Blowin’ in the Wind: Trumpism and Traditional Islam in America

Image for post
Image for post
President Trump addresses the National Prayer Breakfast, February 2017

How will the Traditional Islam movement in America respond to the Trump presidency? Will it focus on finding allies on the right and building a conservative moral majority that is Muslim friendly? Or will it focus on protecting civil liberties by allying with the left? How will it position itself with respect to rival movements like the Salafis and the Brotherhood-heritage groups — as their theological critic or their civil liberties ally when these rivals are discriminated against or have their rights taken away? Such choices facing Muslims are hardly unique to America and exist elsewhere.

Some Brief Background

Image for post
Image for post
Publicity for Reviving the Islamic Spirit, Toronto, December 2016

The Traditional Islam movement is an Anglo-American phenomenon that emerged in the 1990s. It makes the claim to represent “authentic” Sunni Islam as embodied in the precolonial late Sunni consensus on law, theology and spirituality. It emphasises taqlīd (following recognised authorities) and ijāza (continuous personal transmission of scholarly authority), elements that it regards as lacking among other adherents of Sunni Islam, although this purported lack is certainly debatable. Like the Salafis, spiritual decline is central to its ethos, and I would also term it as “neo-traditionalist”, given its very modern self-awareness that traditional Islam has been displaced and that its restoration as a more powerful orthodoxy is no forgone conclusion. From retreats and sending students abroad to study in the nineties it has moved into educational institutionalisation and greater public outreach such as interfaith and political representation, especially after 9/11.[1]

So how will this relatively young Islamic movement in America respond to the challenges of Trumpism, a resurgent white nationalism “defined by its hostility toward Muslims, marked by its reliance on racist stereotypes of Hispanic immigrants, and not so subtly contemptuous of black Americans”? And to a White House that has been captured by the “counter-jihad movement”?[1a] These structural dilemmas play out most publicly in the Traditional Islam movement’s leading figure, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson (b. 1960), founder of the Zaytuna College and one of the most influential Muslim religious leaders in the West.

If you want to read the details and look at the evidence, you will have to go through the whole essay. But — spoilers — let me state the headline findings up front in this paragraph. Sheikh Hamza identified some years ago that American Muslims were distant from the right and decided to reach out to non-Islamophobic Christian conservatives. He has supported their “Moral Majority” platform by defending conservative values and religious freedoms, which were felt to be under pressure during the Obama administration. Since Trump’s victory, Sheikh Hamza has significantly softened his criticism of him and personally attended the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2017 where Trump strongly advocated for his version of religious nationalism. Sheikh Hamza has advised Muslims not to join protests but to focus on defending institutions. He has discouraged Muslim Americans from reaching out to some non-Muslim allies, as he argues that this compromises conservative values. Sheikh Hamza’s work with autocratic Muslim monarchies and sheikhdoms who have come out in support of Trump’s anti-Muslim policies has left him in an awkward and compromised position, which has been reflected in his continuing theological attacks on the same vulnerable Muslim American groups who are being targeted by both the Trump administration and states like the United Arab Emirates.

Finally, I should say a word or two about where I’m coming from. I agonised about writing this. Sheikh Hamza was for a brief period — the Fes Rihla in 1998 — my teacher and no one can deny the huge amount that he has done over the years in the cause of Islam and the Muslim community in the West and further afield. I found the whole “Reviving the Islamic Spirit” 2016 controversy very distressing: I felt that many in the Traditional Islam movement were not only being defensive and unresponsive to justified criticism, but were mounting a damage limitation exercise, not seeing beyond their love and loyalty for the sheikh to grasp what was really at stake. To cap it all — on finding out the little-known fact that Sheikh Hamza had symbolically “broken bread” in Washington at the National Prayer Breakfast while his community were mobilising massively to protest his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim executive orders — that it was business as usual. Finally, I should add that as someone who holds dual British–American citizenship and whose family on my maternal side are all Americans, I still have a personal stake in what happens in America.

Hamza Yusuf and the Trump Victory

Like many back in November 2016, Sheikh Hamza was surprised when Trump won. Nonetheless, despite Yusuf’s personal distaste for Trump, he advised against overreacting.[2] Muslim Americans should not protest or light fires but focus on protecting key institutions (one assumes this includes his own institution, the Zaytuna College), in the confidence that hatred and racism did not define the decent majority of Americans, and that America under Trump would not go so far as she did in the 1940s by setting up internment camps for Japanese Americans:

We have too much work to do, not protesting, not lighting fires, not saying, “Trump is not my president.” He is, and that is how our system works: by accepting the results and moving on. Now we have to work to make sure our educational, political, and scientific institutions, which are some of the finest in the world, are protected and perfected. [3]

Hamza Yusuf on Reaching Out to the Right

Image for post
Image for post
Hamza Yusuf (left); Mehdi Hasan (right)

In the much-debated “Reviving the Islamic Spirit” interview (full audio recording in the link) with Sheikh Hamza by the journalist Mehdi Hasan on 23 December 2016, one aspect received relatively little attention: Yusuf remarked twice on the importance of Muslim Americans reaching out to the right.

