Dr. Maher Hathout: A Legendary American Muslim Leader

A Visionary

Dr. Maher  Hathout, President of the Islamic Center of Southern California, Los Angeles,  was a visionary and a progressive thinking person. When Pope Paul John II was visiting Los Angeles in September 1987, he invited Dr. Hathout for an inter-faith meeting between the Pope and leaders from four non-Christian religions. In that meeting Dr. Hathout delivered a short speech, urging mutual understanding and respect among the various religions. The most powerful remark made by Dr. Maher Hathout came when he said, "These are trying times for religious people because half of the world denies God and most of the other half disobeys Him."

Robert H. Schuller, Pastor of the Crystal Cathedral of Garden Grove in southern California,   said he especially enjoyed the remarks of Los Angeles Islamic leader Maher Hathout.

Dr. Maher Hathout, a modest, humble, American leader, was a practicing Muslim.  He refused to accept fragmented approaches to Islam based on region, territory or division. Instead, he called for unity based on respect and tolerance among various religious factions in Islamic communities in the U.S., urging them to abandon the ways challenges were tackled in the past. He believed leaders in the past eliminated and discarded workable and available approaches to Muslim problems. He was familiar with some of the practices and he observed that in some quarters, Muslims continue to make decisions in rather short, random, and haphazard ways, rendering it difficult, if not impossible, to create lasting solutions. He believed those approaches were preventing us from envisioning  and raising  awareness for the development of a viable Muslim community.  Instead, he insisted  on finding solutions based on mundane and contemporary approaches, within the framework of Islam, that would allow for better interactions with other communities.

Dr. Maher Hathout’s farsightedness and good sense helped him understand the pulse of other communities after meeting with the Pope, which led to the founding of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in 1988. This he felt was needed, even though there were various Islamic Centers in existence at that time in southern California. The intent was not only for the interaction with other communities but also to enrich America by the vital contributions of American Muslims. His vision was to make MPAC into the American Muslim voice for policymakers, opinion shapers, and community organizers across the U.S.A. He felt Muslims could do this by engaging US government, media, and communities, and by promoting the Islamic and American values of mercy, justice, peace, human dignity, freedom, and equality for all.

A Man of Conviction and Wisdom

Working to move our planet in the direction of peace with truth and justice, he told the truth to the leaders in Washington, including the visiting President of Egypt, Husni Mubarak in the year 2000 meeting at the White House in Washington. He devoted time and efforts in providing information about Islam to shape an understanding of Islam in America; confronted those who personally attacked him about his convictions and Islamic values with words that surprised many people in the U.S. and  forced his detractors and others to think, by his utterances--- a rare commodity among leaders.

He lectured and chastised Muslims in the United States to inculcate Islamic values and promote them using short and powerful speeches. Here are some examples:

  • “Your country is where your grandchildren are being raised and not the one where your parents are buried.”
  • “The racists and extremists, while moving from point to point, have been telling us, ‘I don’t like you, I hate you’, but now they are saying , ‘I don’t like you but still I am going to tolerate you.’ What I say to these extremists is:  “Don’t tolerate me. Show respect.”
  • Maher Hathout confronted Islamophobia practitioners and extremists who were questioning Muslims about terrorism, accusing them for not speaking up against it. He gave very bold response and said, "Like an urban myth, the idea that Muslims have been mute since 9/11 plagues us. Prager knows that mainstream Muslims have issued condemnations of terrorism ad nauseam, and American Muslim scholars even issued a fatwa against terrorism this summer. The organization I advise (the Muslim Public Affairs Council) last year put together an integrated, grass-roots campaign to fight terrorism and extremism. The problem isn't how loud we are but how deaf some people can be."
  • When asked, "Why is only one of the 47 Muslim majority countries is a free country?", he responded by saying, “Lest we forget, the good people of Germany were led to their defeat by Hitler. The same scenario is true of Mussolini in Italy and is true of present-day North Korea. Likewise, some Islamic nations are not free because they are led by tyrants who suppress the will of their people. But let's not forget that the colonial powers that dominated these countries found it easier to deal with the dictators they installed than with masses intent on creating their own destiny. Our country (USA) is not completely innocent on this score.”
  • He answered bluntly to those who blamed Islam for the acts committed by Muslims: “Yes, criminals are exploiting the grievances of depressed, oppressed and desperate masses in order to try to justify the unjustifiable. But finger-pointing won't get us anywhere. What we need now is to enable robust, mainstream Muslim organizations to expose this minority, isolate it and rid us of this scourge. Casting doubt about Muslims only adds to the haze and confusion that allow extremists' international prominence. Innuendo only makes it less likely that any religion will be respected, or its followers accepted.”
  • When he was asked why do countries governed by religious Muslims persecute other religions, he replied, "What makes you so sure they're 'religious Muslims'? The religiosity of any person or regime that does not respect human rights is dubious. You can't overlook the fact that these dictators direct most of their oppression toward active Muslim citizens who naturally pose a challenge to their religious and/or political authority. Islam isn't the problem in these countries -- it would be the solution if moderate, inclusive leaders could gain international backing."

