Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and The RIS Conference Controversy

Muslim circles have been abuzz with discussion, debate and argument about Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s comments at the Reviving Islamic Spirit Convention in Toronto last week. His comments were controversial on three fronts; his apparent dismissal of some of the concerns of the Black Lives Movement (BLM), his condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Political Islam”, as well as his comments about Sheikh Yasir Qadhi. He delivered a straightforward apology regarding his comments about Sheikh Yasir Qadhi the next day and this issue is now resolved.

Other issues remain open for discussion and many commentators have been giving their two cents. Some have rushed to defend Sheikh Hamza, including his long term colleague Imam Zaid Shakir, with many highlighting the Sheikhs track-record of standing with and supporting oppressed people across the spectrum. Others have been quick and stern in their condemnation of the Sheikh, with these condemnations ranging from dismissal of the Sheikh as being out of touch, to the more extreme voices who are calling the Sheikh racist.

Black Lives Matter

Sheikh Hamza’s comments raised a few incredibly key issues that need to be discussed within the Muslim community. I found parallels between the Sheikh’s comments on the BLM movement and his comments at times on the Syrian revolution. True to the Sufi tradition, the Sheikh urges for caution when delving into movements that might lead to a destabilization of society. On Syria, he has in the past cited one of the great imams who said, “It is better to live for 60 years under tyranny than to live in a moment of chaos”. This position is not uncommon within some streams of the Sufi tradition and Sheikh Hamza has made it clear that he believes that some are trying to goad people into a race war.

Sheikh Hamza cited certain statistics that raised some questions among those who criticized him. Citing that more white people are shot by police than black people, he tried to make the case that this wasn’t as simple as being only a problem related to racism amongst the police. In his apology the next day, the Sheikh also put forward his belief that the bigger issue facing black communities is not racism, but the breakdown of the black family. This argument seemed a little out of place within an apology about racism. Without for a second doubting the sincerity of the Sheikh’s apology, this seemed to shift the focus of the conversation away from racism, and towards the shortcomings of the black community, particularly black fathers. Black pathology has long been used to place the blame of the effects of racism squarely at the hands of it’s biggest victims.

Ethnic Racism and Anti-Semitism

Despite seeming to be forgotten about amongst the fallout, Sheikh Hamza raised an extremely pertinent point about the Muslim community and racism. The Sheikh made two further points in regards to racism and the Muslim community. He talked about feeling “sick to his stomach” seeing the Muslim community condemn white privilege while seeming to stay quiet on the matter of “Arab privilege”. He cited the treatment of Pakistanis and Indians in some parts of the Arab world as a prime example of this racism, a point that is being increasingly recognised amongst Muslims and Arabs as something that is in need of comprehensive action.

More controversially, he spoke of the anti-Jewish racism that is rife within the Muslim community. Commendably, he made this point without once mentioning the “I” word. How would we feel if everytime we tried to talk about discrimination against Rohingya within Burma, people would talk about terrorism? Or when bringing up the plight of the victims of Islamophobia, we were lectured on crimes that Muslims were committing. Who can deny that the line between challenging Zionism and smearing all Jews is not dangerously unclear in many of our communities?

A Time To Listen

Like many Muslims, I grew up listening to Sheikh Hamza’s lectures and he has an irreplaceably valuable place in my heart. I might look on his comments less hostilely than many of the other commentators who’ve come out and spoken about him over the past week. However, I believe it is of the utmost importance that this becomes a time of listening for myself, and all other non-Black Muslims. We have a part to play in this discussion. Our views are also important, however, this importance pales in comparison to that of black voices. I wouldn’t try to dictate to Palestinians how they should feel about their experiences of occupation, I wouldn’t try to tell Bosnians how they should think about their genocide, and it would be shortsighted to attempt to explain the Black experience to our Black brothers and sisters. In light of this position, it is also important to remind ourselves that a wide range of opinions exists amongst black voices, stretching the whole range of the spectrum, as exhibited in the responses that have been made to Sheikh Hamza’s comments. Rather than only seeking to add our own voices to the debate, we might all benefit if we step back and make the effort to listen instead, taking care to comprehend and appreciate what is being said in an attentive way.

Written by Tamim Mobayed

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Tamim is a 28 year old Dublin born Syrian who grew up in Belfast. He is working in the Media and studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology, part-time. He's a big fan of Liverpool Football Club and cats.