One of our major problems right now is our inability to speak to the right. I think before 2001, we had a lot of Muslims who were registered Republicans. … That’s no longer the case. Millennials have shifted incredibly towards the left, so we don’t have an ability to talk to them, and I think Republicans when they hear a certain type of speech they immediately shut down, and for me, looking at people, 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. Pastor Bob Roberts is a really good example of someone who comes out of the Evangelical tradition, but he’s deeply … concerned about the human condition, and reaching those people is what we have to be focused on.[4]

Forming a new Moral Majority

Image for post
Image for post
Hamza Yusuf (left) with influential conservative Robert P. George (right)

Sheikh Hamza’s stress upon reaching out to Muslim-friendly Christians as an appropriate strategic goal has some pedigree. This stretches back many years and includes high-profile initiatives such as Jordan’s A Common Word (2007) initiative to which he was a signatory and participant in spin-off events. More recently, during Obama’s time, Yusuf has focused on making the case for religious freedoms to be recognised and protected in the US and internationally with selected Christian allies.[5] They have included Catholics such as Tom Farr, first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (1999–2003), and Robert P. George, former chair of the bipartisan federal United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and, more recently, evangelical Southern Baptists like Bob Roberts, senior pastor of Northwood Church in Texas, and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. With these allies he has made the case for the importance of religious freedom as a distinctive strand that needs protection, which religious conservatives see as being under attack by aggressive secularists in America’s “culture wars”.[6] Specific domestic issues Yusuf and his Christian allies have discussed or addressed jointly include pornography, pro-life issues, traditional marriage, transgenderism, homosexuality, the free exercise of religious conscience in higher education settings, and exempting employers from providing benefits for employees if it substantially violates religious conscience (relating in particular to the Hobby Lobby case that the Supreme Court ruled in favour of).[7] These Christian allies have a track record of speaking out against Islamophobia (particularly within their own denominations) and anti-mosque building campaigns and have in general sought to include Muslims within an expanded conservative “Moral Majority” and to develop stronger mosque–church relations locally.[8]

Allying with the Sunni Monarchies and Sheikhdoms

Most important for these Christian allies is the issue of minority religious rights in Muslim majority countries, particularly those of Christian minorities. Here, the connections that Sheikh Hamza had developed over many decades in the Arab world among senior scholars and the Sunni monarchies have come into play. In particular, in his role as vice-president of the Forum for Global Peace in Muslim Societies (est. 2014), sponsored by the United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Ministry, and, under the patronage of the Moroccans, the Forum was the organiser of a declaration in January 2016 to protect minority religious rights in Muslim majority lands by developing a contractual notion of universal citizenship.[9] Invited to witness the declaration along with fifty other non-Muslims, Sheikh Hamza’s ally Pastor Bob Roberts warned that domestic Islamophobia could make matters worse for Christians in the Muslim world and worked to promote the initiative.[10]

Sources close to Sheikh Hamza recognise that this engagement with Evangelicals has not gone far enough and that after Trump’s victory it will be an uphill struggle. Indeed, with pollsters citing white evangelicals as a key part of Trump’s electoral base — with four out of every five voting for him — dissenting voices like Roberts, who attack the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim elements of his message, are decidedly in a minority.[11] This was evidence that Trump’s strategy of appealing to the Tea Party (est. 2007) with its older white Christian base was essential to his winning the Republican nomination and then the presidential election. He mirrored the Tea Party’s core messaging about America as a Christian nation that should be anti-taxation and pro-small government, sees Islam as a threat, promotes the Anti-Shariah movement, is anti-black and anti-immigrant, and partly accommodates anti-Semitism.[12]

Trump as God’s Servant

The second comment in Yusuf’s interview with Mehdi Hasan concerned Trump more directly:

One, keeping a recognition that we have a metaphysical lens that we look at the world with, and always seeing God behind these things. God is in charge: Trump is a servant of God (‘abd Allāh), just like everyone else. He’ll either serve with good or with evil, but he will serve God. And so it’s important for us, as people who want and aspire to be servants of good to be that good in the world so that other people can see that. I am a deep believer in fitra, in that principal nature of human beings. The fitra is good, and we should allow people, even the worst people, to change. Our Prophet (saw) was a great example of that: he allowed the worst people to change. Their hearts were melted by his goodness. He was not a negative person. Criticism will not build a civilisation; criticism tears down a civilisation. Prophets are critics, but their message is not a critical message. It’s always a positive message, it’s a message of good news, not of despair and not of anxiety. As the Qur’an clearly states, “The people say, ‘The people are all getting together, plotting against you.’ It just increased them in faith, and they said, ‘We rely on God.’” Because of that they got the blessings of God and His grace and so no harm afflicted them. So it’s all good. Even the harm is good. And this is the difference between a believer and others.[13]

