Saudi Time Bomb?
haroun fazul
photo of maher hathout
interview: maher hathout

Why is there a debate about what the true image of Islam is?

There is debate in our mind. But the perception of others about Islam indicates to us that what they perceive is not what we really believe is the real Islam. We have Islam that has been hijacked, tampered with, and projected according to sometimes bias of special agendas, or just mere ignorance.

But tell me, this organization ... do you differentiate between Sunni Islam or Shiite or...

I'm not in this center. I'm not in that organization. As a matter of fact, we believe that Islam is documented in the Koran and modeled by the personality of prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him; and anything else is manmade. So it is a give and take, and Islam should adapt and accommodate the different cultures. This is why there is an Egyptian Muslim identity, there is an Indian Muslim identity, and there should be an American Muslim identity.

Are you aware of the Muslim World League, for instance?

Yes. ... The Muslim World League is supposedly a nongovernmental organization. Nonetheless, it was sponsored and supported by Saudi Arabia, and played a certain role in building mosques and giving ... imams to different mosques in America. This one is not included. ...

Is the Muslim World League not around?

I think it is around. But what I'm saying is that certain groups like our group, we don't deal with it, because we believe that the American Muslim identity should be completely independent, should neither receive money or support from an environment that is different from the American environment.

An Egyptian-born cardiologist, Dr. Maher Hathout is now an American citizen. He is a senior adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California. In this interview, Hathout says that Islam has been hijacked and tampered with by radicals. He describes his mosque's progressive philosophies, its insistence on creating a Muslim identity that gels with American pluralism, and explains why his mosque decided to protect its independence by refusing foreign funds. He also discusses the Saudi money flowing into the U.S. to build and support mosques during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This interview was conducted on Oct. 26, 2001.

Let's go back to the very beginning and talk about when you came here.

I came to Los Angeles. Before that, I was in Buffalo, N.Y., for seven years. I was Islamically active also. Then I came to Los Angeles, to this particular Islamic Center. And with a group of men and women, we started working very hard to illustrate what we mean by American Muslim identity and how to find a space for the future of Islam in America, being part of the American pluralism.

So was this particular location, this particular mosque, ever approached with donations of money?

Oh, yes.

Can you tell a story about that?

Yes. I don't recollect the specific story. But the modus operandi was: a group of Muslims will gather to try to collect some money. They will send their emissaries to Saudi Arabia or to the Gulf states and collect money. Sometimes they collect from individuals, which I think there is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes also they ask the government to officially give money. And so they build their mosque and they pay their debts, et cetera.

I don't think Wahhabism  will condone lots of things done by some elite of Saudi Arabia who come to Las Vegas and have fun.We don't hear a very strong voice condemning them for that. But if they see a woman driving a car, they consider this a major sin. This particular school of thought here opted not to do that. We believe that a community that cannot sustain itself does not probably deserve to be. And if people believe in you and in your line, they will support you, people here in the locality. And so we were very strict about that.

Now, is that unusual, your philosophy?

I would say now it is very common. At that time -- I'm talking about 17 years ago or so, or 20 -- it was odd. Because people always ask, "Why not? It is money of Muslims for Muslims, for Islam," et cetera. They say money with no strings attached. I think money itself is strings. It doesn't have to be attached to anything. So...

And what do you mean?

Once someone pays you, you would be more careful in your statements. You will say the party line of that person. We feel that this is not for the best interest of Islam in America, not for the best interest of American people who'd like to look at Islam afresh, not tinted by what they see all over the world.

Well, what's the harm in [accepting money for the mosques from foreign countries]?

The harm is that Islam here will be a foreign entity. As a physician, I know that foreign bodies are eventually rejected. And this is not what we wanted; this is not the mission. Islam is a universal religion. So if it is in America, it becomes an American Muslim identity. And we felt that to be a component of the American pluralists, we have to be Americans to the core, who are guided by Koran and following the model of the prophet, without carrying the baggage of the Middle East or Far East or whatever.

But what's the difference between you, let's say, and another mosque, let's say, in this area? ...

The difference is that we are trying to find our own way, not to follow a way that somebody came from abroad and told us, "This is the way." For example, in this center early on, the language was always the English language except when we recite scripture, when we recite it in the original language followed by translation. We never segregated genders. We never imposed any code. We educated -- but no imposing of anything.

So this gives a different flavor than a traditional mosque, which is an extension to an area. Whether this area is Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan or Iran, it carries the flavor of that area which will make persons who are not from that area feel foreigners inside the mosque. And we felt that this is wrong. This a pluralism within the pluralism, and should have its own identity.

Bear with me, because we're going to try to educate the particulars of the Saudi Arabia influence in this country. What would that be? What is it that they bring to this country in terms of their interpretation of Islam?

Number one, I don't want to play down their generosity and their genuine belief that they are doing something good. This is not what I mean. But definitely, they come with their own local culture to a different culture. So they are very, very strong about gender issues, while we believe that the Koran gave equal rights and duties to both genders. And they are very strong about segregation; we believe that actually the early model of Islam was complete integration. So we don't have to follow that model.

