Arab Honoree Is at Center of Debate in Los Angeles

A decision by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission to honor Dr. Maher Hathout for helping build dialogue among faiths is under review. Frank Stoltze of member station KPCC reports that some see Hathout as a bit of an extremist.

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A plan to honor a nationally known Muslim leader has sparked controversy in Los Angeles. The County Human Relations Commission voted last month to make Dr. Maher Hathout the first Muslim recipient of a leadership award for working to bring together diverse religious communities. But some Jewish groups say Hathout's views on Israel make him a radical and a divisive force.

From member station KPCC, Frank Stoltze reports.

FRANK STOLTZE: Hathout is a 70-year-old American citizen who came to the U.S. from Egypt in 1971. He is a retired cardiologist, an imam, and a senior adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Counsel. Hathout is short and round, wears glasses, and sits down easily on concrete steps outside a medical conference to talk about the importance of interfaith dialogue.

Dr. MAHER HATHOUT (Senior Advisor, Muslim Public Affairs Council): I believe that pluralism and diversity is not to be tolerated; it is to be celebrated as the will of God. Based on that background, I pursued several dialogues in Los Angeles, the first ever Muslim-Jewish dialogue.

STOLTZE: That was in the 1980s. Since then, Hathout has organized dozens of dialogues, especially in the wake of 9/11. He has served as head of the InterReligious Council of L.A. And for many in the Muslim community here, he is a leader who bridges the gap between Islam and the West.

Father Alexei Smith heads the Office of Ecumenical and InterReligious Affairs for the L.A. Catholic Archdiocese. He was among those who spoke at a recent hearing on whether Hathout should receive an award for, quote, "encouraging interfaith understanding and alliances," unquote.

Father ALEXI SMITH (Office of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs, L.A. Archdiocese): I've come to know Dr. Hathout as a person who has a profound respect for the life and dignity of every human being.

STOLTZE: But some Jewish groups see a different man. Sharon Weinman of the American Jewish Committee called Hathout a radical Islamic leader masquerading as a moderate. She pointed in part to a speech Hathout made six years ago at a Washington, D.C. rally. In it Hathout sharply criticizes Israel after the killing of a number of unarmed Palestinians by Israeli soldiers.

Dr. HATHOUT: They say Israel is only democracy of the Middle East. This is a lie. Israel is not a democracy. Israel is a theocracy and is an apartheid state against every fiber of the modern word.

STOLTZE: Hathout goes on to say of Israel, butchers do what butchers do. Hathout condemns terrorism and affirms Israel's right to exist. At the same time, he said in 1998 that Hezbollah was fighting only for freedom in southern Lebanon. John Fishel is president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, an umbrella organization of 22 groups and nearly 40,000 donors. He told the Human Relations Commission Hathout is divisive and should not be given the award.

Mr. JOHN FISHEL (President, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles): In truth, on occasion he has made strong statements which have hurt, offended and even angered reasonable members of our community.

STOLTZE: Some in the Jewish community support Hathout. They call him an important moderate Muslim voice. The Progressive Jewish Alliance and activists like Greta Berlin spoke out against rescinding the award.

Ms. GRETA BERLIN (Human Rights Activist): Shame on all of you who are sitting in here. Shame on you for trying to start a new McCarthy regime. Only this time it's against Arabs and Muslims.

STOLTZE: For his part Dr. Maher Hathout is frustrated by the controversy. He doesn't think his opinions on Israel should exempt him from getting the award.

Dr. HATHOUT: I regret the harshness in the language, but the fact is that I have the right to criticize to the utmost the exercises of any government, including my own government. And the government of Israel is no exception to that, and should not be a litmus test.

STOLTZE: Members of the Human Relations Commission say they have received hundreds of telephone calls and e-mails supporting and opposing Hathout. They're expected to make a decision on whether to follow through with their award for him on Monday. For NPR News, I'm Frank Stoltze in Los Angeles.

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