Sheikh Hamza was making at least four points here. Firstly, a metaphysical point that everyone acts under God’s aegis if not always with His pleasure. Secondly, a spiritual point that even harm and evil can benefit a true believer if they trust in God and do not give in to despair. Thirdly, what I read as a political point that we should respond as constructive critics, even to the likes of Trump, and not “tear down a civilisation”. This is a little ambiguous as it could refer either to the American nation in particular or to Western civilisation as a whole, but the essential point is that for Yusuf the true believer seeks to mend not harm through criticism. A final point is that Trump is to be given a chance once in office to be judged for his record, “to serve with good or evil”, and not be prejudged. In this sense, he is, like all of us, another one of God’s creatures who will eventually be judged by Him.

Yet, to call Trump God’s servant represented a significant softening of tone from the previous month, for in November Sheikh Hamza had described him in less flattering terms as “a man, who appeared to publicly mimic a reporter’s palsy, labeled Mexican migrants rapists and criminals, and, in the most explicit language, boasted of groping women”.[14] It was also notably less direct than the criticisms he reserved for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Salafi scholar Yasir Qadhi or the Muslim Brotherhood in the same interview that have been commented upon extensively elsewhere.

Trump introduces the Muslim Ban

Image for post
Image for post
Muslimahs at the Women’s March in Washington DC, 21 January 2017

Much has happened since the inauguration of 20 January this year. There was the Women’s March on 21 January, whose statement of principles reflected a tradition of left-wing intersectionality in American politics.[15] Then a flurry of presidential executive orders from the President to make good on his campaign promises, which included building a wall between America and Mexico (25 January) and a Muslim Ban (27 January), barring anyone from seven Muslim countries (including green card holders) for ninety days, and indefinitely suspending Syrian refugees.[16] As Executive Order 13769, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, came into immediate effect, it left affected people unable to return to the US or held at several point-of-entry airports. Protests against the ban started at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and spread to airports across the country. A diverse range of Muslims were involved, including imams, and featuring congregational prayers that were cheered on by other protesters.[17] It was a highly personal issue for many Muslim Americans as families were immediately split up and legal US residents could not return home.[18] There were protests across cities and campuses in America and in thirteen countries internationally, particularly in Britain. Major Jewish American organisations were incensed by the ban, remembering their own history of persecution, and by its promulgation on Holocaust Memorial Day: in one example, twenty protesting rabbis were arrested outside the Trump Tower Hotel in New York on 6 February.[19] Between 28 and 31 January, nearly fifty legal challenges were filed in America courts, which resulted in a temporary restraining order that suspended the main provisions of the executive order. The Trump administration appealed the decision but this was rejected by a US federal appeals court on 9 February.[20] Yet, despite these massive and effective protests, polling (2–4 February) indicated that the ban was popular, with 55% of registered voters approving and 38% against.[21] Some religious groups like the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, previously targeted by Sheikh Hamza’s outreach, offered strong support for the ban.[22]

Image for post
Image for post
Muslims praying Jumuah at the JFK International Airport Protests against the Muslim Ban, 3 February 2017

Banning the Muslim Brotherhood

Image for post
Image for post
Senator Ted Cruz on the campaign trail in 2016; he introduced a bill to ban the Muslim Brotherhood in both Houses, 10 January 2017

In the Republican-dominated Congress, former Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz introduced the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act on 10 January, the aim of which is to force the State Department to list the organisation, which alone has the power to do so. The White House is reportedly mulling over an executive order to do that same thing. Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, has lumped the Brotherhood together with Al-Qaeda as a fellow agent of radical Islam at his Congressional confirmation hearing. [23] Experts are very concerned that such a measure has a decent chance of being enforced and that it will act as a key de jure element in Trump’s promised domestic Muslim registry. Major Muslim American organisations would be named as Brotherhood affiliates like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Allegations of material or non-material support will be enough to cause immense disruption for targeted individuals and organisations and enormous harm to their reputations, without even getting to the more technical demand to provide solid evidence for knowing material support in court. Political allies and even analysts, journalists and academics could be caught up in the wide ambiguous net of “material support”.[24] It is nothing less than an attack on Muslim American civil society, aided and abetted by the growing $57m Islamophobia industry, parts of which now staff Trump’s White House, which has engineered a millennial “Green Menace” in emulation of the McCarthyite “Red Scare” of the 1950s.[25]

