It’s time for Muslim Americans to condemn Hamza Yusuf

His membership in a commission that could help the Trump administration roll back human rights is the last straw.

Hamza Yusufr File - AP
Prominent Muslim American scholar Hamza Yusuf agreed to be part of a 10-member panel that would examine the role of human rights in US policy [File: AP]

Since the beginning of Donald Trump‘s presidency in January 2017, many American Muslim leaders have been busy fighting back against the repressive, Islamophobic policies designed and implemented by his administration.

A select few, however, have chosen to go against the best interest of their communities and help perpetuate human rights abuses against Muslims in the US and abroad. Influenced by a number of factors, including internalised Islamophobia, these individuals have intentionally sided with the Trump White House. Hamza Yusuf, once dubbed the most “influential Muslim scholar in the Western world” is one of them. 

Last week, Secretary of State and top Islamophobe Mike Pompeo announced the formation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights which will advise Trump on human rights and examine how “words like ‘rights’ can be used for good or evil”. It includes some of the most conservative people in the country and will be chaired by Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and an advocate of the “flexible universalism” of human rights, who once campaigned against enshrining abortion as an international human right at the 1995 UN women’s conference in Beijing. Subsequently, it was announced that Yusuf will also be a member of the commission.  

Some Muslims welcomed his appointment, arguing that his presence there would undoubtedly have a positive effect and could help counter the Trump administration’s pervasive Islamophobia. This argument, however, ignores the fact that two years of intense work by the Muslim community to challenge acts of institutionalised Islamophobia, such as the Muslim ban, have not changed Trump’s mind. It also overlooks Yusuf’s own background.

In fact, if his past has taught us anything, it is that he is quite comfortable rubber-stamping the violent actions of oppressive governments – actions he is never going to be the target of as a cis, white male living in the US. 

In September 2001, shortly after the terror attacks on the US, he was the sole Muslim representative in a delegation of religious leaders who met President George W Bush and endorsed his decision to launch a military campaign against terrorism – ie, his “war on terror“.

When Trump was elected president in 2016, following a divisive, Islamophobic, misogynistic and racist election campaign, Yusuf discouraged people from protesting against an administration that was elected on a promise to erode the rights of the most vulnerable.

“We have too much work to do, not protesting, not lighting fires, not saying, ‘Trump is not my president,'” he wrote on his website in November 2016. “He is, and that is how our system works: by accepting the results and moving on.”  

Then, a month later, black Muslims came face to face with Yusuf’s misplaced loyalties, when he declared at a conference that the US is “one of the least racist countries” and tried to use the racist trope of “black-on-black crime” to convince Muslims not to join forces with the Black Lives Matter movement.

In December 2018, Yusuf again made headlines for calling the UAE, a country that has zero tolerance of political dissent and is currently involved in a devastating war in Yemen, “tolerant“. That he clearly ignores all the human rights abuses the UAE has been accused of is rather unsurprising given that he is a former student and good friend of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah and is serving as the vice president of his Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies – a religious body bankrolled by Abu Dhabi.

One can argue Yusuf is only practising what he has preached by joining the Commission on Unalienable Rights and attempting to work with the Trump administration. But can we really believe that his inclusion in a human rights panel, clearly designed to enable anti-black, anti-women, Islamophobic and xenophobic policy decisions of the Trump administration, can lead to positive change? Can we give Yusuf the benefit of the doubt given his history of perpetuating imperialist propaganda and defending rights repression? 

Some Muslims who continue to believe in Yusuf’s good intentions despite his appointment to the committee called on the community to give him a “naseeha”, or compassionate advice, including the well-known and respected imam Zaid Shakir

But when does naseeha end and accountability begin? Didn’t Yusuf get enough naseeha in the last two decades, as he was spending his time legitimising the “war on terror” and praising repressive regimes? For how long do we need to hold on to the idea that his intentions are good and he should be kindly advised rather than condemned?

Yusuf surely knows the human cost of the “war on terror“. He is clearly aware of the devastation and death the “tolerant” UAE has caused in Yemen. He undoubtedly understands the harm the Trump administration has already done and can still do if it is allowed to re-define the interpretation of human rights law in the US. 

If Yusuf wants to join the ranks of human rights abusers, at the end of the day, that is his prerogative. But he cannot do so as our representative. If we continue to remain silent, we will be complicit in the very violence that he is enabling. 

His recent appointment should be the last straw that broke the camel’s back for the Muslim community in the US; it’s high time we move past giving a “naseeha”.

We cannot afford to wait until Yusuf personally helps Trump develop a new Muslim ban. We must act now and collectively condemn him for legitimising the attempts of an Islamophobic administration to erode the fundamental rights of fellow Muslims. We must start organising boycotts of Muslim conferences and other events where he is invited to speak. We must put pressure on other religious leaders to distance themselves from him and make it clear to the wider society that he does not represent the Muslim community at large.  

The Quran instructs Muslims to “Be maintainers of justice and bearers of true witness for Allah, even if it (the truth) goes against your own selves or parents or relatives or someone who is rich or poor.” 

Thus, it is incumbent on Muslims to speak out against Yusuf. Holding him accountable could set a precedent in our community so all those who have enjoyed a form of immunity due to their elevated status no longer feel above reproach. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.