It’s a scorching hot Friday, around noon, as congregants in their brightest pure-before-God colors approach the Islamic Center of Southern California for the lunchtime khutbah, or sermon. An impossibly tall, sleek-necked Somalian woman wearing a brilliant powder-yellow veil and matching skintight pants struts down this Koreatown stretch of Vermont like it’s her catwalk, unaware of the curious eyes that follow in her wake. From the opposite direction, two South Asian men with thick copper beards dramatically open a white umbrella to protect their vulnerable scalps from the heat. In their bleached-white thobes (the versatile male gowns that can be worn during the day for conducting business or at night for sleeping) they create a blinding light reflected in the windows of a nearby Sizzler. I can’t see through the dark, tinted glass to check for any raised eyebrows or hesitant pauses at the salad bar among the restaurant customers witnessing this Muslim procession. In any case, none of these traditionally dressed Muslims seems worried about onlookers; none has toned down the display of religious symbols — veils, skullcaps, flowing robes, prayer beads.
In Europe, where the burgeoning fear of Muslim invasion and the specter of “Eurabia” have increased anti-immigrant sentiment, these symbols have been called “intimidating,” a “public imposition of faith.” Even in Culver City, at King Fahad Mosque — a lavish gift from Saudi Arabia — the home immediately adjacent is decked out all over in patriotic and sometimes belligerent American bumper stickers, as though the mosque had provoked the reaction. Here on Vermont, however, there’s no overt tension and only a few security guards. A couple of African-American locals say hello to the Muslims as if they’ve watched this scene unfold a hundred times before.
The Islamic Center itself is less flamboyant than its congregants. Much more modest than the King Fahad Mosque, the center feels more local and more American, with its ’70s beige-and-brown station-wagon interior. Obviously a converted space, the mosque is situated with the pulpit in the corner; concentric rings in the yellow carpet around it allow the faithful to orient themselves toward Mecca. (New mosques are ordinarily constructed so that their main axis aligns more naturally with the direction of Mecca.)
Still, this cool, soft abode offers a respite from the urban harshness outside. Many sit idly gazing into space, a few nap on the inviting surfaces and others shake hands, chat or greet each other with an energetic “Keyf halek?” (“How is your health?”) When the praying begins, we will stand side by side and connect our pinkie toes until we form an uninterrupted chain of bare feet facing the pulpit, filling in every space along the arc-grooves of the carpet.
Normally, it feels like punishment to stare into a corner, but there is some pride here in the moral worth of an austere house of worship. The congregants seem like pilgrims who've come to establish a house of God and reinvigorate a building that has fallen out of use, in the best pioneering spirit of the American West. The embodiment of this pioneering spirit for Muslims in the U.S. is the spokesperson and former chairman of the Islamic Center, Dr. Maher Hathout, an Egyptian-born former cardiologist who has risen as one of the messengers for an American Islamic identity that engages modernity and sees friends rather than foes in the great intellectual innovations and progressive theories of our time.
“I believe that a real Muslim ought to be progressive,” insists Hathout, who has become an American citizen. “Anyone who doesn’t adapt and cope with the dynamics and changes in life is actually rendering the religion archaic and irrelevant. If this is what is meant by ‘progressive,’ then certainly I am.”
In an era when Muslims are increasingly feared as a monolithic, impenetrable community of believers, dangerously insular and rigid in their doctrine, Hathout and the members of his mosque are carving out a new form of American Islam, founded in line with the progressive political philosophies that created the United States and headed by an immigrant who wants to distance himself from certain negative memories of the East. His ideas put him at odds with Islam’s most conservative voices; at the same time, he has acquired a small but vocal group of non-Muslim critics who are quick to lump him in with the same America-hating strain of Islam that he is working so hard to change. But to dismiss Hathout and the Islamic Center is to miss an important part of the evolving story of Muslims in America.
Even Islamic traditions as seemingly ingrained as the segregation of the sexes during worship — a nagging bone of contention in the liberal societies in which many diaspora Muslims have made their homes — are being adapted to the modern world. Some mosques have completely separate male and female quarters, including separate entrances for “brothers” and “sisters.” Others separate men and women in parallel aisles, and some have a single space with men in front and women in back. In a few mosques, the female space offers more visibility of the imam giving the khutbah, but usually the reverse is true. Here at the Islamic Center, all congregants enter through the same door and talk freely in the hallways. Most of the women don’t bother to wear a head scarf until they walk into the actual prayer area. Still, in the main hall, the men pray in front and the women in the back, separated by chairs for the elderly, who cannot bend and prostrate.