As Khaled Abou El Fadl remarks, “In the Muslim world, the bogeyman of the Muslim Brotherhood has been exploited by authoritarian governments to repress their citizens for more than half a century.”[26] After the Arab Spring, and especially since the military coup against the Morsi government in July 2013, a wave of proscriptions against the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated terrorist organisation followed. Following early pioneers Syria and Russia, proscriptions came from Bahrain and Egypt in 2013 and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2014. The UAE stands out in particular for also designating three US Muslim bodies as terrorist organisations too, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as Brotherhood fronts.[27] From 2012, its crackdown on the Brotherhood has been particularly intense and the ruling elite regard it as an existential threat to be placed in the same bracket as Iran. The latest Human Rights Watch briefing concludes that the UAE’s affluence masks serious human rights abuses such as arbitrary detentions, disappearances, allegations of torture and labour abuse.[28] There is little doubt that the UAE would back any proscription of the Brotherhood in the US; additionally, its foreign minister, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, was the first senior Arab figure to back Trump’s Muslim ban on 1 February.[29] Al-Nahyan’s ministry is also the sponsor of the Forum for Promoting Peace that has Yusuf as its vice-president.

Sheikh Hamza on the Brotherhood

Image for post
Image for post
Representation of Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s model of radicalisation (described below)

In his interview with Mehdi Hasan on 23 December, Sheikh Hamza set up the Brotherhood along with puritanical elements as part of a reaction to ossified tradition and political tyranny that had ultimately resulted in Daesh:

Basically I have a pyramid, and the base of the pyramid is ossified tradition and political tyranny. These two things created reactions. One of the reactions was a puritanical movement that emerged that basically attempted to purify Islam of all of the degraded elements that had come into it, and polluted it, and tainted it. That is one — and these are puritanical people, and they tend to make takfīr or anathematise other Muslims. That’s one strand. That’s not the whole problem. It’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition here. The second strain was the loss of Muslim sovereignty because of colonialism, so what emerged from that are political ideologies. The Ikhwān al-Muslimīn, which originally started as a reformist movement in Egypt, became a political movement, and then was actually engaged in political activities to try to get power. The coup which Gamal Abdun Nasser was involved in, [he] actually allied with the Ikhwān in that coup, [but] they later betrayed him. And from that broke off Hizb ut-Tahrīr and other groups. And Al-Qaeda comes out of that chain. So when these two meet — this puritanical [strand] and [this] political ideology meet — you get Daesh.[30]

Given the timing and political context on the eve of a Trump presidency, these remarks were clearly more than simply unfortunate. Coming from such a high-profile, authoritative figure they could easily be used to justify the Muslim registry proposed during Trump’s campaign. On 24 December at the same RIS conference, Sheikh Hamza inter alia attempted to clarify and contextualise his previous remarks on the Brotherhood.

I in no way insinuated or would insinuate that the Muslim Brotherhood created Al-Qaeda or is responsible for Al-Qaeda. I would never even suggest that. What I was talking about was political Islam and the phenomenon of political Islam and what has happened in our community when a profoundly religious tradition has been turned into largely a political ideology. That was the point, and I was actually going to go more extensively into that with my PowerPoint and maybe I will do that tomorrow. But in no way would I insinuate that at all. I’m not a member, I’ve never been a member of the Communist Party nor of the Muslim Brotherhood, but I don’t want to see people in that community mistreated or persecuted for their beliefs. I don’t — I don’t believe in persecution for beliefs. I’m completely opposed to it and I would not want to see that. … And this affects me as well, irrespective[ly]. I’ve been called a Muslim mafia don in a book that actually did reasonably well. One of the proofs was, and the FBI said, I live in a cul-de-sac, which Mafia dons live on, and this was evidence that I was part of the Muslim mafia. … One of the Qur’anic principles [is] that if someone comes to you with news … there are two necessary components to ascertain the truth of something: tathabbatu means “Did they say it?” and this is what we call in our tradition the isnad, make sure that it really can be attributed to that person, because people say things that you said and you never said them. … This affects me. Frank Gaffney is one of the advisers to the transitional team and I’m on his website as one of these terrible Muslims. So don’t think I’m not in this. Like the chicken said …, I’ll donate two eggs to the breakfast but the cow said I’m in it completely with the sausages. So I’m a cow in this situation, I’m not a chicken. … But this affects all of us and we don’t want to see our community persecuted, our institutions prosecuted, and we certainly don’t need any more divisiveness right now because there’s enough of it going around in the Muslim world. So that’s my clarification about that. I have my criticisms of political ideology, and I think like Dr [Sherman] Jackson just said, we have to be able to speak and voice our views. We cannot simply fall into group-think where if you don’t say what everybody else says you’re ostracised, you’re anathematised, you’re excommunicated from the community. We have to be able to speak freely, especially those of us who have the tribulation of being in the public sphere.[31]

This clarification underscores the tension between his conviction that the Brotherhood is deviant and, in his unguarded remarks to Mehdi Hasan, an ancestor of Al-Qaeda and Daesh, and the realpolitik consideration that airing this publicly gives succour to those who would seek to outlaw this group in Trump’s America. It is not entirely resolved as his joke tacitly referencing McCarthyism, communism and the Brotherhood shows — he distances himself both from the state persecution of beliefs and from the Brotherhood too, yet later on insists that political peril should not stymie his right to criticise the Brotherhood as a figure in the public eye. The real danger here is that casting the Brotherhood as part of the problem still means that a prominent scholar’s judgement could be picked up and used to validate the very civil rights infringements that he protests, and Sheikh Hamza is prepared to run that risk even with a Brotherhood ban in the offing. What he is not doing is showing them solidarity in a moment of political peril, to defend their civil rights in unambiguous terms rather than sending dangerously mixed messages.

