Convert Plays Leadership Role in Muslim Community Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is one of the most prominent American Muslim leaders today, but he's not well-known outside the Muslim community. He's an American convert to Islam who has attacked American foreign policy -- and denounced Islamic extremism.
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Convert Plays Leadership Role in Muslim Community

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Convert Plays Leadership Role in Muslim Community

Convert Plays Leadership Role in Muslim Community

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The phrase, our next speaker needs no introduction, usually means you're about to hear a long introduction. That wasn't the case at a convention for American Muslims this month.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) no introductions. So we're going to go straight to Sheikh Hamza Yusuf.

MONTAGNE: Sheikh Hamza Yusuf was already familiar to the thousands in the room. He's less familiar to those outside. So consider this an introduction to one of the most prominent American Muslim leaders today.

INSKEEP: He has a following from the U.S. to Europe to the Middle East. He's attacked American foreign policy, but also works to weed out extremism. And he's part of this week's reports on Muslim life in America five years after the 9/11 attacks.

Sheikh HAMZA YUSUF (American Muslim Leader): The only thing you have to fear is fear itself. And the only thing worthy of fear is God almighty.

INSKEEP: Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is an American convert to Islam, and in that Chicago convention speech he moved fluidly between American English and the Arabic of the Koran.

Sheikh YUSUF: And when they came and they said (foreign language spoken)...

INSKEEP: When you meet him, he's liable to quote anyone from an 11th century scholar to a modern musician.

Sheikh YUSUF: Don't follow leaders. Watch the parking meters. That's good advice. I mean...

INSKEEP: You're quoting Bob Dylan, there.

Sheikh YUSUF: Right. Imam Bob.

INSKEEP: And he's respected enough that he played a part in a presidential speech shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying in effect to hijack Islam itself.

INSKEEP: President Bush emphasized that point by inviting Sheikh Hamza Yusuf to sit in the audience. Yet these days he does not hide his distaste for the president.

Sheikh YUSUF: It's going to get worse before it gets better. But may Allah protect all of you and keep you strong, because there's only two more years (foreign language spoken).

Ms. LAURIE GOODSTEIN (Religion Correspondent, The New York Times): He's very political. He will say that he is not interested in politics, but in fact he's deeply interested in politics.

INSKEEP: Laurie Goodstein covers religion for the New York Times.

Ms. GOODSTEIN: He has given some speeches in the past that you could characterize as intemperate both toward the United States, being critical of American foreign policy, critical of capitalism, but very much the kinds of things you might hear from someone who is coming from the political left.

But that coming from the mouth of someone who is unashamedly Muslim can come across as sounding very militant and very scary.

INSKEEP: Sheikh Hamza Yusuf was born 47 years ago in Walla Walla, Washington. His given name was Mark Hanson. He converted as a teenager. He went to study in Saudi Arabia and South Africa, and now he's walking a difficult path.

He has attacked Islamic extremism, yet he is also defending Muslims against what he sees as prejudice.

Sheikh YUSUF: People begin to wonder, okay, is this a terrorist cell next door to my house? You know, Abdul? And, yeah, don't they celebrate that funny holiday, and what are they up to and why are those people and who are those two men with beards that just showed up? And let's call the FBI.

The FBI got untold number of calls. I mean I've read about this, some of them very hilarious. Not for the people, obviously, but for the FBI I'm sure. I mean they - if they have a sense of humor. I think they have a sense of humor, don't they? The FBI? They kind of, they smile, actually. They - have a nice day - and it's definitely not like the Gestapo.

INSKEEP: You guys chat a lot, you and the FBI?

Sheikh YUSUF: No. I mean, you know, they've been very cordial with me. And as a quote/unquote Muslim leader, you know, they wanted to let me know they had a zero tolerance policy to hate crimes and things like that. And I think the FBI...

INSKEEP: They're actually looking after you is what you're saying?

Sheikh YUSUF: Well, yeah. I think so. And, you know, during the time there were some death threats and things like that, they came to let me know.

