Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call - Islamic Education in America

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Event Name: Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call - Islamic Education in America
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Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call with Hamza Yusuf
Islamic Education in America


Hamza Yusuf, Founder and Chairman of the Board, Zaytuna Institute


Irina A. Faskianos, Vice President, National Program & Outreach, eane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies

September 11, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations

Full Transcript can be found here:

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series.  Our goal, as many of you know, is to provide a non-partisan forum for discussion on issues at the nexus of religion and foreign policy.  We are pleased to kick off our 2007-2008 series today with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.  He is the founder and Chairman of the Board of the Zaytuna Institute and he will lead the discussion on Islamic Education in America.  As you all saw from his bio, he has been recognized as one of the West’s most influential Islamic scholars and recognized Muslim leaders in both the Western and Arab world.  He is the author of several books, numerous essays, op-eds and a host of a widely watched Arab television programs.  He was the first American lecturer to teach at the Morocco’s prestigious and oldest university and has also translated several classical Arabic traditional texts and poems into modern English.   Shaykh Hamza, thank you so much for being with us today.

HAMZA YUSUF:  All right, thank you for having me. 

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  It’s wonderful.  I thought we could start by having you give us an overview of the work that you are doing at the Zaytuna Institute-- as people on the call know, Zaytuna is one of the only globally recognized of a handful of Islamic teaching institutions in the United States-- and talk about the role that you’ve played in providing an Islamic education and the role that you’re playing on educating and training in this country, so over to you.

HAMZA YUSUF:  Right.  First of all, just thank you very much and thanks everybody who joined in.  Hope this is a fruitful conversation. 

Basically the Zaytuna Institute was founded eleven years ago and it was founded out of a vacuum that I and others perceived in the United States, and that is a real stark absence of traditional seminaries or training institutions that would produce teachers and people that were capable as serving as Imams in communities.  In the United States, one of the things that is, I think, really starkly apparent for anybody that knows the Muslim aims, is that many of our mosques actually have Imams and Friday preachers, the person called (inaudible).  People that actually have very little or no training at all, many of them are trained in engineering and other sciences, and obviously have a strong commitment and are autodidacts, but a lot of the religious preaching that goes on, in my own experience, and many, many Muslims, is really not up to the level that one would expect from a religion as globally recognized as Islam. 

So the idea was really to create a seminary here in the United States that would produce indigenous Imams and teachers.  My own experience as a convert, when I embraced Islam and became quite fervent, I wanted to study the religion and study primary sources.  My only option really at the time was to go overseas.  And even the overseas conditions were not really, I think, very conducive to somebody who was just new in the religion.  So I ended up in the United Arab Emirates.  I was at an Islamic institute there and then I was in Saudi Arabia for over a year studying with private scholars, although I was offered a scholarship to Medina University there.  And then I went to North and West Africa and spent about ten years abroad, and then came back and I continued studies with teachers from abroad because I think that’s the nature of the Islamic teaching.

So coming back here and founding this, I think it’s evolved in our own understanding of what’s needed.  And partly what we recognize is that Imams that are more fluent with the discourse in the West, with the very specific conditions that Muslims find themselves in in the West.  My primary teacher right now who is Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, who’s a professor of Islamic law in Jeddah, but also recognized globally as really one of the foremost Usuli or constitutional jurisprudence scholars, he’s written a book recently called The Jurisprudence of Minorities and he has addressed this situation that has really not been addressed by many scholars, and certainly not at the level that he has, of just recognizing that we do have unique conditions. 

And so it’s been very important for me to really, what I’d like to do right now quickly before we go into the conversation with others, is just to give you just a quick overview.  There’s a book written by Franz Rosenthal, he’s a brilliant historian of Islam.  He wrote a book called Knowledge Triumphant: the Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam.  And one of the things that he says in there-- it’s published by Brill and it’s really a fascinating book-- but one of the things he says in there is that the Islamic civilization was a civilization probably more than any other historically that really was centered around knowledge, the ideal of knowledge.  And so you have many great teaching institutions that emerged in the Muslim land.  If you go on any search for the oldest university in the world you’ll find it was the Karaouine in Fez, which was established in the seventh century, sorry in the ninth century, 853, and precedes the great teaching universities of Europe by over one-hundred years.   

