Calling on each other to disagree "perhaps with passion, but always with civility and respect" and to shun appeals to prejudice, hate and violence, a group of leading area Muslim and Jewish organizations today plan to present a code of ethics to govern the two communities' often passionate arguments.
"The rhetoric of hostility is not healthy," said Maher Hathout, a Monrovia physician and head of the Islamic Center of Southern California. "We have an opportunity, especially in Los Angeles, to offer a different model of disagreement."
Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who has often criticized Hathout's positions on Middle Eastern issues, hailed the ethics code as "an initiative which should be duplicated in spirit and fact across the U.S. and the world, including in Arab societies."
Hathout first proposed the ethics code and invited Jewish leaders to join in crafting one. The proposal, drafted by representatives of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Anti-Defamation League, Minaret magazine, the Jewish Journal, and the Islamic Center, urges a focus on issues, verification of rumors before making public pronouncements about them, avoidance of stereotyping and words of incitement and a repudiation of individuals who appeal to prejudice or violence.
But debate over the code already has cast a spotlight on Hathout and his close associate, Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. Opponents have attacked both men as terrorist sympathizers masquerading as moderates.
Hathout and Al-Marayati, both naturalized U.S. citizens, generally have declined to condemn by name organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are labeled by the U.S. government as sponsors of terrorist acts. They have, however, spoken out against acts of violence, including the recent U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa.
At the same time, the two also have tried to draw public attention to what they see as the root causes of terrorism--including the despair of Palestinians and other oppressed Muslims. Their critics say such arguments merely rationalize violence.
Hathout's passionate defense of Palestinians and other Muslims have included a call for an "intifada"--which he defends as a legitimate form of civil disobedience--against the Israeli government for trying, he says, to wipe out Islamic influence in the holy city of Jerusalem.
He has also defended Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based organization believed responsible for bombings, executions and kidnappings of Americans, Jews and Christians, as "fighting only for freedom."
Such statements have made Hathout the subject of sometimes harsh criticism. "These groups are engaging in increasing deception to portray themselves as moderates . . . but an analysis of all of their statements shows a consistent refusal to condemn by name Islamic terrorist groups, and [they have] routinely defended them," said Steven Emerson, a former U.S. News & World Report writer who specializes in terrorism.
Hathout, who says he draws a distinction between attacks on civilians and those against military opponents, forcefully defends his statements and rejects as "arrogant" attempts to push him to condemn terrorists by name. That, he said, is "unproductive," although he has named names in the past, criticizing the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ayatollah Khomeini, for instance.
He argues that what he sees as escalating attacks on him by Emerson and groups such as the Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Defense League are attempts to silence him and quash the growing influence he and other American Muslims are beginning to wield in Washington.
"I was not attacking any group or individual," Hathout said. "I was just putting on the table a point of view that is not usually given the podium. But there are people who feel so threatened to no longer have the only voice."
Local Jewish leaders have a more nuanced position on several issues, including whether condemning terrorists by name should be the litmus test. "It's a complicated issue that needs a lot of thought," said David Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles.
"Everyone is subject to political pressures in their own communities. . . . The question is, how much condemnation is enough."
Lehrer, who helped draft the ethics code, said Hathout established himself as a man of good faith by speaking out against violence more than a decade ago at a memorial ceremony for Jewish victims of a terrorist attack in Istanbul.
"That was a singularly courageous thing for him to do at a time before there was any glimmer of negotiations" for Mideast peace, Lehrer said.
Since then, Lehrer says, he has worked with Hathout and Al-Marayati on issues ranging from religious freedom to hate crime legislation--but not without conflicts. At one point a few years ago, for example, Hathout accused the ADL official of spying on him for the FBI. (Lehrer denied the charge and Hathout has since apologized for it.)
Lehrer, however, says he has "little patience" for efforts to rationalize acts of violence by turning to "root causes" such as poverty, human rights abuses and the like.
"A lot of people have frustrations . . . but however egregious those claims may be, it doesn't justify the death of innocents," Lehrer said.