Islam post-September 11: Ask Hamza Yusuf

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Event Name: Islam post-September 11: Ask Hamza Yusuf
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Has the tradition of liberal, or classical Islam, been hijacked by a discourse of terror since the events of September 11, 2001? Over the last two years Islamic militants have been blamed for attacks in Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and India. More than 350 people were killed in those attacks. How have moderate Muslim leaders responded to such attacks? What message are they giving out to both Muslims and the wider communities in the West? Hamza Yusuf has advised both the White House and the Arab League on Islam, and is founder of the Zaytuna Institute in California. Read Hamza Yusuf's article: What the West can learn from Islam Transcript

Frank Gardner: Hello, I'm Frank Gardner. Welcome to this forum on Islam post 9/11. Today we're discussing whether or not Islam has been hurt by a perceived association with terrorism in the Western media since 9/11. A report out today warns that al-Qaeda has grown in power over the last two years - more than 350 people have been killed in attacks linked to the Islamic militant group. Of course, the vast majority of Muslims are peace loving people and abhor such attacks. But has the faith been tarnished by the terrorist brush? Our guest today is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, founder of the Zaytuna Institute in California. He has advised both the White House and the Arab League on Islam, and is an outspoken advocate of better understanding between the Muslim world and the West. We've got a number of fascinating e-mails today. But before we go into these, let's just clarify something in my mind. Shaykh Hamza, how do you balance, how do you justify this controversy? You are an American and you are Muslim. You are part of a nation that is seen by many in the Arab world as being enemy of Muslims and you talk to President Bush. How do you balance all of these?

Hamza Yusuf: I think it's really important that people distinguish between this idea of personifying America - America, like England, like Saudi Arabia, like any other country has many, many different viewpoints and different understandings and that's part of what supposedly we're supposed to pride ourselves in the West about having dissident opinions and diversity. So I would just say that we can't say that the American opinion is one opinion, it's not. There's a lot of dissent and the Muslims in particular have a great deal of dissent with foreign policy - American foreign policy and that does not negate the fact that they're Americans.

Frank Gardner: Let's cut to the chase here Shaykh Hamza, where do you stand on President Bush's war on terror?

Hamza Yusuf: I think that the idea of a war on an abstract noun is unacceptable. I really believe that carpet-bombing, bombing civilian populations is a form of terror - it's state terror as opposed to vigilante terrorism. Obviously state terror - the state has a power to justify it. But at the end of the day innocent people killed anywhere - when I see Iraqi children in a state of terror because of bombs I consider that a form of terrorism. So I think the war on terror has to be a war on modern warfare - period.

Frank Gardner: Let's now address some of the e-mails that we have received. I want to start first with one which reflects a view that I hear a lot as a correspondent every time I go to the Middle East. Ahmad Alam, UK asks: Thousands of Muslims have been killed in Bosnia, over 3,000 Palestinians have been killed since 9/11 by the Israelis and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died because enforced UN sanctions. Why don't these events register in the Western mind? Are Christian, Jewish and Hindu lives worth that much more than Muslim ones?

Hamza Yusuf: Well let's look at Rwanda - over 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda. If we want to start quantifying numbers of deaths - what happened in Rwanda in 1994 - it wasn't that long ago - and people observed that and that was between two Christian peoples. The Tutsi which were the minority that were attacked - people stood by and watch that happen. So they're a lot of problems in the world today and the Muslims are not the only people that are the victims of terror and trouble. I think that the Muslims need to recognise that we ourselves have not done enough. I think the fact that happened in Africa and that there are Muslims countries in Africa and there was no display of outrage at what happened in Rwanda - and so are black people worth less than Arab people?

Frank Gardner: Interesting point, what you're saying basically is that this is a case of negligence rather than prejudice against Muslims?

Hamza Yusuf: Tribalism is still a very real force in the world and tribalism, if it's the Americans as a tribe or the English as a tribe or the Arabs as a tribe - it's a force and people tend be more concerned about their own people than they are about other people and that's part of human nature. But it is also something that needs to overcome especially in an increasingly interdependent world.

Frank Gardner: Let's pick up on one of the points you made there. Tara, USA asks: Why don't moderate Muslims exert more influence and spend more resources to recover their religion from the militants instead of constantly complaining about perceived injustices in the West?

