January 18, 2007
Despite past sparks, Al-Marayati wants Jewish dialogue
(Page 3 - Previous Page)"I mean Martin Luther King was attacked.... The prophets were attacked for what they stood for," he says. "And so I believe that we at MPAC stand for something that is bold, that is courageous, and we are going to have to take the hits by people who don't like what we have to say."
Al-Marayati thinks he has been targeted largely because of his high visibility as a Muslim activist. "I think if they looked more closely, they would see me as an ally, rather than as a threat.
As he sees it, mainstream Jews and Muslims have much in common, including a commitment to civil rights, the separation of church and state and cultural and religious traditions that encourage bettering society. His message: Let's move on to forge a better future together, rather than dwell on the contentious past.
Born in Baghdad, Al-Marayati immigrated to the United States from Iraq with his family when he was 4 because of political turmoil in Iraq. After a short stay in New York, the family moved to Phoenix. Living in a conservative, largely Christian city, Al-Marayati said, he felt "pressures as a minority."
His family, which was moderately religious, moved to Southern California in 1978, when his father, Sabih, accepted an engineering job in the area. After graduating from high school, Al-Marayati enrolled at UCLA, where he studied biochemistry.
It was during his college years that Islam assumed a central role in his life. Al-Marayati joined a youth group at the Islamic Center, where he made friends, went on weekend spiritual retreats and studied Islam.
"I began having a stronger sense of my identity as a Muslim American," said Al-Marayati, an observant Muslim who now prays five times a day. "I had a sense of belonging there. It was a turning point for me."
His teacher at the center was Hathout, who remembered Al-Marayati being an eager young man with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. Hathout also said Al-Marayati was always a born leader. On one youth group camping trip, Hathout said, Al-Marayati carried bags, put together teams to clean the cabins and supervised younger campers, even though somebody else was supposedly in charge. "It was clear that he was a very promising young man who extended himself to do what needed to be done," Hathout said.
Al-Marayati's take-charge personality, along with his tireless work ethic, also caught the attention of James Zogby, founder and president of the influential Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., an organization that serves as the political and policy arm of the Arab American community.
In 1986, Zogby tapped Al-Marayati to help recruit members for his new organization. Al-Marayati proved a wonderful field operative, said Zogby, adding that he regretted losing him.
"To be really good at this, you have to care for the people you're working for," Zogby said. "And from the get-go, I always felt he cared deeply. He wants his community to be respected and feels [pain] when they get hurt."
When Hathout founded the Muslim Public Affairs Council two years later, he turned to Al-Marayati, the one person he believed could transform it into a player on American political scene. Al-Marayati, who was already serving as a volunteer public relations director for the Islamic Center, quit his engineering job and accepted.
He wasted little time in making MPAC and himself heard. He wrote letters to politicians, penned op-eds and made lots of contacts in Southern California, Sacramento and nationally. In 1988, Al-Marayati served on the Democratic National Committee at the party's convention; four years later, at the 1992 Democratic convention, he was on the platform committee.
As a sign of MPAC's growing clout, then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at one of the organization's events in 1996. More recently, MPAC's national convention, held in Long Beach on Dec. 16, attracted 1,700 participants from around the country.
His skills at organizing and building a national organization from scratch notwithstanding, Al-Marayati said he harbors no political ambitions. "To be honest with you," he said, "I don't like politics. I don't like all the self-promotion."
He also doesn't like talking about his family. Beyond providing the basics -- his wife, Laila, is an obstetrician, and they have three children. He declines to divulge much information, citing the need to respect his family's privacy.
Close friends say that the private Al-Marayati is warm, generous and a bit of a goof. Hakim, Al-Marayati's basketball buddy and the MPAC board member, said that Al-Marayati arranged for Hakim to be "kidnapped" the night before Hakim's wedding. Taking a blindfolded Hakim to an empty basketball court, Al-Marayati "court-martialed" him, joking that his impending nuptials were doomed, because Hakim loved basketball more than even his fiancée.
Then there's the compassionate side. Four years ago, as Hakim languished in a hospital bed with leukemia, Al-Marayati, whom he calls his best friend, dropped by nearly every day.
"Salam was pretty much the lifeline I held onto," Hakim said. "He lifted my spirits. He was there."
Al-Marayati said he is proud of what he has accomplished at MPAC. But, he added, so much remains to be done. Until many more American Muslims have seats at the tables of power, whether at the State Department, the National Security Council or in Congress, Al-Marayati will continue to work tirelessly to help pave their way.
"Muslim Americans can be ambassadors for the United States throughout the world, especially the Muslim world. They could be resources on analysis, on understanding cultures and in policy discussions," he said. "We have so much to offer."