by Stephen Schwartz and Irfan al-Alawi
December 6, 2009
Who would imagine that a convert to Islam calling himself Hamza Yusuf Hanson, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and in his late ’40s, would be listed as number 38 among the “Top 50 Muslims in the World” by a leading government body in Jordan? Or that the same Hanson would have announced recently, in grandiose terms, the prospective launch of an American Islamic institution of higher education to be called Zaytuna College, and aimed at becoming a “Muslim Georgetown” in academic prestige?
“Shaykh Hamza,” as he prefers to be known, achieved so high a rank among the “Top 50 Muslims” thanks to an inventory produced by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, in cooperation with Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU). The full, illustrated catalogue is titled, “The Muslim 500” and may be perused online by clicking here. It was edited by two Georgetown faculty members: the notoriously Saudophilic Islamic studies professor and ACMCU Founding Director John L. Esposito, and Islamic studies professor Ibrahim Kalin. Kalin was recently described in Today’s Zaman, organ of the Islamist Fethullah Gülen movement, as the “chief foreign policy adviser” to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the “soft fundamentalist” Justice and Development party, or AKP.
Esposito and Kalin’s opulent presentation of “The Muslim 500” names Saudi King Abdullah as number one in the “Top 50.” Osama bin Laden is relegated to the remaining 450, as is Zaid Shakir, an African-American convert and Hamza Yusuf’s caliph, or deputy, in the Zaytuna enterprise.
Who, then, is Hamza Yusuf Hanson? And what is Zaytuna College?
“Shaykh Hamza” was long known as one of the most outspoken Muslim radicals in America. Two days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Hanson, speaking in Southern California, declared that America stood “condemned” and “unfortunately has a great, great tribulation coming to it.” This diatribe, reported in The Washington Post on October 2, 2001, was delivered at a benefit dinner for the prominent black nationalist known in the 1960s as H. Rap Brown, and later as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, who is now serving a life term without parole at the U.S. federal prison in Florence, Colorado, for murdering a police officer in Georgia (among other charges). The dinner was advertised on an Islamist website, NetMuslims.com.
After 9/11, Hanson adjusted his idiom, meeting with President George W. Bush and assuming a posture of Sufi spirituality. But Hanson’s basic loyalties did not change. While he now claims to be a moderate Muslim and opponent of Wahhabi radicalism, a 2007 interview on an Al-Jazeera English television program moderated by Rizwan “Riz” Khan showed him turning on a Saudi dinar, so to speak, when asked about Wahhabism. Having expressed a benevolent view of the West, Hanson responded to an anti-Wahhabi comment telephoned to the show by a British Muslim named Mohammed Sami by claiming to dislike Wahhabism (at minute 8:00, here). Yet Hanson then insisted that the Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia have “consistently condemned suicide bombing” and even offered the hallucinatory argument that Saudi Wahhabi clerics have forbidden such actions in Israel! He also took pains to dissociate himself from his reputation as a provider of advice to President Bush.
Still, Hanson remains an inexhaustible self-promoter. He was embarrassed in 2006 when the Saudi daily Okaz inaccurately described him as the “mufti” – i.e. the chief Islamic religious official – of California. But the Hamza Yusuf show has few original tricks to offer; he inevitably falls back on his associations with fundamentalists and radicals. In Britain, he has participated in the bizarre, government-funded “Radical Middle Way” (RMW) project which operates “roadshow” tours defending extremist ideology, yet allegedly discouraging violence. In RMW, “Shaykh Hamza” stands alongside such Islamist bigots as Jamal Badawi, author of a famously-retrograde volume, The Status of Woman in Islam, which recommends that females be excluded from political leadership. Badawi, who taught religious studies and is professor emeritus at St, Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, Canada, has also endorsed wife-beating and polygamy.
Other RMW luminaries in Britain include the fundamentalist Swiss theoretician Tariq Ramadan, still ensconced as a senior research fellow at Oxford University although dismissed from municipal and academic positions in The Netherlands.