INSKEEP: The subject of the FBI's concern met with us in a Chicago hotel room. He wore a goatee and glasses, and a blue shirt with the tails un-tucked. Hours later, he put on a suit. He stepped onstage and said that Muslims should also avoid prejudice.

Sheikh YUSUF: We have to drive anti-Jewish rhetoric out of our mosques and out of our living rooms. And I say that with utter conviction. I say that with...

INSKEEP: Those words against prejudice came from the same man who once denounced Jews for believing they were God's chosen people.

It was one of a number of harsh comments, like a declaration days before 9/11 that America stands condemned. Afterwards, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf expressed regret. And though he still criticizes Israeli policies, he says Muslims need to clean up their language.

Sheikh YUSUF: I don't want to be part of it. I wasn't raised with it. I was introduced into it when I went to the Middle East and studied in the Arab world, infected by it but I reject it.

INSKEEP: His efforts have impressed John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.

Professor JOHN ESPOSITO (Islamic Studies, Georgetown University): I think that he's addressing a reality that exists in the Muslim community, as it does in other communities. And that is that there is an anti-Semitism. So he's put a lot of time into the whole area of education, access to information, to kind of say here are the true sources and roots of your faith. That's what you should be looking to.

You look to the Koran. The Koran, for example, has space for Christians and Jews and you need to remember and affirm that. You need to also look at a lot of our classical text rather than looking at the text that come from the extremists or the terrorists.

INSKEEP: Which is not to say that Sheikh Hamza Yusuf's views will comfort every American. He argues that Wahhabism, an extremely conservative form of Islam, is not necessarily bad. You can hear his explanation at And he dismisses President Bush for linking terrorism to Islamist beliefs.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This nation is at war with Islamic fascists.

INSKEEP: What do you think about when you hear the White House describing a danger from Islamic fascism?

Sheikh YUSUF: Yeah. If you're using as an adjective to describe people that don't tolerate the views of others, there is fascism all over the place. It's just out there. I mean I've dealt with many fascists in my life, right? Really. I've probably had some fascistic attitudes towards others in my life that I'm ashamed of now.

So I think that aspect, the intolerance that exists, yeah, that's a human problem. It has nothing to do with Islam. It has to do with just people. In terms of Islamo-fascism, I have a real serious problem with that. I just simply do. It's not a word. Is it in Webster's? Yeah. So next year it'll be in the dictionary so we can find out what it means.

INSKEEP: It seems to me that the intended meaning was here is a dangerous ideology that threatens the world...

Sheikh YUSUF: It's not a dangerous ideology. It's a pathetic ideology that's been utterly a failure in the Muslim world. It has not succeeded.

INSKEEP: Well, you make the point that most Muslims have rejected this what you consider...

Sheikh YUSUF: They have rejected it.

INSKEEP: But isn't the risk, the danger, that if you have a minority who accept it and if they are organized and effective, they can still be profoundly dangerous to the world?

Sheikh YUSUF: Yeah, but don't project that onto - the only difference, there is a fundamental difference between the pre-modern world and the modern world, and that is that the individual has, through technology, the capacity to inflict the types of damage that only pre-modern armies could inflict. So that's something new. I mean that is a problem, and I accept that.

And I recognize there is a threat. I'm not denying that threat. But what I'm saying is the ideology is not the threat. The threat is these individuals.

(Soundbite of speech)

Sheikh YUSUF: September 11th cannot be used as a pretext to do whatever you want in attacking and frightening other people in other places in the world. And I want to quote another American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said preventive war was an invention of Hitler. This is the man who led the American forces to victory against fascism - against fascism.

INSKEEP: That is the passionate public face of the former Mark Hanson, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. These days he's based in California, where his seminary, The Zaytuna Institute, has attracted scholars from around the country. One of his goals is to translate Islamic writings, and in a larger sense to translate Islam itself. He wants to explain it to Americans. He also wants to separate it from the hatred that threatens his faith.

MONTAGNE: We're reporting all week on Islam in America five years after 9/11. We're going next to Hollywood, where a Muslim actor has spent years playing terrorists. Tomorrow, he'll explain what September 11 inspired him to do instead.

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