Interview with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Hamza Yusuf was born in Washington State and grew up in Northern California, where he lives with his wife and five children. He converted to Islam in 1977 and spent 10 years studying Islam in the Middle East where he followed a more classic interpretation of the religion. After the attacks of 9/11, Yusuf emerged as a respected Islamic scholar, advising both the White House and the Arab League. In recent years, he has focused his teachings on bridging the widening gap between the West and the Muslim world. In this interview, he talks about “tyranny” and “incompetence” on both sides and offers his prescription for creating more common ground. This is an edited transcript of an interview that took place in September 2006.

Q: Linden MacIntyre: What are the roots of Muslim rage?

A: Hamza Yusuf: If you had one word to describe the root of all this rage, it’s humiliation. Arabs in particular are extremely proud people. If you look at what happened in Lebanon recently, the Arabs kind of raised their head– they think it’s a big victory, the fact that their whole country was destroyed and over a thousand people were killed, many of them children. Why is it a victory? Because they fought back. That’s all. “OK, you can crush us into the Earth, but you’re not going to get us to submit.” And I think that’s deeply rooted in Muslim consciousness, the idea of not submitting to anything other than God. “You can abuse me, but you’re not going to win me over. But if you treat me with respect and dignity, I’m going to fall in love with you. I’m going to sing your praises all over the world because you’re powerful and you treated me with human dignity.”

Q: Where do they see the proof of the humiliation?

A: It’s everywhere. You don’t think it’s humiliating to have a foreign force come into your land? You see, Muslims don’t have this nation state idea. There’s a tribe called Bani Tamin. It’s one of the biggest tribes in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq, and they’re intermarried. The West doesn’t seem to understand that. The Moroccans feel the Iraqi pain as their own. It’s one pain. So when you see some American soldier banging down a door and coming into a house with all these women in utter fear who’ve done nothing, that’s humiliation, and it’s going to enrage people. And what are we doing there? There are no weapons of mass destruction. They were never a threat to us. You know, Shakespeare wrote a play called Julius Caesar, and it was all about the danger of pre-emptive strikes. Brutus is convinced by Cassius to kill Caesar. Why? Because Caesar’s ambitious, because he might declare himself king. And the end of that play, everybody dies; it’s just disaster. That’s the tragedy of
pre-emptive strikes.

Q: What goes through your mind when you hear about all these roundups of young Muslims who are supposedly plotting things in London and in Toronto?

A: We keep being told about these roundups, and in the end, they’re more aspirational than operational. I’d love to have been in the meeting when they thought that one up. It seems to me that they’re just a lot of bumbling fools out there.

Q: On which side of the equation?

A: On both sides. I mean, that’s part of the problem. Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, and I think that’s really what we’re dealing with here, incompetence. Both sides have been incredibly ineffective at achieving their goals– at least their stated goals.

Q: I’m trying to get a measure of just how concerned people should really be though.

A: Listen, hurricanes are a much greater threat to us right now. Katrina did much more damage than anything the terrorists could ever put together. Yeah, there’s nuclear weapons are out there and that certainly is a concern. That’s the job of these intelligence people to stop that, right? But stop making us all live in fear and telling us about orange and red levels. All that nonsense just simply has to stop. We need to calm down and think at a deeper level. People can’t think when their minds are clouded with fear. The fear tactic is a tactic that’s used by people who want to maintain control, and it’s very effective.
A democracy is predicated on an educated citizenry. You cannot have a democracy with people that are more interested in what Nicole Kidman is doing or whoever the latest fashion model is. If that’s your interest, democracy can’t survive. You also have corporate interests here. We have an arms industry in the West that is our No. 1 industry. It’s bigger than anything– automobiles, everything. Now if you don’t have reasons to build weapons, where do all those contracts go?

Q: Your job is to recruit young people into a more constructive project.

A: Well, I’m not a recruiter ….

Q: You are definitely an influence.

A: I’ve got my own personal projects, like my school and my seminary. But at this point in my life, I’m actually just trying to put some balance out there because I feel that there’s an incredible amount of disequilibrium in the way people are acting and the way they’re thinking. There are irrational fears. If you see a woman wearing a hijab and fear is your first thought, something’s really wrong. How do you racially profile terrorists when 90percent of the world falls into that? Mexicans look like Arabs, for God’s sake, and anybody can change their name. I mean Abdullah can change his name to Eduardo. It’s not going to be difficult, if they’re clever. So how do you profile people?

Q: Six years ago, there were probably the same number of disenchanted young people in chat rooms and coffee houses complaining and
plotting. But given the last five years, what are the chances now that it is going to become a more real and a more sinister force?

