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Hamza Yusuf and the struggle for the soul of western Islam

The man who once suggested Muslims were wary of any scholar too close to the government is now working with Trump, and seen by some as an Emirati stooge

The reputation of one of the Western world's most prominent Islamic scholars sits on a precipice.

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, the American Muslim scholar known for his razor-sharp wit, peerless grasp of the Arabic language, and propped up as the voice of millions of North American and European Muslims, is facing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy among ordinary Muslims.

Though he has long been a controversial figure, the events of the past 18 months have pitted the Sheikh and his supporters against an outpouring of criticism that accuse him of abandoning the community and deepening hostility against Muslims.

But to his supporters, he can do no wrong.

To them, he has revitalised Islam in North America, given thousands the ability to find solace in their faith and a confidence to navigate modernity. Though some of his followers disagree with his politics, they trust his intention: Yusuf is still spoken of in glowing terms as an endearing and learned traditionalist with his heart in the right place.

To his detractors, his continued association with the government of the United Arab Emirates and lately with US President Donald Trump's administration, confirms him as an apologist for American empire and a stooge for autocratic regimes in the Middle East. For them, he is fast becoming an enemy of Muslims and emboldening the slide towards fascism.

But the story of Hamza Yusuf is not just the story of a man whose legacy is being contested by different persuasions. The fierce debates raging over the impact of his decisions and alliances are not bluster. 

He is the very ground on which the future of Western Islam is being decided.

Early life

Hamza Yusuf was born in 1958 in a Christian household in Washington state by the name of Mark Hanson. The family moved to northern California, where his father worked as an academic and his mother was involved in the civil rights movement.

When he was 17, he narrowly survived a car accident that made him face up to the question of mortality and the purpose of life.

"It took me about six months to come out of that shock. It was a powerful wake-up call," he told the BBC in an interview in 2002.

"During those six months, it began just as an exploration of what would have happened, had I died ... I did have a deep sense that there was something on the other side."

Yusuf said it was an encounter with Martin Lings's The Book of Certainty that lead him to a close reading of the Quran and eventually to his conversion just a few months prior to his 18th birthday. He became involved in the Shadhili Sufi order, led by Sheikh Abdalqadir as-Sufi.

Hamza Yusuf studied under Murabit al Hajj in Mauritania during 90s (Screengrab)
Hamza Yusuf studied under Sheikh Murabit al Hajj in Mauritania in the 90s (Screengrab)

He dropped out of college and travelled to pursue a traditional or classical Islamic training. First, he was in the United Kingdom, where he lived with as-Sufi, and then spent four years in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he studied at the Islamic Institute and worked as a muezzin (one who calls to prayer) and imam. In 1984, his relationship with Sheikh Abdalqadir as-Sufi soured, and he broke away from the order.

He then went to North Africa, including Algeria, and then westwards to Mauritania. 

In her book, Islam is a Foreign Country, the anthropologist Zareena Grewal writes that it is in Mauritania "where he developed his most lasting and powerful relationship with a teacher, Sheikh 'Murabit al-Hajj' Muhammad Fahfu". 

It was also in Mauritania, though later, where he became a student of Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, who would come to play an important role in Yusuf's trajectory. Bin Bayyah is recognised as an important scholar in Islamic jurisprudence, and, according to academics, his reputation grants both Yusuf and himself an audience with governments, be it in the Middle East or in the Western world.

A sought-after Sheikh 

On his return to the US in 1988, it was not long before Yusuf became known for his rousing lectures. He emerged as one of the more charismatic Muslim scholars in the country.

For those struggling through a spiritual abyss of consumerist, hyper-modern America, Yusuf was its witty, cultured and polished Muslim equivalent that injected a type of esteem to an Islam of yore.

Yusuf was not just eloquent, he had mastered Islamic sciences, and was also a young white male willing to critique capitalism, militarism and modernity via Sahih Bukhari and Bob Dylan. With his soft-voice and characteristic goatee, and penchant to gently drop hints of his vast reading repertoire with every anecdote he told, he brought a certain panache to being Muslim in America.

Shadee Elmasry, who studied under Yusuf in the 1990s, told Middle East Eye that his most vivid memory of Yusuf was the level of sophistication that he brought to teaching religion.