Hamza Yusuf: That's a very good point. The why is - it's enough that we're asking why. We do need to work towards strengthening what really is traditional Islam because what's happening now is - this is almost like a Protestant Reformation - the idea of taking the Koran and interpreting verses according to my own understanding without recourse to a tradition. Vigilante violence has never been sanctioned in Islam - ever in the history of Islam. The idea of people taking things into their own hands it leads to anarchy and so I think that we should be opposed to vigilante violence. But we also have to be opposed to state sanctioned violence and what's being used, for instance, in the Muslim world - the war on terror is often used as a way of repressing any dissidence inside the Arab countries or inside the Muslim countries, so this is another problem. Unfortunately, the powerful states tend to a blind eye to these types of problems and this creates more resentment, more animosity towards the West.

Frank Gardner: Peter Guidi, Holland: 'Moderate' Islam has been very reluctant to openly condemn the action of the extremists. What can you say to reassure us that our fear of Islam is unfounded?

Hamza Yusuf: I don't agree, with all due respect. The Muslims have condemned and I think that there has been widespread condemnation, certainly by the scholars and by the people that have influence - there's been widespread condemnation. And I think what the Muslims would like to see is what can assuage their fears of the West.

Frank Gardner: What are those fears?

Hamza Yusuf: Iraq is a good example. Is Syria next? Is Iran next? Where's it going to? If we want to talk about real fear and terror, I'm sorry, weapons of mass destruction, where are they? They're in America, they're in England, they're in France, they're in Israel, they're in India. That's where the weapons of mass destruction are. If we really look at this, the victims of all this are innocent people that are completely powerless and they're sitting by in a world that seems to not really care a whole lot. They're more concerned about whether Britney Spears has raised her tee-shirt a few inches or not than they are about people dying all over the world and it's not just the Muslims. If we look at this - Arnold Toynbee warned us in 1947 that the world is moving towards a very serious crisis which is going to be between the southern and the northern hemispheres.

Frank Gardner: When you brief the White House, have you put these points to them? I'm neutral in this ¿..

Hamza Yusuf: You're neutral - you can't be neutral. In a moral crisis neutrality is complicity. You can't be neutral, I don't accept that. Right is right and wrong is wrong and I recognise that there are shades of grey in everything but basic understandings are clear - who is right and who is wrong. In this case we have Muslim extremists saying, you're either with us or you're against us. And then we have had imperialists in the West saying, you're either with us or you're against us - well I can't be on either side. I don't feel comfortable on this side or that side.

Frank Gardner: Muhammad, England asks: How would you respond to these people who view you as "aligning yourself with the West"?

Hamza Yusuf: My alignment is with what I perceive as just and fair. If it's with the Muslims, then I'm with the Muslims, if it's with the West then I'm with the West. It's about justice and fairness. I am not a tribalist - I'm a Muslim but I didn't join a tribe. My religion says to stand by the truth - the Koran is very clear when it says [Arabic] Be witnesses for the sake of God justly even if it's against yourselves. And that's where I stand. I don't align myself with the West of the Muslim world. I align myself with what I perceive to be just and in accordance with my principles - the principles that I live my life by which are universal principles and that are embodied in the religion of Islam.

Frank Gardner: Yasser, UK: What do you think of groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir and al mahijuroon, who glorify the attackers of 9/11 as 'heroes'? Do these views have an impact on Muslims in the UK and worldwide?

Hamza Yusuf: Well I find it really interesting that on the one hand there are so many Muslims that deny that there were even any Muslims involved in the incident and that it was a big CIA plot and then you have on the other hand they're lionised as martyrs. My reading of this is that anybody that can lionise this - all they have to do is watch some of the images of people jumping out of those buildings and reflect on that person and what right you have. I mean once we arrogate to ourselves who can give life and who can give death - once we arrogate to ourselves that - we're basically claiming that we have some divine right and that is against every principle in revealed religion. God is giver and the taker of life and to take innocent lives is completely unacceptable and those people cannot ever be considered - those people are not guided by the light of God, they're blinded by the light of God.

Frank Gardner: Are you referring to al-Qaeda?

Hamza Yusuf: I'm referring to people that kill innocent people.

