The Muslim Who Challenges Muslims (and their critics)

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has strong medicine for American Muslims — and their critics.

American Muslims “should really stop complaining,” start contributing more to society, get to know your neighbors and oppose the dangerous versions of Islam that have migrated to this country.

To critics: Stop demanding Muslims apologize for every act of violence committed by someone in the name of Islam, and recognize that Muslims throughout the world have suffered tremendous violence in recent decades.

One might think such messages would shrink Yusuf’s audience, yet the Islamic scholar has become a much-sought speaker among Muslims — particularly young ones seeking American-accented expressions of their faith.

He delivered these messages to several hundred earlier in November at the annual banquet of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Kentucky. He drew strong applause from the crowd, and many lined up afterward for his book signing.

Muslim scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Yusuf is an American-born convert who studied Islam and Arabic in the Middle East. He founded Zaytuna Institute, an Islamic college in California, and has drawn attention beyond the Muslim world especially after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when he hailed the murdered firefighters and police officers as the true martyrs of that day.

Yusuf quipped during his Louisville speech that as a convert, some view him as “the most dangerous kind” of Muslim and that like many Muslims he’s been subjected to extensive airport screenings.

But past American immigrants such as Yusuf’s Irish ancestors would love to exchange their struggles for “a little searching at the airports,” he said.

“Of all immigrants — with the possible exception of the Hindu migration after the 1965 immigration act — nobody has had it easier than the Muslims,” he said. “If you want to talk about difficulties, talk to the Chinese Americans about their history. Talk to the Japanese Americans about their history. If you think everybody’s going to embrace and help you and say, ‘Welcome to America,’ you have not read American history. You have to prove yourselves.”

Catholics, he said, built hospitals, charities and schools so good that Protestants began sending their children to them.

“Now Catholics are part of this country,” he said.

And Muslims will be, too, he said, “when we open the free clinics in the worst part of town, when we start feeding people, when we start taking care of our African-American brothers.”

He lamented that many Muslim immigrants are “milking the cow” — getting wealthy while “we have inner-city mosques that can’t pay the electricity bill.”

But not all the criticism was inward.

“A community is enfranchised when that community is not blamed for what individual members of that community do,” he said, speaking just days after the Fort Hood massacre of 13 soldiers, which authorities said was carried out by a Muslim Army doctor.

“The fact that I must have to apologize or say anything about Fort Hood as an American Muslim — that this has anything to do with me or anything to do with my community” shows that enfranchisement hasn’t arrived yet, Yusuf said.

“I don’t know people who go into a room and shoot everybody up, and I certainly don’t want to meet them and I certainly hope I’m not praying next to somebody like that,” he said. “Every religion has these problems.”

He cited Baruch Goldstein, an American-educated Israeli medical doctor who massacred 29 Muslims at a West Bank shrine in 1994.

No one, he said, claims that Goldstein represented Judaism or that Jews needed to explain themselves.

“People say it seems like the Muslims have more problems than other people,” Yusuf said. “First of all, there are a lot more Muslims than other people, so we’re going to have a higher count of nut cases than other groups, just statistically.

“But we’re also under siege in many places,” he said. “We’ve got Muslims that are being humiliated in Palestine, in Kashmir, in certain parts of the Russian republic, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, China. Muslims have been victims of a lot of human suffering.” Somalis and Afghans, he said, have suffered decades of warfare rooted in Cold War politics.

But understanding causes of violence doesn’t justify it, he said.

“We have versions of Islam out there that are deeply troubling, that are very dangerous. Some of them have been brought to these shores. If people want to adhere to those things, they need to go other places.”

But, he said: “There are so many Muslims who are dying to get here, literally. They don’t want to blow up America. They want to work at 7-Eleven.”


Peter Smith has covered religion for The Courier-Journal since 2000. He has received reporting awards from the American Academy of Religion, the Religion Communicators Council and the Louisville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He has a bachelor’s from Oral Roberts University and a master’s of arts in religion from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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