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This radical transparency of operations is seen in the Islamic Center’s open doors, in the seats in the middle of the mosque for visitors, in Hathout’s availability to talk to non-Muslims (several are in attendance on this Friday), and in the smiles and handshakes and pamphlets and mission statements spotted all over the mosque.
Another day, I find Hathout perched high in the Wilshire Boulevard office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), where he is the senior adviser on the board of directors. It’s a crowded control room where motivated young Muslims — many dapper South Asians and Latinos, only a few hijabs — busybody their way around, manning phones, interacting with curious callers. Everyone seems happy to be here, participating in a decidedly modern project, yet one that doesn’t deny the traditions they love. Hathout, the intellectual director of all of this activity, walks around with the aura of a father figure for these kids: The 20-somethings’ body language becomes almost reverential whenever he passes by, even though on this day Hathout’s attire consists of a flowery tropical shirt and flowing cotton pants.
“When I came to America about 35 years ago,” Hathout says, “I noticed that Muslims who were trying to maintain their Islam in America were dependent on imported imams, on translated literature. Unfortunately, both are irrelevant to American life. This created confusion and isolation — and attrition. We were losing people from the new generation, because the new generation is American and the product of an environment that makes them unable to understand or appreciate this kind of talk. The young don’t have a stomach for someone lecturing them. They are very used to discussion. They want someone to talk about the problems they are facing, whether it is dating, the drug subculture, sports, music and activism or the lack of it in social projects. Someone who starts out by saying, ‘You are certainly going to hell because you are not dressed or bearded correctly,’ saying that music is prohibited, and on top of that saying it in Arabic or heavily accented English, quoting to you examples and quotations that have nothing to do with what you see and hear in normal life, all of that makes me feel there is no space for those youth. [This is why] there should be an American Muslim identity.”
One of the questions that has consistently struck Hathout and others in the progressive Islamic movement has been that of the Quran’s completeness: whether it can account for all matters and phenomena in the modern age.
“We believe Islam carries within its structure the means for progress and adaptation,” says Hathout, who considers mutability a sign of virtue and vitality rather than a path to heresy. He advocates for a porousness between the Umma (Islamic community) and the outside world. He doesn’t believe Muslim populations should remain impermeable to outside ideas and influences, especially when they can contribute to the religion’s vitality. He sees precedents for such a liberalization in Islamic history — most notably, when Islam was in its period of expansion. Many say the religion spread so successfully in part because of its ability to incorporate practices native to the newly conquered areas, which resulted in a dynamic and constantly evolving Islamic jurisprudence.
“This is why it is a free market of ideas,” he says. “Everything save for the Book is human — even the interpretations of the Book are human. No debate should be closed.”
This questioning spirit, Hathout says, must also apply to any consolidation of power, by human beings or governments: “It’s through active debate and discourse that the majority will form opinions on ideas. This is the nature of Islam, the reason we don’t have holy men.”
Over the last 30 years of American Islamic life, Hathout and his anti-hierarchical sentiments have butted heads with a renewed conservatism that took hold of the world’s Muslims during the financial rise of the oil monarchy in Saudi Arabia and its ultratraditional Wahhabi math-hab (school) of Islam. The Saudi influence manifested itself stateside in the form of funding for lavish mosques across the U.S., the distribution of glossy Wahhabi pamphlets and other literature, and the spread of rigorous ideologies that have threatened to nip American Muslim identity in its progressive bud. Hathout is trying to counter foreign interference into Islam in the U.S. by emphasizing its American side, and by stressing that Saudi Wahhabists are no more qualified than American Muslims to speak on Islamic issues, no matter if Saudi Arabia hosts the holiest sites for Muslims.
It’s not surprising that Hathout’s questioning spirit has led to criticism among conservative Muslims, but many were thrown off guard when there was an outcry from conservative Jewish groups over the recent decision by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations to bestow Hathout with its prestigious John Allen Buggs Award for excellence in human relations. The commission wanted to acknowledge Hathout’s terrorism-prevention efforts as well as interfaith work he’s done. But shortly after the nomination was announced, Steve Emerson, the controversial journalist who is credited with having warned the world about Osama bin Laden before 9/11 but has subsequently been criticized as anti-Muslim, wrote an article in the New Republic claiming that Hathout was undeserving of the award because of remarks he made in 2000 at a Washington, D.C., rally, during which he called Israel “a racist apartheid state,” guilty of “butchery.” (Here is the whole quote: “We did not come here to condemn the condemned atrocities committed by the apartheid brutal state of Israel, because butchers do what butchers do and because what is expected from a racist apartheid [state] is what is happening now.”) Emerson also mentioned comments allegedly supportive of Hezbollah. Fox News picked up the story, the Zionist Organization of America and the pro-Israel group StandWithUs mobilized campaigns, and the question of Hathout’s award became one of national interest.