Muslim Panel Riding a Wave of Success

Times Staff Writer

It's 1 p.m on a Tuesday and the weekly planning meeting of the Muslim Public Affairs Council is buzzing with the energy of Gen-Xers who are emerging as the new leadership of one of Southern California's most prominent Islamic organizations.

Fresh off a splashy effort last week to train human rights monitors to keep tabs on a federal immigrant registration program, the group is keen to keep up the momentum.

Sarah Eltantawi, the 26-year-old national communications director, reports that she and another member will soon be attending an invitation-only White House briefing on the controversial INS program, which requires men from a score of countries, many of them heavily Muslim, to register.

She and Susan Attar, the group's 20-year-old hate crime prevention coordinator, mention plans to improve training of monitors for the next round of registrations. They also plan to submit a report on complaints of abuse to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, the 36-year-old community relations director, gives a rundown on media coverage of the INS monitoring project: pieces not only by major newspapers and the national TV networks but also news organizations from Egypt, Germany, Sweden and Japan.

"Wow!" someone says.

"We caught a wave on the INS monitoring project, but we need to put our thinking caps on about how to ride this wave," says Omar Ricci, 34, who is completing a term as the chairman of the group's board.

To Ricci and others, the human rights monitoring project illustrates what they hope will become the next leap in development for the 16-year-old Muslim council. Rather than simply issuing news releases about the registration program, council members came up with a plan that sparked the imagination and gained the support of groups ranging from secular civil rights activists to liberal faith-based organizations. The council's board members say that such efforts to change government policies will become their group's signature mission.

The new approach aims to rectify what Ricci calls the organization's Achilles' heel: a tendency to scatter its energy in reactive statements and press releases.

"I thought [the council] lacked focus and had a lot of talent but was not directing it in a useful manner," says Nayyer Ali, 39, a Huntington Beach physician and board member who helped develop the new approach. He has pushed hard to make the Muslim council primarily a policy organization grounded in high-quality research.

"I'm not here to just take potshots at people," says Ali, who moved to the United States from Pakistan at the age of 2. "What I'd like to see is [the council] making positive suggestions for change."

A new strategic plan the council adopted this week articulates several platform issues that the group will focus on this year using a growing network of chapters throughout the nation, as it expands from its Southern California base.

On foreign policy, the plan includes familiar issues such as conflicts in Kashmir and the Holy Land. Last year, the council drafted a hard-fought position paper supporting a two-state solution for the Middle East based on Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and an unequivocal opposition to suicide bombings and attacks on civilians.

Ali said the intensely painful six-month process leading to the paper was motivated in part by concerns that too many people assumed all Muslims were simply out to destroy the state of Israel.

The strategic plan also includes some surprising issues, such as the promotion of human rights in the Muslim world as a foundation of U.S. foreign policy. The council has commissioned a voluminous study to examine human rights in the Islamic tradition and evaluate Muslim nations accordingly. Such a systematic critique of Muslim nations by an American Muslim organization would represent a milestone.

On the domestic side, the council plans to work on such issues as the repeal of some parts of the USA Patriot Act and the protection of American Muslim charities, which have come under attack since Sept. 11 as alleged sources of terrorist funding. One of the chief targets in the Patriot Act is the law's provisions giving the government expanded powers to use secret evidence in some cases.

But the plan also includes homelessness, signaling the council's desire to expand beyond strictly Muslim issues and practice Islamic ideals of compassion and social justice in the broader society.

"In the long run," Ricci says, "we can't be in this mode of trying only to preserve ourselves and promote our community. There has to be something that gives to society at large as well."

The new focus builds on work started in 1986 by Maher Hathout and Salam Al-Marayati, two of the Southland's leading American Muslim figures who were seen as the council's face for years.

Hathout, a retired physician born in Egypt, said the council grew out of the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue. The idea was to address the need for an American Muslim group to lobby politicians, engage the media and perform other work that went beyond the bounds of mosque-based religious activity.

With the Iranian revolution, the first Palestinian uprising and the Gulf War, the demand for public information on Islam grew exponentially, Hathout said.

The organization has grown as well, going from a budget of $30,000 and a staff of two to its current size of $1 million and a staff of nine.

Promoting the idea of an American Muslim identity, the council gained a presence in Washington with forums on Islam for Congress, the State Department and others beginning in the early 1990s.

Hollywood, too, took note when the Muslim council began issuing annual media awards to such figures as film director Spike Lee for his movie "Malcolm X."

But for many, it was a notorious event that helped put the Los Angeles organization on the national map: the nomination of Al-Marayati to a national commission on counterterrorism in 1999, and the subsequent fight against him by some major American Jewish organizations.

The Jewish organizations argued that Al-Marayati and the council condoned terrorism through such actions as refusing to condemn by name such organizations as Hamas. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), then the House minority leader, ultimately withdrew the nomination, ostensibly because of problems with getting security clearances.

Since then, major elements of the American Jewish community have shied away from relations with the Muslim council.

But the council retains allies, such as Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, who said the Muslim council's emerging generation of new leaders is moving beyond "the old ways of pitting our two communities against each other."

Most of those younger Muslim leaders were born in America or largely raised here in the multicultural stew of Southern California. Ricci, for instance, is a New York native raised in Southern California, the offspring of a Pakistani mother and Italian Catholic father who was a financial writer for Reuters News Service. He says he grew up on "Tom and Jerry" cartoons, attended Fairfax High School in the heart of the Jewish community and graduated with a business degree from Cal State Northridge.

Eltantawi is the American-born daughter of Egyptian immigrants with academic pedigrees from UC Berkeley, where she majored in rhetoric and English, and Harvard, where she earned a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies. She counts among her best college friends fellow Americans of Jewish, Korean and South Asian Indian ancestries.

The tall, attractive Eltantawi, who has presented a female, modern face of Islam on national TV shows, says she believes that American Muslims like her will eventually reshape the practice of the faith here to include more interfaith engagement, more women leaders and more gender integration in mosques.

"We've got to lead a renaissance," Ricci says.

"The Muslim world right now is in the dark ages, and American Muslims, in an environment of religious freedom, have the opportunity to spark a change," Ricci says.

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