Maher Hathout stayed up until the wee hours of Friday morning, watching television news coverage of a long, violent night in Boston and the manhunt for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Hathout, the senior advisor of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, slept only a few hours and woke early to pray. His wife told him the suspects -- two young Chechen men -- were Muslim, and he soon saw vitriol on Facebook: people saying that they didn’t want Muslims in the country and that they should "go home."
A violent police confrontation in a Boston suburb overnight Friday left one of the suspected marathon bombers, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, dead. During the shootout the second suspect, Tsarnaev’s 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, escaped, but was captured Friday evening after a massive manhunt.
In a sermon at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, Hathout told worshipers before Friday prayers to expect questions from non-Muslims.
"We find ourselves in that very awkward and uncomfortable place" of answering questions and accusations about Islam and violence, he said.
"People will come to you … to find answers, and they have that right," he said. "Life is not fair. You will be put in that position … [of people asking] 'What’s wrong with you guys?' And so you will find yourselves as a spokesperson for us."
He urged those gathered not to apologize for their faith because they had done nothing wrong. The attackers, he said, were criminals, not people abiding by the tenets of Islam. Hathout urged worshipers to be present in the community, to be willing to answer questions about their faith, and to love and support their fellow citizens.
"Muslims, don’t lose heart," he said. "We are really good people. We are really good Americans."
Hathout offered condolences to and said he was sorrowful for the victims of the Boston bombing and their families. Of whoever was behind the attack, he said, "That person is not my brother.... My brother is any sound, healthy American citizen who wants a better future for our children and grandchildren."
Dozens of people gathered for Friday prayers at the center. Many came from work and filtered in at different times, some in suit jackets, some in jeans and baseball caps.
Noor-Malika Chishti of Pasadena said after the sermon that she is happy to answer people’s questions about Islam and welcomes conversations with those of different faiths. She said she couldn't wait to put links on Facebook to Hathout’s sermon.
"It's so sad that when anything like this happens, you think, 'I hope it wasn’t a Muslim'.... You just have to keep positive."
At a news conference after the sermon, interfaith leaders and law enforcement officials stressed the importance of working together with people of diverse backgrounds and offered condolences to the Boston victims.