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

oman"'>  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.