Breaking Bread in Washington

The National Prayer Breakfast has been a fixture in the American political calendar since 1953, held on the first Thursday in February and has been attended by every president since Eisenhower. It is largely an evangelical jamboree that connects Christians with important national political players. About 3,500 attend the event each year in Washington, and it carries on for a few days with a number of parallel events. Minority faith leaders also attend as do foreign dignitaries and leaders. The Breakfast traditionally endorses American political power through a ritual demonstration of ecumenical civic religion, emphasising prayer and public service; it represents the American establishment view of how politics and religion ought to mutually support each other in order to strengthen the nation. The keynote speaker in 2017, Senate chaplain Barry Black, reminded the audience of the importance of the Apostle Paul’s advice to pray for those in authority. The late Doug Coe (1928–2017), the organiser of the Breakfast, took the approach of quiet bipartisan influence in the corridors of power in Washington, and “the stealth persuader” was judged to have exercised more influence than even Billy Graham (b.1918) has. Named by one expert as “a sort of a pastor to people in power”, Coe’s Foundation in C Street hosted regular bipartisan prayer meetings and acted as a refuge for powerful people in difficulty, such as for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when he faced accusations of sexual harassment.[32]

Aside from the repartee about his successor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his falling ratings on Celebrity Apprentice, Trump promised in his speech to defend religious liberties, including “destroying” the Johnson Amendment, that prevents places of worship from participating in partisan politics.[33] Repeatedly praising the military, he promised tough action against Daesh, and more stringent immigration controls to guard against “violence” and “intolerance”, surely code for Muslims. In short, this speech served to define the religious strand of Trumpism, which is religious nationalism, with its themes of advancing Christian freedoms and values and combating the Muslim enemy. Beyond generalised reference to religious pluralism no explicit mention is made of non-Christian religion. And Trump made no mention of his ban on refugees, this was only dealt with obliquely by another speaker on the day, King Abdullah II of Jordan.[34]

Image for post
Image for post
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf (left) with his teacher, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah (right)

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, president of the UAE-sponsored Forum for Promoting Peace, and his vice-president, Sheikh Hamza, attended Trump’s first National Prayer Breakfast, which was confirmed to me by internal sources, the latter attending as Sheikh Abdullah’s translator.[35] The invitation was issued several months ago, and it was felt to be too much of an important networking opportunity with sympathetic politicians and church leaders to boycott because of Trump’s anti-Muslim policies. They did not attend the day that Trump spoke.

It might be argued that the National Prayer Breakfast reflects the “dignified” aspect of the presidency (as head of state) rather than its “efficient” aspect (as head of government) and so such symbolic events of national unity should be exempt from boycotts. Yet other traditionally ceremonial functions like the inauguration have been boycotted if the president in question is felt to be particularly unfit and divisive. Some boycotted Trump’s inauguration in 2017 as they did Nixon’s in 1973.[36] Entertainers boycotted Trump’s inaugural celebrations and some of this year’s Super Bowl winners, the New England Patriots, have boycotted the traditional meeting with the President at the White House. The National Prayer Breakfast, as described above, takes the approach of closeness to power, and exercising quiet influence across party lines; it is little wonder then it stands as a polar opposite to boycotts or speaking truth to power. And, as an institution, the Breakfast continues with its tradition of quiet bipartisan influence, myopically not recognising that Trump heads an insurgent presidency for white nationalism.

At the time of writing, Sheikh Hamza has made no public comment since Trump came into office — on the Muslim Ban, the attempt to get a bill passed to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation or on the backlash against Muslim activists like Linda Sarsour leading the charge against Trump. This silence, as sources close to Sheikh Hamza insisted to me, should not be read as assent for or validation of Trump and his policies. Others have not been silent, like Imam Zaid Shakir and Dr Hatem Bazian, and have spoken out about the need to organise, to protest, to stand in solidarity with targeted groups, and in condemnation of Trump’s policies like the Muslim ban, while others have highlighted the need not to sacrifice “prioritization of the non-negotiable teachings of Islam” when forming alliances to protect civil rights.[37]

