On Hamza Yusufs statements, enabling racism and refusing accountability.

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Recently, the prominent white American Muslim scholar Hamza Yusuf has attracted quite some controversy because of the statements made in reply to Mehdi Hassans critical questions regarding the important question weather, and why, non-black Muslims should stand with Black Lives Matter. He was participating in the RIS-conference (Reviving the Islamic Spirit) Hamza Yusufs reply was almost a text-book example of how a privileged person should NOT react to a question like this. (His statements can be assessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zs6HEZHMpDA)

Hamza Yusuf is privileged in many ways: He is a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, educated middle-class Western man. And he is one of those people who refuses to see his privilege and how that privilege has helped him in many ways – for instance, it gave him the possibility to study and become a traditionally schooled Muslim scholar. If he would have been white and female, or black and male, for instance (let alone black and female) it would have been a whole lot harder. (Like is so eloquently explained in these article: https://sobersecondlook.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/seeking-knowledge-a-cure-for-patriarchal-abuses/)

But anyway. Firstly, he claimed that American society, in terms of its laws, is one of the least racist societies in the world. I beg to differ on that one, but the most important thing is this: Even if this were true, what is the reality on the ground? As someone who studies Law, I regognize this reaction all too well: Since Hamza Yusuf is a jurist, so it is easy for him to look at theory & ignore practice. African-Americans maybe aren’t discriminated against de jure, at least after the Civil Rights Act, but still de facto. Exactly that way of thinking, only looking at the most rosy interpretation of theory and ignoring the facts of life on the ground, is what is at the heart of apologetic conservative scholared Sunni discourse on Muslim women’s lives, rights and places, but also on racism amongst Muslims. They only speak about how it should be, but not on what actually happens. They quote all these lovely Quran verses and ahadith, glorify Hazrat Bilal etc., but fail to confront the fact that anti-black racism is a global problem, and that many non-black Muslims of colour, and white Muslims alike, are very racist against black people and that the fact that God & His Prophet forbade racism doesn’t make any difference for these racists. Yes, the American Constitution promises equality to all, but the reality is that anti-black racism still exists and that it literally kills people: Unarmed black men and women are still subjected to violence, literally slain in the streets, like Trayvon Martin, Kecia Boyd, Amadou Diallo, etc.

Secondly, he brings up the issue of black on black crime to downplay police brutality against unarmed African-Americans AND to divert from the subject at hand: Racist police brutality against unarmed black men and women. These diversionary tactics, will be shown by him more, especially in his clarification a day later. He also refuses to simply answer the questions Mehdi Hassan poses, but goes along with bringing up all kinds of other things.

Then, he brings up the fact that whites are shot twice as many as black people. This might be true, because in America, 70% of Americans are white. But if one looks at these numbers procentually, blacks are overrepresented almost 6 times in being shot by the police.

Fourthly, he claims that “not all police are racist”. This is a rhetoric move called the straw man. First, one constructs an argument that was supposedly (but not in reality!) made by an opponent, and then argues against that – again while diverting from the subject at hand and ignoring the real points the opponent made.

Then, in another move, he claims that there is no Arabic word for racism, and then, in one breath (!) says that there is a word, called `unsuriyya, but that “isn’t really a word, because it didn’t exist in seventh century Quranic Arabic” (!). The truth of the matter is, of course, that there are many dialects of Arabic. Seventh Century Quranic Arabic is a form of Arabic, just like there is Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, etc., etc., etc. `Unsuriyya probably is a neologism, which in this context means, a relatively new word which was created for a new expression. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t “really a word”. Racism as a word didn’t exist in seventh century Arabia, but anti-blackness and tribalism did – That’s why the Prophet had to preach against it, why Bilal was discriminated against many times, and why few Muslims know that aside from Hazrat Bilal, the Prophet pbuh had many black companions and that many of the later ahl ul bayt (= literally “people of the (Prophets) house”; the Prophet’s family and descendents)

Then he goes on about racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry from and against other people and communities, again diverting attention from the subject at hand, racist police brutality against African-Americans.

And to make it even worse, he claims that the term “white supremacy” “makes him sick to his stomach”. Ofcourse it does. God forbid that he loose……his privilege. Being lauded & applauded by non-black Muslims of colour because of the status he gets from his studies, sex, gender, sexual orientation and skin colour. Because the reality on the ground is that while white converts, especially cisgendered, heterosexual males, are often lauded and applauded, black converts simply don’t get the same treatment. What we often get, is straight-up racism, prejudice and exclusion. Verily, a painfull truth, but deniying or downplaying this truth only benefits the racists and enables racism. Just like Hamza Yusuf enabled racism by his denial, diversionary tactics and refusal to simply answer questions that were posed to him.

It’s also telling, to say the least, that Yusuf talked as if being black and being Muslim are two mutually exclusive cathegories……whilst the largest single ethnic group of Muslims in the USA (up to 44%), are African-Americans& Islam came to the Americas on the slave ships. Up to 30% of enslaved West Africans were Muslims.

Then, the second day of the conference, he comes up with a “clarification” – which is even worse. Instead of assessing & reacting to the critique he got because of his statements, he brings up all kinds of other issues, and centers the conversation around his person. (The clarification can be asessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2jB_GpY9jo )

He tells all kinds of tales about his mother being in the Civil Rights movement, his mother having had an African-American lover, him being married to a Native American Mexican woman, his sisters going to an African-American school……While all these things AREN’T THE ISSUE! The issue was and is his statements, not his mother, his childhood, his wife, his children or his person. Oh, and he was so honored to carry Muhammad Alis casket to his grave. This is the same argument as “O I can’t be racist because I have black friends!” Yes, he talks a lot, but never adresses the subject at hand: His statements. Also, he makes it about his person, talking about his life, his studies and “everyone who knows me”, which tells me two things. 1. He has a huge ego. 2. He isn’t used to receiving critique for his statements. And why would he? Thousands come to his lectures, share them online, praise him – and those are not circumstances to create much self-reflection, to say the least. In my opinion, Muslim leaders –and all&any leaders!- should be held accountable for their statements & actions. One can’t have it both ways: Being lauded as a leader, being sought after for guidance, etc. and then turning around and refusing to react to criticism. This is childish at best and manipulative at worst. And none of those two traits are any good in a leader, plain and simple.

With such scholars and supposed allies, we as black Muslims really don’t need enemies.

2 thoughts on “On Hamza Yusufs statements, enabling racism and refusing accountability.

  1. Well said. I am often embarrassed by my fellow white men, they just don’t seem to care about internal racism within Islam, they are willing to ignore their own issues, and become defensive end deflecting when called on it.

    Please, keep writing, we need your voice.

    Liked by 1 person

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