So these great teaching institutions produced extraordinary scholars and you had what the Catholics would call a Magisteria, which in a sense protected the religion, because you had qualified scholars that were coming out of these institutions like Al-Azhar in Egypt and Mustansiriya in Bagdad, in Iraq; the (inaudible), which was in what’s now Central Asia, and also in Bagdad and other places, Bahria in Damascus.  You have these great teaching institutions and they produce scholars that had a recognized level of expertise in their various fields.  And these became the great preservers and teachers of Islam.  In the Colonial period a lot of these institutions were seen as areas of resistance and so there was quite a move to harness them, and you actually, the Usafia in Morocco was closed down and the Karaouine was changed quite radically.  The same occurred -- Lord Cromer working with Mohammad Abdul in Egypt instituted some pretty serious changes in Al-Azhar and the Mustansiriya really becomes an Arabic college.  It’s still being used in Baghdad.

So you really have a crisis in the twentieth century of knowledge in Islam.  The, probably the areas where you don’t find this as much is Turkey and Iran, where you have the Shia scholarship has maintained the Madrassas largely due to the fact that they have independent funding sources because of what they call (inaudible), a certain tithing that merchants have to pay in Iran.  And in Turkey, because the Ottoman system was really quite extraordinary, and so they’ve maintained quite a high level of scholarship within Turkey, and they tend to be state Imams that preserve the state religion, even though it’s a secular state, religion still is very much controlled by the state.  The only other place that you’ll find that is in Morocco.

Now in the United States, we have obviously an immense immigration that occurs during the 1960s after the 1965, the Immigration Act, and you got a lot of Muslims coming in to these countries from various places, many of them to study engineering and medicine with the hope of going back home and having a kind of technology transfer.  Well a lot of these people ended up staying and their children have been born and raised here.  And so we find now that there’s probably between six and ten million American Muslims today, and yet we don’t have any serious teaching institutions, despite the fact that we have over two-thousand mosques in the country.  We, there are some, what are called Darul Uloom that are based on the Indian model from Deoband that do provide a certain level of scholarship.  But the scholarship tends to be very provincial and limited in its scope, and certainly is unable in many ways to address a lot of the very sophisticated problems that our community is facing as a minority community and a religious community that has many, many similarities to the Jewish tradition.  And I think a lot of the things that the Jewish community suffered in this country are now being replicated within the Muslim community.  And so you actually find if people know the Jewish model, it’s actually a more useful model, as far as I’m concerned, than the RAND model, because if you look at the RAND model and how it classifies Muslims in the West, it tends to use the kind of cold-war Soviet categorization of certain types of ideologs in Marxist traditions, so you kind of box people into what type of Marxist they were.  And that’s, I don’t think a helpful in Islam, because you’ll find that when RAND categorizes the Muslims into these certain categories, you actually end up being quite limited.  And I think many Muslims will find themselves in more than one of those categories and in the different areas, or subject matter that they talk about.

So in this country, I think you’ll find that the majority of Muslims would probably go under what is, would be called in Judaism a conservative branch of Judaism.  It’s not entirely orthodox, but it’s certainly not a reformed type of Judaism, which is far more liberal or reconstructionist, which now you have a reconstructionist Islam that’s beginning to emerge in what’s been called the Progressive Muslim Movement, which sees Islam more than a religious phenomenon but a civilizational phenomenon, and this really is not a problem being a cultural Muslim as opposed to being a religious Muslim. And there certainly are many, many cultural Muslims.

So in, you know, our attempt really is to try to provide an Islam that is compatible with the West.  I think less politicized, which does not mean that I and others that I’m associated with don’t have strong political views, but we don’t want to see the religion become a vehicle of, a political vehicle for Middle Eastern politics or something like that, which it often has been made into, unfortunately, because of immigrants bringing Middle Eastern baggage and other baggage. 

