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Jewish Journal

Despite past sparks, Al-Marayati wants Jewish dialogue

by Marc Ballon

January 18, 2007 | 7:00 pm

It's a Saturday morning, and Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), is playing basketball with a group of friends. He pounces on loose balls, wrestles away rebounds and knows just when to feed a teammate a perfectly telegraphed pass for an easy layup.

"He gives it 110 percent and leaves everything behind," said his friend and occasional teammate, Ramsey Hakim, who also serves on the MPAC board. "He's quite the competitor."

Al-Marayati's game, marked by a kind of intensity and focus rare among weekend warriors, reveals the kind of guy he is -- in his work as a leader and spokesman of the local and national Muslim community -- and as well as in his play. Simply put, he plays to win.

Over the past two decades, the Iraqi-born, American-reared Al-Marayati, 46, has helped grow MPAC from a start-up advocacy operation founded in 1988 by Dr. Maher Hathout, past chair of the Islamic Center of Southern California, into one of the country's leading Muslim political groups, with offices here and in Washington, D.C. He has traveled the country, met with the president and other political leaders and written opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Washington Post and other publications, advocating a more moderate vision of the Muslim world, and, in particular, of American Muslims.

He talks of a faith that encourages equality between the sexes, of Muslim integration into American society and of respect for and partnerships between Jews and Christians. Al-Marayati has also fought to combat what he calls "Islamophobia" wherever it crops up.

"I want my children to have a future of hope, a future where they can contribute positively to American society as Muslims," Al-Marayati said. "I don't want a future of prejudice, fear and victimization."

In the process, Al-Marayati has become "one of the major mainstream American Muslim leaders," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim civil rights group.

Al-Marayati has met with President Bush three times, as well as with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, on the subject of counterterrorism, and he has testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on the need for the government to work with, rather than shut down, Islamic charities aiding poor Muslims around the world. On Jan. 8, Al-Marayati and other Muslim leaders conferred with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in his Washington office about the need to counter anti-Islamic sentiment so as not to alienate young Muslims.

"I told Attorney General Gonzales that the way to discourage radicalization is to promote integration, which is a joint responsibility of government and community-based organizations like ours," Al-Marayati said in the deep, sonorous voice that is one part of what makes this rising star of the Muslim community sound statesmanlike.

During an interview at MPAC's L.A. office, Al-Marayati comes across as serious and even a bit distant. With the din of ringing phones and staff members' voices in the background, he maintains eye contact at all times. Dressed in a well-tailored suit, the trim Al-Marayati eschews small talk and answers questions deliberately, choosing his words with care. He cites as inspirations Green Bay Packers' legend Vince Lombardi's commitment to winning and teaching, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dedication to civil rights and fairness.

Al-Marayati's biggest influence, he says without hesitation, is the Prophet Muhammad, whom he calls the "epitome of compassion, mercy and justice."

Despite Al-Marayati's commitment to interfaith dialogue and his open-door policy, even to critics, many in the Jewish community remain deeply suspicious of him.

On Sept. 11, 2001, just hours after the terror attacks, Al-Marayati hypothesized on a radio program that Israel might have orchestrated them "because, I think, this diverts attention from what's happening in the Palestinian territories, so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies."

Months later in April 2002, Al-Marayati appeared on the CNBC show, "Alan Keyes Is Making Sense." During the interview, he told the host that "the country that introduced terrorism in the region is Israel. The root cause of terrorism is the illegal Israeli settlements."

Although Al-Marayati said he subsequently personally apologized to many Jewish leaders for his Sept. 11 remarks, the damage had been done: The multiorganizational Muslim-Jewish Dialogue that Al-Marayati had helped create just a few years earlier lay in ruins, with other participants outraged by his remarks and remaining suspicious of him ever since.

"I won't work with him, because I don't trust him," Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, said last week in a phone conversation. Rosove was among those who quit the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue soon after Al-Marayati made his initial Sept. 11 remarks.

Al-Marayati does have some friends in the Jewish community. Among them is Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who is Jewish. Schiff has worked with Al-Marayati for years on interfaith issues and said he has found him to be a dedicated partner. "We both believe that by sharing insights and strengthening voices of tolerance, we can find common ground in improving the quality of life for the entire community," the congressman said.

Al-Marayati said the hostility from segments of the Jewish community continues to surprise him. MPAC, he said, has gone on record as supporting the two-state solution and has condemned suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism, regardless of the perpetrators.

"I'm committed to dialogue emanating from the best traditions of Judaism and Islam," Al-Marayati said. "It pains me to hear comments questioning my commitment. As I've stated before repeatedly, the door remains open, especially to those who have those criticisms."

Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a Los Angeles-based social justice organization, said Al-Marayati has repeatedly lent support to him in times of distress. For example, moments after the shootings at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle by a gunman upset by Israel, Al-Marayati called him to express his sorrow and concern, Sokatch said. Al-Marayati asked Sokatch whether there was anything MPAC could do to show solidarity with the Jewish community.

"He always reaches out," Sokatch said.

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