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
Description: Council on Foreign Relations
Transcription Date:Transcription Modified Date: 3/29/2019 8:41:04 PM
Transcript Version: 1
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Transcript Text

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.