"He simplified the message so much so that you could take one-liners and implement them in your daily life ... I probably listened to every lecture [of his] that was on tape or VHS," said Elmasry, founder of the Safina Society, a Muslim educational institute based in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Abdullah bin Bayah (right) became president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in the UAE, after leaving the Union of Muslim Scholars in Qatar (FPPMS)
Abdullah bin Bayah (right) became president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in the UAE, after leaving the Union of Muslim Scholars in Qatar (FPPMS)

Through his lectures he brought the nostalgic Muslim world that seemed so out of reach to people's doorstep; via his Sufi retreats, he transported American Muslim professionals to an intellectual abode where what it meant to be Muslim could be reconciled with the material affairs of the world. 

Yusuf became a sought-after Sheikh and one of the few American religious thinkers with a global audience.

"The other major impact he had in the US was that he popularised Sufism without Tariqahs [alignment with a particular school]. It made Sufism accessible at a time when Salafi Islam was at its peak in US mosques," Grewal, who is also an associate professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University, told MEE.

Grewal adds that while Yusuf was only one of many "American Muslim seekers" of his generation who sought a traditional Islamic training in the so-called Muslim world, his popularity turned this practice into a phenomenon. In 1996, Yusuf co-founded the Zaytuna Institute in California, offering Arabic and intensive Islamic Studies courses, attracting students from across the country.

Fouzi Husaini, 43, who also encountered Yusuf's work in the mid-90s during his undergraduate years, told MEE that he became a lifelong student of Yusuf because of the intellectual and spiritual dimension he brought to his faith.

"At the time a lot of the Muslim scholars I had come into contact with were either immigrants or had accents and didn't have an understanding of the American context. Here was an American convert who had dedicated his life to the study of his religion.

"It was incredibly impressive. And I felt that I wanted to learn more from this individual," Hussaini, a senior manager at Amazon in California, said. 

Elmasry, who also credits Yusuf for his professional development, says there was another element that drew him close to Yusuf as a Sheikh.

"He was justice-oriented. He was outspoken and his politics were the politics of the oppressed," he recalls. 

Post-11 September

The general consensus among scholars and researchers who have followed Yusuf since his early days as a Sheikh in America, is there was a monumental shift to his approach to politics after the attacks of 11 September 2001.

According to Grewal, Yusuf was among the first to claim that Islam had been "hijacked by a discourse of anger and the rhetoric of rage" and that Muslims had to return to "true" Islam. He expressed remorse for the speeches that espoused anger at American empire and claimed to have a played a part in perpetuating "unbalanced" and "hateful" rhetoric. 

Two days before 11 September, for instance, he had said the US "stands condemned" for invading Muslim countries and that "a great tribulation is coming". 

In the days that followed, Yusuf would be one of five religious leaders to meet with then-president George W Bush ahead of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 where he is said to have convinced Bush to change the name of the invasion because it was "offensive to Muslims".

While he was predictably criticised for meeting the president at a time when Muslims were being vilified because of 9/11, his fixation with the name of the military campaign rather than the campaign itself, left many perplexed. 

'A lot of people who followed HY closely, said that it was like an overnight shift after 9/11. It was almost a reaction to the sheer magnitude of the event'

- Walaa Quisay

But it signalled the rise of a new approach by Yusuf towards the US government, militarism and towards American Muslims as well. He now claimed that Muslims should be appreciative of the rights afforded to them by Western countries.

"Immigrants who rant and rave about the West should emigrate to a Muslim country," he said in 2001.

"A lot of people who followed HY closely, said that it was like an overnight shift after 9/11. It was almost a reaction to the sheer magnitude of the event," Walaa Quisay, a teaching fellow at Birmingham who has studied Islamic neo-traditionalism in the West, told MEE.

Grewal agrees. "When you see how he talks about the United States, you see a real change. Before September 11, he was extremely critical of both US policy outside and within the US."

But Grewal cautions against making sweeping claims that all of Yusuf's stances and ideas had radically shifted since the 9/11 attacks.

"For instance, he has been quite consistent in his critique of what we can call 'dominant American culture and media'," Grewal says.

Yusuf, himself, has conceded that he had undergone a transformation, arguing that "if you're staying the same, something is wrong. You're not alive." 

This concession aside, it was the beginning of a series of contradictions and wobbly positions. 

Consolidation of a philosophy

Some observers suggest that Yusuf's change of heart vis-a-vis speaking up against oppression might have come as a result of the new pressures faced by American Muslims, and especially scholars, with the community under unprecedented scrutiny in the post 9/11 period. 

