A Muslim leader seeking to understand differences
“It’s going to be 32 years next month since we got married,” says the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Salam Al-Marayati, with a laugh in his voice. “That’s how I know there’s hope in the world. My wife has been married to me for 32 years.”
We sit in a conference room at MPAC’s Los Angeles office, which holds no telltale signs of a religious institution apart from a hard-bound copy of the Quran lying unceremoniously at one end of the table. The office is in an anonymous building across the road from an auto-repair shop in Highland Park; it’s a clean, clinical space that belies the extraordinary nature of its work. From another room, loud cheering erupts at random, and we wait in silence for it to pass.
Wearing a Fitbit on one wrist, Al-Marayati sits across from me, and smiles with an easy grace. Earlier this year, he spoke at a security roundtable with Hillary Clinton, and he is an adviser to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, making him a familiar figure in national and local political circles. We met not long after a gunman claiming allegiance to ISIS slaughtered 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and in keeping with his role as a frequent spokesman for the Muslim community, Al-Marayati had been asked once again to respond to the horrifying terrorist event and to fears that anti-Semitic, radical Islamists are widespread in the Muslim community.
After the Orlando shooting, he spoke to members of the LGBT community during a news conference at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, telling them, “Muslims are your shield against hate and intolerance.” At an interfaith vigil at the Islamic Center of Southern California, he said, “ISIS, you are an abomination. We believe in justice; we believe in human rights for all people.”
Born in Baghdad, Al-Marayati was a young boy when his family immigrated to the United States in the early 1960s; the family then moved to L.A. from Phoenix in the late ’70s. Deeply involved with the mosque since early adulthood, he gave up an engineering career to pursue public affairs work, and, in 1988, when the Muslim Public Affairs Council spawned from the Islamic Center of Southern California, so began his life’s work.
If one were to conduct a quick Google search of his name, one might easily be led to believe that Al-Marayati is an anti-Semitic Islamic supremacist terrorist sympathizer. This is the unfortunate result of what he defends as a “hypothetical rejoinder” he made on the radio in 2001, in response to a live caller, when he said Israel should be on America’s 9/11 suspect list. Immediately after this, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed dated Sept. 28, 2001, Al-Marayati apologized to the Jewish community. Three months later, he became the target of a Jewish Defense League bomb plot led by Irv Rubin, which was foiled by the FBI.
“The Steve Emersons, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitzes still regurgitate the same thing from 15 years ago that was part of a politically contentious time,” he says. “I think we’ve just become a lot more sophisticated now; we understand that we disagree, that we come from two differing narratives on the issue of the Middle East.”
Al-Marayati is a radical man in many ways, but his most revolutionary notion may be his rejection of the view that being a pro-Palestinian American Muslim means there is little common ground with a pro-Israel American Jew. It is a conclusion he has reached after 30 years of being cross-questioned about the Middle East. To him, the very assumption that Muslims and Jews should have similar views on the Middle East issue is a flawed concept to start on.
“Let’s face it,” he says. “Our communities have two diametrically opposed narratives as a central part of their identity, and that is important to acknowledge. That is a way of understanding our differences without making them barriers to dialogue. The question is whether or not we can accommodate each other.”
Well, can we?
According to Al-Marayati, it is already being done. He talks fondly of his personal friendships with Rabbi David Saperstein, the United States ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, as well as the late Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple; IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous; and the late Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, all of whom helped shape his perspective over the years. He speaks about lessons he has learned from people such as Amanda Susskind and David Lehrer, current and former directors of the Los Angeles office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and he stresses that just five years ago, nobody could have imagined that the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Muslim community would have a comfortable relationship.
“It takes more courage, I think, to step forward and create that space. We’ve done it with J Street. They are pro-Israel, pro-peace. We are pro-Palestinian, pro-peace,” he says. “We even brought [conservative radio host and Jewish Journal columnist] Dennis Prager to the mosque and talked to him about ethical monotheism. We disagreed with him on everything else, but we agreed with him on that.”
Al-Marayati’s calls for greater Jewish-Muslim engagement have not come without criticism from within the Muslim right.
“I am faced with people who believe that engagement is a compromise of their hard-line stance and therefore they look at it as a betrayal,” he says. “So I get attacked. They ask me why I’m meeting with the ADL or the Wiesenthal Center. Are we adopting or endorsing the other side’s narrative? Are we betraying our cause by engaging the other? These are internal discussions more than they are between the two.”
On the complex subject of internal Muslim matters, MPAC, along with the Islamic Center of Southern California, has a unique agenda. Al-Marayati acknowledges that American Muslims must break out of their “cocoons” and redefine what it means to live Islam in the modern world. As the religion becomes a geopolitical issue, he says, the conversations around it must transcend the minutiae of rituals and medieval texts, to become relevant topics in everyday Muslim-American lives.
So is it truly what it sounds like? Is Al-Marayati just the blue-eyed boy of the Muslim left?
In fact, some of MPAC’s programs, like the Safe Spaces Initiative, are designed to build resilience against terrorist recruiting. According to the MPAC Website, “Safe Spaces is about empowering communities in order to secure the sanctity of the mosque and Muslim communities in promoting Islamic values of civic engagement, public safety and healthy identity formation.” It is based in passive community surveillance and has garnered a great deal of criticism from the Muslim left and the larger civil liberties arena. If somebody suspects a person in their family or community might be influenced by violent ideology, in Safe Spaces they have an alternative to calling the FBI or leaving them to their own devices, both options that can lead to potentially devastating results.
“Instead, you give us a call, and immediately we have a group of mental health experts, social workers, religious counselors go in and assess the situation. They are legally bound to report somebody if something violent is going to happen,” he says. “Look at the Orlando shooting, where somebody knew something was wrong with that individual. And I would even say San Bernardino, for that matter … there were opportunities for intervention.”
Amal Khan, a journalist from Pakistan, where she serves as features editor at The Nation, is currently contributing to the Jewish Journal as part of her fellowship with the Daniel Pearl Foundation.