Concluding Remarks

This case study demonstrates a key priority for the Traditional Islam movement as it institutionalises in the West, which is to find recognition and support for its key moral and ethical teachings and its institutions, in a manner that recognises flexibility in the context of democratic alternation. Back in 2010, Sheikh Hamza wrote:

[W]hen we consider our response to the onslaught of anti-Islamic sentiments we face in the current climate, we ought not to align ourselves totally with either the Left or the Right. One can be “progressive” on one issue and “conservative” on another. Let’s not become a religion of Democrats or of Republicans by politicizing our religion or slanting it to the Left or to the Right. Let us be morally committed to reasonable and just positions.[38]

It is important to note the flexibility advocated for here. It is not just the ulema who should be nonpartisan when it comes to pursuing core Muslim American interests, such as tackling Islamophobia, but, as it is offered as general advice, the Muslim community should do the same too. Yet, on the grounds that no one political party can “own” the Islamic religious tradition as such, the nonpartisan pursuit of such strategic interests gives priority to establishing connections with governments of the day. Sheikh Hamza in fact defines being nonpartisan as Islamic moderation: “So in some things, we are more with the Left and in others we are more with the Right, which puts us somewhere in the middle, as we comprise the Middle Nation.”[39] For Sheikh Hamza, with the left, it is the promotion of a more irenic and just American foreign policy, while with the right it is finding allies, particularly with Christians, to defend conservative moral values.

The merit of joining the “Moral Majority” under a Trump presidency is questionable at best: the Muslim community can only offer validation for a well-entrenched right-wing Christian agenda and their position within it is marginal and highly precarious, given the dominant support of white evangelicals for Trump and the likelihood that this strategy has and will be called out as pernicious entryism by a hostile administration with its phalanx of Islamophobic advisers and officials.[40] The demerits seem more obvious. The weariness among some in the Traditional Islam movement about working directly with the left is discernible. Weakening the Muslim American resistance against Trump’s attack on them and others is seen as a price worth paying not to compromise teaching on personal morality. This strand sees intersectionality as a trap set by the secular left. Yet what would be the cost of not acknowledging others who defend the principle of non-discrimination with respect to Muslims? To reject this outstretched hand only isolates Muslims further when they need allies.

Other American Muslim leaders get this, including some in the Traditional Islam movement. They see the need for the necessary critical distance to be forthright and cannot “break bread” with Christian influencers in Washington who do not recognise Trump as an insurgent president. Instead they are doing things like pledging to protect immigrants and refugees targeted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement by supporting the Sanctuary movement.[41]

When applied to the governments of the Arab world, flexible and close collaboration to preserve core values and institutions runs into even greater difficulties than the pressures that democratic alternation offers, even when faced with Trumpism. The penchant for masking the iron fist of the Arab monarchies with the glove of international soft power in America is relatively new. It only really dates back to the 1960s and advent of petrodollar wealth. Islamists and Salafis have traditionally been its main beneficiaries, but after 9/11 the Traditional Islam movement has become more important.[42] The extracted price of government patronage is high for ulema in the Middle East. Generally speaking, they have to openly support or maintain silence about autocracy at home, while speaking of democracy, pluralism and minority rights to Western audiences. Since 2013, this has also involved providing theological cover for a vicious assault on the Brotherhood in several Arab countries, including justification for the massacre of Rabaa in which 1,000 or more Brotherhood protesters were killed by Egyptian security forces.[43]

More particularly, what does this mean for the soft power dimension of the UAE with projects such as the Forum for Promoting Peace? On the face of it the Forum seems benign enough: promoting ideas of peace, minority rights and citizenship in the Arab and Muslim world, but at what price? Any criticism of the UAE’s human rights violations and, inter alia, proscription of the Brotherhood seems impossible. Aside for the laudable and necessary defence of non-Muslim rights in Muslim lands, what about the general freedoms and rights of dissenting Muslims there? Instead, the ulema are expected to support official state Islam and speak the language of security and public order to assure protection for their institutions. Is this in fact an instance of “ossified tradition” in alliance with “political autocracy”?

And how does this play out in Trump’s America? The UAE came out early and strongly in support of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. And their proscription of American Muslim organisations they deem as Brotherhood fronts is unique in the Middle East. Neither the ban nor the proposed proscription enjoy much support among American Muslims, views that Sheikh Hamza shares. Yet he has trodden a careful line since Trump’s victory. He has softened his rhetoric towards Trump and taken the huge symbolic step of “breaking bread” at the National Prayer Breakfast, which gave Trump the platform to promulgate his Christian nationalism and define Islam as the enemy. Sheikh Hamza has remained silent about the potential Brotherhood ban, while defending the right to criticise them, offering criticism of the proposed proscription only when pushed to do so by his community. He has also offered no public support for the protests against Trump since the inauguration or defended Muslim activists like Linda Sarsour.

