Zaytuna College – America’s first four-year, accredited Islamic college – is set to open in California, and the proposed school is already stirring controversy because of the two men leading the project: Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir.
While presenting themselves as “moderates” who have condemned terrorism, both men have a history of anti-American and pro-Islamist statements. One has railed against the “false gods” of democracy and the Bill of Rights. The other has called for the United States to be governed by Islamic law and defended Hamas. As Zaytuna readies to open its doors, it is worth examining the worldviews of the two scholars who could influence the minds of a new generation of Muslim students.
Both men have lengthy resumes in Islamic studies. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, a convert to Islam, has studied in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere. Imam Zaid Shakir converted to Islam while serving in the U.S. Air Force, getting his religious education in places like Egypt, Syria and Morocco.
On the one hand, the two scholars might be seen as reasonable, even admirable, figures. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has been described by The Guardian as “arguably the West’s most influential Islamic scholar.” He received considerable attention due to his role as an advisor to President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, which Yousef described as “mass murder, pure and simple” and which he condemned as un-Islamic.
Yusuf has also been critical of the human-rights record of Muslim countries. On October 8, 2001, Yusuf was quoted as saying that “Many people in the West do not realize how oppressive some Muslim states are—both for men and women…I would rather live as a Muslim in the West than in most of the Muslim countries, because I think the way Muslims are allowed to live in the West is closer to the Muslim way.”
Imam Zaid Shakir, for his part, has condemned attacks on civilians. Although he was harshly critical of the recent Israeli offensive into Gaza, he warned Muslims against responding with anti-Semitic attacks on Jews. On Jan. 8, 2009, he wrote, “…the Muslim blogosphere is filling up with angry calls for the indiscriminate murder of Jews…such calls for indiscriminate killing have nothing to do with our religion.”
In one of his articles on his website, Shakir writes to a reader that Muslims are not to target innocent civilians or non-combatants. He says that Islamic law prohibits even attacking those who provide logistical support to forces fighting Muslims, and that only those directly engaging in combat are legitimate targets. Shakir also rejects the notion that non-Muslims born on “occupied” Muslim territory are acceptable targets, seemingly ruling out attacks on Israeli civilians.
Despite these reasonable-sounding statements, Yusuf and especially Shakir cannot be described as “moderate” Muslims.
For example, in the same answer to the above question about when using violence is acceptable, Shakir says that “I did not nor have not said that Islam forbids fighting occupiers.” Based on his characterization of U.S. involvement in Iraq as an “occupation,” one must assume that he believes attacks on U.S. soldiers there to be justified.
Meanwhile, Shakir’s opposition to attacking Israeli civilians has not deterred him from defending Hamas. Although he has described Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israeli towns as “ill-conceived,” he says Hamas “was never given a chance to prove its commitment to the peace process.” For Shakir, then, Hamas is not a terrorist group but a force that can be dealt with diplomatically.
Shakir also appears to embrace 9/11 conspiracy theories, describing the attacks as having “occurred under dubious circumstances that have yet to be thoroughly examined.” Yusuf, to his credit, has rejected such claims, saying “Many Muslims seem to be in deep denial about what has happened. They are coming up with different conspiracy theories and don’t entertain the real possibility that it was indeed Muslims who did this.”
However, Sheikh Yusuf has his own history of hateful comments. In 1995, for example, he expressed his contempt for Judaism, describing it as “a most racist religion.”
Yusuf has also been vocally hostile to the very foundations and principles of the United States. In 1996, he stated:
“[The United States is] a country that has little to be proud of in its past and less to be proud of in the present. I am a citizen of this country not by choice but by birth. I reside in this country not by choice but by conviction in attempting to spread the message of Islam in this country. I became Muslim in part because I did not believe in the false gods of this society whether we call them Jesus or democracy or the Bill of Rights.”
On September 9, 2001, Yusuf spoke at a fundraiser at UCLA for Imam Jamil Al-Amin, who had been arrested and was later convicted for murdering a police officer. His remarks, which included defending Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who helped orchestrate the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, included this rhetoric:
“They [Americans] were ungrateful for the bounties of Allah, and so Allah caused them to taste fear and hunger. That is one reason, and I would say, that this country is facing a very terrible fate. The reason for that is that this country stands condemned…This country unfortunately has a great tribulation coming to it.”
