About Me

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Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html

Monday, June 25, 2007

'A Mighty Heart' and the Need for Dialogue

By: Sara Shereen Bakhshian

Walking into the Sherry Lansing Theater at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles last Thursday, I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy evening. While looking forward to the screening of “A Mighty Heart”--as I had read the Marianne Pearl memoir it was based on about three years ago--I dreaded the expected feelings of despair and anguish from viewing the tragedy surrounding the kidnapping and death of Wall Street Journal writer Danny Pearl.

It can’t be denied there were moments where that theater chair felt uncomfortable, but the film was captivating, as humanity, and at times the lack of it, was eloquently depicted. From the Pearls’ love story to the account of the investigation by the then-pregnant Marianne with colleagues from the WSJ and Pakistani and American officials, I was intrigued almost as much by their interactions as how the search was conducted.

The latter because it was ultimately the point of the evening: To see how a Buddhist, Christians, Jews and Muslims came together to search for Pearl and how that unity could be built upon now.

That was literally expressed after the film with a panel discussion titled “Building Unity and Understanding in Today’s World,” and event co-sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Progressive Christians Uniting, and Paramount Vantage, and which featured the following panelists: producer Dede Gardner, CAIR’s Hussam Ayloush, Jews on First’s Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, and PCU’s Reverand Peter Laarman with Lisa Smithline from Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace moderating.

While it wasn’t unique to have a panel discussion after a film viewing, the five-minute break that included a prayer option outside the building was.

After the break, Smithline began the Q&A session by asking for a discussion on the choices one should make when faced with tragedy and fear, to which the panelists agreed that dialogue should always be the choice over violence. For example, on the subject of torture, Laarman said that members of the Christian community had to look at their own endorsements of torture. Ayloush added that at times in the film, certain characters gave the impression that torture was okay--but really it never is, and there is a need for change.

Isolating the voices of fanatics within the communities of Christianity, Judaism and Islam was part of Rabbi Beliak’s ideas of change. So, it was made clear by all the panelists that extremists in any religion don’t speak for an entire community.

But more importantly, when one from a religious community makes an extreme comment, it is up to the moderates to speak out against their co-religionist, said Laarman. Because ultimately, Ayloush added, this issue is a collective problem of the world and that everyone should strive together to reduce, if not eliminate, the root causes for violence that could be based on political, economic or religious reasons.

“Everyone has the same pain based on the same root causes,” Ayloush said. “We can help in the end.”

What remained unanswered at the end of the evening, especially after such an emotionally intense film, was tangible ways that everyone could really help. The panel was understandably under a time constraint of roughly 20 minutes, given it was getting late in the evening. At the same time, it didn’t seem to get any great new ideas on how and why everyone could develop more intra- and interfaith dialogue out.

I don't mean to pick on the panelists, but these calls for dialogue aren't really new and have been heard numerous times at interfaith occasions throughout the country. Of course there is some impatience on my part--in not wanting violence as a solution but wanting more action from conversation.

With what is happening in Darfur, Iraq, Israel and Palestinian territories and so on, I still wonder: How do moderates engage in successful dialogue with extremists who believe violence is part of the divine?

See clips from the film and read Beliefnet's interview of "A Mighty Heart" here.

--Sara Shereen Bakhshian

Saturday, June 23, 2007

West chooses Fatah, but Palestinians don't

By Saree Makdisi, SAREE MAKDISI, a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, writes often about the Middle East.
June 20, 2007

IN THE WEST, there's a huge sense of relief. The Hamas-led government that has been causing everyone so much trouble has been isolated in Gaza, and a new government has been appointed in the West Bank by the "moderate," peace-loving Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

So why then do Palestinians not share in the relief? Well, for one thing, the old government had been democratically elected; now it has been dismissed out of hand by presidential fiat. There's also the fact that the new prime minister appointed by Abbas — Salam Fayyad — has the support of the West, but his election list won only 2% of the votes in the same election that swept Hamas to victory. Fayyad and Abbas have the support of Israel, but it is no secret that they lack the backing of their own people.

There is a reason the people threw out Abbas' Fatah party in last year's election. Palestinians see the leading Fatah politicians as unimaginative, self-serving and corrupt, satisfied with the emoluments of power.

Worse yet, Palestinians came to realize that the so-called peace process championed by Abbas (and by Yasser Arafat before him) had led to the permanent institutionalization — rather than the termination — of Israel's 4-decade-old military occupation of their land. Why should they feel otherwise? There are today twice as many settlers in the occupied territories as there were when Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat first shook hands in the White House Rose Garden. Israel has divided the West Bank into besieged cantons, worked diligently to increase the number of Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem (while stripping Palestinian Jerusalemites of their residency rights in the city) and turned Gaza into a virtual prison.

