Hamza Yusuf and Abdullah Bin Bayyah are playing a major role in legitimising the UAE's actions around the world. What's behind the scholar and his student, and should they be held to a higher standard?

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Last week, the United Arab Emirates concluded its fifth annual Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, with a number of Islamic scholars, religious leaders of various faiths and Western public policy makers in attendance. 

The irony of a forum for peace taking place in the UAE was not lost on many. The UAE is part of a coalition currently starving Yemen, causing famine for up to 12 million people, according to the UN, along with being accused of an assortment of war crimes.

Many of the reactions online have centred around the unbelievable comments made by famous American Sheikh Hamza Yusuf who, while praising the UAE’s commitment to tolerance, noted that “they have a ministry of tolerance… they’re committed to civil society”.

What is most shocking about this quote for many is not the Orwellian doublespeak itself, but rather the person issuing it. 

How can Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, a man many of us not only grew up listening to, but have tremendous respect for, and his teacher Abdullah bin Bayyah, an Islamic scholar of the highest calibre, be so comfortable openly singing praises of the UAE? 

Political links

For many wishing to think the best, the immediate assumption would be to separate their status as religious figures from politics. But this ignores Sheikh bin Bayyah’s very long experience in politics. 

The sheikh was a member of the cabinet and permanent committee of the Mauritanian People’s Party, then the ruling party, for eight years. Afterwards, he took on a number of posts, rising to the level of a minister on three occasions. 

His son, Sheikhna bin Bayyah, who manages his father’s communications, didn’t fall far from the tree. In this year’s forum, his biography introduces him as a politician. 

It would seem that in the case of Sheikh bin Bayyah at least, speaking of his political thought cannot be isolated from the context of his life: someone with deep experience in politics, and therefore well aware of its real-life implications.


Sheikh Bin Bayyah in a meeting with Ivanka Trump in 2017.
Sheikh Bin Bayyah in a meeting with Ivanka Trump in 2017. (TRTWorld)

Much of his rhetoric is linked to the post-Arab Spring world, providing context for much of his recent political discourse. Sheikh bin Bayyah’s calls have focused on ‘peace before justice’ and elevating the principle of ‘La khurooj an al-hakim’, or ‘no violent rebellion against the ruler’, as the highest rule of relations with a ruler. 

In this last forum, Bayyah was quoted as saying: “In societies that are not ready, the call for democracy is essentially a call for war.” 

Were this quote to come from a Western commentator, he would readily be called out for authoritarianism and orientalism, and the like. 

What he’s saying is that essentially, had the people of the Middle East only realised they were not ready for democracy and obeyed their long-time rulers, none of the current chaos and bloodshed would have happened. 

This fundamentally misunderstands the causes of the so-called Arab Spring, and adds religious legitimacy and strength to insidious counter-revolutions instituted by authoritarian regimes that are slowly rewriting the history of these uprisings, and reinforcing their hold over their countries. 

Let us not forget that what we are witnessing now in the region is not a simplified case of people demanding democracy, but rather the culmination of decades of political repression, poor governance and Western interventionism. 

In other words, the very facade of “stability” that preceded the Arab Spring, against the backdrop of deep abuses of power and injustice, is itself the cause of the current instability.

To this end, the ‘peace’ this forum offers very much resembles the ‘peace’ the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s ally, Israel, offers to the Palestinians: a misleading violent peace.

The justification for this can be gleaned from one of Sheikh bin Bayyah’s many books. Hamza Yusuf recently translated the book The Culture of Terrorism: Tenets and Treatments from a speech given in Arabic more than a decade ago. 

The book begins by emphasising that terrorism is a complex phenomenon with many reasons, and soon identifies the primary reason for terrorism: ideology.

Separating politics from morality

In short, ideas have powerful consequences, and violence is born out of violent ideas. But this poses the age-old question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? 

This is especially relevant when we speak of countries like Syria and Iraq, which have been exposed to long periods of violence. Is the violence produced by violent ideologies or are the violent ideologies a result of an environment of violence? 

Analysing the sheikhs’ speeches and statements shows that what they mean by ideology: political Islam. 

In Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s narrative, political Islam is influenced by Marxism, making them seek a utopia on earth. He opines that the true Muslim knows his utopia only exists in heaven. By jailing it in the realm of ideas, we are therefore excused from talking about the politics of it all. 

Naturally, this is quite convenient for the powers that be. We can now discuss the harms and dangers of Daesh without putting it within the context of the American invasion of Iraq.

This obsessive focus on ideology to undermine the Arab Spring not only explains the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the Trump administration, but also the sheikhs’ courting of the right. 

In the last forum, Sara Khan, Head of the Commission for Countering Extremism, and a well-known supporter of the Prevent policy, which has teachers looking for signs of ‘extremism’ among children, was not only in attendance but was a given an award for her work.

It’s a sequence of odd political stances that define the two scholars. For instance, Hamza Yusuf has referred to Trump as “a servant of God,” yet never spoken publicly about the Muslim travel ban, which the UAE was very quick to support.

It would be one thing were the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the right simply criticising political Islam, but more often than not they’re made out to be the bogeyman lurking behind every corner, and often to promote further draconian laws, wars, or securitisation.

On the flip side, it is the ghoul of ‘Islamists’ that is used to excuse Islamophobic abuses in the West. And for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, if winning the West over means turning a blind eye to Islamophobia or racism, throwing Western Muslims under the bus is barely an afterthought. 

In 2014, the UAE designated CAIR, an organisation presenting legal support for Muslims who have faced Islamophobia - at times even from the government itself - as a terrorist organisation. 

US Senator Ted Cruz followed in their stead, attempting on multiple occasions to introduce legislation criminalising the Muslim Brotherhood while making it clear that CAIR, as well as other mainstream Muslim organisations, would fall under that designation. 

I understand full well the difficulty many have in coming to terms with this from such scholars. Muslims hold their scholars in very high regard, considering them inheritors of the prophet. We always want to assume well of them. This is a noble attribute. 

However, at the end of the day, the relationship between the scholar and the lay Muslims is just that: a relationship. 

One of the markers of a healthy relationship is boundaries and accountability. If a public relations stunt with an authoritarian government currently starving 12 million is not where we draw the line, then where shall it be drawn? 

While the sheikh’s political thought seems to suggest that peace is only attainable through authoritarianism, Bayyah’s book offers us an alternative. 

On the tenth page, he relates a story of the fifth rightly-guided Umar ibn abd al Aziz, who hearing of the now-infamous revolt of the khawarij wrote to his deputy: “Extinguish their sedition with justice.” 

If the participants of the forum are indeed sincere in their intentions to call for peace and an end to the bloodshed in the region, rather than expensive public relations stunts with autocrats, they should take up the mandate of calling for justice and good governance with consistency in all their actions.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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Source: TRT World