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Muslim scholar catches flak for serving on new State Department rights panel

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf will be joining the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. Video screenshot

(RNS) — One of the world’s most prominent Islamic scholars is drawing criticism from some Muslims for participating in the State Department’s newly announced Commission on Unalienable Rights.

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, an influential Sunni leader who co-founded Zaytuna College, America’s first accredited Muslim undergraduate college, will be joined on the commission by Rabbi Meir Yaakov Soloveichik; Stanford professor Russell Berman; Notre Dame Law professor Paolo Carozza; Harvard sociologist Jacqueline Rivers; Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; philosopher Christopher Tollefsen; and UC Irvine professor David Tse-Chien Pan.

“Despite Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s rich, robust and arguably unparalleled contributions to Islamic thought in the West, it pains me to see him collaborate with the most Islamophobic administration in American history,” said Hamzah Raza, a graduate student in Islamic studies at Harvard Divinity School. “Donald Trump is a president who asserted that ‘Islam hates us’ and incited violence against Muslims as a tool to get elected.”

The panel will be led by Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, former ambassador to the Vatican under George W. Bush. A prominent social conservative voice known for her opposition to same-sex marriage, Glendon impeded efforts to define abortion as an international human right at the 1995 U.N. Women’s conference.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the State Department in Washington on July 26, 2018. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the commission on Monday (July 8) as a panel examining human rights through a “natural law” lens. The panel, which includes human rights experts of “varied backgrounds and beliefs,” will help guide foreign policy commitments by determining what the U.S. considers a human right, particularly when human rights claims seem to be in conflict, he said.

“Today the language of human rights has become the common vernacular for discussions of human freedom and dignity all around the world … but words like ‘rights’ can be used for good or evil,” Pompeo said. “We must therefore be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purpose.”

Critics including the Center for Inquiry and several senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have questioned the implications of the commission’s work being framed in terms of “natural law,” suggesting that the panel could be used to further a conservative political agenda by undermining LGBT rights and reproductive rights worldwide.

Several religious freedom bodies, including USCIRF, applauded the new commission.

Its ability to underscore the importance of religious freedom as a human right will “lead to higher impact negotiations on behalf of the more than 70% of the world’s population that is currently suffering persecution or abuse,” USCIRF Vice Chair Gayle Manchin said.

But the head of the Council for Global Equality, an LGBT foreign policy advocacy group, told The New Yorker that he worried the State Department planned to create a hierarchy of human rights, with religious freedom sitting at the top.

Several Muslim activists told RNS that they feared Yusuf’s social conservatism would color his foreign policy recommendations on the commission. The debate over Yusuf’s role on the commission among Muslims, however, has focused less on the international human rights implications and more on the collaboration with the Trump administration — mirroring perennial debates over the value of participating in White House iftar events.

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf co-founded Zaytuna College. Video screenshot

“Whatever (people) think of Hamza Yusuf joining Trump’s Human Rights panel, the real point is to remember that these councils are a waste of time,” Imam Shadee Elmasry tweeted. “(A)re these panels effective and haven’t we passed the point of no return with this administration? A point where we wouldn’t come near them. Most have said we passed that a long time ago.”

Yusuf’s participation in the commission is “disappointing and disturbing,” said Shabana Mir, an assistant professor of anthropology at the American Islamic College. His “alliance with dictatorial Arab states and monarchs is also disturbing, and this is of a piece with that,” she added.

Yusuf has long drawn criticism for his work advising the Bush administration post-9/11, as well as for his work as vice president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, an institution sponsored by the United Arab Emirates.

Though Yusuf was once seen as a firebrand imam who railed against Arab autocracies, his involvement in the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies has softened his political stances almost beyond recognition, scholars say.

“Over the years, Hamza Yusuf has centralised the idea of stability and government as the central ideal and that Muslims should not politically engage but ensure that their hearts are clean,” Walaa Qusaiy, who teaches at the University of Birmingham and has researched Yusuf’s evolving political thought, told the Middle East Eye this week. “But when governments then use this narratives to affirm the supremacy of the state and regime then it becomes a problem.”

Critics also pointed to Yusuf’s history of dismissing the Black Lives Matter movement; his previous comments on homosexuality, which he once called “pathogenic”; and his comments calling Muslim minority sects disbelievers “outside the fold of Islam.”

Mir said she hopes Yusuf will drop out of the commission in response to pressure from students and faculty at Zaytuna as well as the broader American Muslim community.

“But I may be wrong,” she said. “He may think that the benefits of an alliance with the (U.S. government) … outweigh the opinions of a bunch of activists.”

Zaytuna College declined to comment. Yusuf did not respond to a request to comment.

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, curates news coverage of Muslim communities in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

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