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On December 5th, 2018 the government of the United Arab Emirates sponsored the “Annual Conference of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies” in Abu Dhabi. The forum began in 2014 as a means of countering the effects of the Arab Spring, in which young people living under tyrannical regimes around the Arab world clamored for a life of democracy, freedom, and dignity. The UAE fearing that such a call for justice would spread to its own borders set up this forum in order to undermine such calls for democracy in and around the Arab world. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the vice president of this forum, has taken a lot of flack over the past few days. But flack over American Muslim leaders undermining the American Muslim community at the expense of hegemonic powers should extend beyond this event and just Hamza Yusuf. Despite their work on Islam in the West, religious tolerance and building institutions, numerous traditionalist ulema including Hamza Yusuf, Mohamed Magid, Hisham Kabbani, and Talib Shareef have all supported a political agenda that hurts the American Muslims they aim to serve.
Before laying out this disastrous political agenda, it is critical to note the historic hesitation that ulema have had with any sort of partnership with or appointment by government authorities. Wael Hallaq writes in his book, “Introduction to Islamic Law” that:
“[Ulema] began to equate government and political power with vice and corruption. This attitude originated sometime around the end of the seventh century[about 80 years after hijrah]…As of this time, and continuing for nearly a millennium thereafter, the theme of judicial appointment as an adversity, even a calamity, for those so designated became a recurring detail…Jurists are reported to have wept—sometimes together with family members–upon hearing the news of their appointment; others went into hiding, or preferred to be whipped rather than accept office.”
Ulema understood that their authority as religious scholars could be used to legitimize repressive governments. It is for this reason that numerous scholars including Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shaafi, Imam Malik ibn Anas, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Imam Jafar As Sadiq, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim, and Al-Suhrawardi spent time tortured and/or in jail as a result of their opposition to government policies. Any position within or partnership with a government was viewed with extreme suspicion, both by the ulema and the masses that followed them.
Even Shaykh Hamza Yusuf himself stated that “Muslims are very wary of any scholar who associates closely with a government, and they always have been…Because governments never do that out of the graciousness of their good will. They co-opt.”
Unfortunately, it seems like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s own relationship with the UAE has led him, over the years, to join in the UAE’s morally bankrupt positions on both the Muslim ban, anti-racist movements in the United States, and the dog-whistling of the Muslim Brotherhood to crush dissent. While Muslims and civil rights organizations around the United States were disgusted at the passing of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, the government of the UAE supported this ban that codified Islamophobia into law. Hamza Yusuf, arguably the most prominent Islamic scholar in the United States, did not utter a word in regard to the ban. Zaytuna College, the first and only accredited Islamic university in the United States which Hamza Yusuf is president of, also joined in Hamza Yusuf’s silence on this disastrous legislation.
The UAE has also sought to ally itself with Trump’s far-right agenda, scheduling secret meetings with Trump and other military contractors in an effort to get American-made weapons to use against civilians in Yemen. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, when asked at the 2016 Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference whether Muslims should ally with the Black Lives Matter movement, infamously replied, referring to the United States as “one of the least racist societies in the world” and disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement using the typical Fox News line that they do not say anything about Black on Black crime. The claim that the United States is “one of the least racist societies in the world” is considerably ridiculous considering that an unarmed Black person is killed in the United States every 28 hours. Some have defended his positions, emphasizing his call for personal reform.
In the same RIS speech, Yusuf also criticized political Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, suggesting that they, along with literalism, are what gave birth to ISIS. The government of the UAE has labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. It has even declared the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest and oldest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States, a terrorist organization, based on non-existent, conspiratorial links to the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE’s defamation of CAIR has been repeated by some of the most virulent Islamophobes in the United States, such as Texas Senator, Ted Cruz.
Such a guilt-by-association link to the Muslim Brotherhood is problematic because the Muslim Brotherhood is an intellectual movement more than a centralized political party. While militant organizations that are labeled as terrorist groups by the United States government such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad come out of the Muslim Brotherhood, other Brotherhood-linked organizations reject violence and embrace Westernization and liberal democracy. For example, the Brotherhood-linked Ennahda movement in Tunisia has been credited with helping “drive democracy forward” in a post-Arab Spring Tunisia. The late anthropologist, Saba Mahmood, in her book “The Politics of Piety” outlined how women affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were empowered through participation in the organization. Many have theorized that affiliation with this decentralized organization called the “Muslim Brotherhood” is used by the government of the UAE to jail dissidents who may have zero affiliation or even familiarity with the organization.
