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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,July/August 1999, pages 21, 83

Special Report

Dispute Between Kabbani Followers and Hosts Disrupts Forum at Islamic Center of Southern California

By Pat McDonnell Twair

A landmark meeting at the Islamic Center of Southern California that featured a State Department ambassador-at-large speaking on international religious freedom ended on a sour note June 8 when members of the Islamic Supreme Council of America disrupted closing comments of Dr. Maher Hathout, the center’s spokesman.

More than 200 Muslims and representatives of the Christian and Jewish communities stared in disbelief as the ISCA dissenters shouted “dictator” at Dr. Hathout. They noisily refused to leave but did sit down when security officers asked them to.

“In the 15 years that we have been presenting ecumenical conferences, town halls and press conferences, the conduct—even among adversaries—was civil,” stated Salam al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Yesterday was a dark day in the history of our community.”

The well-publicized program at the Islamic Center featured Robert Seiple, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and Dr. Laila al-Marayati, White House appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The theme of the forum was “International Religious Freedom: Relations between the U.S. and the Muslim World.”

Dr. Marayati opened the program by describing her role on the commission as one of giving a sense of fairness to the perspective of Muslim religious freedom abroad. “Even in countries where Muslims are the majority, secular regimes may persecute citizens for religious beliefs,” she said, citing conditions in Uzbekistan, where young women who wear hijab are labeled “Wahhabi extremists,” and in Turkey, where a scarved member of parliament was denied her seat in the political body.

“This also enables Muslims who are persecuted in the western provinces of China, in Israel, Burma, the Philippines and former Yugoslavia to bring their grievances to our attention,” she concluded.

In taking the podium, Ambassador Seiple said that dispatches cross his desk every day about Muslim-Hindu clashes in India, dire conditions of Coptic Christians in Egypt, Christian slaves in Sudan and a Catholic bishop who has been imprisoned for 27 years in China.

The former director of World Vision attributed the causes of religious persecution to the “inability to live with that which makes us different,” the need for power, greed to possess the resources and land of others, and hatred.

Another cause of persecution, he pointed out, is when religion is superficially understood and improperly applied. A case in point, he said, was the sailor who wrote “Happy Ramadan” on a missile aimed toward Iraq during the Gulf war.

“When American Muslims saw a photograph of the sailor’s graffiti on the missile, they were rightfully upset,” he continued. What is the solution? “To impart education, sensitivity and respect for other religions. This is what my office concentrates on.”

The former university administrator stressed that all major faiths believe in human dignity and reconciliation. Calling for a new reconciled relationship among all people, he said: “I hope the 21st century will be anchored in reconciliation, but it will not be easy to accomplish.” Turning to situations within the United States, Ambassador Seiple touched upon a topic his Los Angeles hosts had advised him not to broach, inasmuch as it didn’t deal with religious freedom.

“Some of you Muslims in this country don’t like each other. I am saddened by the de facto boycott of the Islamic Supreme Council of America,” Ambassador Seiple said. “There ought to be a better way [of solving your differences].”

While non-Muslims in the audience were for the most part in the dark as to what Ambassador Seiple was referring to in his remarks, they stunned many Muslims in the room.

The controversy centers around Sheikh Hisham Kabbani, a Lebanon-born religious leader who has been in the U.S. for the past nine years championing his international Naqshbandi order of Sufism. The Los Angeles Times published a lengthy profile on Kabbani on April 15 stating he has converted hundreds of inner city African Americans to his fold. Other reported supporters include his uncle, the grand mufti of Lebanon, the president of Chechnya, the Sultan of Brunei (one of the wealthiest men in the world), and O.J. Simpson.

To all appearances, the 54-year-old Sheikh Kabbani sees himself as the catalyst for making his brand of Islam the dominant Muslim force in the U.S. However, most American Muslim organizations see dangerous divisiveness in his message. Kabbani gained the enmity of nearly every Muslim group in the U.S. on Jan. 7 when he delivered a speech to a State Department open forum.

In essence, the white-bearded Sufi charged that the “ideology of extremism has been spread to 80 percent of the [American] Muslim population.” He claimed the foremost Muslim student organization was directed by extremists and hinted that alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden was buying nuclear devices from the Russian mafia which could then fall into the hands of radical Muslim students in the U.S.

As soon as the Kabbani speech reached the media, Muslim groups reacted angrily, stating the Kabbani opinions voiced to the U.S. government’s foreign policymaking agency placed American Muslims under suspicion as a danger to the greater society.

