Maher Hathout was a prominent interfaith leader who was hailed as the father of the US Muslim-American identity. Born in Egypt, he became a steady and insistent voice for Muslim civic engagement over four decades.
Hathout, a practising cardiologist, spoke of the need for American Muslims to create an identity that did not rely on Middle Eastern cultural interpretations of Islam. He encouraged Muslims in the US to embrace their dual identity and advocated participation in politics, volunteerism and interfaith work. Deeply patriotic, he often reminded colleagues that “home is not where my grandparents are buried, but where my grandchildren will be raised.”
His work, particularly the foundation of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, cultivated a unique sense of identity that sustained Muslim Americans as they weathered the backlash from 9/11. “He helped bring together Muslim Americans in a way that no one had before. He provided the infrastructure, the space and the language for this community to think about itself as both Muslim and American,” said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. “It gave them a seat at the table.”
Hathout worked for four decades to build interfaith bridges and was close friends with many prominent Christian, Jewish and other leaders. His passion for interfaith dialogue cut through long-standing assumptions, won him friends and gave him credibility in the most unlikely of places, said Rev Dr Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopal priest who invited him to sit on the advisory council of the interfaith Guibord Centre-Inside Out. “His willingness to be available fully was a gift, a tremendous gift.”
After moving to Los Angeles from Buffalo in 1970, Hathout began working as spokesman and chairman at the Islamic Centre of Southern California, one of the most progressive mosques in the US. That work led to some pioneering projects to redefine the American Muslim experience and connect with youth, including the first co-educational Muslim Youth Group, the Islamic Information Service that produced a nationally weekly TV programme on Islam, The Minaret magazine and the New Horizon School system. He was also consulted frequently by the US government and in 2000 became the first Muslim invited to give the invocation prayer at the Democratic National Convention.
Maher Hathout religious leader: born 1 January 1936; married (two children); died 3 January 2015.