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For American Muslims, Hamza Yusuf's endorsement of Trump is one step too far Open in fullscreen

Khaled A. Beydoun

For American Muslims, Hamza Yusuf's endorsement of Trump is one step too far

This isn't the first time Yusuf has drawn the ire of social justice-minded Muslims [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 July, 2019

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Comment: By going to work with the Trump administration, Yusuf leaves scores of Muslim Americans questioning his leadership, writes Khaled A. Beydoun.
Even before claiming office, Donald Trump drew a clear line across the landscape that segregated Muslims from "real Americans".

Just last week, in his third year in office, Trump unleashed another tirade directed at the country's first two Muslim American congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, again demonstrating his view that assertions of Muslim strength had to be an affront on America. 

Whether declaring, "Islam hates us" or "Go back to your country," Trump has never yielded from the position that Islam and America are inimical, and his views that Muslim citizens are not "really American" is unequivocal.

Tump's line dividing America and Islam is explicit and profound, and deepening with every day he remains in the White House.

Last week, prominent Muslim American scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf decided to cross that line. Yusuf accepted a position with the Department of State's Commission on Unalienable Human Rights, a 10-person board headed by Secretary Mike Pompeo.

The Commission is tasked with assessing the human rights implications of American foreign policy all over the world, including Muslim-majority countries and regions where Muslim populations are sizable and vulnerable.

Yusuf, a celebrated theologian and co-founder of California's Zaytuna College, is a committed human rights advocate. He has used his influence to shed light on humanitarian crises in Yemen, Syria, and most recently, the oft neglected ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, creating awareness and raise funds to alleviate suffering in these nations and others beyond and in between them. 

Yusuf the spiritual and political firebrand is no more

His commitment to the human rights of Muslims abroad is demonstrated time and again, and has earned the esteem Muslim Americans have for his spiritual leadership.

However, last week's turn toward the Trump administration has many within the Muslim American community questioning that leadership. 

By accepting the role with an administration that has demarcated a clear and irresolvable line between itself and Muslim America, Yusuf has effectively pit the human rights mission he relentlessly fights for against the basic humanity that very administration denies Muslims abroad, at the border, and at home. 

What must be made clear is that Trump himself deepened the binary orienting America against Islam, and strident rhetoric and policy, posed the ultimatum that one is either Muslim or American.  

Muslim Americans, by merely existing, are fighting that ultimatum every day, while enduring the injury afflicted by the Trump administration and the vigilante violence it authorises across the country. Therefore, by crossing that line to work with the Trump administration, scores of Muslim Americans feel as if Yusuf crossed them.

This, unfortunately, was not the first time. 

In the 1990s, Yusuf set himself apart as a religious leader by condemning dictators in the Arab world and Muslim-majority countries, positioning himself on the side of the people and against the oppression inflicted by autocrats.

However, in recent years, Yusuf has been anointed a favourite of the United Arab Emirates, the small Gulf nation that, alongside Saudi Arabia, has utterly decimated Yemen and carried forward a merciless onslaught of a defenseless people. 

Beyond the realm of international affairs, Yusuf has made missteps on the domestic end that also drew the ire of social justice-minded Muslims.

Read more: Hamza Yusuf is not your friend

At the Reviving Islamic Conference in Toronto, Canada, in 2017, Yusuf offered a surprising assessment of racism in America,

"The United States is probably, in terms of its laws, one of the least racist societies in the world. We have between 15,000 and 18,000 homicides per year. Fifty percent are black-on-black crime, literally… There are twice as many whites that have been shot by police, but nobody ever shows those videos."

Yusuf has effectively pit the human rights mission he relentlessly fights for against the basic humanity that very administration denies Muslims

Yusuf's comments, made in response to a question about the Black Lives Matters movement, sparked an immediate firestorm, and in the minds of many, positioned him on the wrong side of the swelling racial justice movement sweeping across the United States.

These recent precedents signal a clear trajectory in the public life of Hamza Yusuf. A trajectory toward power and away from the people, which makes his most recent decision to work with the Trump administration more foreseeable than surprising. 

For Yusuf, who made his name as an agitator keen on interpreting Islam as a liberation theology for the most vulnerable, his modern turns have established him as a pragmatist: Not only that accepts the status quo, but willing to work with actors he would have previously condemned to further his mission.

Yusuf the spiritual and political firebrand is no more.

And too many within the Muslim American and global milieus still latch onto a version and vision of Yusuf that has been replaced by man who views power, and the most vile stewards of it, as useful channels toward improving the humanitarian conditions of Muslims around the world. 

These recent precedents signal a clear trajectory in the public life of Hamza Yusuf; toward power and away from the people

Yusuf's intentions then and today remain admirable, and his dedication to serving Muslims afflicted by famine or war, ethnic cleansing and persecution demonstrated by his deeds.   

But for a president and an administration that incessantly questions the very humanity of Muslims, how realistic is it for Yusuf to make an impact on improving the human rights conditions of Muslims? 

His appointment may very well be a token one, seized upon by an administration desperate to enlist visible Muslims among its ranks. Moreover, is the possibility of impacting the State Department worth the considerable hit Yusuf will absorb for enlisting with the Trump administration? 

For Muslim Americans, positioned by Trump and his legions of followers as national pariahs, the resounding answer is "No," making Yusuf's most recent misstep a step too far.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor, and author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.

Follow him on Twitter: @KhaledBeydoun

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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