Middle East Forum in Los Angeles

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

With events in the Middle East unfolding at an incredibly rapid rate, people are left with more questions than answers, and the answers they have do not seem credible or profound. The main stream media report on site but with no depth or true understanding of the events they cover.

This past Sunday the Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC) in Los Angeles hosted a forum presented by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). The forum was titled: “The New Middle East: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Beyond”. The event was standing room only.

Featured as speakers in the forum were: Dr. Maher Hathout, Sarah Eltantawi, Dr. Mark Levine, and Nayereh Tohidi.

Dr. Hathout is a familiar and revered figure among Muslims and non Muslims alike. A prolific writer, he is a sought after speaker, often at interfaith events. He is also a celebrated author. Dr. Hathout is one of the founders of the ICSC and is the Senior Political Advisor to MPAC.

Sarah Eltantawi is a PhD candidate in the study of Islam at Harvard University. She is a frequent visitor to the Middle East and spent a year in university there.

Mark Levine is a professor of history at the University of California in Irvine. Dr. Levine speaks seven languages and is also a frequent visitor to the Middle East. He recently returned from Egypt where he was present in Tahir Square.

Nayereh  Tohidi is a professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at California State University Northridge.

Jihad Turk, the Director of Religious Affairs at the ICSC, was the moderator.

Prior to the introduction of the panel members and the beginning of the discussion the audience was reminded that Muslim Americans have a great role to play in current events because of their understanding of the relevant culture there.

Dr. Maher Hathout took to the podium. He told his audience that he was often asked what was happening in the Middle East. He said he would begin by saying what was not happening. He said that this is not an uprising. This is a revolution. This is a radical change that started at the base.  This is a revolution of the base. This is not a youth revolution. This is a revolution of the people. We are, of course, grateful to the youth who began it, continued Dr. Hathout.

Many of those involved in the revolution were at the upper end of the economic scale – this was not a movement of the hungry. Dr. Hathout cautioned us not to believe the mantra of every dictator – that he provides stability and that the alternative is chaos.

“Revolutions bring reality”.

“What made it happen” asked Dr. Hathout. “The spirit of God in people. There is no submission but to the Creator”.

Then the speaker addressed the role of the mainstream media. The people who present the news are not Muslims, and they are not from the area. This reporting is therefore dishonest. When they ask if the people behind the revolution are ready for democracy, what they really mean is: are these people up to our standards.

After well deserved applause, Dr. Hathout joined the other three panelists to answer questions posed by Jihad Turk.

When asked how we deal with the image of the scary Islamist put forth by incumbent dictators and the mass media, Sarah Eltantawi said that these events are the most exciting of her life. She said that she agreed 100% with Maher Hathout. At this point it is not a matter of what we can do. She suggested that this is a moment when we should sit back and learn.

In Tahir Square, she continued, Muslims and non-Muslims prayed together. Muslim demonstrators and police held hands.

“We have to let events run their course”.

In addressing the role played by women in the revolutions and the role women would play in the future course of these nations,  Nayereh Tohidi said that this is a humbling moment. The stereotypes of the Arab and Muslim world have crumbled. With the exception of Libya, women have been playing an active role and will continue to. They will not settle for any government that will put them down. She added that Libya concerns her and that she forsees a bloodbath there.

In addressing the role of Saudi Arabia, Mark  Levine said that Saudi Arabia will change in order to remain relevant. Saudi money has changed the face of Islam in many places throughout the world.  Now the whole system that the Saudis embrace is going to become irrelevant.

Further in the conversation Nayereh Tohidi observed that we cannot be taken in by the cry of dictators that anyone who opposes them is a foreign agent. Human rights is an achievement of human beings.

Mark Levine said that on his recent trip to Egypt he saw a new spirit that challenges the old ways.  Everyone knows what the risks are and how they must stand up for human rights. The leaders of the revolution are showing the world what the future can be.

All agreed that it was time for President Obama to support these revolutions, not just in empty platitudes about change and freedom. All agreed that it was time for a new foreign policy that took into account the new realities in the Muslim world.

Salaam Al Marayati took the podium to speak of MPAC’s proposal that would involve the audience for the present and then the general public.

He said that our people forced the US to change its policy.The people in the Middle East have set a high bar. US policy will have to change to respect human rights. MPAC plus the ICSC will take the necessary legal steps to set up a war crimes tribunal to try these former dictators and their accomplices.

He then referred to an action table in the back of the meeting hall where literature was available and urged the audience to use the literature to write to their congresspersons. Sample letters were available.

The people must demand of their representatives that: America must heed the will of the people; America must always condemn the killing of innocent civilians, and that America must be on the side of those who thirst for justice and freedom.

A call to prayer ended the conversation, all too soon in the view of the audience, many of whom were reluctant to let the speakers leave. The event was a burst of fresh air on a topic that has been for too long left to the main stream media.

“I feel that I now understand for the first time what is going on in the Middle East.” said one young woman as she approached the action table.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council was founded in 1988 on building a Muslim American identity. To learn more about MPAC, its achievements, goals and programs, please access them at: www.mpac.org.

To access the Islamic Cemter of Southern California, please visit their web site at: www.islamctr.org.


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