September 14, 2006
Maher Hathout—partner for peace or anti-Semite in centrist clothing?
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Still, the commission may take no further action, as the award was already voted on. "We took public testimony because we heard such passion on both side of the issue," said Human Relations Commission member Donna Bojarsky. "We felt it was important to let the public speak. But there is no guarantee of a specific action."
Among some of the controversial statements Hathout has made over the years:
- At an October 2000 speech at Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., Hathout said, "Israel is not a democracy; Israel is a theocracy, and is an apartheid state...."
- At a May 2001 conference at Cal State Fullerton, he suggested that Zionists controlled the United States: "It is obvious, at least from our perspective, the United States is also under Israeli occupation. And so we have a Congress that beats the Knesset in being pro-Zionist."
- At the Nation Press Club in Washington in 1998, Hathout defended Hezbollah as "fighting only for freedom, an organized army, limiting its operations against military people. This is a legitimate target of occupation."
- When he spoke in defense of Hezbollah in the late 1990s, Hathout said, the organization was fighting against Israel's occupation of Lebanon. In the recent Israeli-Lebanese war, though, Hezbollah targeted civilians, which he condemned. He added that he also condemns Hezbollah's charter, which calls for Israel's destruction.
Hathout said he believes he was the first Imam to publicly denounce the fatwa issued by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini on the life of author Salman Rushdie. In the early 1990s, he said, he denied permission to speak at the Islamic Center to Omar Abdul-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric now serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And, under his direction, a group of Muslims from the Islamic Center twice joined Christians and members of Wilshire Boulevard Temple on recent visits to Israel.
The outcry against Hathout comes on the heels of another controversy involving a member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. In late July, Joel Bellman, a 30-year-member of the American Civil Liberties Union and 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 accused Al-Marayati of holding political views indistinguishable from most of the anti-Israel Muslim world.
Hathout, Al-Marayati and others wonder whether the real goal of their detractors is to besmirch MPAC, undermine the already frayed Jewish-Muslim dialogue and marginalize Muslim critics of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
"I don't expect my Jewish friends coming to the table to convert to Islam," Al-Marayati said in an interview, "and they should not expect me to convert to Zionism."
Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said that MPAC and its leaders should be embraced for the values they share with Jews and not rejected because of their positions on Israel.
"What kind of message are we sending to millions of American Muslims if American Jews are trying to blackball a Muslim organization that, in the context of the Muslim community, is moderate?" asked Sokatch, whose group is currently trying to revive Jewish-Muslim dialogue with MPAC.
Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi went even farther. The chairman of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California -- the coordinating body for 70 local mosques, said in early September that "an attack on Dr. Hathout is an attack on the whole Muslim community."
Jewish critics of Hathout respond that they have no desire to squelch his free speech, discredit him or the Muslim community. Instead, they say, Hathout's past incendiary statements about Israel, America and Hezbollah make him a poor choice for a human relations award.
"One has to question whether he deserves an award of this kind," said David Lehrer, president of L.A.-based Community Advocates Inc., a human relations organization, and former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
"You can't ignore the fact that a wide spectrum of human relations activists in Los Angeles took time to offer the highest praise to Dr. Hathout," commission member Bojarsky said. "On the other hand, it's clear he's overlooked sensitivities of the Jewish community, which is of course problematic."
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