And then finally, just the reason why I feel this is extremely important is because there are many, many problems that will occur, that have already occurred, and will continue to occur as a result of this lack of sound Islamic institutions in the West, in the United States and Canada, and certainly in Europe, that’s, but one of the big problems that we have is, I think many people have noticed, and it’s September 11th, so we’re probably thinking about this today more than other days, but some of the people that have been involved in extremism are coming out of the convert community.  Ibrahim (inaudible) is an example of that recently in Germany.  Some German converts were arrested because of alleged plots and also now the spokesperson in English for al-Qaeda is actually a convert from, a Jewish American convert, from Southern California.  American (inaudible) John Walker Lynn is also another one. 

So, one of the dangers with conversion is conversion is an extremely powerful experience, which I can personally attest to.  And Gandhi once noted about Mohammed (inaudible), an Englishman who became Muslim, he said he was that rare breed of man who was capable of adopting a new religion without becoming a fanatic.  So unfortunately it’s quite common for people who have strong conversion experiences to enter with a lot of zeal.  And because of that, they’re susceptible at that period in their life to whatever ideas they happen to be exposed to at the time, believing them to be the sound ideas or principles of this new adopted religion. 

And the other very serious concern is in the prison population, because many of the people that adopt Islam within the prisons are coming from dysfunctional homes and already had criminal tendencies, and if they come into Islam and are exposed to an extreme form of Islam, which is very, very possible, [the German convert to Islam] being a good example of that, then I think it’s potentially extremely dangerous.  So if we don’t have really well trained scholars in the United States that can argue a sound orthodox and moderate Islam that preaches coexistence and also is able to be adaptive to the needs of modern society. I think that if we don’t do that, it’s going to really be a major problem, I think, for a burgeoning population in the West.  So I’ll leave it at that.

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Terrific.  That was a wonderful overview.  [Operator], let’s open it up for questions and comments.  And we really would like, encourage, both, so please do not be shy.  And over to you [Operator].

OPERATOR:  At this time we will open the floor for questions.  

QUESTIONER A:  Good afternoon to everyone.  I think I first should thank you, the organization, and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who have started a discussion on this very important and timely subject.  I, being a student of psychology and education for almost fifty years of my life, went to teachers college at Columbia University.  I have come to realize, and I’m from India, some of the issues that have been raised in the introduction by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.  I think they can be viewed, to begin with, in a more objective fashion and then we can talk about the possible ways in which this subject needs to be discussed to begin with, and see how people will respond to some of the issues that are going to be raised during these discussions. 

Islam, as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf pointed out by referring to an author, has advocated knowledge as an extremely important means of empowering human beings and human society from the very beginning.  It has never restricted itself only to the revelation.  The revelation, in fact, guides Muslims as to how they need to become active seekers in a natural setting.  That’s one way, clearly, that why in the very beginning stages of Islam, from the time of the prophet (inaudible), we see an explosion of Muslim scholars from all over the known area of the Muslim, you know, community of that time.  Unfortunately, as societies go through the process of rising and falling, the Islamic culture and Islamic civilization started to fall.  And then people just, you know, for their own understanding, preferred to be successful here and in the hereafter, they probably have to make sure that they observe the five pillars, you know, and they do certain social and other activities in a certain way, and the rest were left to the politicians and other people to determine the society of, you know, later teachers in Islamic history.

And the fact that Islam was a major factor in the struggles for freedom should be recognized very clearly by everyone.  Islam was, in fact, the mainspring of many political indigenous movements throughout the Western world and it still inspires people to make sure that their government implements a system of justice and fairness that’s consistent with Islamic values.  So at every stage since the independent movements in the Muslim world, we see Islam playing a very important role.  And even as we see the wars that are taking place, whether it’s in the Middle East or in Africa, Islam is a source of inspiration for quite a few people. 

So it’s very important for the [Council on Foreign Relations] to recognize that it’s not going to be in the best interest of the policymakers in this country to label those kinds of agencies from working in the Muslim community (inaudible) as dangerous.  In fact, they should understand that there is a very important factor that needs to be recognized as not only consistent, but compatible with the basic values of democracy: equality, freedom, liberty.