A: A major fear for me is that it will get worse with the profiling, with the alienation. I think especially for the young people and especially in the more underprivileged groups, but don’t rule out the privileged as well. In the Communist period, the revolutionaries, the leaders were almost always– Che Guevara, people like that– they were always from the middle class and the educated. And empathy is a very powerful emotion. If you watch Al Manar Television in Lebanon, it’s associated with Hezbollah. If you watch that for any length of time, you’re going to get very angry. It’s as simple as that. They show babies blown up, they show horrible scenes, and people see that and they get angry. There’s always going to be a segment of angry people who are going to go out and do something.
Part of the real crisis of the modern age is that the individual has the power to do what pre-modern armies really couldn’t even do. In the pre-modern world, you just couldn’t do a lot of damage. In the modern world, you can. So we have real concerns. You have to go to a deeper level. Henry David Thoreau said for every thousand people hacking away at the branches of evil, there’s only one person hacking away at the roots of evil. I really think we need to go to a deeper level and look at what the root of this situation is. There are a lot of people prevaricating out there, who just don’t want to deal with the “why” question.

Q: It’s become treasonous to talk about “why.” So how do you get around that?

A: People need to know. It’s the responsibility of the fifth estate– the journalists. They need courage. I’m amazed at the courage of the journalists on the frontlines in Iraq, but we need intellectual courage in our community. We need to get rid of this hegemonic discourse that doesn’t allow for any dissent, where people’s jobs and careers are threatened by asking questions, because we have to ask questions.

Q: Well, let’s start now. Why?

A: Why? We have a thousand years of cold war between the West and Islam. Let us not forget that the West in many ways defined itself, Europe defined itself vis-à-vis Islam. The Song of Roland is really one of the earliest pieces of Western literature, and it’s about the antagonism with Muslims. So I think Islam has always been this nebulous “other” that we’re afraid of, and that is part of our consciousness. The Crusades are also part of our consciousness. And the colonial period. But ultimately what you have is extremely repressive regimes. The reality is, almost all these Muslim governments are persecuting active Muslims, not terrorists. When you have very powerful secular tyrants, religion poses a very serious threat, and religion is a very powerful force in the Muslim world. So the repression of Islam, which has been going on for so long, has resulted in certain extreme views that have emerged within the religion. But you have to look at the reasons. Now we in the
West have supported many of these regimes and see them as our interest. I personally don’t think democracy is viable right now in the Muslim world. You need just governments, but you need strong governments. I think you can have situations that are not democratic but still are rooted in a concern about the people, the welfare of the people.

Q: How realistic is it to place hope on benevolent dictatorships?

A: I’m not talking so much about dictators. At this stage, you have to build democratic institutions, and in that way, the West can help. Look, we give $1billion in aid to Egypt. Do you know how much juice that is on the negotiating table, in terms of what you demand of Egypt? Because if you cut off that billion dollars, you’re cutting off the lifeblood of the Egyptian government. America has an immense amount of power, but it doesn’t use it in any benevolent way. It uses it to maintain a status quo. The same is true for almost all these Muslim countries.

Q: So what’s your biggest challenge?

A: I have challenges in both worlds. I’m very active in the Muslim world. I have very popular television programs in the Muslim world, which have, I think, a very positive impact. So I’m working there. I go quite often to the Muslim world. And then I have my challenges here. I’m one person.

Q: But there are people in the Muslim world who think you’re a heretic.

A: I think the majority of Muslims that know about me — and there are quite a few in the Muslim world that do– generally have a very good opinion of what I’m doing. I have rarely met belligerent Muslims. Every once in a while I’ll come across somebody who’s just got an axe to grind. But it’s actually quite unusual for me. The majority of Muslims I meet, I see smiles on their faces. I get hugs. People tell me, “Keep up the good work.” I really believe that most Muslims are very decent people. I’ve lived in the Muslim world. I’m always struck by their incredible generosity, by their simplicity, by their love of some really basic virtues and values that I share and that most Western people share. This is my experience as a Western person, a convert to Islam.

Q: What was your experience after your speech the other night [at the Islamic Society of North America conference in Chicago], in which
you talked about the fundamental humanity of people of the Jewish faith?

A: The Jewish situation’s bad. I have to admit that. There is an immense amount of ignorance, particularly in the Muslim world. I think less so here, but we have that problem here also. There is an anti-Jewish sentiment. It’s far more politically driven, and I think Muslims have forgotten, that’s all. I think they need reminders, and I think when you remind them, they tend to respond, and that’s been my experience. I was not raised as an anti-Semite. My sister converted to Judaism, is married to a Jewish man. I have nephews that are Jewish. I was not raised with any prejudice at all. But I was infected when I lived in the Muslim world. I lived in the Arab world for over 10 years, and I think I did get infected by that virus for a period of time. But I grew out of it and realized that not only does it have nothing to do with Islam, but it has nothing to do with my core values. And I’ve rejected that and called others to reject it. I think it’s something that really needs
to change in the Muslim community, and I think it will.

