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SoCal Muslim leader and religious activist Dr. Maher Hathout dies at 79

Dr. Maher Hathout is the Senior Advisor for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. During Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Southern California he condemned the attacks on the embassies in Cairo and Benghazi.
Dr. Maher Hathout is the Senior Advisor for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. During Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Southern California he condemned the attacks on the embassies in Cairo and Benghazi.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

Longtime American Muslim leader and interfaith activist Dr. Maher Hathout passed away last night from liver cancer at the City of Hope hospital in Duarte. He was 79. 

Hathout was the founder of The Muslim Public Affairs Council {MPAC) and  a powerful advocate for dialogue between Southern California's religious communities, often tackling difficult conversations on Israel/ Palestine and extremism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Hathout spoke often about American Muslims' need to define a religious identity, independent of the Middle East. 

Council President Salam Al-Marayati says Hathout will be remembered for his work in establishing that American-Muslim identity.

"He stated home is not where my grandparents are buried but home is where my grandchildren will be raised," Al-Marayati  said. "So he re-oriented all of us to understand that America is home, and that Islam in America can be as important as Islam anywhere else in the world — if not most important, because we live in a free society."

Hathout also addressed Islam's role as a religion of peace and tolerance and penned a "Declaration Against Extremism" in 2013, outlining the tenets of his faith and pointing out what he felt were misleading statements being made on behalf of some jihadis abroad. 

The L.A. Times reports Hathout was born in Egypt in 1936, where was jailed several times for his political beliefs. After completing medical school in the 1970s, he emigrated to the U.S. — first to Buffalo, New York, then to L.A. in 1977, where he volunteered at the Islamic Center of Southern California. He later served as its chairman and spokesperson.  

Hathout's tenure wasn't without controversy. He walked a sometimes thin line as spokesman for Muslim frustration at Israeli policies toward Palestinians, and as peacemaker for Southern California's disparate religious communities.  The Times recalls several instances when Hathout was set to receive humanitarian awards, only to become the center of bitter argument: 

"At a tense public meeting before a final vote on the [John Allen Buggs] 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."

Hathout leaves behind his wife, Dr. Ragaa Hathout, and children Gasser and Samer, and four grandchildren, MPAC said in a statement. 

There will be a memorial vigil for him tonight at 5 p.m. at the Islamic Center on Vermont Avenue. He will be buried tomorrow afternoon.