Plans to Honor L.A. Muslim Leader Bring Out Animosity
In a public hearing spiced with accusations of Jew-hating and Muslim-bashing, nearly four dozen religious, ethnic and civil rights activists spoke out Monday on whether a prominent Los Angeles Muslim should be disqualified from receiving a prestigious humanitarian award because he has expressed some views critical of Israel.
Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, is the first Muslim chosen for the award from the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. But some Jewish groups have vehemently objected to the selection, calling Hathout an extremist masquerading as a moderate, and are urging the commission to rescind the award before it is presented next month.
At Monday's commission hearing, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, an umbrella organization of 22 groups representing 40,000 donors, stepped forward as the latest and most influential opponent to Hathout.
Federation President John R. Fischel told commissioners that Hathout's "false and controversial" statements about Israel — that it is an apartheid state, for instance — had offended and angered many Jews.
"Dr. Hathout takes partisan positions which do not foster harmonious and equitable intergroup relations…. His words regrettably create the very fissures and divides that the [commission] is seeking to repair," Fischel told commissioners.
But Hathout's supporters Monday were more diverse and outnumbered opponents 2 to 1. Christians, Muslims and Jews, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, and such civil rights leaders as Connie Rice, who received the 2002 award, spoke forcefully in support of Hathout, describing him as a tireless proponent of interfaith and interethnic harmony.
Rice said it was difficult for her to break with her longtime Jewish friends on the issue, but that Hathout had taken "extraordinarily difficult" actions in promoting tolerance and moderation.
The furor over the award, she said, had turned the issue into a "seminal struggle" over whether Los Angeles would be seen as embracing or rejecting a man who preached tolerant Islamism.
"If we send a message to Muslims in Southern California that someone who has tried so hard to bridge … all of our communities cannot be acknowledged, we would have done extreme damage," Rice said.
Hathout also won support from the man that the 14-member commission originally chose for the award — the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a civil rights leader and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, who was unavailable to accept the award because he is teaching in Nashville.
In a letter read to commissioners Monday, Lawson urged them to reject what he called "extremism which seeks to vilify Dr. Hathout's name and character." He praised the Muslim leader as "a person of immeasurable integrity and honesty" who "reflects the best not only of the Muslim faith, but the finest of any faith."
In addition, several rabbis and the Progressive Jewish Alliance spoke in support of Hathout, saying that criticism of Israel should not be equated with backing terrorism or the destruction of the Jewish state.
Despite the deeply felt views and occasional outbursts of name-calling, the hearing remained largely calm and controlled. Commissioners will meet again Monday to vote on a final resolution.
The award was established more than a decade ago to honor outstanding contributions toward fostering better relations among diverse communities.
Last year's winner was Zara Buggs Taylor, who was honored for her work in fighting discriminatory hiring practices and biased portrayals in the media.
In 2002, the award was given to Rice, a director and co-founder of the Advancement Project, which is dedicated to building a racially just democracy and breaking down barriers to real opportunity.
Hathout has said — and repeated again Monday — that he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In introductory remarks to commissioners, the Egyptian native and retired cardiologist said he came to the U.S. 35 years ago with his family seeking freedom.
In 1989, Hathout said, he was an early Muslim voice to condemn the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa against Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie.
Two years later, he said, he barred from speaking at his mosque the extremist Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 of seditious conspiracy in connection with a plot to blow up several New York-area landmarks.
Hathout also said he wrote two books undermining any Islamic justification for suicide bombings and other terrorism, and initiated the city's first dialogues among Muslims, Christians and Jews.
"I am very proud of my record," he said. "I believe in human dignity."
Hathout added that his harsh words about Israeli state policies were spoken from "immense pain" he felt over Palestinian suffering, but that he meant no offense to citizens of Israel or Jews.
But Marcie Polier Swartz, a Brentwood businesswoman who was a co-founder of the first Los Angeles Muslim-Jewish dialogue, said she and most other Jews eventually dropped out.
She and others said Monday that they were particularly upset that the Muslim leader was recorded at a Washington, D.C., rally in 2000 condemning as traitors Arab governments that entered into dialogues with Israel.
Hathout, however, said he was not opposing Arab governments' talks with Israel but their oppressive regimes.
Hathout's opponents reaffirmed the Muslim leader's right to voice his sentiments — but argued that they were too divisive to merit giving him a human relations award.
At least one commissioner, the Rev. Zedar E. Broadous, said he had heard "nothing new" to change his original vote in July to support Hathout.
But others said they wanted time to review the voluminous material — including hundreds of e-mails — submitted from around the nation over the selection.