Last week, when Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri withdrew his nomination of Salam Al-Marayati to the newly formed 10-member National Commission on Terrorism, he took a step more important than he may have realized. The House minority leader's change of course marks the first time that a prominent Muslim figure in America has been repudiated because of extremist politics. With luck, this is a turning point; Muslims will now be subject to the same political constraints as everyone else
Who is Salam Al-Marayati, and why are his views a problem? Born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1960, Mr. Al-Marayati came with his family to America in 1964. He studied at the University of California and worked as a process chemical engineer in the semiconductor industry. Entering politics as a liaison to the Muslim community for a Los Angeles city councilman, in 1988 he helped found and became director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. In addition, Mr. Al-Marayati is a member of the Executive Committee of the California Democratic Party, and he served as a Clinton delegate at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. His wife, Laila, also has a public career; President Clinton just appointed her to serve on another newly created federal panel, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. In brief, Mr. Al-Marayati one of the most influential Muslim leaders in America and a burgeoning player in the political game.
Trouble is, Mr. Al-Marayati, like so many other American Muslim leaders, purveys an extremist political agenda that few people seem to notice or care about. Here are three elements of his radicalism: First, he wraps the American flag around some of the least attractive features of Middle Eastern life. In 1993, he memorably asserted that "When Patrick Henry said, 'Give me liberty or give me death,' that statement epitomized jihad [Islamic holy war]." In 1996, he made the silly and inaccurate observation that "American freedom fighters hundreds of years ago were also regarded as terrorists by the British." Mr. Al-Marayati's intent here is obvious: to render jihad and terrorism acceptable to Americans.
Second, Mr. Al-Marayati apologizes for the most ghastly Middle Eastern regimes and draws moral equivalencies between them and America. In his view, Iraq is no better or worse than America: "Saddam Hussein's behavior in and around Iraq has been characterized as reckless. The same can be said about U.S. policy as a result of its reactionary mode." (How Mr. Al-Marayati can say such things is a mystery when, as the Los Angeles Times has reported, his cousin in Iraq "died of kidney disease a few years ago because he could not obtain medicine or proper surgical care; several other family members have been tortured and killed for opposing" Saddam's regime.)
Third, Mr. Al-Marayati turns a blind eye to terrorism if it is of a fundamentalist Muslim persuasion (not a great credential for someone hoping to serve on a counterterrorism commission). Take the February 1996 incident when a Palestinian named Muhammad Hamida shouted the fundamentalist war cry, Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great), as he drove his car intentionally into a crowded bus stop in Jerusalem, killing one Israeli and injuring 23 others. Before he could escape or hurt anyone else, Hamida was shot dead. Commenting on the affair, Mr. Al-Marayati said not a word about Hamida's murderous rampage but instead focused on Hamida's death, which he called "a provocative act," and demanded the extradition of his executors to America "to be tried in a U.S. court" on terrorism charges."
Statements like this have correctly won Mr. Al-Marayati a reputation of being "pro-terrorist," as New York Daily News columnist Sidney Zion writes, and "an Israel-basher with disturbing sympathies for Islamic terrorists," according to a New York Post editorial. But for the most part, politicians, journalists and even some Jewish activists have preferred to overlook this unsavory record.
With Mr. Al-Marayati off the counterterrorism commission, who will take his place? Rep. Gephardt's idea of including a Muslim leader is an excellent one, and he would do well to find another Muslim to fill the seat. But he should find someone who, like other panel members, forthrightly condemns terrorism rather than apologizes for it; who knows the issues involved, and who subscribes to the broad mainstream of American political views. These requirements, unfortunately, exclude most Muslim leaders, who are no less extremist than Mr. Al-Marayati; fortunately, there are two excellent candidates for the minority leader to choose from.
Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, a leader of the Naqshbandi Sufi order in the United States and the founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, has established himself as a leading spokesman for moderate Islam and anti-terrorism. Mr. Kabbani earned his stripes the hard way, by taking on nearly the entirety of the radicalized Muslim organizations America. He gave a courageous speech at the State Department in January 1999 in which he accurately noted that extremists had "taken over 80% of the mosques" in America. In response, more than 100 mosques and organizations signed a petition condemning Mr. Kabbani and calling for a boycott of him and his organization.
Riad Nachef, head of the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, is another eminently suitable candidate for the panel. As the head of a dynamic non-fundamentalist movement that first developed in Lebanon and now has a growing network in North America, he is part of an organization that has much - indeed, too much - first-hand experience with terrorism. (Two of its leaders were murdered by radical opponents in recent years.) "Swindlers" is how Mr. Nachef describes Mr. Al-Marayati and the other heads of radical organizations. And they more than return the favor. When Mr. Nachef's name came up just as the National Commission on Terrorism was first proposed by Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, it elicited intensely hostile responses from radical organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
So, by all means, include Muslims on the commission, as in all institutions of American public life; but ensure that they accept the basic premises of this country.