WASHINGTON (Jun. 29)
The appointment of a controversial American Muslim leader to a counterterrorism commission has prompted a strong rebuke from Jewish officials.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) earlier this month named Salam Al-Marayati to serve on the newly created National Commission on Terrorism, which will review policies aimed at preventing acts of terrorism directed at the United States.
Al-Marayati heads the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, a group that critics say has tried to gain legitimacy in American public life while tacitly seeking to promote the interests of radical Islamic terrorism.
According to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Al-Marayati has made statements justifying or condoning terrorism, equating America’s struggle for independence with Islamic fundamentalism and calling for a renewed Arab economic boycott of Israel.
“It’s really a question of propriety here and whether the commission will be able to function, whether people will be able to feel free to talk in his presence, after taking the kinds of positions he has taken,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, president of the Conference of Presidents.
The 10-member commission, established by legislation passed last year, includes terrorism experts appointed by President Clinton and congressional leaders. They include former CIA director James Woolsey and retired Gen. Wayne Downing. Former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and New York businessman Maurice Sonnenberg, both of whom are Jewish, were also named to the panel.
The Zionist Organization of America said Al-Marayati’s appointment is tantamount to naming white supremacist David Duke to a civil rights task force, while privately other Jewish groups have also expressed apprehension.
Both Hoenlein and Morton Klein, president of the ZOA, emphasized that they have nothing against an Arab representative serving on the commission.
But “we don’t want anyone on this group who condones terrorism and praises terrorist groups as al-Marayati and his top leaders have done,” said Klein, who has urged Gephardt to revoke the appointment.
Al-Marayati, reached by telephone in Los Angeles, took issue with the way Jewish officials have characterized him and his views.
“Those people either don’t know me or are putting words in my mouth. They need to do more homework before coming up with statements like that,” he said.
“People look to our statements from a narrow point of view, and it’s that narrow-mindedness that is the cause of unwarranted apprehension,” he said, adding that “Islam has no room for terrorism” and that his organization “has been on record as condemning terrorism.”
While he acknowledged that his group has “made several statements that to many are controversial,” he said “that only further enhances the point that we need more dialogue.”
In addition to serving as executive director of MPAC, Al-Marayati has been active in the Democratic Party and has participated in events at the White House and State Department. He has also been involved in public service projects and in working to forge greater interfaith ties with Christian and Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee.
Many of his public comments, however, have provided Jewish officials with a decidedly different perception. A March 1997 MPAC statement found on the group’s Web site asserts that Israel’s prime minister “bears the brunt of responsibility for the loss of innocent lives.
“Because the Palestinian people have no avenues to redress their grievances,” the statement continued, “some of them have been pushed beyond the margins of society and have adopted violent reactions to express their despair and suffering.”
According to the Conference of Presidents, Al-Marayati once equated supporters of Israel to the Nazis.
“Just as Hitler forged a conflict between Judaism and Christianity, apologists for Israel crave for Islam to be at odds with both Judaism and Christianity,” Al-Marayati reportedly said in a 1994 interview.
Sue Harvey, a spokeswoman for Gephardt, said Al-Marayati was named to the commission at the request of House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.), who cited his expertise in the field of terrorism and extensive public service experience.
The minority leader’s office was not aware of Al-Marayati’s controversial statements before the appointment, she said.
“We have since been made aware of these concerns and have received assurance that he unequivocally opposes terrorism of any kind,” she said, citing a letter Al-Marayati wrote to Gephardt on Monday.
“My sole desire to serve on the National Commission on Terrorism is to advance U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and the security of our nation and all of its citizens, both at home and abroad,” Al-Marayati’s letter states.
The Anti-Defamation League, for its part, said it still remains concerned about Al-Marayati’s views on terrorism, notwithstanding his general condemnation.
“There seems to be a political coloration to the analysis of terrorism that is suggested by these statements, and that raises concerns, particularly when you’re looking for people who are going to be leading the battle against terrorism” because “terrorism needs to be viewed outside of the political process,” said Jess Hordes, director of the ADL’s Washington office.
Despite the controversy, Al-Marayati told JTA he “absolutely” plans to serve on the commission, saying he intends to “serve American interests and not to be intimidated by special interests.”
Although appointments to the commission require no confirmation, Al-Marayati and others still have to be vetted by the FBI in order to gain security clearance.