For others, many of whom experienced the unravelling of deep-seated Islamophobia, rampant profiling and racism, especially towards brown and black bodies, and later witnessed the unleashing of brutal US military action in Afghanistan and later Iraq, his change of heart was seen as a betrayal.

As a popular Sheikh, he was catapulted onto the national stage and asked to explain the reasons for "violent" extremism among Muslims.

Instead of drawing on the systemic reasons for extremism and the role of Western governments in perpetuating inequality, oppression and imperialism, as he once might have done, Yusuf took the opportunity to spread his personal ideological agenda as a way of explaining the so-called crisis in the Muslim world.

Having built up a reputation for biting political commentary that drew from different cultural worlds, Yusuf blamed Muslims and Muslim immigrants for their ambitions to be treated justly in a categorically unequal world. He also admonished the rise of political Islam as a movement geared to solve all social ills.

"Many Arabs now see Islam as a political movement that will solve their often-excruciating social and economic problems. That is simply false and a dangerous utopian assumption," Yusuf is quoted as having said in the Huffington Post.

In explaining Yusuf's position, Quisay says a significant part of his position stems from the belief that "all leaders are unjust". 

"They are basically a tribulation from God. Your role on this earth is not to change the power structures. It's to deal with tribulation in a way that is sound and that will internally elevate you.

"For Yusuf, If you are trying to find justice on earth, you are essentially overthrowing the purpose of divine justice," Quisay adds.

'Muslims are very wary of any scholar who associates closely with a government, and they always have been'

- Hamza Yusuf

In pathologising political Islam as an entry into radicalism, Yusuf appeared to walk straight into right-wing talking points that distinguished between "good Muslims" as those who focused on the spiritual dimensions of the faith and remained purportedly apolitical and "bad Muslims" who engaged in activism and expressed dissent.

Scholars say he gave credence to the idea of the "moderate," "rational" and "logical" Muslim in sharp contrast to the "provincials" who set dumpsters alight when someone drew the Prophet Muhammad or strapped explosives around their chests each time they felt an urge to counter oppression.

The post-9/11 era in the US was marked by Bush's "with us or against us" doctrine.

This cartoonish depiction of Muslims has had consequences for thousands of Muslims in the US and fuelled the global Islamophobic industry. It has spawned deportations, racial profiling, wrongful arrest, torture, and extra-judicial killings. 

Some even point to the alternate trajectory of another influential American Muslim scholar in the 90s, Anwar al-Awlaki. 

Awlaki was accused of being in touch with the 9/11 attackers and of being a key religious figure for fighters with al-Qaeda. Though he was never tried in a court of law, he was eventually killed in a US drone strike in Yemen, during the Obama years. 

"The comparison is interesting because it presents two extreme responses to Muslim disempowerment - one comes from anti-imperialist revolutionary Muslims who are willing to use religion to justify violence, even against the innocent; the other comes from accommodationist Muslims who, like Yusuf and also on a religious basis, are willing to disregard the violent crimes of those in power (eg the UAE in various proxy wars), as long as they maintain status-quo 'stability' and tolerate the quietist version of Islam Yusuf upholds," Usaama al-Azami, a lecturer in Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, said.

"In reality, the overwhelming majority Muslims fall somewhere between these two extremes, both of which cause the innocent to die, though it is likely that considerably greater numbers of innocent people are killed by states like the UAE and its proxies than terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

"It's also the case that mainstream pro-democracy Islamists who reject violence are a far more popular force in the Middle East than either of these two groups, but Yusuf opposes them in-part because they threaten the autocrats in the region," al-Azami told MEE.

Yusuf did briefly change tack once more, especially in the devastating aftermath of the Iraq war and the so-called "war on terror". He also appeared to have regretted his meeting with Bush, when he said: "Muslims are very wary of any scholar who associates closely with a government, and they always have been ... Because governments never do that out of the graciousness of their goodwill. They co-opt," he said.

But his anti-establishment persona never quite hit the high notes of the 1990s.

 Hamza Yusuf co-founded the Zaytuna college in 2008 alongside Imam Zaid Shakir and Hatem Bazian (Screengrab)
Hamza Yusuf co-founded Zaytuna College in 2008 alongside Imam Zaid Shakir and Hatem Bazian (Screengrab)

In 2008, Yusuf converted the Zaytuna Institute into a college in Berkeley, California together with colleagues Imam Zaid Shakir and Hatem Bazian.