Frank Gardner: But who's innocent? Because al-Qaeda would say - and I'm not in any way trying to justify their actions - but al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and those around him, would say that they have a God-given right to defend Muslims - that all their actions are merely in defence of they faith - that's what they would say. Now to most people, those who died on 9/ll were completely innocent people - to al-Qaeda they are a part of a guilty party - that's their view. How would you answer that?

Hamza Yusuf: Well I would say first that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said in a very clear Hadith which is considered multiply transmitted - which means that it's at the same level of the Koran - it's prohibited to kill women and children in warfare. So I'm sorry the taking of lives of women and children is prohibited and that's been accepted practise by Muslims. Muslims are chivalrous. All of what's going on now is resentment - it's the slave morality that Nietzche described the modern age as being engrossed in - it's the morality of people that have lost the sense of human dignity. One of the things about the Koran is it's very clear that when tribulations happen to you, the first thing that you have to do is rectify yourselves. That's very clear in the Koran [Arabic] - when you were afflicted by a calamity you had afflicted the like of it on others before - you said where did this come from - say it's from your own selves. That's basically the Koran doctrine and to reject that and to begin to see these people as some kind of demons - they're bad therefore we are good - this is what's going to destroy the world. We've got idiots in the West that are claiming that the Muslims are demons and then we have idiots in the Muslim that are claiming the West are demons. I'm sorry, human beings each one of us has within us good and evil. There are good people in the West, there are good people in the Muslim world - there are bad people in the West and there are bad people in the Muslim world and most people have a mixture of those two working within themselves. We're not living in the medieval period. When you have a million British people that go out to say not in our name and sit and stand in the freezing cold for five hours - I saw that at Hyde Park - you can't say those people are crusaders and you cannot also justify blowing up their homes - they're good people that have real concerns.

Frank Gardner: We have an e-mail here Roderique in London saying: Is the current crisis that Islam is going through a result of the greater freedom of mind and deeper interaction with other cultures and religions of the last decades? What can we expect from the current transformation of Islam? I think first of all we'd have to address whether Islam is in crisis?

Hamza Yusuf: I think Muslims are in crisis. Islam is Islam. But so is the West. Look what's going here. Bernard Lewis asked, what went wrong in the Muslim world. I could ask Bernard Lewis what went wrong in the West? Look at our society - we've got dysfunctional societies on a global scale today and I can't point to anywhere and say it is some sort of ideal society. If people in America think that America's the idea society, I don't think they're reading the same sources that I'm reading about, about levels of depression, suicide, rape, crime, about the dysfunctional state of the schools, about abortion rates, about breakdown of families, divorce rates.

Frank Gardner: To be fair, on a lesser scale those things do occur though in Muslim countries.

Hamza Yusuf: Absolutely - they occur everywhere - that's my point. If you want my honest opinion about this, historically when people when they look back a hundred years from now, I think they're going to see the Muslims as a reasonably benign force on the planet. I think it's the West that they're going to look at as causing massive destruction in the biosphere, massive destruction in the oceans, massive destruction in the human condition - the fact that we're genetically altering our chickens to where they don't have feathers and beaks so that we can just process them for fast foods. I really think that relatively the impact that Muslims are having, the harmful impact they are having on the planet I think is much less than other places in the world.

Frank Gardner: A lot of our viewers are asking the question. Is there such thing as liberal Islam?

Hamza Yusuf: I think there's liberal Muslims, there's conservative Muslims - those are terms that you can use - we'd need a whole programme to define liberal - what does that mean? If it means in the Latin sense of word, the idea of being free and open, I would hope that most people are free and open and are not prejudiced in their opinion. If it means that we water down Islam to where it no longer has any backbone and it's destined to the fate of Christianity in the West where it no longer really impacts on the society - I don't want to see that. I think that the moral power of Islam is the fact that it has had so little reformation, that it is actually in many ways its truths are still pristine - they can be misunderstood and that's definitely a problem, but I do feel that.

Frank Gardner: Let's pick up on the liberal point here. Brian, USA asks: Why is it that there is so much resistance to change in the Gulf/Asia area? Is there something in the Koran that directs the behaviour of Muslims to resist change on issues like women's rights and democracy?