Eight major U.S. Muslim organizations issued a joint letter to Sheikh Kabbani demanding that he retract his accusations or prove them. Since then, an additional 110 Muslim groups and individuals have endorsed the condemnation of the religious leader and called upon him to disclose publicly financial details of his tax-exempt organizations.

Ambassador Seiple closed his remarks with the admonition that he himself is the product of a split church. “I still feel bad about it,” he noted. “We stopped talking to each other and then split. This then inoculated the unconverted from our faith.”

The Kabbani controversy was not brought up during the question-and-answer session which did, however, open another touchy subject: Zionist Organization of America director Morton Klein’s objection to Dr. Marayati sitting on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.

“I am a fan of Laila,” Ambassador Seiple responded. “I’ll make this point clear, it [Klein’s accusation] is profoundly stupid.”

When asked if he will take a stand on Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian Christians and Muslims to enter Jerusalem, he said: “We brought this up when we went to Israel. We have pushed Israel on this; its rationale is that it withholds Palestinian access to the holy sites for security reasons. We must get the peace process going so that Jerusalem doesn’t have to be shut down.”

In response to a suggestion that the phrase Judeo-Christian tradition be replaced by “Abrahamic faiths,” he enthused: “What a great idea. I will suggest it.”

Another questioner asked if his office will be the religious policeman of the world.

“We promote religious freedom and reconciliation and we will try to weave these two aspects into our foreign policy,” Ambassador Seiple said. “We are talking about human rights here that transcend boundaries. We have covenants with other nations and the U.S. goes into countries for various reasons. It would be the height of ironies if we didn’t care about human rights. The issue of human rights over sovereignty started with Somalia. It is the rationale for Kosovo.” He concluded with the comment that after 223 years, the State Department has created an office on religious freedom. Since then, Australia, Britain and Germany have made inquiries about establishing a similar body.

As Dr. Hathout began his closing comments, a group of six or seven supporters of Sheikh Kabbani demanded to speak. When Dr. Hathout told them the forum was no place to debate their differences, they called him a dictator. Hedieh Mirahmadi, an attorney who is general secretary of ISCA, shouted that her group had submitted at least 10 questions in writing that were not addressed.

The questions, Mirahmadi later stated, were directed at Dr. Marayati and asked her how, as a protector of religious freedom, she could condone the boycott of a leader of another Muslim organization.

Other Kabbani supporters shouted that they had received death threats. The master of ceremonies retorted that the Islamic Center also has received threats. This was in reference to threats that were phoned to Aslam Abdullah, editor of Minaret magazine. The calls came after Mr. Abdullah wrote editorials that accused Sheikh Kabbani of twisting Islam into a cult of personality.

Once order was restored, Ambassador Seiple apologized to the audience and voiced his regret over mentioning the split between mainstream Muslims and the ISCA. Looking at Dr. Hathout and the Kabbani disciples, he suggested they meet at a future date in his Washington office.

Will this happen?

Subsequently Muslim Public Affairs Council director Salam al-Marayati (husband of Dr. Laila al-Marayati) told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,: “We’re willing to meet anyone anytime, but not if it is part of the State Department’s agenda to intensify bad feelings. If the Kabbani people feel a need to come back, this is not the way to do it.”

He added that he considered Ambassador Seiple’s analogy of his own church’s split to the objections of mainstream Muslim groups to Kabbani as erroneous. “The issue is not over religious differences, but about the security and identity of Muslims in the U.S. which were threatened by Mr. Kabbani’s speech to the State Department,” Salam al-Marayati said.

Inasmuch as ISCA’s Mirahmadi had traveled from Washington, DC to attend the meeting, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, asked Marayati if he had received advance notice that the Kabbani followers would be at the forum.

“No,” he replied. “I just saw them enter the center’s lobby and I took time to shake their hands and say I was glad that, despite our differences, they were joining us.”

In a June 10 phone conversation with Mirahmadi, who is general counsel for ISCA, she told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, she was a board member of MPAC in 1993 or 1994.

When we asked how she feels about the breach with Salam and Laila Marayati, she replied: “Terrible. I hugged Laila when I saw her before the [June 8] program.

Then why the protest at the Islamic Center?

“For nine years, Sheikh Kabbani has tried to extend his hand to American Islamic groups,” Mirahmadi said. “They have refused. The final straw was when they boycotted us.”

When we asked Mirahmadi, who holds a law degree from the University of Southern California and specializes in corporate and non-profit areas, what drew her to Kabbani’s school of Islam, she said it was the “spiritual aspects of Islam, the purification of the soul, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday and concept of intercession which are unacceptable to Sunni Muslims.”

One thing is certain. Mohammed Hisham Kabbani has united other American Muslims as they have never been united before.

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.