People voted for Hamas last year not because they approved of the party's sloganeering, not because they wanted to live in an Islamic state, not because they support attacks on Israeli civilians, but because Hamas was untainted by Fatah's complacency and corruption, untainted by its willingness to continue pandering to Israel. Fatah leaders were viewed as mere policemen of the perpetual occupation, and the Palestinian Authority had willingly taken on the role of administering the population on behalf of the Israelis. Hamas offered an alternative.

Here in the U.S., Hamas is routinely demonized, known primarily for its attacks on civilians. Depictions of Hamas portray its "rejectionism" as an end in itself rather than as a refusal to go along with a political process that has proved catastrophic for Palestinians on the ground.

Has Hamas done unspeakable things? Yes, but so has Fatah, and so too has Israel (on a much larger scale). There are no saints in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians, frankly, see a lot of hypocrisy in the West's anti-Hamas stance. Since last year's election, for example, the West has denied aid to the Hamas government, arguing, among other things, that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel. But that's absurd; after all, Israel does not recognize Palestine either. Hamas is accused of not abiding by previous agreements. But Israel's suspension of tax revenue transfers to the Palestinian Authority, and its refusal to implement a Gaza-West Bank road link agreement brokered by the U.S. in November 2005, are practical, rather than merely rhetorical, violations of previous agreements, causing infinitely more damage to ordinary people. Hamas is accused of mixing religion and politics, but no one has explained why its version of that mixture is any worse than Israel's — or why a Jewish state is acceptable but a Muslim one is not.

I am a secular humanist, and I personally find religiously identified political movements — and states — unappealing, to say the least.

But let's be honest. Hamas did not run into Western opposition because of its Islamic ideology but because of its opposition to (and resistance to) the Israeli occupation.

A genuine peace based on the two-state solution would require an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of a territorially contiguous, truly independent Palestinian state.

But that is not happening. Fatah seems to have given up, its leaders preferring to rest comfortably with the power they already have. Ironically, it is Hamas that is taking the stands that would be prerequisites for a true two-state peace plan: refusing to go along with the permanent breakup of Palestine and not accepting the sacrifice of control over borders, airspace, water, taxes and even the population registry to Israel.

Embracing the "moderation" of Abbas allows the Palestinian Authority to resume servicing the occupation on Israel's behalf, for now. In the long run, though, the two-state solution is finished because Fatah is either unable or unwilling to stop the ongoing dismemberment of the territory once intended for a Palestinian state.

The only realistic choice remaining will be the one between a single democratic, secular state offering equal rights for both Israelis and Palestinians — or permanent apartheid.

In a film about a tragedy, signs of hope

Many seeing a preview of the Daniel Pearl movie praise its depictions of various religions and cultures. But it's not a consensus.

The Los Angeles Times
By Rebecca Trounson
Times Staff Writer, June 23, 2007

Can a high-profile film about a horrific event, the 2002 kidnapping and killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl, serve as a vehicle to promote religious and cultural understanding?

For many who attended an interfaith discussion that followed a screening of "A Mighty Heart" at Paramount Studios this week, the answer appeared to be yes, with panelists and audience alike generally praising the film for its sensitive depiction of the events surrounding Pearl's death.

A reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Pearl was abducted and killed in Karachi, Pakistan, where he and his wife, Mariane, had traveled to cover the war in Afghanistan and investigate the activities of Al Qaeda. The film is based on a memoir written by Mariane Pearl, a French radio journalist, and traces the harrowing period from Daniel's disappearance Jan. 23, 2002, to the discovery of his dismembered body several weeks later.

Yet several panelists noted that the film, despite its tragic central story, also offers a measure of hope in its portrayal of the culturally and religiously diverse group of investigators, diplomats, journalists and friends that joined in the effort to rescue Daniel Pearl and support his wife, then nearly six months pregnant.

"The overall message of the movie is to be able to look beyond the labels and see each of these people as human beings, and it does that very well," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Ayloush, whose organization cosponsored Thursday's panel discussion, said one of the most wrenching aspects of the film for him was the implicit question it raised about Islam and whether acts such as Pearl's killing could ever be justified under its tenets.

But he said he was certain of the answer. "This is a real story, about a real person who lost his life, and it's painful for me as a Muslim because it shows people who use the name 'Muslim' to justify killing," Ayloush said. "But these people were not Muslim. They were not Pakistani. They were criminal."

