By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It’s these yogic sequences of prostration that form the main argument for keeping sexes separate, from both the male and female perspective — all minds need to be focused 100 percent on prayer and not your neighbor’s behind. It is assumed that Muslim women have enough mental fortitude to ignore the sight of a man’s butt, even if it could plausibly be attractive; men, on the other hand, are deemed less able to control themselves. Many, of course, reject this argument on feminist grounds — why can’t men control their desires the way women are expected to? Muslim feminists are constantly trying to come up with new prayer configurations to reach a happy compromise. Ironically, one of the best examples of mixed-gender integration, where men and women (usually from the same family or group) pray side by side, occurs at one of Islam’s holiest locations — the area surrounding Mecca’s Kaaba, the sacred cubical structure that is the end point of every pilgrimage, and the true point toward which devout Muslims direct their daily prayers.
“We don’t have to segregate genders because at the time of the Prophet there was no segregation,” Hathout explains. “Having a wall is an innovation. I don’t have to follow the rules of tribal society because [America] is not a tribal society.”
In the women’s area, a successful-looking businesswoman, maybe a lawyer or doctor, covers her just-from-the-stylist curls with a makeshift scarf and finds a spot to perform the requisite salaat (daily prayers) to be completed before the sermon starts. In the nonsegregated middle space, you can see the regional colors of a globalized Islam — rich hues of orange and pink, red and citrus green — and festive nose jewelry, everything vivaciously feminine. A Bangladeshi woman talks to an Ethiopian who talks to a Bosnian, peppering their animated and genteel speech with the international greeting of Inshallah (God willing) and Salaam Aleikum (peace be upon you).
Hathout, who looks a bit like a pensive bureaucrat out of a Cairo B-movie from the 1960s, steps up to the mike and delivers a khutbah on the necessity of lending a helping hand and offering hospitality to the stranger — across race, religion and political persuasions — a necessity that especially matters in times of crisis. He speaks with emotional momentum, and is emphatic about the ethics of valuing your neighbor above yourself. What distinguishes Hathout from so many of the soporific imams dotting L.A.’s suburbs is his vivid, intellectual English. At most other mosques, khutbahs are delivered either in impenetrable formal Arabic or choppy, heavily accented English, in which case they can only address simplistic themes. Indeed, Hathout insists that he is not an imam — “I am Dr. Hathout, not Imam Hathout,” he has said to others when he explains the anti-heirarchical principles of the mosque.
When Hathout finishes the khutbah, we break for the final prayer, initiated by another congregant, who intones the Surah Al Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Quran) in a high-pitched, impassioned Arabic full of expressive melismas, loud enough to be heard from a minaret. At the end of each round, there is a sustained nasal Ah-meeeeen (Amen), and then the self-humbling postures, the difficult squats, the cracking knees of older men who don’t kneel for anything else.
Afterward, a blonde female reporter wearing high heels and a white sheet over her miniskirted business suit, comes up to Hathout and congratulates him on his speech, then asks him a few questions in the mosque’s stairwell. Hathout has gained fame (and infamy according to some) in part for being one of the first Muslims to pro-actively come to the table on the terrorism-prevention question. Instead of reluctantly being summoned by law enforcement, Hathout founded the Muslim American Homeland Security Congress with Sheriff Lee Baca, something Baca bragged about during his election campaign.
There are Muslims who saw the organization’s existence as an unfair admission of guilt. At some other L.A. mosques, the leadership, probably terrified of government scrutiny, asked congregants during khutbahs — including some that I’ve heard myself — to listen in on their neighbors for suspicious activity, and to turn them in if they heard anything. Among the congregants I observed, the reaction was not cooperation but mostly alienation from the mosque’s leaders and a questioning of their legitimacy. Hathout, however, answered these outside pressures differently: It was better to control the terms of an “unfair” security surveillance and have Muslims at the helm of a terrorism-monitoring body than to instead remain in the position of hostile victim. Hathout always maintains that his opposition to terrorism in any form is long-standing and that it took root prior to 9/11.
“The track record at the Islamic Center has been consistent for 25 years — our opinions are not the product of 9/11,” he says when I bring up criticism of the Baca plan. “Islam is my religion, and I am not ready to water it down or give it up. One of the big issues in Islam is protecting your neighborhood. We do not tell people to spy on each other. We cooperate with law enforcement in broad daylight and at public meetings. We don’t have secrets or closed meetings. We have a whole grassroots campaign to fight terrorism. We have nothing to hide or apologize for. What we’re doing is creating an environment in our mosque that doesn’t allow bad apples to grow.”