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Gephardt Stirs Controversy By Bowing To Pressure To Remove Muslim Nominee From Counterrorism Commission

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 1999

American Muslim groups say they were stunned and betrayed by the decision of House Minority Leader, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-MO), to revoke his appointment of Salam Al-Marayati, an American Muslim, to a Congressional counterrorism commission.  

The New York Times (July 9, 1999) reports that, "After protests from Jewish organizations . . . Gephardt decided to withdraw his appointment of Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, to serve on the National Commission on Terrorism, a 10-member group charged with reviewing national policy on preventing and punishing terrorism. Soon after his appointment, Mr. Al-Marayati was denounced by Jewish organizations that accused him of condoning terrorism against Israel. But other political and religious leaders, many of them Jewish, who have worked with Mr. Al-Marayati had begun speaking in his defense, praising him as a responsible moderate."  

The Zionist Organization of America launched a particularly harsh attack against Mr. Al-Marayati, comparing him to the extremist former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and said that "these anti-Israel and pro-terrorist individuals and groups should be . . . relegated to the margins of society." (The Hill, July 14, 1999)  

Groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Congress joined in the attack on Mr. Marayati. Among the quotes cited against his nomination was a March 1997 press release from the Muslim Public Affairs Council which stated: "Because the Palestinian people have no avenues to redress their grievances, some of them have been pushed beyond the margins of society and have adopted violent reactions to express their despair and suffering."  

Mr. Marayati, who is 38, has lived in the U.S. since his family fled political persecution in Iraq when he was 4 years old. His wife, Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, was appointed by the White House to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  

Appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, Marayati has served for more than a year. Joe R. Hicks, the leader of the commission, states. "I know Salam, I think very well, for five or seven years. He’s a very fair, very moderate individual who in my perception is respected in a number of communities, including the Jewish community here in Los Angeles. He is not given to wild, extremist views about the Middle East or Israel."  

Among the Jewish leaders in Los Angeles who have publicly supported Marayati are Rabbi Alfred Wolf of the American Jewish Committee’s Skirball Institute on American Values and Gene Lichtenstein, editor of The Jewish Journal.  

Mr. Lichtenstein said that he did not believe Marayati condones terrorism and that it was "a disservice to American Jews" to have opposed his participation in the commission. "I believe Marayati is critical of Israel," said Lichtenstein, "I think it would be difficult to find a Muslim or an Arab in America who is not critical of Israel."  

Mr. Marayati attributed Rep. Gephardt’s turnabout on his nomination "to pressure tactics" from Jewish groups which use "heavy-handedness in imposing their agenda," which is "that you must toe the line of unconditional blind support for Israel to be even considered to give advice to Congress." He described this posture as "a threat to democracy."  

With regard to terrorism, Marayati said he had a clear record of opposition "Not for the sake of political expediency, but because of an Islamic stand. When Hamas and Hezbollah commit acts of terrorism, we condemn those acts as events contrary to the principles of Islam. When those groups build hospitals and develop social service agencies for the disenfranchised, that’s something we do not condemn."  

Of his critics, Marayati said: "Either somebody is providing them misinformation, or they’re reading it from a biased lens."  

Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, argued that, "It is now the case that any criticism of Israel by an Arab-American is unacceptable. Anyone who supports criticism of Israel, is supporting terrorism. It is an outrageous, unbelievable equation."  

The Washington Post (July 18, 1999) editorially stated that the decision to remove Marayati from the terrorism commission "is an unfortunate capitulation to misplaced pressure . . . Mr. Al-Marayati should not be kept off the commission merely because his views are in tension with American policy . . . It is important for American counter-terrorism measures not to be seen reflexively by Muslims as illegitimate. People like Mr. Al-Marayati should be at the table."

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