Unfortunately our foreign policy has been viewed as supporting rulers and governments that are more determined to suppress freedom and liberty and the struggle for justice and fairness.  So at this moment, while we are talking about Islamic education in America, we also have to recognize that the younger generation especially, and from within the older generation, a great number of people do recognize that Islam does have very clear values in terms of fairness, in terms of justice, in terms of liberty, that are very consistent with the democratic values, and they need to be incorporated within the Islamic education model in such a way that the traditional model automatically becomes irrelevant for the Muslim generations that are going to grow within the United States.  And I personally feel that the best integrated model of Islamic education will not only become a model that will be emulated by the Muslim societies around the world, it will also present, as a model, for a secular setting like within the United States, in which justice, fairness, equality, liberty, which are the guiding principles of the Western society and also that of Islam, can very well be integrated.

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Okay, we have many people on the call, if we…

QUESTIONER A:  I’ll leave it there. I thank you very much for this opportunity.

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Thank you.  


QUESTIONER B:  Yes, hi.  I’m very pleased to have a chance to hear you talk, Mr. Yusuf.  My field is European politics, and as you know, European governments have been very directly involved in trying to address some of the issues that you mention.  And I was wondering how you feel government and other voluntary institutions can help address some of the issues you are rising?  The problem you identify requires a tremendous amount of institution building, from seminaries to training programs for how to teach Islam in schools from top to bottom.  And we have a fifth amendment position in this country that makes it very difficult to do anything somewhat similar to what is being done in Europe.  So I was wondering if you could outline some ideas about what could be done.

HAMZA YUSUF:  Okay.  I think it’s a great question.  I’m pretty… I’m actually quite familiar with the British situation.  I have less familiarity, though some, with what’s happening with continental Europe, but you know, I would say in the British model, I think it’s very dangerous for the government to be directly involved in funding.  And the main reason for that is a lot of the extremism that has arisen in the Muslim world is a direct result of this co-opted Islam that is seen as buttressing up these totalitarian governments.  And Muslims generally are extremely wary of government involvement in their religion, and a lot of the voices that are listened to are voices… I’ll give you one example.  (Inaudible) in Europe, his, his popularity went up considerably because he was not allowed to come into the United States, in Europe.  I mean, I can guarantee that there’s a direct correlation, because Muslims who are seen somehow as standing up against what other Muslims consider unjust foreign policy or whatever, they have a credibility amongst the Muslims and in the community.  So I think government involvement, the best thing that they can do is just be, you know, helpful in facilitating, just in terms of the legalities of what’s needed, and not being road-blocks in the way. 

I think there’s a lot of, in this country there’s an immense amount of just fear of anything associated with Islam.  I think the governments need to become more sophisticated in understanding the nuances of the community and the fact that for instance, the Deobandi community is not a threat to, they’re very conservative, they’re apolitical.  They actually emerged out of the Indian rebellion of 1857 and decided that military struggle was no longer an appropriate strategy, and they felt that a knowledge-based struggle was much more important.  And so that is their focus. 

Now their support of the Taliban in Afghanistan had much more to do with the Deobandi, just the fact that the Taliban was associated with the Deoband community and not so much with its involvement with al-Qaeda, which is a whole other problem.  I mean the Taliban’s involvement, which is a whole other problem.  So, you know, I think there’s a, I personally, you know, I’ve been involved in an advisory capacity in the UK with the British government, but just my, the fact that I’ve been associated in any way with the British government has had a negative impact on my own credibility within the community in certain sectors, and you know, so that’s why I’ve tended to try to keep, just avoid those types of associations because of the impact it has on the credibility within the community. 

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Terrific, next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you. 

QUESTIONER C:  Thank you, Shaykh Hamza, for your kind, nice explanation.  I have a question about, when you say, when you said in your presentation about why Islam is compatible with the West.  Could you elaborate on that, what you mean by that?