It was, as Grewal says, an attempt to shift the Muslim centre from countries like Mauritania, or the Islamic East, towards the US. It also demonstrated a surety and optimism from Yusuf and his fellow co-founders about the future of a Islam in America.

"One of the aims of the college is to show that you don't have to leave the country to discover yourself as a Muslim," Mahan Mirza, who was once part of the Zaytuna Faculty, told the NYT in 2013. 

Yusuf himself has said he wanted to foment a space for creative thinking among Muslims since the tradition had been destroyed or lost in Arab countries. It is a refrain repeated by his students as well. 

And though Yusuf has long been subject to scrutiny and criticism among a segment of Muslims in America since September 11, Zaytuna College has expanded, his teaching methods are still popular and his supporters remain ardent believers.

Maha Elgenaidi, who has known Yusuf for the past 28 years, describes his efforts as having revived the Islamic tradition in the United States and Europe. 

"He made us appreciate the study of Islam as well as the Arabic language," said Elgenaidi, founder of Islamic Networks Group (ING), a San Jose-based non-profit that works to counter bigotry through education and interfaith engagement.

But Quisay from the University of Birmingham in Britain sees it differently. She says there is unmistakable orientalism at every level of Yusuf's conception of Muslims and the Arab world.

"Even in his theological conceptions, he assumes that no one in the Middle East has ever come across these traditional notions of religion or that they are too corrupted by modernity or colonial modernity to ever realise the roots of their tradition."

The Arab Spring

In early 2011, millions of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo, demanding that president Hosni Mubarak step down.

In a blog in early February, Yusuf ​​​​​​called for scholars "inside and outside Egypt to stand with the Egyptian people".

He also went so far as to call for the removal of Mubarak. Yusuf also demonstrated a lucid understanding of geopolitics in the region when he cautioned that, with its rich investments in the country, "Washington will invariably not want such a strategically significant place as Egypt to fall into the hands of a real reformer, despite the administration's rhetoric of 'spreading democracy'." 

The double-speak was not far off. In reference to Egypt's then-Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, who asked anti-Mubarak protesters to go home, he wrote: "Having said that, I believe we should maintain a good opinion of the scholars who either take a position or choose to remain silent - a valid option during fitnah [unrest]. 

"Moreover, his position is certainly consonant with a traditional approach that was taken by many of the great scholars of the past."

Al-Azami said that the year 2013 was a defining moment for Yusuf in his deepening of ties and political compact with the UAE.

First, came the coup in Egypt. In July 2013, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first and only democratically elected president, was deposed in a Saudi and UAE-backed move. A month later, the Egyptian army murdered at least 1,000 people demonstrating against the coup. The Rabaa massacre effectively dismantled the Arab Spring. 

Then, a mere three months later, Hamza Yusuf's Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah leaves the Union of Muslim Scholars in Qatar, where he had served under Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, known as the religious leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and becomes president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS) in the UAE. Yusuf is appointed his deputy. Bin Bayyah would later say that he had left because he disagreed with many of their positions.

But according to Quisay, the shift represents the UAE's attempt to use religion as a tool of soft power to consolidate an Islamic orthodoxy that would deem their political rivals (like the Brotherhood) as khawarij (loosely translated as renegade or unorthodox) and gave a legitimacy to their criminalisation. This was precisely how Sisi-aligned Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa had labelled the Rabaa protesters prior to the massacre, Quisay says.

A year later, the UAE named the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the oldest Muslim civil rights organisation in the US, as a terrorist organisation, accusing it of links to the Muslim Brotherhood. CAIR denies any such links. 

Later in 2014, the first Forum for Promoting Peace in UAE took place, establishing a platform that has promoted Zionist organisations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the counter-extremism Quilliam Foundation think tank, that plays into the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim binaries and is known for its pathologisation of Muslims in the UK.

Elgenaidi, who works in interfaith projects, defends engagement with the ADL, arguing that the group had become "more accessible since the departure of its old leadership". 

"We agree with some or much of their work, and on issues where we don't agree, I don't see how we are going to change anything without talking with them," she said.

But the acceleration of "interfaith dialogues," observers say, merely advance the notion that conflicts in the Middle East are remnants of a millennial-old civilizational polemic that could be addressed "only if we understood each other better".

