House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) withdrew the nomination of a prominent Muslim leader to a congressional commission on terrorism yesterday, after some American Jewish organizations raised concerns about the appointment.
Salam Al Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said Gephardt called him Thursday night to explain that it would be impossible to complete his security clearance in time for him to serve on the 10-member National Commission on Terrorism.
Several lawmakers had pressed for a full-scale investigation of whether Marayati could get the necessary security clearance.
Since such an investigation could take up to year, it "is not likely to be processed in time for Mr. Al-Marayati to participate in the commission's work," Gephardt wrote yesterday in a letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). All other panel members already have clearances or held them recently, Gephardt noted.
Gephardt aides said yesterday that political considerations did not influence his decision to reverse course on the nomination -- which was proposed by Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.).
The action followed weeks of lobbying against Marayati by the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
All took issue with Marayati's statements on terrorism, specifically that directed against Israel.
"We have very different views on what constitutes terrorism or how terrorism is defined and what are the appropriate responses for the United States," said David Harris, executive director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee. "This was a defining issue and we were not prepared to compromise."
Marayati, who also serves on Los Angeles's Human Relations Commission, attributed Gephardt's turnabout to "pressure tactics" from Jewish groups which use "heavy-handedness in imposing their agenda," which is "that you must toe the line of unconditional, blind support for Israel to be even considered to give advice to Congress."
"I feel I had a valuable voice to offer the commission and the loss of an American Muslim representative is a loss for Congress," said Marayati, 38, who came to this country as a child after his family fled President Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Marayati had come under fire from Jewish critics for several years because, although he condemned terrorism, he also suggested that Israeli policies toward Palestinians had contributed to extremist violence by Islamic movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Such comments, Marayati said yesterday, should no more be construed as justifying violence than the reports of committees that laid out the causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Harris said that "one could much too easily and much too glibly seek to explain all acts of terrorism as nothing more than legitimate expressions of grievance. To me, that's a bit too simple." His committee sent Gephardt a letter yesterday congratulating him for his decision.
The terrorism panel is charged with reviewing U.S. policies toward terrorism and making a report within six months of its first meeting. Other appointees include L. Paul Bremer, former U.S. ambassador at large for terrorism and R. James Woolsey, former Central Intelligence Agency director.
"There is no reason not to have a responsible Arab American on this commission," said Bremer. However, he added that after reading some of Marayati's statements, "I can understand why there would be concerns about him serving on a commission that is supposed to be figuring out how to improve our counter-terrorism policy."
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said yesterday that Gephardt's move deprives the commission of someone who "represents mainstream Muslim perspective" on terrorism. "The pro-Israeli lobby has manipulated discussion on this important issue."
Gene Lichenstein, editor of the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, said he did not believe Marayati condones terrorism and that it was a "disservice to American Jews" to have opposed his participation in the commission.
"I believe [Marayati] is critical of Israel," said Lichenstein. "I think it would be difficult to find a Muslim or an Arab in America who is not critical of Israel."