Hamza Yusuf: I think first of - is all change good? We just assume naturally somehow that we're all progressing and that change is good - I have to question that. I like the fact that we have diversity on the planet. I like the fact that when I went to Dhamman and I spent a lot of time in Dhamman in the eastern province. They have a culture - it's not necessarily all from Islam - a lot of it is actually pre-Islamic - but it is a culture and it's relatively intact. And who am I to judge whether or not it's right or wrong. Judge not, lest ye be judged, as Christ said for by the standard which ye judge, ye too shall be judged. We take this assumption in the West that we have some kind of divine sanction to impose our views on the planet and I think we have to question that. The women in Saudi Arabia are often more educated and that's been my experience than even a lot of western women. Most of the women in Saudi Arabia go to university - they're not stupid women. If they're under their burka, that's one thing but they're not stupid women, they have opinions and they're human beings. This idea somehow that all the women in the Muslim world are oppressed - I look around in the West and I think the women here aren't doing that well either.

Frank Gardner: I would totally endorse that as a former Gulf correspondent and I should just add to Brian in the United States there, that the Gulf States are not stagnant, they are moving - in their terms - incredibly quickly. The seeds of democracy are being sown there - it is not a stagnant place.

Hamza Yusuf: It isn't stagnant - it's a vital place. And also another thing about that region is we forget, we went through revolutions, we have the Cromwellian revolution, we had the industrial revolution - the West through incredible trauma to get where it is today and the Muslims are expected somehow to magically become enlightened in a few years.

Frank Gardner: Koshy, Sultanate of Oman: Why does Islam maintain its apostasy law? Does this not run counter to personal freedom? How can democracy work in Islam? Let's boil this down - is democracy compatible with Islam?

Hamza Yusuf: I think Noah Feldmann whose book "After Jihad" clearly indicates - he's a very brilliant legal scholar - that he feels that in some ways the Islamic legal tradition is one of the most of the most flexible legal traditions that we have and I think there's a lot of truth to that. I think that there are certain things that obviously are not completely compatible with modernity. But the vast majority of things - if we say that Islam is not compatible with democracy then we cannot call Israel a democratic state because Israel has laws taken from the traditional Jewish law that in many ways make the Islamic laws look enlightened for western people.

Frank Gardner: We have an e-mail from Aslan Ashraf in Oslo, Norway who says: Wouldn't the world be a more peaceful place if religion was practised separately from politics.

Hamza Yusuf: Well look at the 20th century - the bloodiest century in the entire human history is a secular century. I'm sorry, Hitler was secular - World War I and World War II, these are secular wars. All the wars that have been fought in our lifetime have been secular wars. There have been religious problems that exacerbate but generally the problem has been human beings. The problem is not religion, religion becomes an excuse. And it's a wonderful excuse because obviously if God says it's ok it feels a lot better doing it so there is that danger. But I would say that I do not want a secularised world where the principles of religion are not being practised. If you remove religion - and I don't care what enlightened secular humanists have to say - from humanity there are no constraints. The only constraint is totalitarianism and that's where it's headed. Once you remove internal constraints where people actually have a sense that there are moral implications to my actions - once I remove that and it simply becomes positivistic law where the state tells me what's right and wrong and there is no God to do that, where there's no religious cosmology to do that - anything goes - that's the bottom line. That's what Nietzche warned us over one hundred years ago that remove God and all is permissible and that's the truth. People that deny that are just denying reality.

Frank Gardner: Andrew Miller, Scotland: Would you agree that many of those who are called "Islamic extremists" are just extremists who happen to be Muslim? Aren't many of these people anti-the Western because of the political and economic situations of their countries, rather than their religion?

Hamza Yusuf: That's what I was just saying. I think these are human problems. If you get Jewish extremists, Hindu extremists and Muslim extremists in the same room - they all seem to look very similar, think very similar and have an inability to have a civil discourse, not just between themselves as different faiths, but even amongst each other. So I think you're dealing with psychology, you're dealing with a pathology. Extremism is a human problem. We have secular extremists, we have Christian fundamentalist that go and shoot abortion doctors - they're terrorists, that's terrorism. They're arrogating to themselves something that is not for them to do, which is to take life.

Frank Gardner: I think possibly part of the problem though, in terms of perception here, is that where you have a secular struggle such as the Palestinian struggle for a homeland, that in some ways it is associated with Islam. When an Hammas suicide bomber goes and blows himself up and kills people in a Tel Aviv shopping mall and Hammas releases a video of him afterwards¿

Hamza Yusuf: He's doing it for God.