Here, interfaith dialogue is used as a cover to wash away political disputes.

Take the discussion at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) in 2015, when Yusuf's Sheikh bin Bayyah reduces the tussle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional domination, and the 70-year-old Israeli-occupation of Palestine to historical conflicts. 

"The Shia and the Sunni, it's a problem that arose 1,400 years ago, and the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine and Israel is 2,000 years old," bin Bayyah says.

Yusuf and his Sheikh it turns out aren't the only ones bundling political issues into religious ones. 

Parallel efforts like the NYC-based Shalom Hartman Institute's Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), which jets American Muslim leaders on Israeli-sponsored trips to improve "Jewish and American relations," was further indication that a coordinated effort to eliminate Muslim political action was underway. 

Later, in 2017, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE decided to impose a blockade on Qatar, the bin Bayyah and Yusuf-led Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies issued a statement in which it lent support to the siege.

Al-Azami, the scholar from the University of Oxford, described the forum's statement as cementing "its reputation as a mere religious rubber stamp for the UAE's strategic ambitions".

Zeshan Zafar, executive director of the Forum in the UAE, did not respond to MEE's request for comment.

Yusuf came in for scathing criticism in late 2018 when he attended the fifth installment of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in the UAE.

With the war in Yemen reaching catastrophic proportions and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the UAE-allied Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman fresh on Muslim American minds, Yusuf was admonished for describing the UAE as "tolerant". 

Responding to criticism over his involvement during an interview with journalist Sharaad Kuttan in July, Yusuf said he was "not happy with tyranny or the oppression of populations".

"But I also understand the complexity of the world. One can argue that one should remove themselves completely from the apparatus of states. But then [...] who is going to give these people advice about how to deal with things?" 

Yusuf said, for instance, that if he had an opportunity to engage the Chinese government about the persecution of the Uighurs, he would do so, because he believes "the Chinese have overreacted" to "things like terrorism".

He also claimed that the vast majority of the people in the Gulf were happy with the way their governments run things.

Elgenaidi, though a supporter of Yusuf, admits that she is also conflicted about his association with UAE.

She says her "solution is to continue engaging with Hamza Yusuf about it as I do in my professional work with faith and political leaders of all backgrounds".

"Sometimes these conversations are difficult, but they're important to have and to continue to be engaged with each other."

"I've talked with him a lot about his work in UAE, and my sense is that he's working in service to his Sheikh Abdullah bin Biyyah," she says.

As many have noted, the geopolitics of the broader Muslim world at this time seems to revolve, on the one hand, with authoritarian Sunni governments that have allied themselves with the US and Israel, and, on the other, with pro-democracy movements from below. Yusuf, it would appear, has thrown his lot with the former, despite what it may mean for the perpetuation of warfare, militarism, and the demonisation of Muslims.

Here also lies one of the complexities in attempting to understand Yusuf's political decisions. Is he, as Elgenaidi suggests, merely serving as an obedient disciple to his Sheikh who now works for the UAE, or has he internalised this mode of politics to help Muslims "survive" this hostile world? Moreover, is he oblivious to the role autocratic regimes, like the UAE, continue to play in the cementing of Islamophobia and the criminalisation of anyone loosely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the West?

The alliance with the UAE, it turns out, is but a blueprint for a stream of peculiar alliances. 

Black Lives Matter and Trump

At an event in Toronto in late 2016, barely weeks after Donald Trump had been elected president, Yusuf set off a series of gaffes that have followed him since. 

When asked if Muslims should be more supportive of Black Lives Matter (BLM), the civil rights movement focused on ending state violence against Black Americans, he categorically undermined the initiative by describing America as home to laws that make it "one of the least racist societies in the world". He also said that "50% [of homicides] are black on black crime".

The outrage among a certain segment of Muslims in America was immediate. 

Hamza Yusuf was forced to backtrack his comments on the Black Lives Matter movement (AFP)
Hamza Yusuf was forced to backtrack his comments on the Black Lives Matter movement (AFP)

That same evening he suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood had led to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, echoing long-held views by American policymakers, including those on the right, and the UAE's stance that religious ideology would lead to radicalisation. 

But he wasn't done. He then went on to describe Trump as "God's servant".

As Yahya Birt, a doctoral candidate and scholar at Leeds University in Theology & Religious Studies, points out, Yusuf also called on Muslims that night to work with the right. 