HAMZA YUSUF:  Well what I would say is that there are a lot of Muslims, active practicing Muslims, that don’t fully understand a lot of the principles upon which Western political society certainly, and to a large extent cultural society, is predicated.  And so there’s a belief, because of the post-colonial trauma that exists within a lot of the Muslim world, and certainly in the minds of a lot of immigrants in these countries, there are many devout Muslims that just simply see the West and anything that it advocates as being antithetical to Islam.  I think that’s changing, and it’s a necessary change.  So I do feel it’s changing within the community, but it’s not changing fast enough and a lot of the young people-- the United Kingdom is a really good example of this-- a lot of the young people are just completely alienated from the political process, from the idea they can even participate.

I mean, there’s, and this is where the dangers arise, I think.  It’s certainly, many of the American Muslims, Canadian Muslims and European Muslims as well, many of them actually have very little to do with Islamic communities.  They’re quite assimilated and they’re living lives as doctors and engineers and taxi drivers and other things.  But for those that are deeply committed to Islam, if they don’t, if they’re not presented with an Islam that enables them to be fully Western and fully Muslim at the same time… the West, like Islam, is not a monolithic.  There’s, we have orthodox Jews that live in the heart of Brooklyn that don’t read newspapers or watch television and they’ve been here for over one-hundred years.  And they’re part of the tapestry of America.  But the vast majority of them pose no, you know, threat whatsoever, and probably you know, all of them with the exception of some ultra-orthodox, very extreme groups that advocate hatred toward Arabs and whatever, you find the reverse on the reverse side. 

But my point is, is that there are people that can be understanding that this is part of the West, that there are many ways to be Western.  That I can be isolationist like the ultra-orthodox community and still be part of the tapestry of this country.  I can also be integrationist.  I can be fully active in-- swearing an oath of allegiance to the constitution does not negate one’s faith.  Keith Ellison, who’s a congressman, swore an oath of allegiance to the constitution.  There are many Muslims that view that as completely unacceptable and as an act of apostasy. And so I think it’s important that from within the tradition itself, which we have ample room for presenting diverse opinion and view from within the tradition itself, I think many of these problems can be resolved if they’re done with sensitivity towards the community and awareness of many of the devout Muslims’ desires to simply live lives that are congruent with their deepest religious beliefs. 

QUESTIONER C:  Thank you.  I thank CFR for the initiation of this full kind of program and I hope they can continue and encourage other organizations also to keep a tab on this.  Thank you very much.

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Wonderful.  We do intend to continue.  We have a whole fall lineup.  So we will send that out.  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Okay, our next question.

QUESTIONER D:  Yes, thank you very much.  Thank you very much for this talk.  I work with an organization called the American Jewish Committee and we’re starting a task force towards Muslim-Jewish relations, and I’d like to put it to you maybe to help me explore ways in which we can, we can improve such relations.  Thank you very much.

HAMZA YUSUF:  Okay, well thank you for the question.  I think personally, the Muslim community has so much to learn from the Jewish community and the Jewish community’s experience.  Because a lot of the very same issues that are going on within the Jewish community are going on within the Muslim community, and to me it’s sad that we’re not able to see the incredible similarities between these two expressions of Abrahamic tradition.  So, you know, I think the onus is on both sides to reach out, to be more conciliatory.  I think there’s a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Muslim community that, that much of it is political.  I don’t think it’s as much historical and I think Bernard Lewis would agree with that. I’ve read his book about Jews under Islam, and I think he would agree with that too, that in fact he argues that much of the anti-Semitic ideology that’s crept into the Muslim world was actually exported from Europe, from the Christians.  That doesn’t mean that there’s not, I think, a lot of problem within our tradition.  But I think the Jewish tradition has the same problem with the Talmud, it has the same problem with their own pre-modern sources.  There are things that are objectionable in all of the Abrahamic traditions’ pre-modern formulations, and how we are able to maintain our tradition while recognizing that there were egregious mistakes made by even some of the greatest of scholars.  I mean that is a very sensitive area, I think, for all three of the faiths, probably more specifically for the Jewish and Islamic faiths because of the weight that we put on these classical scholars.

