A Stronger Voice for Muslims
On Sept. 26, two weeks after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, President George W. Bush met with 15 American Muslim leaders at the White House. The event was a watershed moment. Suddenly, a cause for which the men had long toiled--Muslims’ civil rights--had captured the public’s attention, and the president was calling on them to help with the national crisis.
Five of the men who attended the meeting--Maher Hathout, Muzammil Siddiqi, Agha Saeed, Salam al-Marayati and Omar Ahmad--are from California. They have started to become familiar as the faces of an emerging American Muslim political movement at a time that one of them describes as a “Muslim moment.”
For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 02, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday November 2, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Muslim magazine--In an article in Monday’s Southern California Living, the title of the Los Angeles-based Muslim publication Minaret was spelled incorrectly.
The American Muslim community had already begun to make itself felt as a political presence. As a presidential candidate last year, Bush had impressed many American Muslims when he spoke in inclusive terms about America’s religious communities and when he decried the use of secret evidence in deportation cases--a provision in U.S. immigration law that has been employed almost solely against Arabs and Muslims. On the strength of that, Muslim leaders made their first presidential endorsement. Word quickly circulated through the American Muslim community. When election day came, 72% of Muslim voters chose Bush, according to polls conducted by Muslim organizations.
During the Sept. 26 meeting, discussion touched on the need to protect the civil rights of Muslims in the wake of the attacks, and the importance of avoiding insensitive terms when describing U.S. retaliation, said Hathout. “Muslim” need not describe “terrorist,” they advised. And “crusade,” which was used by the president to describe the U.S. response to terrorism, they pointed out, has a negative connotation for Muslims.
Hathout said the meeting had immediate results. Not only did the language of public statements change, he said, but “we noticed a drop in hate crimes after that.”
His take on the meeting’s impact might seem overstated to some. After all, in a televised speech, the president had already made a point of distinguishing between the Muslim religion and acts of terror. And White House spokesman Ken Lisaius described Bush’s meeting with the Muslim leaders as “routine.” Nevertheless, for Muslim leaders, the trip to Washington represents a giant step forward. “It was a meeting of substance,” Hathout said in a recent interview. “We have worked years for this.”
Several other events had brought the Muslim contingent together with the president in the days leading up to their White House meeting. Some Muslim leaders had stood with the president at a prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. And some of the same men were present later, when Bush visited a mosque near his office as a show of support.
At the moment Bush needed to make a connection to the Muslim community, the community’s leaders were poised to claim a broader platform for long-held goals: They want the government to include Muslims in discussions that lead to public policies, especially on matters involving Muslim and Arab communities. They advocate an “evenhanded” approach in Middle Eastern policies; many American Muslims disapprove of sanctions on Iraq and see America as favoring Israel in the peace process there.
And there is a new level of confidence on the part of Muslim leaders that their message is getting across to a broader audience. This is particularly apparent in California, where some 500,000 of the estimated 2 million to 6 million American Muslims reside.
Three of the Californians who met with Bush last month were well established as elder statesmen within the Muslim community. Hathout, 65, is senior advisor of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, which advocates fair treatment of Muslims in the news, movies and in textbooks. He is often described as a strategist.
Saeed, 53, who tends to approach matters from an analytical--rather than rhetorical--standpoint, is director of the American Muslim Alliance in Hayward in Northern California. The alliance is a national organization that registers Muslims to vote and backs political candidates. Saeed was among the first to announce the Bush endorsement.
Siddiqi, 58, is director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove. He has just completed four years as president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the U.S.
Hathout, a silver-haired cardiologist, recently retired from his medical practice. Born in Cairo, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1960 and became a U.S. citizen in 1971. Twenty years ago he helped found the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, one of the first mosques in the city. From the time the center opened, he encouraged Arab Muslims to dress in Western clothing, speak English and register to vote. “It has been a goal to form an American Muslim identity, just as there is an American Christian and an American Jewish identity,” he said in a recent interview. He continues to urge American Muslims to get involved in the U.S. political system as a way into the mainstream.
During the last 13 years, Hathout has been included in a number of White House meetings and social gatherings, since he helped found the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which has an office in Washington, D.C. He has attended congressional breakfasts to discuss U.S. policy concerning Muslims, and a meeting on U.S.-Egyptian policies with then-President Clinton, all of which have increased his visibility.
Hathout has been labeled as moderate, although his positions on U.S. policy in the Middle East have caused some in the Jewish community to label him an extremist. He has been outspokenly critical of Israel, and he favors independent statehood for the Palestinians. “It seems essential if we are going to build a coalition in that area,” he said.
At times Hathout’s views have clashed with those of fellow members of a Jewish-Muslim dialogue he helped found two years ago. The program is made up of Los Angeles-area rabbis and Muslim social activists. Tempers in the group have often flared over the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and some members--both Muslim and Jewish--have left the dialogue as a result.
The latest rift concerned the September issue of Minerat magazine, for which Hathout serves as a senior advisor. An article compared Israel to an apartheid state. Hathout’s endorsement of that sentiment has angered some members of the Jewish community, including Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at the reform congregation Temple Israel of Hollywood, who had been a longtime member of the dialogue. “Dr. Hathout is very anti-Israel,” said Rosove, who resigned from the dialogue this month. “I’m very worried about his prominence.”
The Minerat article also alarmed Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee, who is not a member of the dialogue. “We should all read Minerat magazine and know who we’re dealing with. The moderate voices have been pushed out of the way for more radical voices. The idea [that these voices] should be embraced means they’ve succeeded in a major coup. These are not moderate voices.”
Hathout defended the right of the publication to express opinions when asked about the magazine’s commentary. “If you want to respond, we’ll give you the space,” he said.