Both Yusuf and Shakir see then U.S. as an imperialist warmonger that seeks to dominate weaker countries. Sheikh Yusuf has accused the U.S. of seeking to “unite the world” so that everyone adopts America’s corrupt way of life and so that “everybody will have the same banal perspectives on the world.” He’s also criticized the “dominant world order, which is a capitalistic, western world order.”
Imam Sharif goes a few steps further, asserting that U.S. foreign policy has been hijacked by the military-industrial complex. He admonishes the U.S. for a “pattern of demonization, destabilization, and the invasion of hapless Third World nations," saying that such aggression is always carried out under the guise of national interests. Among those he lists as being “demonized” and victimized by the U.S. are Hugo Chavez, Manuel Noriega, Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and most shockingly, Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban.
As such remarks suggest, Shakir has a habit of downplaying the threat from radical Islam. He dismisses the possibility of another 9/11 happening, saying it is “unlikely to be replicated and did little lasting damage to this country. This illustrates the overblown threat of the ‘Islamic Fascist’ enemy.” In a 2007 article, Shakir says that President Bush’s agenda “shares far more with the fascist movements of the 20th century than any of the Islamic groups or states he and his political allies seek to condemn.”
Shakir took particular issue with the film Obsession, which used clips of radical Islamic preachers and terrorists to warn the West of the severity of the threat. He described the film as “anti-Islamic” and “black propaganda.” He has been especially incensed by attempts to equate radical Islam with Nazism. He writes that comparing Bin Laden and President Ahmadinejad of Iran to Hitler and Stalin is “totally baseless.”
Shakir further distorts the nature of radical Islamic terrorist groups, saying that they do not fit the “Islamic Fascist” label and characterizing them as nationalists fighting occupation and oppression. This quote from one of his articles provides insight into how he sees such terrorists:
“Hamas calls for the liberation of Palestinian lands not the physical elimination of the Jews. Al-Qaeda calls for the end of Americans strategic presence in the Middle East and not the destruction of America. The Iraqi resistance calls for the end of the American occupation of Iraq and not the end of America. The various Jihadi groups in Kashmir call for the termination of the Indian occupation of Kashmir and not the termination of India. The Chechen resistance calls for the end of the brutal Russian occupation of their lands and not the end of Russia.”
Both men agree that terrorism is caused by U.S. policy, failing to see the ideological component that threatens us. When asked where Muslim anger comes from, Sheikh Yusuf answered “If you had one word to describe the root of all this rage, it’s humiliation…It’s everywhere. You don’t think it’s humiliating to have a foreign force come into your land?”
Shakir opposes the separation of mosque and state. The New York Times reported in June 2006 that “he said he still hoped that one day the United States would be a Muslim country ruled by Islamic law,” although he said he did not want this to be brought about through violence. The key thing to note here is that he isn’t merely proselytizing his faith, as followers of other religions do, but he is calling for Sharia-based governance. The fact that he says he doesn’t support using violence shouldn’t take away from the fact that his goal is the same as that of Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamists.
Since 9/11, Sheikh Yusuf has significantly changed his tone. He has acknowledged that he has made some incendiary comments in the past. “September 11 was a wake-up call for me. I don’t want to contribute to the hate in any shape or form. I now regret in the past being silent about what I have heard in Islamic discourse and being part of that with my own anger,” he said in October 2001.
In keeping with his avowed change of heart, in September 2006 Yusuf stepped back from his previous anti-Semitic attacks on Judaism, offering this explanation:
“I was not raised as an anti-Semite. My sister converted to Judaism, is married to a Jewish man. I have nephews that are Jewish. I was not raised with any prejudice at all. But I was infected when I lived in the Muslim world. I lived in the Arab world for over 10 years, and I think I did get infected by that virus for a period of time. But I grew out of it and realized that not only does it have nothing to do with Islam, but it has nothing to do with my core values.”
Since then, Yusuf has refrained from making extremist statements, though his past declarations, and his continued affiliation with people like Imam Shakir, cast doubt on his “moderate” credentials. It remains unclear whether this is a tactical reaction to the post-September atmosphere, or if the terrorist attacks genuinely made him reconsider his beliefs.
For both men, the former remains a very real possibility. Imam Shakir in particular seems to disagree only with the tactics, and not the political and religious goals, of terrorist groups and radical Islamists. Zaytuna College may provide him, and others like him, with the perfect opportunity to present his extremist views in the guise of scholarship.