Hamza Yusuf, in another speech, joined the government of the UAE in such incoherent attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood and broader political Islamic movements. He alleged that Sayyid Qutb, a prominent intellectual inspiration of the Muslim Brotherhood, was “a Marxist before he became Muslim.” Such a claim is completely false. Qutb was a Muslim his whole life, and never identified as a Marxist, although he may have read Marxist thought, which many intellectuals, both non-Marxist and Marxist, have done (Note: I have read Marx and reject the ideology. I would be surprised if Hamza Yusuf has not read any Marxist thought). Hamza Yusuf then stated that political Islam is merely “repackaged Marxism” and closed his talk by asserting that Marx was a racist who compared the Algerians to apes. Unlike Yusuf’s statement of Qutb’s Marxism before his “conversion” to Islam (which never happened because Qutb was never non-Muslim), I was unable to verify the truth of his claim regarding Marx and the Algerians. But I did contact five scholars of Marxist history, who claim to have never heard of such an assertion. In this speech, it seems that Sh Hamza Yusuf is making preposterous claims not based in reality to undermine such movements, steered by the UAE government.
Yusuf also claimed the government of the UAE was an example of a government committed to “tolerance.” This too is a ludicrous claim considering that the UAE jailed and tortured nearly 100 Emirati activists in the midst of the Arab spring, merely because they sought reforms. Human Rights Watch has also expressed “grave concern” over forced disappearances and torture in the Emirates. Amnesty International has also accused the UAE of war crimes as a result of the role that they have played in the bombing and blockade of Yemen, in addition to beatings, electric shocks, and sexual abuse in UAE-run prisons in Yemen. Over 1300 civilians have died in Yemen as a result of bombing, and an additional 50,000 children died from starvation in 2017. Experts warn that 13 million people in Yemen face starvation in “a famine of biblical proportions.” Yusuf in his praise for the UAE has not mentioned any of these facts, which reveal it to actually be one of the most repressive regimes on earth. Moreover, just like with regard to the Muslim ban, Hamza Yusuf has been silent on the oppression in Yemen too .
Without any statements by Shaykh Yusuf in explaining his silence or defending premier American Muslim organizations against smears, American Muslims are left connecting dots.
In addition to Hamza Yusuf, Hisham Kabbani, a Lebanese-American spiritual leader, who has made large leeway in African-American communities, too has backed an agenda that harms American Muslims. In a speech to the State Department in 2001, he stated that 80% of mosques in the United States are backed by extremist ideologies. He also cheered on George W Bush’s war on terror and was particularly avid in his support for the American invasion of Iraq. His predecessor, Nazim Al Haqqani, went as far as to declare that George W Bush and Tony Blair were awliya (reaching a level of sainthood) because they invaded Iraq. According to his obituary, Haqqani also asserted that Prince Charles had embraced Sufism in his heart and was going abolish the UK’s parliament and that all of the Middle East would be under one sultanate by 2011(none of these things ever happened).
Kabbani also established WORDE, a shady “American security organization” with Hedieh Mirahmadi, who also ran his Islamic Supreme Council of America. Mirahmadi is also a board member of the neoconservative and anti-Muslim organization, “The Committee on the Present Danger,” which includes individuals such as Daniel Pipes, Frank Gaffney and Newt Gingrich on their board. Regarding Muslims, Frank Gaffney said that “They essentially, like termites, hollow out the structure of the civil society and other institutions, for the purpose of creating conditions under which the jihad will succeed.” Gaffney also claimed that Barack Obama is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood and engaged in “the greatest bait and switch since Adolf Hitler.” James Zogby said that “Daniel Pipes is to Muslims what David Duke is to African Americans.” For a man who claims to lead Muslims to ally with the people in this country most hell-bent on hurting Muslims leads one to wonder what the political commitments of Kabbani are.
Imam Mohamed Magid, the former President of ISNA, too was present at this “peace forum.” His presence at the forum troubled many who know the heavy amount of good efforts he has made for the community. But beyond his participation in this event whitewashing the UAE’s violations of human rights, Magid has also supported FBI within his mosque. He is currently Executive Imam of the All Dulles Area Muslims Society (ADAMS), which is one of the largest and most prominent group of mosques in the United States. Time Magazine in 2005 noted that he “regularly opens doors for [FBI] agents trying to cultivate contacts in his Muslim community.” Magid has clarified that he meets with the FBI regularly but these meetings “convey … that our Muslim community needs to be treated as partners, not as suspects,” and Muslims need to “work with law enforcement to preserve our civil liberties and civil rights.” Imam Magid also emphasized that he and other Muslim leaders did “not use these monthly meetings to report upon the activities of our community members.”
ADAMS has also participated in a “Junior Special Agents Program” which is run by the FBI and targets fifth and sixth-grade students at the mosque with the stated goal of helping them develop “a violent-free style of life.” Only the most virulent Islamophobe would believe that 10 and 11 year old Muslim kids need to be taught how to live “a violent-free style of life.” For Imam Magid and ADAMS to allow such a program in the space of a masjid represents a significant lack of political literacy of the politics of power, racism, and Islamophobia.