"One of our major problems right now is our inability to speak to the right," Yusuf said.

"Millennials have shifted incredibly towards the left, so we don't have an ability to talk to them ... I think the biggest opportunity that we have is to recognise that there are a lot of decent people out there, Republicans, Democrats, left, right, they're decent people," he said.

Though Yusuf attempted to clarify his comments about Black Lives Matter and the Muslim Brotherhood in a meandering apology, Donna Auston, a PhD candidate at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who has also known Yusuf personally since the mid-1990s, told MEE she was not surprised by his comments on BLM.

"He has been critiqued on his views on race before. But these comments were a pretty sharp indication of a definitive turn in a specific political direction that was somewhat different from what he had articulated before," said Auston, whose dissertation focuses on Black Muslim activism within the Black Lives Matter movement in the northeastern US.

Likewise, Hakeem Muhammad, president of the Black Dawah Network, an organisation that introduces Islam to black communities in the US, described Yusuf's comments on BLM as typical white conservative talking points. 

"Many immigrant Muslims have a colonised mentality and an inferiority complex when it comes to their religion. When they see a good white man converting to Islam, they put these individuals on pedestals regardless of the kind of disrespect they might express towards Black communities," Muhammad told MEE.

Yusuf's comments about Trump in December 2016 followed an earlier blog in which he had urged American Muslims to accept Trump as their president at a time in which resistance to the result was still fresh.

He also said that "many Trump supporters were decent and hardworking people" and that the likelihood of any maligned community being rounded up was an "unlikely scenario because we are not the people we were when the Japanese were interned in the US". 

"The racist backlash that has emerged before and after the election is a fringe element," Yusuf wrote.

Months into Trump's presidency, Muslims from several Muslim countries were banned from travelling to the US. 

Later, thousands of undocumented migrant children were separated from their families at the Mexico-US border; others were held in cages and threatened with mass deportation. 

Trump has also villainised Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, linking her to 9/11 and describing her as anti-American. In July 2019, Trump told Ilhan, along with three other progressive Democrats, to go back to their countries if they didn't like the US. At a Trump rally in North Carolina in early July, his supporters chanted "send her back". 

Muslim Americans are not oblivious to the fact that Yusuf has neither condemned the Muslim ban nor has he raised his voice against the treatment of undocumented migrants or the hate-targeting of Ilhan. 

And though there have been murmurs among Muslims, it was only when it was announced that he would join a State Department Commission on human rights that many spoke out. 

It is also a decision that Yusuf has yet to explain. 

Safir Ahmed, director of publications and media relations at Zaytuna, told MEE that Yusuf was unavailable for interviews due to a hectic travel schedule. He also referred all questions about Yusuf's participation in Trump's commission to the US State Department.  

The State Department did not respond to multiple queries from MEE as to the reasons for selecting Yusuf for the commission.

'Culture wars'

Though many Muslims in America prior to 9/11 supported the Republican Party for its conservative values, many have since moved towards the left, in light of the profiling and attacks on their civil rights.

Some have done so despite an uneasiness or discomfort with the mainstreaming of LGBTQ issues on the left; they remain because of the escalation of white supremacy, continued racial injustice, and the deepening of economic inequality that continues to define the lives of so many people of colour in America.

However, there are Muslims who remain sceptical of the ethics of "social justice" espoused by the left for how it might alter traditional family values, so much so that they may be willing to deny or understate oppression, be it racism or economic injustice, to ensure that traditional moral codes are not undermined. Abortion, LGBTQ and pornography are treated as the primary moral questions of the day.

"I think the key to understanding this is the 'culture wars'," said Grewal. "A quick glance at the type of intellectual and institutional alliances that he has made since forming Zaytuna College would clear any doubt as to which end of the political spectrum he belonged.

"It's not only about quietest Sufism but also about the 'culture wars' and aligning with socially and politically conservative Christians on the right."

Yusuf often raises his family's history, particularly his mother's involvement within the civil rights movements. But in a later discussion about his comments on the Black Lives Matter, he appeared to differentiate between the movements for racial equality 60 years ago with the initiatives today, suggesting that there was a lot more anger in the movement today because of the "absence of the sacred".

But the truth might be a lot more candid.

