In 1992, when the Serb onslaught in Bosnia was at its bloody worst and the diplomatic voice of Bosnia's Muslims was barely audible, Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's newly appointed United Nations delegate, later to become its foreign minister, visited the West Coast. Sarajevo is a long way from Los Angeles. As a stranger in this indecipherable metropolis, to whom did Sacirbey turn?
He turned -- as so many Muslim visitors to Los Angeles have learned to do -- to Salam Al-Marayati of the city's Muslim Public Affairs Council. Al-Marayati, as is his way, had patiently taken the trouble to learn who at the Los Angeles Times might have time for a little-known Muslim visitor. I was then writing on Bosnia for the paper's editorial page. With two or three of my colleagues, I had lunch at the newspaper with Sacirbey. I recall the lunch vividly because Sacirbey urged for Bosnia an American strategy that has just worked in Kosovo: NATO air power without NATO ground troops, no embargo on arms for local self-defense and no deals of any kind with Slobodan Milosevic.
I recall equally well, however, the unassuming, statesmanlike role that Al-Marayati himself played. During my four years on the editorial board, I was to see him play it many times and with many visitors less at ease than Sacirbey, who was partly educated in America. A chasm separates the many Muslim cultures from Western cultures, not least from California culture. Again and again, I saw Al-Marayati -- the son of Iraqi refugee parents who was raised in the United States -- bridge this chasm. Young men are supposed to be rash and brash. This young man was astute and discreet. He listened more than he spoke. When he did speak, typically in press releases for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, it was most often to establish his organization's paper trail of opposition to terrorism (which is by now quite lengthy).
For all these reasons, Al-Marayati is perfectly suited for the seat on the National Commission on Terrorism that, it appears, anti-Muslim bigotry has succeeded in denying him. Rep. Richard Gephardt, the minority leader, named Al-Marayati to the congressional commission in June, but last week he withdrew the appointment after protests. Gephardt ought to have paid more attention to moderate leaders in the Los Angeles Jewish community who know Al-Marayati -- among them eminent figures like Rabbi Leonard Beerman and Rabbi Alfred Wolf -- and less to the strident voices of unrepresentative Jewish pressure groups.
Their success in blackballing Al-Marayati's appointment unfortunately illustrates his own most controversial statement; namely, that "the supporters of Israel have created a quiet reign of terror in the U.S." If the minority leader of the House of Representatives can be brought so easily to heel, how much independence can the average representative risk?
Al-Marayati's loss will be the nation's gain, however, if this episode becomes, as it should, the occasion for some second thoughts about what counts as terrorism both for Congress and for the American press.
"We have very different views on what constitutes terrorism or how terrorism is defined and what are the appropriate responses for the United States," says David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. Harris is surely right, but the National Commission on Terrorism cannot debate those differences, as it must, if key voices are suppressed in advance.
Jack Miles, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, writes frequently about religion and politics.