Additionally, Imam Magid has also sits on the board of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council. The Council consists of a partnership with the Islamic Society of North America and the American Jewish Committee, an organization that recently visited and met with numerous leadership in the UAE, including the Foreign Minister of the UAE, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The organization has defended the murder of peaceful protests in Gaza this past summer and even argued that progressive Jews who criticize Israel’s oppression of Palestinians are anti-Semites. Despite the fact that progressive Jews such as Rabbi Michael Lerner, who spoke in his eulogy at the funeral of Muhammad Ali about the importance of justice for Palestinians, have denounced the AJC, Imam Magid continues to sit on a board with them. This is strange as there are a plethora of Jewish American organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Bend the Arc, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and If Not Now, all of whom are great for building interfaith relations between Muslims and Jews while not throwing Palestinians under the bus in the process.
Imam Talib Shareef has also undermined the Muslim community through his projects. Shareef is distinct from Hamza Yusuf, Hisham Kabbani, and Mohamed Magid in the outlook that he comes from. He did not study for a long time overseas. In fact, most of his Islamic education comes from being a student of the late Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad who transformed his father’s organization to Sunni Islam, in 1976. Imam Talib is Imam of Masjid Muhammad in Washington DC, a mosque inaugurated by Malcolm X when he was a member of the Nation of Islam, and known as “The Nation’s Mosque.”
Imam Talib, too, was present at UAE’s peace forum, sharing a stage with neoconservatives, Zionists, Evangelical Christians, and Arab despots. One could argue that these people are those most responsible for lack of peace in the world. One of the groups present was the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has a long history of anti-Palestinian and anti-Black racism. The Anti-Defamation League is one of five organizations that foster exchange programs in which American police officers travel to Israel and learn tactics from the Israeli military. These are the same tactics that have been used to help maintain a brutal military occupation of Palestinians for over half a century. In April of 2011, the St Louis County Police Department, which murdered Michael Brown, embarked on a weeklong training in Israel facilitated by the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL also helped spy on behalf of the Apartheid South African government in the 1980s. In his book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes that ”As the anti-apartheid campaign its attention to Israeli links with South Africa, the ADL entered the propaganda frat, publically attacking Nelson Mandela’s ANC.” Nathan Perlmutter, then National Director of the ADL, even co-authored an article with Apartheid South Africa’s President, PW Botha, lambasting Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as “totalitarian, anti-humane, anti-democratic, anti-Israel and anti-American.”
Beyond this participation with such racist organizations, Imam Talib’s mosque has also taken CVE funding from the Department of Homeland Security. The Countering Violent Extremism initiative has been criticized not only for its lack of effectiveness but also for the manner in which it has made American Muslims as exceptional in their susceptibility to terrorism. Many civil rights groups such as the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Center for Constitutional Rights, and American Civil Liberties Union have condemned CVE. It has even referred to as a “Cointelpro 2.0” referring to the program that illegally spied on and surveilled influential figures in Talib’s own organization such as Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad.
For an individual who literally heads a mosque founded by Malcolm X, it is a shame to see him cooperating with government agencies that have undermined Black people and Muslims in the past. It is truly disappointing to see him going to “peace conferences” with those who seek to undermine the aspirations of American Muslims, African Americans, Palestinians, Yemenis, and other Arab people advocating for a life of basic freedom and democracy.
Ultimately, it is sad that American Muslims have not been able to find a grounded, political agenda to live by. Rather, prominent imams around the country find themselves palling around with some of the most repressive regimes in the world. Perhaps the most saddening part about this is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There is a rich history of Muslims around the world leading the fight against oppression, as opposed to legitimizing it. There lies the example Islamic anti-apartheid movements in South Africa led by figures such as Farid Esack and Ebrahim Rasool, in addition to Islamic scholars such as Emir Abdelkader, Amadou Bamba, and Omar Mukhtar fighting colonialism. One can also look to the examples of Imam Husayn fighting Yazid or the Prophet Moses resisting the Pharaoh. The reality is that there is a rich legacy of scholars who resisted oppression. As to Islamic scholars who collaborated with oppressors, following generations have left them in the dustbins. If American Muslim ulema such as Hamza Yusuf, Talib Shareef, Hisham Kabbani, and Mohamed Magid continue to collaborate with oppressive governments in ways that obviously harm Muslims, they too will be condemned and forgotten by future generations.
Hamzah Raza is a graduate student at Harvard University and an alumnus of Vanderbilt University. At Vanderbilt, he received highest honors for his thesis on the role that South African Muslims played in the anti-apartheid struggle. He has been previously been published at the Huffington Post, Alternet, the Grayzone Project, Raw Story, and the Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @raza_hamzah