Bringing Islam Into Mainstream : Glendale: Muslim activist Salam Al-Marayati strives to draw followers into American political life.
On Thursday, he held a news conference in Los Angeles with a prominent local Muslim leader to praise NATO bombing attacks in defense of Muslim-sheltering “safe zones” in Bosnia.
In Dallas six days earlier, he announced a national campaign to support a Muslim couple who lost their two young children to state-ordered adoption, and were subsequently baptized as Christians by the foster parents.
On the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, as first reports mistakenly discussed Middle Eastern suspects, he helped Muslim leaders in that city write news releases urging caution and expressing dismay. Days later, he organized a meeting in the Oklahoma governor’s office--the first-ever between Oklahoma authorities and local Muslims.
For a man only 35--today is his birthday--Salam Al-Marayati of Glendale has built a national reputation as a Muslim activist.
Born in Baghdad but raised in California, Al-Marayati, director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, has become a well-received voice responding rapidly to public misperceptions of Islam and trying to draw fellow Muslims into U.S. mainstream political life.
Although he has benefited from the support and tutelage of Dr. Maher Hathout, chief spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California and president of the multifaith Interreligious Council of Southern California, Al-Marayati also has earned respect for working with other religious and political groups.
Rabbi Harvey Fields of the 2,400-family Wilshire Boulevard Temple praised Al-Marayati’s work as co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal L.A., a post that Fields previously held.
“Like Maher Hathout, Salam presents the views of the Islamic community honestly and forthrightly,” Fields said. “But he also has been a voice of reason and moderation--moving to keep partnerships together rather than drive wedges between them, including relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities.”
The Muslim Public Affairs Council is unconventional in challenging Islamic leaders or organizations in America that maintain old-country views of the United States as unfriendly to Muslims and the practice of Islam, said Aslam Abdullah of Los Angeles, one of council’s nine board members.
“We challenge the dominant Muslim assumption that the West is always the enemy and against Islam,” said Abdullah, who is editor-in-chief of The Minaret, the largest national Muslim magazine, with a circulation of 12,000. “We want to be a part of [American] society rather than take an isolationist approach.”
Abdullah is from India, Hathout from Egypt and Al-Marayati from Iraq. But the editor said that the common bond for them and their Southern California colleagues is that they are American Muslims who do not believe that entering the public and cultural mainstream is tantamount to losing their religious values.
Al-Marayati, a U.S. citizen, said that the Muslim Public Affairs Council does not represent Middle East governments or their political agendas.
“We don’t take money from any government--it comes purely from residents in the United States and we meet the standards of American political organizations,” Al-Marayati said.
Active in the Democratic Party, Al-Marayati was a member of the Democratic National Committee at the party’s 1988 convention and was on the platform committee at the 1992 Democratic Party convention. He was recently appointed to the executive committee of the California Democratic Party.
But despite his many official ties to President Clinton’s party, Al-Marayati’s council bought ads in the Washington Post and New York Times this summer, accusing Clinton of allowing genocide in Bosnia against embattled Muslims.
“Principles transcend partisanship,” Al-Marayati said.
In a recent step to encourage American Muslim involvement in the Democratic and Republican parties, especially on the West Coast, Al-Marayati was in the San Francisco Bay Area early in August to coordinate future strategy with the American Muslim Alliance.
“They have been focusing a lot on forming political clubs and hosting hospitality suites, and we have been very successful in issuing position papers on social issues, meeting with officials, writing opinion articles and conducting interfaith dialogues,” Al-Marayati said. “I think we will be a nice complement to one another.”
Islam in America is made up of many autonomous mosques and associations with no official clergy or central authority. As a result, Al-Marayati’s council is but one of a number of groups that tries to correct what they regard as distorted images of Islam, lobby politicians and issue statements on Muslim views.
Al-Marayati and Minaret editor Abdullah think that the 7-year-old Muslim Public Affairs Council is distinctive for its speed and organizational savvy.
“We are like the rapid-reaction force for the Muslim community,” Al-Marayati said. “The problem for many Muslims throughout the country is not knowing how to organize things and establish permanent, healthy relations with other groups.”
The council gives an award at its annual banquet to Muslims who portray positive images of Islam in the media--honoring in recent years Houston Rockets center Akeem Olajuwon, Spike Lee for the film “Malcolm X,” and actor Morgan Freeman, who played an Islamic Moor in Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood.”
Disturbing news events bring occasional tension to Al-Marayati’s office. After he left for Oklahoma City to help Muslims there, his office was telephoned by someone who called Muslims “a bunch of animals” and warned Al-Marayati not to return to his office because it would bombed.
Al-Marayati was an unlikely candidate for prominence in Muslim public affairs. He studied to be a chemical engineer at UCLA and worked for two years at a company in Irvine. But after working in 1986 and 1987 as a volunteer public relations director for the Islamic Center of Southern California, he was asked to direct a newly created public affairs council.
“My friends and family were skeptical about this career change,” he said. “Most people thought it was a job for someone older and wiser, not someone in their 20s.”
That view in the Muslim community continued until in one short stretch of time Al-Marayati arranged for civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to speak at the Islamic Center with C-SPAN coverage, co-authored a newspaper article on Palestinian human rights and staged a well-attended dinner honoring Times editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad in Los Angeles.
“People then realized that the decision to hire a full-time activist paid off,” he said.
Al-Marayati’s wife, Laila, an obstetrician-gynecologist, is also active in leading the council-related Muslim Women’s League.
She left Friday for Beijing, China, for the international women’s conference as a private-sector adviser for the U.S. State Department and liaison between the U.S. delegation and Muslim countries.
Salam Al-Marayati passed up this weekend’s annual Islamic Society of North America convention in Columbus, Ohio, because one of the two parents has to stay home to care for their boys, ages 1 and 3.
“We are like a tag team,” he said. “One goes somewhere and the other takes the reins at home.”