Ever since he came to this country in 1971, Egyptian-born retired cardiologist Maher Hathout has played one of the most active roles in crafting the identity of American Islam. As a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California and a senior adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), he has advocated for a homegrown religion that is independent from nations abroad (and their oft-scrutinized funding), and has integrated American democratic ideals into the Islamic Center’s policies.
At the Vermont Avenue mosque where Hathout leads prayer, no Islamic school of thought is privileged over another. And the mosque tries to avoid the taint of Arabo-centrism by distancing itself from Saudi Wahhabi ideology and making sure that all sermons are made available in English (apart from Koranic scripture) for the benefit of the numerous non-Arab attendees. Unlike in Culver City’s King Fahad mosque, women and men pray together: “The Center does not believe that segregation of the sexes is the guarantee of righteousness,” reads islamctr.org’s “Ideology” section. Such decisions have helped Los Angeles avoid the kinds of problems that currently beset France, whose mosques tend to be led by immigrant non-Francophone imams with little connection to the surrounding society.
“The harm is that Islam here will be a foreign entity,” Hathout told PBS’s Frontline. “As a physician, I know that foreign bodies are eventually rejected.” The success of his own integration was marked when he was selected to deliver the invocation at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in L.A.
Hathout had an appointment to meet the president on the same day planes struck the World Trade Center. Post-9/11, he has had to deal with a recurring question: “Why don’t Muslims denounce terror?” He spent countless hours debating the right wing over the original meaning of the word jihad — even penning a book on the subject, Jihad Versus Terrorism. In 2004, he launched the MPAC’s national terrorism-prevention campaign (with more than 600 mosque endorsements) and, with Sheriff Lee Baca, unveiled the Muslim-American Homeland Security Congress, which will act as “eyes and ears” for L.A. terrorism prevention.
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Some Muslim critics call these actions an unfair admission of guilt. Hathout, however, believes cooperation will break the estrangement between law enforcement and Muslims. “The problem,” he says, “isn’t how loud we are but how deaf some people ?can be.”