Keep the Dialogue Open and Civil

Laila Al-Marayati, past president of the Muslim Women's League, has been appointed by the White House to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, is a member of the L.A. City Human Relations Commission

In the Middle East, and more important, within the policy debates about that region throughout America, extremism continues to strangle the neck of moderation. The Zionist Organization of America, or ZOA, for example, published an editorial in the Jerusalem Post recently calling our respective organizations, the Muslim Women’s League and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, among others, groups that represent “Muslim extremism,” which it defined as “anti-Israel.”

In attempting to muzzle and monopolize the discussion, the Zionist group demands that the Clinton administration renounce its appointments of any individual deemed critical of Israel. The group’s real concern is that the administration is not sufficiently pro-Israel because of its dialogue and engagement with increasing numbers of Muslims. In short, the ZOA wants the dialogue turned into a monologue, with its voice as the only one.

In the world of hatred and destructiveness, because of the absence of serious discussion, our society unfortunately views moderation as undesirable, something caught between two extremes and thereby ineffectual. In reality, moderation means balanced, honest and thoughtful expression.


The double standard in the ZOA’s agenda is a glimpse into the web of competing special interests within the U.S. policymaking apparatus. When our groups criticize Arab and Muslim governments, we are considered objective. Yet when we criticize Israel, we are called anti-Semites and extremists.

Those who apply the litmus test of legitimacy on their terms, like the ZOA, as if they rule beyond the U.S. Constitution and our governing institutions, actually are making a mockery of our democracy and wasting the diversity of this great nation. The litmus test also perpetuates the stereotype that all Muslims who do not toe the ZOA line are a threat to America, whereas the real threat is narrow-minded and divisive posturing.

Americans need to realize that public opinion within our borders is often out of sync with global opinion, precisely because of the lack of awareness or acceptance of differing points of views. When traveling throughout the Middle East, for example, one finds a completely different context for the discussions. The need for a Palestinian state is a must when speaking to the majority of the people in the Middle East (or in any other part of the world), but it is blasphemy in the U.S. Congress. Security for the Palestinians is rarely a topic of discussion in U.S. policy circles, even though it is the Palestinian people who have been driven from their land, not the Israelis.

When Muslims point out these inequities in the debate, we do so as American citizens exercising our right and responsibility to express opinions without fear.

Our major concern is not with promoting any particular foreign group but with enriching the democratic process of debate in America. Our approach is to educate American policymakers and interfaith groups about Islamic perspectives. While condemning violence, we also pursue efforts to deal with the root causes of extremism, namely despair, illiteracy and injustice.

Finally, in order for all Americans concerned about pluralism to transcend the extremism emanating from groups like the ZOA, we need a viable and mature Jewish-Muslim relationship. Last October, Jews and Muslims met in Los Angeles to establish a code of ethics that sought to develop a relationship based on civility, respect and open communication. That effort died, unfortunately, after a ZOA press release condemned the meeting out of fear that the Muslim cause would be afforded “legitimacy.”


We are committed to pursuing dialogue despite pressure tactics and slander. The silencing must end to offer hope for tolerance here and peace abroad.