclaves. When we say "a Muslim in France," we're really talking about Algerians and Moroccans. In America, there is no Muslim enclave physically. There may be exceptions like Dearborn, Mich., or Patterson, N.J., but by and large the Muslim community is integrated into American society.
Issues like headscarves on schoolgirls and full veils haven't arisen here yet.
I expect them to -- [but European] secularism is different from America's. They feel that religious expression cannot be tolerated in any public space. [As an American] I feel people have the right to choose, so if a woman wants the hijab, it should be her choice.
But isn't it also the schools' right to say you can't wear that?
Which to me is discrimination. If you want to live in France, in England, you have to accept the culture. But I feel America has a better model. There's no real pluralism in Europe. Somebody from the Swedish embassy said: How can we homogenize Muslims to our culture? As an American, that's alien. We don't homogenize people or people's culture; we bring them to be part of our large mosaic.
I'd put this question to any immigrant community: Do you want to come to a country, then turn that country into a place you had good reason to leave?
Exactly. No. We fled dictatorship to be part of a great society in America.
What would you say to a Muslim so offended by cartoons of the prophet Mohammad or by "South Park" that he declares the creators deserve to die?
When cartoonists draw our prophet Mohammed as a caricature, we say that's freedom of expression. The prophet tolerated insults and accusations, so our understanding is that you have to allow for that kind of anti-Muslim expression. The Koran tells us to be patient, not to react and fall into despair. I don't like what they say about my prophet, but in time, that rhetoric will float away.
Have you ever been criticized by Al Qaeda or its supporters?
No. I've dealt with criticism in my own community -- that we are Americanizing Islam. And our government engagement sometimes is viewed as compromising our faith to gain political advantage. We get no political advantage. Our work is purely for the cause of justice and Islam.
Parts of the Old Testament, about slave-owning and stoning, are now regarded as cultural artifacts, not doctrine. Are there elements like that in the Koran?
No, [but] you have to understand the context. The prophet was a head of state; he had to be a military ruler. People take a verse that deals with a particular battle against a particular group and try to generalize it. That's the mistake that these extremists impose on everyone else. These are difficult verses that we have to address and explain, but the common person understands once it's explained.
What happens to you at the airport?
Most of the time, nothing. One time, because my wife was involved with a charity for Palestinian causes, there was an interrogation. We filed a complaint with Homeland Security, and they were very apologetic. This [security] person didn't realize she's a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and was vetted by the FBI. He was fishing.
Muslim feminists tried to pray just behind the men in a Virigina mosque, instead of in the separate women's area. They said they were yelled at and the police were called.
This is anathema to Islam -- that women cannot sit where they want in the halls of a mosque. At the Islamic Center of Southern California, we have ended segregation in lectures and social gatherings. When it comes to worship and prayer, there's segregation because women don't feel comfortable bowing and kneeling in front of men. Even when we discuss changing the orientation a bit, the first people who raise objections are women.
Not these women.
I'm just saying, for the prayers, you do have to respect whatever the accommodations of the mosque are, and if you don't like it, you go to another mosque. Believe me, it's not [a priority] for the majority of women.
A Lebanese American who considers herself Muslim and Catholic is Miss USA. Is that a plus for American Muslims?
To me it's a nonissue, but the reaction You find people who only see Muslims and Arabs through the lens of extremism; they can't reconcile that Arabs and Muslims are like everyday Americans.
The question on the Internet is: How can you be a Muslim and wear a bikini?
That's another matter altogether. To each his own. To each her own.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript.