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Salam Al-Marayati: The translator

Patt Morrison Asks

An edited interview with the Muslim Public Affairs Council's executive director.

May 22, 2010|Patt Morrison

Salam Al-Marayati began working at the Muslim Public Affairs Council more than 20 years ago, and his is a job that only seems to get more demanding

Al-Marayati was 3 when his family moved to the United States from Iraq; as the president of the L.A.-based national group, he's become a cultural translator and a kind of human shield between misperceptions of the Muslim faith and several million believers living here. Invoking the Koran (he's holding one in the picture) and the Constitution, he plays offense and defense, making himself available for reporters, politicians and law enforcement, and blogging on matters like the Ft. Hood massacre.

It's a balancing act that engages local and international politics, religion and culture, internal and civic and public relations, all of it performed on a tightrope that quivers after every terrorist attack and attempted attack by Muslims

What is Job 1 for you?

To educate people about what American Muslim identity is.

In the 1960 U.S. presidential campaign, some people asked whether John F. Kennedy was an American or a Catholic first. Islam is not structured like Catholicism, but you must get that question too.

Correct, and our answer is that it's a false choice. We are Americans and Muslims. Our citizenship is making us stronger Americans because Islam has a strong principle of social responsibility, and living in America makes us stronger Muslims because we can think on our own, which is what the Koran tells you.

When something like the Times Square incident happens, many people think: Muslims are at it again. How do you alter that reaction?

I think we have gotten through [to most people]. We've made progress in the counter-narrative. Al Qaeda represents the cult of death, that tells [young people] to go die on behalf of leaders who sit in their self-righteous thrones and exploit the grievances of Muslims. The Muslim American tradition promotes the theology of life, to engage constructively [to] address the grievances.

Some say the condemnation of that cult of death has been a little perfunctory.

I understand that perception. On our website, you'll see all the condemnations. The mosque in America has become an asset to society, to interfaith groups, to law enforcement, in terms of preventing Al Qaeda from having [a] foothold in America. We see the battlefield now on the Internet.

You're concerned about young Muslim men being recruited that way.

Any alienated youth -- there's a tendency to shun that person. We can't do that. We have to intervene and engage that young person, through the Internet, having imams and others do PSAs, chat sessions, Facebook.

Muslim parents in Virginia contacted the FBI after their sons disappeared; the sons were arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of trying to join terrorist groups.

When [parents] see something happening that is a risk to [their sons] and maybe a larger group, they will come to us. The majority of Muslims in America, including young Muslims, are civically engaged and working to prevent isolation. The Somali youth[s] in Minneapolis [who left to join an Al Qaeda-linked group] felt alienated. They were not accepted by other African Americans because they were considered to be of a foreign culture. The red flag was alienation. Somehow recruiters were able to take them from their families.

How nuanced is the relationship with law enforcement?

It requires great coordination. We have programs called the National Grassroots Campaign to Fight Terrorism. The LAPD and NYPD are at the forefront. Every Muslim leader has stated publicly that if [people] see any threat or danger to society, they will connect with law enforcement.

Is there any reluctance to do that?

If there's a feeling that people's civil rights will not be respected, that innocent people will be dragged in and by association turned into suspects.

When something happens that affects the Muslim community, do people gravitate to the mosque?

After every crisis the mosque is full because they want to hear the message of the leadership. A mosque is not just a place of worship; it has to be a community center. We should look to the mosque as an asset to American society.

What's your definition of terrorism? Should we also talk about, say, Christian terrorism, like the man who murdered Dr. George Tiller?

Terrorism is the use of violence against a civilian population to terrorize them in order to achieve a political goal. If we're going to use religious labeling, then it should apply to everyone [when] they invoke their religion. Really, we're talking about ideological violence; it's not religion per se.

When you saw that plane crash into the IRS offices in Texas, what did you think?

Everybody worries in the first hours, until there's definitive reporting; I pray it's not a Muslim. For our community, we are concerned about the reaction if it is a Muslim.

What's the difference between Muslims in Britain and Muslims here?

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