Frank Gardner: Yes but the imagery is very graphic. In one hand he's holding a Kalashnikov and in the other he's holding the Koran. Can you blame westerners who haven't been to the Middle East associating Islam with terrorism?

Hamza Yusuf: Well first of all not that long ago most of the Palestinian resistance was communistic. People forget that in the '60s and 70' it was all communistic rhetoric. So Islam has been replaced for that. It's ideological and when religion becomes ideology it's dangerous. But conflating the two, I think is just a problem in people's minds. I'm not saying it's not fair for me in my reasonably comfortable life in the West to judge people in the West Bank - I can't do that. I would rather that we explain these things with our social sciences than with religion - that's my personal opinion. I would much rather see suicide bombing understood within the context of despair and the psychology of despair and of trauma because I think a lot of these people are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome or continued traumatic stress syndrome.

Frank Gardner: To return to the central theme of this discussion that we're having Shaykh Hamza, do you think that the violence which is carried out in the name of Islamist extremism is essentially secular in nature?

Hamza Yusuf: I think it's secular - you know terrorism to jihad is what adultery is to marriage.

Frank Gardner: It's a great line. I'm going to remember that one.

Hamza Yusuf: It's not mine.

Frank Gardner: Susan, UK: Do you feel that a dialogue is desperately needed between Islam and the militant Islamists who are doing so much damage to the standing of Islam around the world?

Hamza Yusuf: If you can dialogue with people it's wonderful. But if you can't dialogue with people - what's the point if people are not willing to listen? So I think we have a problem. Civility is what we're really suffering from. The fact that you and I can sit down and have a reasonably civil conversation - we can have differing opinions¿.

Frank Gardner: But then again we haven't been traumatised.

Hamza Yusuf: Well that's true but on the other hand a lot of these people haven't either. I find often the people that are most ideological whether it was communist - if you look at somebody like the Jackal, he was from a middle-class bourgeoisie family from South America and Osama bin Laden is the same thing. I think what's happens is you get ideologues that come into it that are not - they're actually, in a sense, projecting on to the people suffering something that is often not there. I think if you take Palestinian people generally - and this has been the experience of most people that have gone to Palestine - they're overwhelmed at how much humanity has been maintained in spite of increasingly dehumanising circumstances.

Frank Gardner: Aslan, Ilford, Essex, UK says: Do you think that you personally, as an Islamic scholar, have you changed in your opinions post September 11th and if so how?

Hamza Yusuf: I think things have crystallised for me. First of all, I'm a western person and I was raised in the West and I was raised in what probably would be called a liberal progressive background - those filters are there. So I come into Islam with those filters. The idea that I can simply remove those psychic filters from my mind it's impossible. So I'm always going to have my background as part of what's affecting me. I think the same is true for Muslims in the Middle East. So we do have differing views. But we need to listen to each other. So I feel that my views have crystallised in a sense. I was moving towards a lot of what I'm talking about now prior to 9/11. People can see that who've followed my talks and the things that I wrote just prior to 9/11 in fact.

Frank Gardner: Final e-mail here from Deasy B.Sanitioso, Indonesia who says: We are living in peace with our non-Muslim relatives, friends and neighbours in Indonesia; they should come and see. I disagree with him on that - there's been a lot violence perpetrated in the name of religion there. But anyhow he says, how can we explain that Islam is peace?

Hamza Yusuf: I think Islam is submission - it's not really peace, it's submission and the idea that peace comes from the submission to God. The idea also is that people have a right to choose for themselves and that's very clear in the Koran - there's no coercion in this religion. So people need to choose for themselves. What is clear historically is that the Muslims have been able to live with conviviality with other peoples and in many ways the pre-modern Muslims are a testimony to extraordinary human qualities that Islam engenders in people. So the tolerance of the Muslim world is a historical fact and I think it can be enhanced even because certain things in the modern world have enhanced those understandings and that's where we have move to - to a greater understanding of listening to each other and recognising that the real enemies in the world are people that are making money off war. The people that are producing and manufacturing all these weapons and spreading them all over the world. Most human beings want to live in peace with each other. That's been my experience.

Frank Gardner: Shaykh Hamza thank you very much. Well sadly that's all we have time for today. I'd like to thank you all for joining us, and also thanks to our guest, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. If you'd like to take part in more forums on Islam and the West then visit our website at Next week we'll be discussing women and Islam. Goodbye.