The audience of about 300, which included women in colorful scarves and a scattering of men with skullcaps, applauded.

For panelist Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, there were other questions raised by the film and the events it depicts.

"Was Daniel Pearl killed because he was an American? Because [his killers] thought he was a CIA agent?" asked Beliak, a board member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance of California and co-founder of JewsOnFirst, a 1st Amendment organization. "For me, the question that burns most deeply is whether he was killed because he was Jewish."

A videotape released by Pearl's captors, and recreated in the movie, shows the reporter stating that he — and his parents — were Jewish. But Beliak said that despite such evidence of the killers' apparent motivation, he drew heart from another, somewhat mysterious statement made by Pearl on the tape — and in the movie — about his grandfather's role in the founding of the Israeli community of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv.

"As I thought about it, I read that as an expression of hope, having to do with the building of that city," Beliak said. "I think it was a code, to Mariane, telling her to have hope and not to lose faith in humanity."

During the panel discussion, Beliak also turned to Ayloush and commended him for helping to arrange the event, despite possible concerns about the controversial issues the film covers. The panel was cosponsored by Progressive Christians Uniting, a Los Angeles-based, mostly Protestant network of congregations and individuals, and by Paramount Vantage, the film's distributor.

"I hope it's an opening to other kinds of conversations," the rabbi said, adding that representatives of all faiths shared a responsibility to "isolate the voices of our fanatics."

Another panelist, the Rev. Peter Laarman, executive director of the Christian group, touched on a similar theme. He said anti-Muslim statements made in the wake both of Pearl's death and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, illustrated the need for people of various faiths to react quickly to condemn such comments, which he called canards and untruths.

But the sensitivities raised by the film were also evident in the attendance at the screening of Pakistan's consul general in Los Angeles, Syed Ibne Abbas, who told the audience of his government's efforts to rescue Pearl.

"Unfortunately, they didn't succeed," said Abbas, who also urged audience members not to equate Islam with terrorism. "I am not a preacher, but it says in the Koran that the killing of one person amounts to the killing of all humanity."

Several audience members said they were impressed by "A Mighty Heart" and its messages of hope and tolerance in the face of terrorism.

"I found it very powerful that people were able to work together to fight one evil," said Atilla Kahveci, interfaith dialogue coordinator for Global Cultural Connections, a Southern California-based foundation that works to further cultural understanding.

But not all were so positive.

Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who has written a book on terrorism, said she was disappointed by the discussion. "They didn't get to the heart of the matter, how Mariane and Daniel Pearl were betrayed by people close to them," Lieberman said. "It seemed like a whitewash to me."

Also this week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has released its latest survey of reported incidents of anti-Muslim bias, which showed an increase of such cases in California and nationwide in 2006.

Reports of hate crimes or discrimination against Muslims in California in 2006 nearly doubled from the previous year, according to the new study.

The council reported 709 incidents in 2006 of anti-Muslim bias, harassment or violence statewide, which included the Christmas Day beating of a man praying in a Los Angeles park and several incidents of discrimination or verbal abuse directed at Muslim women wearing scarves. Nationally, the council reported 2,467 incidents, representing a 25% increase from 2005.

Much of the rise, both in California and nationwide, appeared to stem from delays reported by many Muslims in their efforts to become U.S. citizens, Ayloush and other council representatives said.

The officials attributed the increased cases to a range of factors, including continuing fallout from the Iraq war and increased reporting of incidents by Muslim individuals and communities to the council.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Recreating a Symbol of Hope

Recreating a Symbol of Hope
By Rabbi John Friedman

In 2004, a beloved graduate of my religious school came to my study to discuss a problem he was facing at his Ivy League university. Andy had always been a committed supporter of Israel, and his attachment was augmented by an emotional six-week NFTY-in-Israel experience. Now, a few years later and after a college-level Jewish Studies course on Israeli history, Andy was having trouble attending Hillel events.

“Rabbi, they have a big sign over the front door that says,’ Wherever you stand, you stand with Israel.’ How can I maintain unquestioning support for the occupation of another people, sustained with checkpoints and home demolitions and targeted killings?” Learning about Israel’s long occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories conquered during the June 1967 Six-Day War, had significantly diminished Andy’s affection for Israel. Now, he was distancing himself from the Jewish State he had once loved so deeply.

Andy’s transformation is emblematic of other Diaspora Jews. Many of our children are coming home from college having read histories of the State of Israel, and discovering that what they were taught about Israel is only part of the truth; many others simply read the daily news and find they can no longer accept the conventional wisdom with which they were raised.

