A funny thing happened last week at the eighth annual convention of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). The public policy group, which has been around for 20 years, invited some unconventional guests – Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA and grammy-award winning singer Melissa Etheridge. Warren was tapped as a headline speaker after many interfaith meetings with MPAC Senior Advisor Dr. Maher Hathout (and well before he was picked by President-elect Barack Obama to give the invocation at his inauguration on January 20, 2009. Etheridge had composed a song, “Ring the Bells,” with former MPAC honoree Salman Ahmed, of the Pakistani rock group Junoon, which was to be performed that night and introduced by Dr. Deepak Chopra.
Upon hearing that Warren, who supported California’s Proposition 8, was to speak, Etheridge became concerned about appearing at the event and considered cancelling. But in the spirit of MPAC inviting both a conservative evangelical Christian (Warren) and an openly lesbian singer (Etheridge), she contacted Warren beforehand, only to find out that he was a big fan of her music and downplayed some of his anti-gay rhetoric. Etheridge left defending Warren and praising MPAC (as Warren did) for being bridge-builders at a time of economic and social uncertainty. The turn of events was not lost on Professor Juan Cole, another panelist at the convention, who blogged on the “eclectic day.”
Here, MPAC has provided a model for Muslim social interaction in the West, unafraid of defending its principles but always extending a hand to promote understanding of those perceived to be hostile (as well as those percieved to be recipients of Muslim hostility). Additionally, the impact of Dr. Hathout’s efforts in helping create MPAC and as a guiding force for the Southern Californian Muslim community (and America at large) cannot be underestimated. A number of American Muslim leaders today (including Shahed and I, if you’d like to consider us) can trace their roots to the Islamic Center of Southern California, where Hathout found a way to inspire young people in ways few Muslim leaders have dared, symbolised in the success of the convention itself. The event was a perfect gesture for the holiday season (all of them).
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.