Q: What is your evaluation of the response of the last five years of the security apparatus, both as an American and as a Muslim?

A: Well, I think we’ve all become much more acutely aware of the state apparatus in terms of monitoring. I don’t like the feeling that I have to think about what I say when I say things. It’s not healthy, and I think a lot of people feel it now in a way that they’ve never felt it before, and that troubles me deeply about my country. I think that there needs to be a return to some real central values about this country. I think Guantanamo Bay is absolutely an unacceptable event in American history. It’s going to be looked at as a really black period in our legal tradition.

Q: At what point does this more intense, heavy-handed security become counterproductive?

A: Personally, I think the intensified security has already become counterproductive. They need to do their job, but they don’t need to do it constantly in our face. The intelligence community has a job to protect. The first principle of any government is to protect its citizens. But you also protect your citizens by being just to other countries and other peoples. You endanger your citizens by reckless behavior. You endanger your citizens by hubris. You endanger your citizens by the inability to actually apologize or to ask forgiveness for your mistakes. And that’s something I find the most troubling about the whole situation, because I think real security is based on having benevolent policies.

Q: So what’s your prescription?

A: My prescription is that we need to dismantle the pyramid of domination and we need to rebuild a house of mutual respect.

Q: Give me that in bread-and-butter terms.

A: In bread-and-butter terms, I truly believe that we need to stop being so paternalistic in our attitudes toward Muslims, toward other countries, and begin to actually speak to them as if they were human beings, fully enfranchised, with the dignity that goes with that. To stop drawing lines in the sand, to stop dictating to people as if you have some God-given authority to do that, and to really start trying to talk to people and see what you can do. I think we need commerce that is mutually beneficial and we need to stop all of this hegemonic commercial tyranny that goes on in the Middle East, in Central and South America. I mean people forget, you know, the South Americans probably hate us more than the Arabs do.

Q: How much more difficult has it become to achieve this kind of rationale?

A: We’re at the lowest ebb right now. It’s going to be very difficult to get back our credibility. In the recent war with Lebanon, it was so one-sided. If you watched Arab television and then CNN, it was like two different universes. That’s really troubling to me because like the Chinese say, “There are three truths. There’s my truth, your truth and then the truth.” If I’m unwilling to let go of my truth and you’re unwilling to let go of your truth, we cannot see objectively this truth that’s in the middle, between us. There’s good and bad in all of us, and I want to get rid of the cartoon scenario of George Bush’s world and Osama bin Laden’s world, and I want to see it nuanced. I want to see more intelligence here.

Q: We know from history that wars are generally fought by young men. What are you saying to these young people to prevent the sudden explosion of this sort of negative potential?

A: You have to give them hope. And there’s something attractive about war to young men. They need to see war for what it is. If Robert E. Lee in the Civil War said war was hell, what would he make of 20th-century and 21st-century warfare? I think we have to see war as the despicable creature that it is and really work for peace. They say if you don’t sweat for peace, then you bleed for war.

Q: But can you pull that off from inside Islam?

A: Muslims are peace-loving people generally. Among the young, yes, there are some militant attitudes. But a lot of it arises out of chivalry– and don’t underestimate the chivalrous impulse in men. A lot of these young men see women being– you know– they see soldiers breaking into houses with Muslim women. It’s really beyond the pale for the average Muslim man, and something rises up in them. And it can turn to deep resentment and rage. But generally I think the impulses are actually quite noble.

Q: So what do you say to the average person who sees some kind of a sinister threat under every hijab and behind every beard?

A: People have to be exposed to Muslims, just experience Muslims; talk to them. Reach out, read about Islam, try to find out about it. There are 20,000 Muslim physicians in the United States, Americans putting their lives in the hands of Muslims every day. You’re going under and the anesthesiologist is a Muslim, right? He’s looking out for you. He doesn’t want you to die in that operation because you’re an infidel. He’s doing his job. As is your pediatrician who’s trying to heal your child. And the mechanic who’s fixing your car? He’s not putting a bomb in your car. It’s Abdullah, the guy down at the Chevron station, right? I mean it’s one-fifth of the world’s population for God’s sake– one out of five people is a Muslim.
Muslims have been an almost entirely benevolent force in the 20th century. They did not wreak the havoc the Western powers wreaked on the world. They have not come anywhere near to the environmental degradation that we’ve done to the planet. So I think Muslims need to be seen in the proper light. They’re mostly decent, hardworking people, people with deep family values, and they want to live in peace. My experience on this planet, almost 50 years, is that if you treat people with respect, they tend to treat you with respect.