I knew about some of their imams or leaders. They deliver their sermons in Arabic, while we have a large component of African-American Muslims and white American Muslims and Pakistanis and Indians who don't understand the language. So the performance there and the execution of the mission is completely different.

Also you don't expect them to be critical about certain issues of that part of the world [that] we are very critical about from an American perspective. We believe in democracy and this area should be democratized. We believe in equal distribution of the wealth. It is very wrong to see that the natural wealth that came from the land belongs to a certain family. It is the property of all the people, and so on and so forth. If you are taking money from those people, you will not be feel free to criticize.

If I go to, let's say, King Fahd Mosque and I say to them, "Well, you've been criticized that you're taking money from a foreign country that has different ideas than the pillars of American society." What do you think they're going to say to me?

I really don't know. I can't speculate and read their mind. I have never been in King Fahd Mosque. But I expect that you will find, for example, a very luxurious building, not like a humble one like this. I expect that you'll find gender segregated. And I expect that you'll find the line about talking about traditional issues. This is what I expect. I don't know whether this is the truth or not. As I said, I have not been there, ever. ...

So, for instance, the imams in King Fahd Mosque... How are they different? ...

It's very interesting. Number one, we don't have an imam here. We call the imam a "religious service coordinator," because the word "imam" -- nothing wrong with it, imam means "in front," it means "leading" -- carried connotation. Sometimes it carried the same connotation of clerical person, holy man, who knows the word of God more than the common people. We felt that this is not right and is not conducive of an environment of free debate and a democratic environment that will lead to better ideas, collective ideas, and collective thinking.

So right there, you will find a difference. We don't have an imam. I lead the prayers here. I'm Dr. Hathout, not Imam Hathout.

What is the influence, as far as you know? How does the influence pervade, perhaps, that congregation?

I tell you. For example, they send imams and books in Arabic. And these books are translated into English and the translation is not always very good. And they are talking about an environment that is obsolete, the world-view of the unbelievers fighting the believers. So it comes very irrelevant to the diversity and the pluralism in America.

These books are all over the place, because they can afford to make very glossy magazines and distribute it for free. As I said, their intention is probably good; but the out-product is an image that's not fitting in what we are living through.

They send the imams, who are speaking a language that our new generation does not understand. ... It alienated the new generation from the mosques to a great extent. And they send books that, when the critical mind of a young American Muslim will read, will not exactly accept. It creates an environment where the family comes together, then at the doorstep, the woman go this way and the man go this way, which I don't understand why. So that influence definitely was there.

And sometimes in the attire itself. ... When you look at [clothing] like this, say, "My God, they are not from here." And this is something that I don't think is very conducive. ... [People] should not lose their cultural complexions, but should definitely adapt to the American environment without losing their principles or their beliefs or their model of behavior. But they don't have to do that. They don't have to be the foreign team that's coming to play a game and leave. They have to be indigenous in a way, part of America, part of the fabric of America.

I know that you don't fundraise in Saudi Arabia, so you don't know the inside thing. But you said that maybe a congregation might get together and go to Saudi Arabia to look for funds. But are the funds not offered, as well?

In certain years, they were very generous in offering funds. And I know that King Fahd Mosque cost several millions -- I don't know exactly how much. I know that the inauguration of that mosque itself, the price tag was several million dollars. That could have worked wonders for the refugees or the homeless or the African-American mosques that were emerging, trying to carry a message.

So I don't believe in that style at all. ... I am not picking on the Saudis in particular. But I feel that each community should be able to carry its own load. And the people, if they are rich and generous as individuals, they might help whatever cause they feel is meeting their aspirations and helping life to be better.

We're talking about Kind Fahd Mosque and you say that the inauguration itself cost several million. Was it a congregation of American Muslims who went to Saudi Arabia and said, "Please build a mosque here?"

I don't know how the process started. But I know that when the mosque asked to be opened and inaugurated, [the] prince for Saudi Arabia came with a huge entourage, with people flown from all over America to come to attend to the inauguration. And if I remember, something took place in Century Plaza Hotel, very lavish, luxurious thing.

Money itself is not bad. But what I'm saying is, let money be spent by communities according to their priorities, and not necessarily coming from abroad saying, "Here is the money." And the expectation, whether it is spelled out clearly or not, is that, of course, "Islam is what I say."

We've touched on this. But what is the creed of Islam that is preached in Saudi Arabia? What is it called?

Well, the word "creed" is important because the creed of Islam is the same: the belief in one God, the belief in the oneness of his message, the oneness of the human family. And the devotion to God should be expressed in human rights, good manners, and mercy, peace, justice, and freedom. No two Muslims will argue about this creed. It is documented in the Koran as the highest authority, modeled by the authentic teaching of the prophet, and the authenticity has always been subject of study and debate.