The Six-Day War catalyzed a landslide of new membership in American synagogues and created an increased sense of Jewish identity; the occupation that followed, however, has gradually led to a diminished number of Jews who consider Israel an important part of that identity. This year, the occupation will reach the 40-year mark – longer by far than the American occupation of Japan or the Allied occupation of Germany. The results have been profound – for Israelis, for the Diaspora, and of course, for Palestinians.

Sadly, the world no longer sees Israel as a beacon of morality in the Middle East. Instead, Israel is widely derided as an imperialist aggressor. Once, Israel was “David” to the Arab “Goliath.” Today, Israel wields the power that oppresses Palestinians. In 1970, Israel could confidently sign UN resolution 242 declaring it unacceptable for a nation to acquire land by military force. Would she sign such a document today?

On May 16th, 2007,Yom Yerushalayim, we celebrated 40 years since the reunification of Jerusalem and Israel’s victory over hostile Arab states. Paradoxically, that day also marked 40 years since the very moment in which loving Israel started to become a challenge for Andy and others like him, 40 years of Israeli occupation of land inhabited largely by Palestinians.

After 40 years, it is time for American Jewry to help Israel, once more, become a symbol of hope to Jews everywhere.

John Friedman is Rabbi of Judea Reform Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina. He serves as chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet and board member of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Polls, Bias, and Violence

Some Slant Poll Results on Muslims in America
Hussam Ayloush, LA Daily News, 6/2/07

A new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center is a welcome indication on the state of American Muslims. Titled, "Muslim Americans, Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream," the report shows Muslims are well-integrated in the fabric of our society, are content socially and economically, and believe in the American dream.

Most major media outlets covered this story even-handedly, focusing on the overall positive conclusions that nearly two-thirds of American Muslims do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. This picture of the comfortable integration of American Muslims is a sharp contrast to the "ghettoization" of Muslim communities in parts of Western Europe.

Unfortunately, a few outlets could not resist the urge to sensationalize or slant the report. So, instead of embracing and reporting the crux of the poll - the contented integration of Muslims in America - they sought out a minor statistic dealing with suicide bombings.

In the Pew report, 1 percent of those polled reported "suicide bombings against civilian targets are often justified to defend Islam," while an additional 7 percent reported the bombings are "sometimes justified in these circumstances." Some media outlets chose to incorporate a selective analysis of the report in their stories, projecting a sensationalized and pessimistic view.

For instance, a New York Post headline read: "Bomb Shell: U.S. Muslims in new terror poll shocker." An Associated Press headline was: "Some Young Muslims Support Bombings," and World Peace Herald's headline ran: "Many young U.S. Muslims justify suicide bombings."

Furthermore, we can also observe a double standard coming into play here. Those who chose to sound the alarm regarding the suicide bombing statistic held by a minority of Muslims were completely silent when earlier views held by an even larger segment of the American population were revealed in polls. At least, the Muslim views should have been compared to that of the larger public. For instance, polls in 1945 showed over 80 percent of Americans supporting the use of the A-bomb on Hiroshima, with the knowledge that the bomb would mainly target innocent civilians. Such widespread support was justified by the desire to defend America and save American lives.

Over the years, that support has hovered around just about 54 percent, according to a 2005 Associated Press poll. Basically, more than half of Americans still support the precise targeting of civilians in defense of America. Moreover, in February, The Christian Science Monitor reported that "a survey conducted in December 2006 by the University of Maryland's Program on International Public Attitudes shows that only 46 percent of Americans think that `bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians' are `never justified,' while 24 percent believe these attacks are `often or sometimes justified."

Now, compare that figure to 78 percent of U.S. Muslims who say that suicide bombings against civilians are "never justified," while 8 percent believe these attacks are "often or sometimes justified," according to the Pew report. One would think that media would have highlighted the fact that American Muslims' support for deliberate killing of civilians is greatly lower than that among the average Americans.

Having said that, it is also extremely important to remember that even one person's support for targeting civilians is one too many. Regardless of one's religion or belief system, any support for violence should never go unnoticed or unaddressed. If anything, the results of both surveys show that a small but growing segment of our society is becoming desensitized to the culture of violence, thanks to the increasing war rhetoric, movies and presence of violent imagery in pop culture. It is clear that a portion of the media coverage of the report was inaccurate and misdirected.

The support for violence shown in the Pew poll is mainly a reflection of the larger society; it is not unique to any one group. Media, along with religious and political leaders, ought to work to challenge and minimize the culture of violence and its impact on the American psyche. Instead of only asking how many support violence against civilians in the defense of one's country or religion, we should also ask: Why does such support exist and what can be done to dismantle the support for this alarming phenomenon?

