January 18, 2007
Despite past sparks, Al-Marayati wants Jewish dialogue
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. As evidence of Al-Marayati's commitment to dialogue, MPAC and the PJA have just announced the creation of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Al-Marayati said he hopes the program will help thaw the freeze in local Muslim-Jewish relations by training a new generation of Jewish and Muslim leaders to work together, in spite of their differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, many Jewish leaders, including executives of the American Jewish Congress and StandWithUs, have criticized the new PJA-MPAC initiative, saying that partnering with Al-Marayati is a mistake. Terrorism expert Steven Emerson, arguing that Al-Marayati has never condemned Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist groups, called the MPAC leader a radical who "speaks a smooth game."
In response, Al-Marayati said he condemns all terrorism, regardless of the perpetrator. He said he believes the U.S. government, not he, should label terrorist groups, although he added: "Hamas and Hezbollah are on the U.S. government's list of terrorism groups, and we condemn them."
For nearly a decade, Jewish organizations, especially those on the right, have labeled Al-Marayati an extremist masquerading as a moderate. In 1999, for instance, then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt withdrew his appointment of Al-Marayati to the National Commission on Terrorism after an outcry from Jewish groups, especially the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). "Haters like Louis Farrakhan, David Duke and Salam Al-Marayati should have no seat in respectable society when it comes to discussing any issues of importance," ZOA President Morton Klein said in a recent interview. "We should seek to marginalize and dismiss them, not legitimize them."
Al-Marayati's Sept. 11, statements not only stained his reputation but appear to have put his life in jeopardy: The FBI intervened on a plot by the Jewish Defense League to bomb MPAC's Los Angeles offices soon after his controversial statements.
Last year, Al-Marayati again came under fire from a prominent Jewish figure. In late July, Joel Bellman, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's press deputy, publicly lambasted the ACLU of Southern California for honoring Al-Marayati with a prestigious religious freedom award. Bellman had been a member of the ACLU for 30 years, and he accused Al-Marayati of holding political views indistinguishable from the anti-Israel Muslim world.
Al-Marayati got his award, but the stage was set for a second battle of the same nature between Jewish and Muslim groups, this one even more bruising, when the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission decided to bestow an award on MPAC founder Hathout, who is Al-Marayati's mentor. Although PJA's Sokatch, as well as some local liberal rabbis, supported Hathout's award, many of the biggest figures in the organized Jewish community spoke out against it at a public hearing. They included John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Allyson Rowen Taylor, then-associate director of the American Jewish Congress, and Rabbi John Borak, director of inter-religious affairs at the L.A. chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
To Al-Marayati and his many Muslim supporters, the attacks against Hathout were also squarely aimed at MPAC, Al-Marayati and the entire Muslim community. "These groups are trying to push us beyond the margins of society," Al-Marayati said. "They want a monopoly on discourse and don't want our voices heard, especially as it relates to the whole Middle East."
In the end, Hathout, like Al-Marayati, received his award. The experience, Al-Marayati said, "was more draining than painful. Unfortunately, we've just gotten used to it." In the aftermath, Jewish-Muslim relations had sunk to a new low point.
The irony, Al-Marayati's supporters say, is that MPAC's leader supports building bridges to Jewish groups and holds moderate views on the Middle East, by comparison to much of the Muslim world.
Far from a fire-breathing, closet anti-Semite, Al-Marayati is "a voice of moderation in the Muslim world," said David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and a PJA board member.
Those closest to Al-Marayati say he is a compassionate man committed to equality and justice for all, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, said MPAC communications director Edina Lekovic.
"His integrity has never been questioned by those who have worked with him on a day-to-day basis," she said.
Yet even some who have worked with Al-Marayati on interfaith issues question his integrity.
David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based think tank, described Al-Marayati as having a "calculating" personality. On at least three occasions in the mid-1990s, Lehrer said, Al-Marayati invited him and other Jewish leaders to the Islamic Center for dialogue. On each occasion, Lehrer, then director of the Anti-Defamation League, Pacific Southwest region, said he and his Jewish colleagues were surprised to find TV cameras or print reporters on hand to record the gatherings.
"His actions called into question how bona fide his interest was in real dialogue, as opposed to posturing to the press for his own gain," Lehrer said. Al-Marayati said he was working on behalf of the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue group and wanted nothing more than to raise awareness about the strong collaboration and cooperation. Hearing Lehrer's remarks disappointed him, he said.
UCLA Professor David N. Myers has a different explanation for the hostility toward Al-Marayati. Living in a post-Sept. 11 climate of fear, he said, "One tends to think of one's counterpart in the most dire, unflattering and even sinister of terms."
Myers said he considers Al-Marayati "as good a partner for dialogue as anybody out there" and sees him as a victim of the times in which we live. Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder of the new Rabbi Jacobs Progressive Faith Foundation and rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, said he thinks Al-Marayati has become a "punching bag" for the frustration many Jews feel about events in the Middle East." Jacobs said that in recent years, Al-Marayati, whom he called an "honest broker," has moderated his views on Israel and seems chastened by the fallout from his Sept. 11, remarks.
Al-Marayati seems exasperated by the slings and arrows that Jewish groups have flung his way over the years. When the subject of Jewish criticism comes up during an interview, he suddenly appears uneasy, his body language closed, with his legs and arms crossed. He chooses his words with the care and circumspection of the engineer he once was. Despite his frustrations, Al-Marayati says the attacks have energized him to do more. "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."