Outside observers and scholars of Islam also defend Hathout’s right to challenge U.S. policies, saying that dissent is built into the democratic system. “Many Arab and Muslim Americans would criticize American foreign policy in the Middle East,” said John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington. “But in this sensitive climate, they’re vulnerable to being accused of [offering] a moral justification for terrorism.”
“There are legitimate issues being raised,” Esposito said. Still, he adds, when American Muslims make what sound like inflammatory statements, “it’s important to go back and ask, ‘What did you mean by that?”’
If Hathout is outspoken about his views, Saeed is every bit his equal. A political science professor at UC Berkeley and Cal State Hayward, he mentors Arab Americans and Muslims running for public office and is a consultant to members of the American Muslim Alliance.
The Pakistani native came to the U.S. in 1974 and became a citizen in 1982. He is tall, expansive and hard to miss in a crowd. On his way to the White House last month, he was stopped five times in the airport by FBI agents who wanted to check his documents, he said.
Saeed is focused on one issue now. “I think civil rights is a big question,” he said. “A new balance has to be created between national security and the protection of civil rights.”
In the past, Saeed has openly challenged U.S. policies in the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf War in the early 1980s to the current Arab-Israeli conflict. He has defended Palestinians’ rights to armed resistance against Israelis in the occupied territory. He also questioned U.S. allegiances in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
“Our policy in Afghanistan led to destabilization in the region,” he said this month at the annual conference of the American Muslim Alliance in San Jose. In his view, the U.S. government should have helped rebuild the country after that war. If that happens after the current one, he said, it will be “12 years too late.”
Like Hathout, Saeed is often called a political moderate, despite his disagreements with some U.S. policies. “Agha Saeed is less influenced by Arab politics than leaders of some other American Muslim political organizations,” said Muqtedar Khan, director of International Studies at Adrian College in Michigan. “He wants to see the American Muslim community advance within the American political system.”
Khan, in an open letter to Muslims on his Web site, last month called American Muslims to task for criticizing U.S. policies but failing to speak out against oppressive Muslim governments. “It is time that we acknowledge that the freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. are more desirable to us than superficial solidarity with the Muslim world.”
Siddiqi, 58, is a native of India who came to the U.S. in the early 1970s as a PhD student in religion at Harvard University. At last month’s interfaith prayer service in Washington’s National Cathedral, Siddiqi was invited to speak. During Bush’s tour of a local mosque, Siddiqi stood near the president. At the Sept. 26 meeting, he presented Bush with a copy of the Koran, and Bush thanked him personally. The scholarly Siddiqi has a weekly radio program, a scripture study broadcast from Pasadena on KXMX-AM (1190) and writes a column on Islamic law for Pakistan Link, a weekly newspaper with a worldwide circulation of more than 30,000. He also teaches in the religious studies department at Cal State Fullerton. As imam, or prayer leader, for the Islamic Society and mosque in Garden Grove, he leads some 2,000 Muslims in weekly prayer and gives regular sermons.
Like Hathout and Saeed, Siddiqi has promoted interfaith activities as a way of building coalitions outside the Muslim community. “We need to meet people and work together,” Siddiqi said in a recent interview. “Neighbors getting to know each other is the right way to build community. We should do more. The perception of some is [that] American Muslims are disloyal to America. We feel this perception has to be corrected.”
In August 1992, Siddiqi was fired from his position as director of the Islamic Society, but within weeks members of the society replaced the board, and Siddiqi was reinstated. At the time, he said his critics were against his interfaith activities, although they denied it. They accused him of being out of town too often. “Some people feel interfaith work will dilute Muslims’ commitment,” Siddiqi maintains. “I don’t find this to be so.”
At public rallies, Siddiqi has criticized the U.S. for not sufficiently supporting the Palestinians. “The United States of America is directly and indirectly responsible for the plight of the Palestinian people,” he said at a rally, a portion of which was broadcast on Fox News Network last month. He has also publicly invoked the “wrath of God,” even as he also denounces violence.
Earlier this month, Hathout and Saeed were among some 300 Muslims who attended the San Jose conference.College professors, community activists and local politicians made up a large part of the audience that filled a room at the heavily guarded Wyndham Hotel. For their leadership, as well as their senior status, Saeed and Hathout were the obvious senior spokesmen in the group, commanding close attention from their audiences. A younger generation at the conference showed how Hathout’s dream for a clearly formed American Muslim identity is taking shape. Speakers from a new generation also spoke at the conference and are emerging as new leaders. Among them are Salam al-Marayati, 41, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, and Omar Ahmad, 42, chairman of the Council for American Islamic Relations and a resident of Silicon Valley, both of whom were born in the Middle East and educated at U.S. universities. Both also addressed common themes.
“We’re having a Muslim moment,” said Ahmad, who encouraged Muslims to open their homes and their mosques to neighbors. “People want to hear from us,” he said. “We should not shy away.”
Al-Marayati, who worked hard to get out the bloc vote, outlined the next phase of political action, starting with a review of the presidential election. “We are not a partisan group,” he said, explaining the choice for a Republican president. “In the last election, Bush talked of ‘secret evidence’ and Gore did not.”
But it was Hathout who pointed to the next step in the hard work of melding Arab Muslim and American cultures. “There will be a struggle soon about who will define Islam,” he said. Questions about how the Muslim religion is different from the religion of Mideast terrorists have filled news talk shows and magazines in recent weeks. “We have to be very clear about what is Islam and what is not,” he said. “Are we educated ourselves about the definition we want to deliver?”
Hathout proposed a short list of Muslim beliefs: There is one God, and all people are part of God’s family.
“That’s the core of Islam,” he said, adding one other suggestion: “good manners.”