The Black Lives Movement's association with the LGBTQ movement may be one of the reasons why Yusuf could not endorse BLM, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, assistant professor at Zaytuna College, says.

"He could not support BLM because he knew that ideology espoused by BLM was fundamentally un-Islamic."

Ali says that the decision to align with the right was only a matter of allowing Muslims to preserve their traditions. 

"With the left, if you don't accept LGBTQ people, you are labelled a bigot. With the right, you don't have to compromise on your religious beliefs.

"These are my views and I can say with confidence that these are the views of Sheikh Hamza as well."

Yusuf's inter-faith dialogues are in reality an alliance with the right. 

Though an open secret, it is one that some Muslims have yet to fully grapple with or comprehend, given that it is precisely this group of conservative white Christians who are Islamophobic,  Zionist and crucially, Trump's base. 

Even the appointment of Yusuf to the State Department's commission for inalienable rights which is supposed to bring a "natural law" lens to examining America's human rights policy, is no coincidence. Not only did Yusuf accept an invitation to attend a religious event held by the Trump administration in 2017, but he also has close ties to those organising the new commission.

Robert George, the man who is said to have been instrumental in setting up the commission, and has for years accused liberals of being "slaves to a faith-based 'secularist orthodoxy'" of "feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberationism and lifestyle liberalism," as David D Kirkpatrick described it in the New York Times, is a close associate and friend of Yusuf.

'He's innocent until proven guilty of poor judgment in other words. Sheikh Hamza would never do anything to harm anyone, let alone an entire community'

- Maha Elgenaidi

George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and described as the "country's most influential conservative Christian thinker," has been writing about "natural law" as a means to fight against the LGBTQ community since at least the 1990s.

"I want Hamza to have an even greater influence. Not just in the Islamic community. But in America," George, who was accused of "turning the Church into the tool of the Republican Party," said in 2012.

Given that the US has already removed itself from the UN's Human Rights Council, critics of the commission say it seems to be another attempt to retract rights rather than defend them. Robert George did not reply to MEE's request for comment on the commission or his relationship with Yusuf.

Despite the criticism against the commission and the Muslim community's disapproval of Yusuf's involvement, supporters like Elgenaidi from ING and Ali from Zaytuna say they have full confidence in his decision.

"I trust his judgment based on his decades-old history of serving the Muslim American community until he proves me wrong," Elgenaidi said. "He's innocent until proven guilty of poor judgment in other words. Sheikh Hamza would never do anything to harm anyone, let alone an entire community. 

"I just think it's important more than ever for Western Muslims, particularly American Muslims, to be more united in all of our diversity and not to rush to judgement and condemnations of each other due to differences of opinion or strategies," she added.

For many other Muslims looking in, the refusal to condemn border detentions or the Muslim ban or fraternise with the autocrats of the UAE while Yemen is sent to the doldrums is precisely why Yusuf was selected for the panel.

Al-Azami, the lecturer at the University of Oxford, says that even those Muslims who stood by him when he changed track post-9/11 or was seen to work with the UAE in spite of the war in Yemen have been shaken by his association with Trump. 

Notably, Yusuf's colleague at Zaytuna, Imam Zaid Shakir, who defended Yusuf after his comments about Black Lives Matter, did not express as much enthusiasm when it came to the news about working with the Trump administration.

"Despite disagreements, one should continue to entertain a good opinion of one's brother, trust and respect his knowledge (if like Sheikh Hamza he is of the people of knowledge), extend sincere advice to him and most importantly to pray for him," Imam Zaid Shakir wrote on Facebook. 

Neither Imam Shakir nor Hatem Baziam, Yusuf's colleagues and co-founders at Zaytuna, responded to Middle East Eye's request for insight on Yusuf's decisions or how his actions have impacted the reputation of the college. 

"Many Muslims are upset because of what Trump represents and what Hamza Yusuf is meant to represent," said al-Azami. 

"For someone like that to squander his social capital and, by extension, the social capital of the institution he represents and presides over, and by extension the social capital of the Muslim community and that too, without any consultation, would be naturally troubling to many Muslims." 

But even then, many of Yusuf's former students are unwilling to critique him publicly.  A mix of reverence, fear and self-doubt renders them confused or ambivalent.

The only people, al-Azami suggests, who continue to support Yusuf in the public sphere today are those who continue to place their unconditional faith in his sincerity as a religious scholar. 

And the rest, it appears, have moved on.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.