Sunday, December 27, 2009

America's First Muslim University

The troubling rhetoric of the men behind America's first Muslim university

Zaytuna College, which plans to be the first accredited Muslim college in the United States, is set to open next fall in Berkeley, California. The college has been hailed as a victory for moderate Islam, a place to promote religious understanding by "blending traditional Islam and American culture and establishing a permanent place for the religion in American society," according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. But Zaytuna College may not be as moderate as it seems--or moderate at all.

The college's founders, Hamza Yusuf Hanson and Zaid Shakir, are similarly lauded as even-keeled Muslims who, according to the Chronicle, "have built a following with their inspirational lectures and willingness to take a critical look at Islam." NPR has promoted Hanson as a moderate Muslim; the New York Times featured both men as "middle ground" Muslims--and Hanson even met with George W. Bush following the attacks of 9/11.

Strange, then, that two days before September 11, 2001, Hanson said that America has "a great tribulation coming to it." Stranger still that Hanson called Judaism a "most racist religion" in 1995. Or that in 2006 Shakir told the New York Times that "Every Muslim who is honest would say, I would like to see America become a Muslim country." Or that Hanson disparagingly called democracy and the Bill of Rights "false gods" in 1996. Given this, to say that Zaytuna College may not be what it seems may be an understatement.

A man who once claimed that he is a citizen of America by birth and not by choice, Hamza Yusuf Hanson (nee Mark Hanson) is an American convert to Islam who, following the attacks of 9/11, softened his incendiary rhetoric. He may have changed his rhetoric, but he hasn't changed his fundamental beliefs. Proof? He has never explicitly denounced Wahhabism or Wahhabi vandalism of religious culture in Saudi Arabia. To many moderate Muslims, if there's one thing moderate Muslims are defined by, it's their willingness to censure Wahhabism as radical and dangerous. Hanson and Shakir didn't respond to numerous requests for an interview.

More proof comes in the form of Hanson's association with the Radical Middle Way, a British government-financed group of so-called moderate Muslims who urge young Muslims to renounce extremism. But even here, some less than savory Muslim characters speckle its list of speakers: Jamal Badawi, Tariq Ramadan, Abdur Rahman Helbawy--and Hanson.

Shakir, for his part, has yet to completely temper his views, even after 9/11. As late as October 2007, on the website New Islamic Directions, he argues that then-president Bush's agenda was cut from the same cloth as "the fascist movements of the 20th century," mentioning Hitler specifically. Shakir goes on to write that 9/11 "occurred under dubious circumstances that have yet to be thoroughly investigated"--putting him in the political company with the Van Joneses of the world.

Now consider that these men, who have been called among the most influential Muslim scholars in the West, hope to open an institution meant to educate the growing Muslim population of this country. The school will only have two majors, Islamic Legal & Theological Studies and Arabic. In each class, men and women would typically sit on different sides of the room. And though it will incorporate the other humanities and social sciences in its curriculum, it makes no mention of math or the hard sciences. Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim relations at the Hartford Seminary and a Muslim critic of Zaytuna College, says that any attempt like Zaytuna College should be "studied very carefully so we do not ruin the future of young people who, out of religious enthusiasm, would study at such a place and probably get worthless degrees."

The question remains: will that extremism be hardened into students at Zaytuna College?

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