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.”
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.
Hathout now says he regrets his word choice, but stops short of apologizing: “When I said ‘butchers,’ I used harsh language; however this happened during the Intifada, when the treatment of Palestinians was itself very harsh.”
In response to the controversy, the Commission on Human Relations decided to take some time to review the award. “The opposition was mostly coming from certain subgroups of the Jewish community who don’t represent the mainstream, mainly the ZOA and the American Jewish Congress,” Hathout says and then adds, “The Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple came to my support.”
During the commission hearings, the proceedings were frequently interrupted by protesters yelling out “Liar!” and “Terrorist!” Hathout claims there were attempts to get him to step away from the award on his own. “One committee member offered that, if I were to withdraw, they would give me a chance to give the keynote speech at the award ceremony,” recalls Hathout. “ I said, ‘No, I’d like you to look me in the eye and tell me, based on the hearings, that I’m not deserving of the award. I want you to go on record and deny me the award.”
Finally, the committee held a re-vote and Hathout was re-approved with no audible nays. Someone in the audience yelled out, “Call the roll!” When they did, four votes in favor and five abstentions were revealed. Of the whole experience, Hathout concludes: “Opposing the policies of Israel should not be a litmus test to decide the worth of any American citizen.”
And yet, Hathout must have realized that the word “apartheid” seems to cause an uproar whenever it is associated with Israel — the title of Jimmy Carter’s new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, is a case in point. I ask Hathout why he chose to use such a loaded word. He says he was only being “objective” and quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a study by the left-leaning Israeli paper Ha’aretz, which qualified certain aspects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as apartheid.
But as for the accusation that he supports Hezbollah, Hathout is emphatic when he says that he’s never supported a political group outside the U.S. He cites the books and theological papers he’s written in which he argues why terrorism and suicide bombing is Islamically forbidden. But for some, the books are not enough. No matter how many times he has condemned terrorism, he is asked to condemn it ever more forcefully again and again. In response to an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times during the controversy over the award, Hathout was accused of half-heartedly criticizing terrorism. He wrote back a strongly worded reply:
“I am an American Muslim with a deep commitment to life, not death. I oppose the violence Hamas or Hezbollah engages in against Israel. I do not now, nor have I ever, supported Hamas or Hezbollah, verbally or otherwise. I do not support any foreign groups or governments. I only support my country, America. I support the right of Israel to exist, just as I support the right of Palestine to exist. I believe in the futility of a military solution to Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I have publicly condemned terrorist actions committed by these groups and countless others, have repeatedly and publicly condemned suicide bombings as a violation of Islamic teachings and have loudly stated Islam’s forbiddance against the targeting and taking of civilian life. I also oppose the violence engaged in by Israel toward the Palestinian people. I oppose terrorist behavior in all its forms, regardless of the perpetrator or the stated aim. I am also against religious extremists who perpetrate violence and death in the distorted name of their faith. I am engaged directly on a daily basis in countering the ideologies of extremism and nihilism that lead to terrorism, and I continue to work closely with local and federal law enforcement ?to prevent further terrorism on American soil.”
And in an interview with the Independent Lens project Face to Face, Hathout points out, “We have been speaking against terrorism way before 9/11. We are an Islamic organization that condemned the Taliban three years before the problems. But the fact that they come back . . . repeating this question means: You don’t belong. You are not for real. Or you are just saying that to be politically correct or to be protected, which is very insulting.”
Before I leave his Wilshire office, Hathout wants to make sure I understand one point, about where the center’s progressivism comes from: “We called for gender equality and pluralism way before 9/11. Our track record, thanks to God, is very clear. When 9/11 came we were already in our zone, maybe others were jolted or electrocuted into this reality, but not us.” They were already carving out a new American Muslim reality, before the world would start asking questions.
“I chose America deliberately,” Hathout is heard telling the Face to Face interviewer, “to be able to live in a democracy. I feel that freedom is a basic requirement for human-beingness. So I came here knowing that home is not where my grandfather is buried. Home is where my grandson ought to be brought up.”