After moving to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Dr. Maher Hathout became a leading advocate for peace between Islam and other religions. But that work received a severe test in 2006, when his nomination for a prestigious humanitarian prize exposed fault lines that have long divided L.A.'s faith communities.
At a tense public meeting before a final vote on the award, critics blasted Hathout, the longtime chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, charging that disparaging remarks he had made about Israel proved he was unfit to be called a peacemaker. Countering the naysayers were equally ardent supporters, including Jewish and Christian leaders who told the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission that Hathout's interfaith leadership and his promotion of a moderate Islam made him perfect for the honor.
"It felt like a showdown, the problems we see on the world stage playing out in that room," recalled Leonard Beerman, who died last month. Beerman was the founding rabbi of the Leo Baeck Temple and had become a confidant of Hathout.