This year’s issue of The Muslim 500 names Sheikh Hamza Yusuf as the most influential Muslim-American. He is often portrayed as a moderate, but he recently endorsed Sharia governance and heads an Islamist college in California with extremist faculty.
Yusuf is ranked as the 35th most influential Muslim in the world by the publication. He is described as the “leading Islamic authority” in America. He is the current president and a senior faculty member of Zaytuna College in California.
He and 17 other Muslim-American leaders signed a letter condemning the tactics of the Islamic State terrorist group and offering theological rebuttals. It is a letter that earned them tremendous positive publicity by news outlets that didn’t notice that the letter endorsed the resurrection of the Caliphate and Sharia governance, specifically its brutal hudud punishments.
It also used vague language that could justify other acts of terrorism, such as attacks by Hamas on Israel. The condemnation of the Islamic State’s targeting of American journalists contains an exception that approves of jihad against reporters they view as dishonest.
In a interview, Yusuf mourned “what happened in the 19th century with the abdication of Islamic Law and the usurpation of its place by Western legal systems.” He also accused the U.S. of trying to “unite the world” and criticized the “dominant world order, which is a capitalistic, Western world order.”
In 1996, he proudly displayed his anti-Americanism saying:
“[America] is a country that has little to be proud of in its past and less to be proud of in the present. I am a citizen of this country not by choice but by birth. I reside in this country not by choice but by conviction in attempting to spread the message of Islam in this country. I became Muslim in part because I did not believe the false gods of this society, whether we call them Jesus or democracy or the Bill of Rights.”
Yusuf’s rhetoric has become more moderate since 9/11. One month after the attacks, he said Muslims are treated better in the U.S. than most Muslim countries and that he “regret[s] in the past being silent about what I have heard in Islamic discourse and being part of that with my own anger.” He later lamented having been “infected” by anti-Semitism. He had called Judaism a “most racist religion” in 1995.
Yusuf is in a position to spread these extreme views to the next generation with his frequent speaking engagement and role as president of Zaytuna College, which is led by radicals. The other two main figures at the college are Zaid Shakir and Hatem Bazian, chairman of the American Muslims for Palestine.
Shakir advocates sharia over the U.S. Constitution. The New York Times reported the in 2006 that “he said he still hoped that one day the United States would be a Muslim country ruled by Islamic law.” He also defames the U.S. military, justifies killing U.S. soldiers and preaches to students that Hezbollah’s bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon was not an act of terrorism.
Bazian also endorsed the letter that condemned the Islamic State terrorist group but endorsed sharia rule and the rebuilding of a caliphate. In 2004, he told Muslims to follow in the footsteps of the “uprising in Iraq” against the U.S. government and military and “intifada in Palestine” and begin an “intifada in this country that change[s] fundamentally the political dynamics in here.”
Yusuf’s close collaboration with Shakir and Bazian casts doubt on the notion that he’s fully rejected his radical past. He stood with the two at a 2012 lecture at Zaytuna College and did not disagree with the anti-American conspiracy theories promoted by Bazian.
Bazian taught that the “military-industrial complex” is behind the “Islamophobic production industry” in order to get Americans to approve of killing Muslims:
“Those who are working on Islamophobia, they believe that the more hatred we have of Muslims in here [America], the more that we have reflexive hatred of Muslims abroad, thus authorizing or making the need for military action and the death and destruction more palatable to us without having to think we are actually killing humans,” Bazian said.
In fact, Yusuf indirectly endorsed Islamist blasphemy laws in America as would be required under sharia governance. At the same vent, Yusuf argued for limitations on free speech, saying anti-Muslim hatred is a “present and imminent danger.”
The Muslim 500’s most influential U.S. resident is Fethullah Gulen, ranked as the 14th most influential Muslim in the world. He is based in Pennsylvania and is an enemy of Turkey’s Islamist government. He fled to the U.S. in 1999 because the then-secular government of Turkey accused him of plotting its overthrow.
It is difficult to judge Gulen’s extremism. On the one hand, his charter school network has been subjected to significant scrutiny and has been investigated by the FBI. The concerns about the school are related to operational issues and potential corruption; not Islamist extremism.
A May 2012 60 Minutes investigation concluded that his U.S. network “lacks transparency” and “its funding, hierarchy and ambitions remain hidden.”
The most concerning fact about Gulen is a quote aired on Turkish television in 1999. He was recorded preaching:
“You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers … If they [Muslim allies] do something prematurely, the world will crush our heads … you must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the Constitutional institutions in Turkey.”
He emphasized that his listeners must not share what he has told them:
“Now, I have expressed my feelings and thoughts to you all in confidence … trusting your loyalty and secrecy. I know that when you leave here, [just] as you discard your empty juice boxes, you must discard the thoughts and the feelings that I expressed here.”
It is unclear if Gulen considers himself an Islamist or not. One article on his website states he is an “example of liberal Islamist thinking,” but later in the article it says he opposes the very basis of the Islamist ideology. It says, “Gülen does not favor the state applying Islamic law, the Shari’a.”
Elsewhere on his website, Gulen’s “rejection of Islamism” is touted. Gulen considers himself a moderate competitor to the Islamism of Turkish President Erdogan (then prime minister) and compares Erdogan to the Iranian regime.
Amazingly, an article on Gulen’s website even condemns “Erdogan’s creeping Islamist agenda” and “top-down imposition of Islamist values.”
“[Gulen is] vehemently opposed to the use and abuse of Islam as a political ideology and party philosophy while the latter [Erdogan] sees the religion as an instrument to channel votes and to consolidate his ranks among supporters,” it says.
The Muslim 500’s judgment is a reflection of the leadership problem within the Muslim-American community. Yusuf and his Zaytuna College are no Osama Bin Ladens, but they are not progressive Islamic reformers, either.
This is an ideological battle against Islamism. The solution isn’t lifting up a lighter shade of Islamism; it’s promoting the George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons of the Muslim world who reject anti-American propaganda and sharia governance.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro has made over 1,000 media appearances and is frequently featured on Fox news. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Intelligence Studies and a Master’s degree in political science from American Military University.