So the creed is crystal clear. But the interpretation or the way you approach life, which should be a dynamic thing, should change from time to time. When you freeze it at a certain period or at a certain interpretation, problems happen. I know that people called it Wahhabism; I don't subscribe to the term. [Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab] at his time was considered a progressive person.

If you freeze things at his time -- which was the eighteenth century, or the late part of the seventeenth century, I don't remember the dates exactly -- it becomes very stagnant and very literalist. And a very straitjacketed puritan approach that does not cater to the changeables and the dynamics of life. People call this Wahhabism.

Saudis, by the way, never say, "We are Wahhabis." They say, "We are just Muslims." But they follow the teachings, and the major booklets taught in all schools are the books of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. Anyone who's subscribing to someone else is not very much welcomed.

So there's a quote in the [New York Times] article that we were looking at before that basically says that Saudi Arabians believe that their form of Islam ... is the real true form of Islam, and that pretty much any other kind of way of practicing Islam is wrong.

Yes. This is probably some of the Saudi scholars. ... They are playing the role of clergy; there should be no church in Islam. There should be no theological hierarchy. But they acquired that position and, of course, them and the ruling family are very close. After all, Muhammad bin Abdul al-Wahhab is the one who paved the road for Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the patriarch of the family, to conquer the rest of the [Arabian] Peninsula and to rule. So there is very great cohesiveness between the two.

And so they believe that that's it, this is the truth. And not only that that is it, it does not change, which is very problematic. Because we know that even at the early history of Islam, as new issues emerged, new jurisprudence was created to suit the change of the time and age. That's early on, at probably 25 years after the death of the prophet, peace be upon him.

So they, that group of people, believe that this is the only form and it does not change. This of course creates major problems, and it creates some kind of schizophrenic situation. ... I don't think that Wahhabism ... will condone or accept lots of things that are done by some of the elite of Saudi Arabia who come to Las Vegas and have fun and do this and do that. And we don't hear a very strong voice exposing this or condemning them for that.

But if they see a woman driving a car, they consider this a major sin. There is confusion here. We wanted to actually protect Islam from that very narrow tunnel-visioned look that will make it irrelevant, will marginalize Islam as one of the shaping factors of human civilization, as it has always been. Once you are irrelevant to the civilization of the time and age, you can have your own cocoon and say whatever you want. But who cares?

You touched on the idea that it's not compatible, this form of Islam. ... You also mentioned that there was a time when the Saudis really were spending a lot of money in this country. Can you go back to that and talk about that a little?

Yes, they definitely spent lots of money on what they considered training of imams and building mosques and some schools to follow that model. And I consider it, sometimes, wasted money, because it created something that's totally irrelevant and had to change.

And it is very interesting. Some of the people who received this money are now changing their mind completely and say "No, we are not going to go this way," whether amongst indigenous Muslims, or people like myself who are immigrants. Lots of people who received the support are realizing now that they are on the margin of America, they are not within America. And by now, they have children and grandchildren who are Americans to the core, so it doesn't work.

But when was the time when all the money was coming in?

Late 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, there was lots of money coming in. ... The Muslim World League was spending money. There were lots of donations and grants from the government given to people and to institutions. This created that marginalized school that eventually found that it is not taking root, especially with the new generation. The new generation is different. They're brought up in America, they elected their student government, they argue with their teachers, they ask questions. ...

Why does this form take off so well, let's say, with the Taliban? I know that they received a lot of money indirectly from the kingdom. And it seems like their brand has taken off pretty well in...

But not in America. ... That's the point. You might find a special kind of performance to suit a certain place. But definitely within a pluralistic society, an open society with a great democracy like ours, definitely the brand of Taliban or whatever will not will never tick with the people here, and will lose its relevance completely. So while this formula might work with an angry, oppressed crowd, it will not work in an open, pluralistic affluent society.

Whether Saudis gave money to Taliban or not... I guess they probably did. And so did the CIA and so did the Pakistani intelligence. So we can't just pick on the Saudis. We just cannot point a finger to them. I think there was that expediency, that Pakistan wanted a friendly government on their border. They didn't like the Northern Alliance for their own reasons. And the Americans wanted to defeat the Soviet Union and wanted stability in the area, and so they help they created the monster. ...

We're trying to explain charity to people, and what charity means in a certain part of the world. Somebody said to me how everybody says, "Oh charity, charity's good." ... We also have looked into ... schools and mosques in Kuwait, and places that are very poor, like the Comoros Islands on the coast of eastern Africa. And they get money from the Saudis. One of the embassy bombers is from the Comoros. What's the influence there? What do you think about that?

I am a firm believer that it's not enough to be charitable. You've got to know what this money is producing, and I believe that the Koran supports this idea. God doesn't like those who squander the money. Squander[ing] money is not that you are spending too much; you are spending the money for something that's not conducive of the goodness that is supposed to come out of that.

So if I give money and the final result of this money is people buying guns to kill people, I am not a charitable person. Or teaching people how to hate, this is not charity. This is squandering the money or spending it against the cause, actually, not for it.

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