So I would say that we definitely, it’s starting to happen, I’m definitely seeing it.  I’ve been trying to be more outspoken about the anti-Jewish sentiment that exists within the community in recent years, because I’ve recognized it as a major problem within the Muslim community.  And I think also the fear that exists within the Jewish community-- much of it I don’t think is phobia, it think it’s rational fear, because of a lot of the unfortunate rhetoric that’s emanated from the Middle East-- but I think a lot of that fear has to be alleviated by the American Muslim community.  And I think that we in America have an extraordinary, and really a unique opportunity to try to transgress, to try to transcend these political barriers that we have now.  And I think that the central and most important thing at this stage is to leave Palestine out of this because I’ve just found that it’s a completely, it’s just an area that I think we need to establish relations.  Before we get into any discussions about what’s going on overseas we need to really look at what’s happening here and how we can improve the situation between our communities here.

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Thank you, next question, comment.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Your next question. 

QUESTIONER E:  Hello.  Hello.

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Yes, you’re on.

QUESTIONER E:  Okay, thanks.  I’m actually, I wanted to thank you for your comments and also attest that you, Shaykh Hamza, has actually spoken out against any kind of anti-, you know, the anti-Jewish sentiment.  I heard you speak two years ago at (inaudible) and clearly you did that.  My question is; I’m actually an attorney.  I was in New York and now I’m in public policy school at the Kennedy school, and I wanted to push you a little bit about nomenclature.  You spoke on sometimes about, let’s say moderates or other ones, and I’m not, I wanted to get some clarification, because I’m not comfortable within the formality on-- sometimes the words are used in terms of labeling.  I don’t think they’re saying that this, but I wanted to get more clarification, how can we be a part of the process of helping to establish good public policy but at the same time, I myself am not comfortable with being defined as a moderate or a progressive Muslim.  So if you can elaborate on that I would appreciate it.

HAMZA YUSUF:  Well, yeah, it’s a great question.  The topic of nomenclature is an incredibly important one.  There’s actually a scholar from Morocco that, he has an argument that much of the problem in the world is what he calls (inaudible), which is the crisis of technical terminology.  You know, the words we use are so poorly defined in what we mean by them and this is obviously, you know, in the pre-modern society, in the pre-modern society the basis of any debate or discussion was a definition of terms.  A (inaudible) was a common term that was used in the medieval period.  When somebody used a term, the interlocutor would say, you know, define the term so we know what you’re talking about.  And so I totally agree with you, it’s a major problem.  I certainly don’t have an answer to the problem.  Moderation is something that is based on a definition of extremes.  And extremes, if you look in the United Kingdom for instance, you have a spectrum from the Guardian to the Daily Telegraph, which is certainly a broader political spectrum than we would have.  In this country, much of what shows up in the Guardian would be considered extreme left, whereas in England it’s not considered extreme left, it’s considered mainstream left.  So I think whoever defines these, and this is Foucault’s labeling theory, you know that people in power tend to have the power of definition.  So I would agree with you.  I find problems with all these terms and, you know, I just, we have to do our best and try to at least define them from within our own usage.

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Great, next question, comment.

OPERATOR:  Your next question. 

QUESTIONER F:  Hi.  I have a very short question and then another question, my main question.  The short one is, what is the RAND classification system of U.S. Muslims?  I’m not familiar with that.  And the longer question is, you mentioned the specific conditions and needs of U.S. Muslims.  And you also mentioned trying to do without the baggage of immigrant Muslims from the Middle East.  I’m looking for, that it shouldn’t, that Middle East immigrants sometimes bring baggage that perhaps should not be part of the discourse here in the U.S.,  and I guess my question is, how does one really separate that out, since immigrants are so much part of the American experience, and living in Southern California, certainly the Muslim American experience?  Not exclusively immigrant by any means, but quite large immigrant communities, many, not all, from the Middle East, as well as South Asia, Africa and other places.  But how is this sort of talking about how does one be a good Muslim and say that one be both Eastern and Western?  Is that possible, is that part of the specific conditions in the U.S., or are you saying that this is really about defining how to be both Western and Muslim together?  Thank you.