When the new right-wing populism in general and Trumpism in particular is using Christianity to define who may or may not be part of the new exclusive “we” of the re-imagined white nation, and which has defined Islam as the enemy, both in America and Europe, “silence” really equals practical assent for this rightwards shift, when simultaneously (i) softening one’s criticism of Trump as he ascends to power and his executive orders begin to wreck people’s lives, (ii) telling people not to protest as the Muslim community starts to mobilise massively, (iii) criticising the Black Lives Matter movement and other non-Muslim allies when they are reaching out to Muslims to protest Trump’s policies, (iv) continuing to work with the autocratic allies of Trump like the UAE while observing silence on the human rights violations of both, and (v) playing the “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” card by attacking the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis at a time of political peril for them, while claiming to unify Muslims.

The Nobel Laureate for Literature Bob Dylan once asked the question that might occur to us now:

Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Correction (23/02/2017)

The article was updated to reflect the fact that Sheikh Hamza Yusuf attended the National Prayer Breakfast 2017 as Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah’s translator, and that neither attended the day that Trump spoke there.


All hyperlinks were live and correct at the time of publication (14 February 2017).

[1] See K. Mathiesin, “Anglo-American ‘Traditional Islam’ and Its Discourse of Orthodoxy”, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 13 (2013): 191–219 for a definition of “Traditional Islam”; S. Hamid, Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016) for the first fifteen years or so of its development.

[1a] J. Bouie, “Government by White Nationalism Is Upon Us”, Slate, 6 February 2017,; Z. Beauchamp, “Trump’s counter-jihad: How the anti-Muslim fringe conquered the White House”, Vox, 13 February 2017,

[2] H. Yusuf, “We Shall Overcome”, Sandala, 15 November 2016,

[3] Ibid.

[4] “#RIS2016 Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Controversy”, Muslim Wellness Foundation, 5 January 2017,; “U.S. Muslim cleric Hamza Yusuf calls Trump ‘a servant of God’ during racist rant against Black Lives Matter”, Rabwa Times, 25 December 2016,, which includes the full recording of the interview at the bottom of the page.

[5] See the Common Word website here:

[6] H. Yusuf, “Trip to Princeton”, Sandala, 8 October 2010,; “Religious Freedom: Why Now? A Conversation on Islam and Religious Freedom with Dr. Robert P. George and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf”, Religious Freedom Project — Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 1 March 2012,; B. Dempsey, “Religious Liberty in the Eyes of Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, & Muslims”, Juicy Ecumenism, 1 June 2016,

[7] J.S. Bryson, “Princeton’s Robert George and Islam”, Muslim Matters, 9 April 2012,; S.G. Chachila, “Peaceful Muslims view US LGBT issues as ‘completely insane,’ says Muslim leader”, Christian Times, 28 May 2016,; E. Bristow, “Russell Moore announces multi-faith statement opposing California assault on religious liberty in higher education”, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, 9 August 2016,; R.P. George and H. Yusuf, “Religious Exemptions Are Vital for Religious Liberty”, Wall Street Journal, 23 March 2014,; “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.”, Supreme Court of the United States Blog, 1 August 2014,

[8] H. Bruinius, “Moving beyond suspicion, Muslims and Evangelicals seek common ground”, Christian Science Monitor, 29 July 2015,

[9] The Forum for Promoting Peace’s website is available here:; “ Executive Summary of the Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities”, Marrakesh Declaration, 25–27 January 2016,

[10] S. Zaimov, “American Pastor Involved in High Level Muslim Meeting to Protect Christians Says Some US Evangelicals Hurting Cause”, Christian Post, 2 June 2016,

[11] K. Shellnut, “Trump Elected President, Thanks to 4 in 5 White Evangelicals”, Christianity Today, 9 November 2016,; “North Texas pastors have opposing views on Trump presidency”, FOX4News, 10 November 2016,

[12] N. Marzouki, “The Tea Party and Religion: Between Religious and Historical Fundamentalism” in N. Marzouki, D. McDonnell and O. Roy (eds) Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion (London: Hurst, 2016), 149–66.

[13] “U.S. Muslim cleric Hamza Yusuf”, Rabwa Times.

[14] Yusuf, “We Shall Overcome”.

