The man who advised Bush

October 12, 2001

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LONDON: A few days ago, for reasons that remain rather unclear, the FBI decided to pay a call on the home of Hamza Yusuf. “He isn’t home,” said his wife. “He’s with the president.” The FBI agents did not seem to believe her; they called the White House to check. “He’s got 100 per cent security clearance,” said the voice at the other end. The FBI agents did not return.

Yusuf, an Islamic teacher, was indeed with the president. At the meeting, he advised Bush that the military term ‘Operation Infinite Justice’ was blasphemous to Muslims. The president listened. He said he was sorry that the Pentagon, which chose the title, had no theologians on staff. The name was changed.

Then, after joining in with God Save America, Yusuf stood outside the White House and delivered an unequivocal message, which even Margaret Thatcher could not fault. “Islam was hijacked on that September 11 2001, on that plane as an innocent victim,” he said.

Imam Hamza Yusuf, who runs an Islamic institute in California, is fast becoming a world figure as Islam’s most able theological critic of the suicide hijacking.

A charismatic and popular speaker, Yusuf openly declares his belief that Islam is in a mess. He wants Muslims to return to their “true faith”, stripped of violence, intolerance and hatred. Nor does he pay much deference to the states in which many Muslims live. When we meet, he declares: “Many people in the west do not realize how oppressive some Muslim states are — both for men and for women. This is a cultural issue, not an Islamic one. I would rather live as a Muslim in the west than in most of the Muslim countries, because I think the way Muslims are allowed to live in the west is closer to the Muslim way. A lot of Muslim immigrants feel the same way, which is why they are here.”

His rise to prominence is even more extraordinary given his unusual background. Hamza Yusuf, 42, started life as Mark Hanson, son of two US academics, only converting at 17. Thirty years ago, he seemed destined not for Islamic scholarship, but for the Greek Orthodox priesthood. Then, a near-death experience in a car accident and reading the Holy Quran diverted him towards Makkah.

But he cannot be easily dismissed as a western patsy, a “collaborator”, as his opponents have already dubbed him, or as Bush’s “pet Muslim”. Trained for more than a decade by the best Islamic scholars in the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, Yusuf’s learning commands considerable respect, particularly with the English-speaking elites of traditionally Muslim states. Although he calls on Muslims to see what is good in western society, he has a long track record of criticising western decadence, injustice and impoverished spirituality.

He says the World Trade Centre attack — an act of “mass murder, pure and simple”. Suicide, he says, is haram (forbidden), prohibited by the Quran, as is the killing of innocent civilians. He quotes Quranic texts demonstrating that the suicide bombers do not qualify as martyrs. He even finds a verse outlawing flag-burning. —Dawn/The Guardian News Service.