HAMZA YUSUF:  Okay.  Well in terms of the first one, RAND, has a, you know, I think they have six or seven categories.  You can look it up on their website.  You know, they have, you know, fundamentalist, extremist, they have moderate, but they have boxes to show you their views in different, like women.  So they’ll say, you know, that the fundamentalist, extremist, you know, believe that women should have their head covered and this, that.  Well, I mean, that’s, there are many Muslims that believe that that wouldn’t fall into that category.  So I think…


HAMZA YUSUF:  Categories as you know are always problematic.  They work really well in physical nomenclature when you’re using taxonomy or something like that, you know.  A horse, you can use a category to define horses, even though a thoroughbred is different from, you know, a Tennessee walker or something like that.  But when you get into humans and psychological categories, categories based on belief, it becomes a lot more complex.  So I just feel those categories are often too simplistic, and they will often do more harm than good, because people end up being pigeonholed or stereotyped in categories that don’t suit them. 

In terms of the second question, I think we tend to forget that over 30 percent of the Muslims in America are actually indigenous. African-American, increasingly Hispanic-American, Caucasian-American, so we already have 30 percent.  But the indigenization of Islam has yet to occur.  It’s occurred to a certain degree within the African-American community, but within that community you will find expressions of Islam that are purely Middle Eastern.  So you’ll find in an inner city in New York, an African-American woman dressed from head to toe in a black abaya with gloves and a veil, believing that this is Islam.  Whereas if you go to African, the African continent, you won’t find any African women dressed like that, from Senegal, or Mauritania, where I lived, or anywhere, even Sudan and places like that.  You’ll find very different expressions. 

So the process of an indigenization of Islam in America is going to take time.  And what I mean by that indigenization is that, where a Western, a person born here, whether an immigrant child who is born and raised here, that they do not feel that their religion is an imported religion.  It’s an alien religion.  It has to do with Pakistan.  Or, and when I became Muslim for instance, there were certain cultural choices in front of me.  You could become a Pakistani Muslim.  And I know American converts who became so Pakistani they actually adopted a Pakistanian accent when they spoke English because of the time they spent amongst South Asian Muslims.  And the same is true with people that adopt certain Arab cultures.  I, for a period of my life, adopted a North African expression of Islam, and it still influences my Islam to this day.  But I’m increasingly becoming aware of the need for people to feel comfortable, what my friend Dr. Winter from Cambridge University says is that Muslims need to be able to make the jump from the West to Islam without losing their clothes in the process.  And I think that really expresses that idea of, that you don’t have to adopt a foreign culture.  That you can be Muslim, you can watch the Super Bowl, you can partake in Thanksgiving and certain cultural expressions without feeling that you’re doing something wrong, which right now there are many, many Muslims that still believe that, that there is a total incompatibility.  And so we have an isolationist culture. 

QUESTIONER F:  Thank you.

IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  Shaykh Hamza, thank you so much.  I think we’ve reached the end of our time, and indeed have gone over, but this has been a terrific forty-five minutes.


IRINA A. FASKIANOS:  I think everybody would agree.  We appreciate your insights.  If you want to learn more about Zaytuna, the website is, very easy to remember.  So all of you, thank you for participating in today’s call.  Our initiative, the Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative, seeks to connect religious and congregational leaders, scholars, and thinkers from across the country in cross-denominational conversations such as these to deepen the understanding of religion on U.S. foreign policy.  We would greatly appreciate your feedback and topics that you might like to discuss in future calls, so please send us your ideas to [email protected].  Our schedule for the fall lineup of calls is now set.  You all should receive the agenda.  Our next one will be on October 17, with Walter Russell Mead on his book, and he will be discussing religion and the open society.  So I hope you join us for that.  So thank you all and again thank you Shaykh Hamza for your, your insights today. 

HAMZA YUSUF:  Okay, Irina, thank you.