Legacy of a Pioneer

Dr Maher Hathout was, first and the foremost, a thinker who cared about the next generation of Muslims. Being a pioneer in the Muslim community, he developed ways to improve the image of Islam in these United States by initiating a working relationship with young Muslims, started listening to their questioning spirit, accepted their courage, and urged them to embrace their American Muslim identity. To achieve this, he established and became a senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council -- which is now being managed by young Muslims. He was also the spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California. His activities with the Muslim community and the Interfaith Network made him one of the most influential American Muslims. He was the first Muslim chairman of the Los Angeles Interfaith Council.

In July 2006,  Dr. Maher Hathout was selected for receiving a prestigious human rights award from the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. But some Jewish organizations vehemently opposed his selection for his political views. He had criticized Israel as an apartheid state and had supported freedom fighters in the Middle East. The interfaith leaders supported Dr. Hathout and praised him as a model of tolerance and moderation. To show their solid support, several leaders representing Catholic, Episcopal, Jewish and other religious communities along with other Muslim organizations, gathered in September 2006 at the Islamic Center of southern California.

Father Alexei Smith, director of Ecumenical and Inter Religious Affairs for the 5-million-member Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, praised Hathout's "profound respect for the life and dignity of every human being."  Smith said Hathout's long years of interfaith work prompted him to invite the Muslim leader to meet Pope John Paul II during his visit to Los Angeles in 1987 and to deliver a eulogy during the pontiff's memorial service. Smith said it was understandable that a Muslim leader would be critical of Israel but that such views should not disqualify him for the award. "I've repeatedly heard Dr. Hathout denounce violence and the taking of human life by anyone and everyone," Smith said. "It's high time that the county of Los Angeles recognizes him." Hathout, 70, said his positions have been distorted by opponents and that he has long denounced violence by any organization -- including Hamas and Hezbollah -- against innocent civilians. That, he said, includes suicide bombings against innocent Israelis. Statements he made in 1998 and 1999 calling Hezbollah freedom fighters referred only to the Shiite militia's actions on Lebanese soil against Israeli soldiers who had invaded the country, he said.

"I am very proud of my record," he said. He acknowledged calling Israel an apartheid regime. (Battle Lines Form Over Award for L.A. Muslim, September 09, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer)

In the third week of September 2006, the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission voted to reaffirm its selection of Maher Hathout for a human relations award ending a bitter two-week battle.  Dr. Maher Hathout after hearing the news said, “the vote was a victory for free speech, inclusiveness, and rejection of the tactics of intimidation.” (L.A. Panel Reaffirms Muslim's Award September 19, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer)

Maher Hathout passed away on January 3rd, 2015.  On January 10, a public memorial service was held in Los Angeles to memorialize him. Many religious leaders honored him as the Muslim voice of Southern California. Los Angeles police Deputy Chief Michael Downing presented a flag to the Hathout family during the memorial service. He was widely known as a champion of moderate Islam and peace with other religions.  "It's at moments like these that we feel the absence of someone like Dr. Hathout intensely," said Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple in Bel-Air. Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told the crowd, "We are standing on his wide shoulders to continue his work."  Nirinjan Singh Khalsa, a California Sikh leader, called him one of the "few shining lights" who stepped forward after the 9/11 attacks to tamp down expressions of bias against Sikhs and Muslims. The Rev. Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopal priest, compared Hathout to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., saying he was a "seeker of justice" and "lover of truth." Rev. Ed Bacon, the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California called Hathout "One of the most important Muslims of the late 20th and early 21st century." (Irfan Khan and Michael Finnegan,  Los Angeles Times Staff Writers)

[Mohammad Yacoob, former Vice Chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, Los Angeles, is a retired industrial engineer and an engineering proposals analyst who lives in Los Angeles, California]

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