[15] “Unity Principles”, Women’s March on Washington, 2017,; N.L. Cole, “Definition of Intersectionality: On the Intersecting Nature of Privileges and Oppression”,, 11 December 2016,

[16] “What executive actions has Trump taken?”, BBC News, 6 February 2017,

[17] K. Zavadski, “Muslims Pray at JFK Airport to Protest Ban”, Daily Beast, 4 February 2017,

[18] O. Safi, “This Is Personal Because This Is Our Home”, On Being, 9 February 2017,

[19] C. Moynihan, “About 20 Rabbis Arrested During Protest Over Trump Travel Ban”, New York Times, 6 February 2017,

[20] “Trump loses appeal court bid to reinstate travel ban”, BBC News, 10 February 2017,

[21] C. Easley, “Trump’s Approval Rating Slides Despite Support for Travel Ban”, Morning Consult, 8 February 2017,

[22] B. Allen, “Baptists weigh in on Muslim travel ban”, Baptist News Global, 30 January 2017,

[23] C. Mathlas, “Ted Cruz vs. The Muslim Brotherhood Boogeyman”, Huffington Post, 13 January 2017,; P. Baker, “White House Weighs Terrorist Designation for Muslim Brotherhood”, New York Times, 7 February 2017,

[24] M. Merryman-Lotze, “The legislation that will be used to intimidate and imprison members of the Muslim community has been introduced”, Mondoweiss, 3 February 2017,; K. Abou El Fadl, “Who’s Afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood? How Hatred of Islam is Corrupting the American Soul”, ABC Religion & Ethics, 9 February 2017,; A.S. Sethi, “Calling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group would hurt all American Muslims”, Washington Post, 8 February 2017,; A.F. March, “Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a “Terrorist Organization” Puts Academic Researchers at Risk”, Washington Post, 25 January 2017,

[25] For more details on the US Islamophobia industry, see the dedicated website:

[26] Abou El Fadl, “Who’s Afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood?”.

[27] “UAE blacklists 82 groups as ‘terrorist’”, Al Arabiya, 15 November 2014,

[28] C. Freer, “The Muslim Brotherhood in the Emirates: Anatomy of a crackdown”, Middle East Eye, 17 December 2015,; “United Arab Emirates”, Human Rights Watch, n.d.,

[29] “Abdullah bin Zayed: Trump’s travel ban not Islamophobic”, Al Jazeera, 1 February 2017,

[30] “U.S. Muslim cleric Hamza Yusuf”, Rabwa Times.

[31] H. Yusuf, [Response to controversy surrounding interview with Mehdi Hasan], Facebook [livecast by Amro Abu Alhasan], 24 December 2017, His original clarifying remarks were put up on YouTube by the RIS Conference organisers but then subsequently removed when they proved to be controversial.

[32] M. Kellner, “Senate Chaplain Barry Black, Adventist pastor, keynotes U.S. National Prayer Breakfast”, Adventist News Network, 6 February 2017,; A.M. Banks, “Doug Coe, behind-the-scenes leader of National Prayer Breakfast, dead at 88”, Religion News Service, 22 February 2017,; K. Shellnut, “Died: Doug Coe, Humble Faith in the Halls of Power”, Christianity Today, 21 February 2017,

[33] D.J. Trump, “Remarks by President Trump at National Prayer Breakfast”, White House, 2 February 2017,; H. Gleckman, “What Could Churches Really Do If Trump Convinced Congress To Repeal The Johnson Amendment?”, Forbes, 9 February 2017,

[34] In an anodyne speech at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, King Abdullah II of Jordan made the indirect point that welcoming refugees was a central virtue in the Abrahamic traditions, and that, as of 2016, his country hosted the highest number of refugees, 2.7 million, mostly from the Syrian civil war.

[35] “Abu Dhabi forum promotes tolerance in Washington”, Gulf News, 5 February 2017,

[36] “Who is boycotting the Trump inauguration?”, BBC News, 20 January 2017,

[37] Z. Shakir, “Chaos or Community”, New Islamic Directions, 30 January 2017,; Z. Shakir and H. Bazian, [“Address[ing] recent unrest across the nation”], Facebook [livecast by Zaytuna College],; “Counsel To Muslim Social Justice Activists”, Lamppost Education Service, 10 February 2017,

[38] H. Yusuf, “How do we respond? Part 2”, Sandala, 22 November 2010,

[39] Ibid.

[40] For example, R. Spencer, “Why Robert George Is the Chris Christie of Conservative Intellectuals”, Jihad Watch, 26 December 2014,

[41] “Open Letter: Muslim Spiritual Leaders Pledge to Join the Sanctuary Movement”, MPower Change, 8 February 2017,

[42] G.A. Lipton, “Secular Sufism: Neoliberalism, Ethnoracism, and the Reformation of the Muslim Other”, The Muslim World, vol. 101, July 2011, pp.427–440; F. Muedini, Sponsoring Sufism: How Governments Promote “Mystical Islam” in Their Domestic and Foreign Policies (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), Chapter 6; M. Sedgwick, “Sufis as ‘Good Muslims’: Sufism in the Battle against Jihadi Salafism” in L. Ridgeon (ed.) Sufis and Salafis in the Contemporary Age (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 105–17.

[43] U. Al-Azami, “How Not to Disown ‘Islamist’ Terrorism”, Huffington Post, 17 December 2015,; U. Al-Azami, “Muslim Scholars and Autocrats (Part I)”, Huffington Post, 23 December 2015,

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store