Hussam Ayloush is executive director of the Los Angeles-area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Hussam Ayloush on claims of Anti-Semitism at UCI

UC Irvine finds it's embroiled in Mideast debate

Orange County not geopolitical hotbed
By Dan Laidman

June 3, 2007


LOS ANGELES – A guest speaker at the University of California Irvine this year denounced compromise solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and declared that “the Palestinians must have their will crushed.”

A group of protesters then disrupted the speech and marched outside, where one young man said to rousing cheers that “it's just a matter of time before the state of Israel will be wiped off the face of the Earth.”

The conflagration in the Middle East has roiled American college campuses for decades, and as the violence continues abroad, the debate rages on in the United States. For several years, the flash point of this conflict in Southern California has been UC Irvine, a dubious distinction that was again highlighted last week when the university's chancellor met with representatives of the Orange County Jewish community at their request in the wake of escalating rhetoric from both sides.

Chancellor Michael Drake gave a general condemnation of hateful speech while defending the right of campus speakers to express themselves.

That UC Irvine has gained renown for political fireworks comes as something of a surprise, given the surrounding city's reputation as a sleepy Orange County suburb.

“When I got to UCI, I did not have any idea that I would be hit hard with such a strong anti-Israel sentiment,” said Reut Cohen, a third-year student active in pro-Israel groups. “It's really strange because Irvine in general is very Christian (and) very conservative.”

Marya Bangee, a third-year student who serves as spokeswoman for the Muslim Students Union, echoed that sentiment, but from the opposite perspective.

“We're in the middle of conservative Orange County, and that is obviously a difficult atmosphere to be discussing political issues here,” she said. “There are definitely organizations ... that are trying to shut down free speech with regard to Israel.”

Tensions escalated throughout the spring as former President Jimmy Carter visited the campus to discuss his latest book, which is highly critical of Israel. Last month, the Muslim Student Union held an annual week of events sharply criticizing Israel, and one member of the group had a bizarre run-in with an FBI agent who appeared to be monitoring students on campus.

Jewish groups have raised concerns that campus events ostensibly criticizing Israeli policy have crossed over into anti-Semitism, while some Muslims have complained that rhetoric from the other side denigrates their religion.

Still, Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez said the campus has an obligation to allow free speech to be stretched to its limits.

“If we don't allow the discussion and the debate of these ideas within a university community, where there are so many rich intellectual resources, where do we allow it?” he asked rhetorically.

Gomez added that the Israeli-Palestinian issue has created similar tension at other universities recently, among them Columbia, Duke, Georgetown and the University of California Berkeley. He suggested that a unique feature of the debate at UC Irvine is the deep involvement of outside organizations, something he attributes to the school's “open, public” nature.

Kevin O'Grady, the Costa Mesa-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he agrees that no one should be silenced and that the university has been evenhanded in dealing with provocative speech. However, his group wants university officials to condemn specific speeches that the ADL believes have crossed over from legitimate debate to inciting hatred.

“You don't go and hear these speakers and hear a critique of Israeli foreign policy,” O'Grady said. “What you hear is, 'There will be a single solution when Israel is destroyed.' ”

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim, said he has talked extensively with Muslim students at UC Irvine and hasn't encountered anti-Semitism.

“We can sit and debate with both sides, basically, about the type of speakers and the titles of their events; that is all legitimate,” he said. “But to label them as bigots and so on is a stretch of the truth.”

Ayloush said some of the Muslim students tend to be strident in their political beliefs, something he attributes to demographic trends.

“The growing second generation of American Muslims is choosing to tackle such issues; they have less fear and intimidation than their first-generation immigrant Muslim parents,” he said. “They're trying to express their identity.”

Orange County's sizable population of these and other second-generation immigrants helps explain the intense nature of the debate at UC Irvine, Ayloush said.

Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, provided a similar analysis, adding that it isn't surprising to hear college students on both sides express political views in strong terms.

“These tactics utilized by some of the young people there on campus kind of mirror the tactics of (self-identified anarchist) Abbie Hoffman in the 1960s,” he said. “What can you do to draw the maximum amount of press attention . . . and be the most controversial in order to make a big bang so then you can get out your political perspective?”

That can be a healthy part of the democratic process, Kennedy said, but it also creates the need for outreach to bring the parties together. He has been working with Gomez and other university officials to create dialogue and more cordial debate.

“You can have a difficult conversation without having it break down,” Kennedy said.