To justify elevating the stature of Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir, “The Muslim 500” praised their Zaytuna Institute in California as “incredibly successful” and described it as “one of the most well-respected centers of Muslim education in North America.” Yet during fall semester, 2009, the Zaytuna Institute offered only three courses in Arabic language instruction.
After changing its name to the more impressive-sounding Zaytuna College, Hanson and Shakir announced that they would set up “the first Islamic college in America” — a publicity gambit that briefly gained considerable attention in the mainstream media. But when one examines the new “college” and its programs — promoted by a deceptive website replete with images typical of a normal, functioning campus — one finds that it promises nothing more than the same Arabic language courses, plus studies in Islamic law and theology.
Further, “Zaytuna College” claims to have developed “a unique curriculum for a Bachelor’s program,” but has only begun its first freshman courses and has no academic accreditation. Its website warns: “Full accreditation is generally a four- to seven-year process.” This means, presumably, that even if Hanson and Shakir were to convince some naïve persons to sign up for a bachelor’s degree — with tuition set at $11,000 per year — it might be useless when they receive it.
The so-called “Zaytuna College” is merely a more elaborate effort at establishment of a personal madrassa for “Shaykh Hamza.” He would probably shy away from such a description, given the negative connotations of the term in the West. Instead, Zaytuna publicity describes a religious training component as an “Islamic seminary program.” Not every madrassa has to be radical; some in the Muslim world are notably moderate. Yet there is little evidence that Zaytuna would emulate them.
Rumor in the UK, where “Shaykh Hamza” has toured, has convinced some Muslims there that the Zaytuna College will be affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley. This absurd suggestion seems to derive from the naming of Hatem Bazian, a UC Berkeley lecturer in both the Near Eastern and ethnic studies departments, as “Academic Affairs Chair” for Zaytuna. Bazian has a long resume as an extremist, like his radical colleagues Hanson and Shakir, the latter a prominent associate of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a leading force in America’s Wahhabi lobby of radical Islamist groups. Bazian became a public figure in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994 when, as former student body president at San Francisco State University, he agitated for a college mural that equated Jewish and American symbols with trading in “African blood.” A decade later, in 2004, Bazian called for an “intifada” in the U.S.
Promotion of “Shaykh Hamza” Shakir, and the Zaytuna Institute by Esposito, Kalin, and “The Muslim 500” does not appear coincidental. All of them, along with Rizwan Khan, have been leading participants in the so-called “Common Word” series of “dialogues” between Muslims and Catholic authorities.”Shaykh Hamza” distinguished himself as a major proponent of the “Common Word” effort, from its beginning in 2006, with a letter of 38 mainly second-rank Muslim figures addressed to Pope Benedict XVI. Like “Shaykh Hamza” and the Zaytuna campaign, the “Common Word” has been extravagantly promoted as a major event in the history of Muslim-Christian relations, having produced ever-expanding meetings at Yale and Cambridge universities, as well as discussions in Rome.
The latest such performance, also supported by the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, was held at Georgetown on October 6-9, 2009. In reality, the “Common Word” encounters are public events of an all-too-familiar kind, at which many speeches are made but nothing new or important is said or done. Nevertheless, they obscure the differences between Muslim moderates and Muslim radicals by suggesting that a single, undifferentiated Muslim delegation may treat with the Catholic Church on a basis of equality.
To re-emphasize a crucial point: the essential self-aggrandizement of “Shaykh Hamza,” who aspires to become the authoritative spokesman for Islam in the English-speaking countries, does not change; he merely rebrands his product in continuous attempts to expand his credibility. “A Common Word” had its media moment, then faded into the background without perceptibly improving interfaith relations. “Zaytuna College” also grabbed some headlines. Whatever its future, one thing about “Zaytuna College” is certain: so far, it is as much a mirage as the puffed-up reputation, to say nothing of the alleged moderation, of “Shaykh Hamza” himself.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director, and Dr. Irfan Al-Alawi is international director, of the Center for Islamic Pluralism (http://www.islamicpluralism.org/). They co-wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.