A sincere letter to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf from a concerned Muslim layman

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Dear Shaykh Hamza Yusuf,

As salaamu alaikum.

It can be very daunting for a layperson to account a scholar of prolific credentials. What is unfortunate however is the erroneous assumption that lacking such a profile precludes any criticism of those more erudite amongst us. Seeing as accounting those in positions of power has a precedent in our Islamic tradition, I feel obliged to express my concern following your recent comments at the fifth annual Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.

Your attendance at this conference, where you praised the UAE as a tolerant nation has caused much consternation among Muslims, especially in light of the country’s flagrant violation of human rights both domestically and abroad as documented by leading NGOs and the international community at large.

Since the Arab Spring, Gulf monarchies have been scrambling to preserve their despotic regimes and the spectre of political Islam has emerged as the greatest existential threat to its power structure. This explains why the UAE and its partner in crime KSA sponsored the coups in Egypt and Turkey and continue to mount an unprecedented clampdown on dissidents, activists and journalists. As part of a concerted campaign to preserve its hegemony, the repression of any grassroots movement seeking a reformation of the authoritarian order forms the basis of the UAE’s geopolitical strategy.

Against this backdrop, I believe your role as the Forum’s Vice-President serves an expedient purpose, seeing as your framing of the caliphate as a modern Islamist fantasy and maligning of the Muslim Brotherhood sits neatly with the political absolutism of your hosts who seek to obstruct such trends from taking root on their soil. The fact that you were feted by the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al-Otaiba, at an inter-faith event one week after the Qatar blockade makes no pretence to impartiality and suggests you have aligned yourself with the UAE against calls for altering the political landscape of the Muslim world.

Regrettably, your ill-conceived comments are treason of your scholarly vocation. With much of your public witness premised on advocating law and justice, it beggars belief why you choose to remain silent on the infringement of civil liberties which the UAE is notoriously renowned for. Equally distasteful is how you identify so intimately with Islam’s humanist traditions, yet fail to account this so called champion of civil society for its merciless treatment of Yemen’s men, women and children.

It smacks of hypocrisy when someone can brace the pulpit at these events and equivocate on matters of public policy, willingly choosing to ignore the elephant in the room. By granting the Emirati status quo a respectable face, you are guilty of not only deflecting criticism of its panoply of human rights abuses but also for sabotaging hopes for the freedom of Yemenis who are being pulverised into oblivion. Dressing your fawning adoration as a well-intentioned ijtihad rings hollow as the government which sponsored this peace initiative is the most culpable in violating its laudable objectives.

To add insult to injury, the conference was moderated by Ed Husain, a co-founder of the Quilliam foundation, an anti-extremism think tank which thrives on a neo-McCarthyite blacklisting of mainstream Muslim organisations and figureheads. Sara Khan, a divisive counter extremism commissioner and longstanding advocate of the discredited Prevent programme which is widely criticised for disproportionately targeting British Muslims, was another attendee.

While sharing a platform with such personalities does not amount to a wholesale endorsement of their views, there is nothing in their public engagement which justifies an invitation to make proposals for world peace, except that they are mouthpieces for received opinion acting at the behest of the powers that be. As much as I’m inclined to invoking the excuse of ignorance when making sense of your political judgements, it seems inconceivable that you are totally oblivious to the UAE’s regional ambitions and the nefarious associations of your fellow panellists.

The maslaha (public interest) you cite as justification for fraternising in these conventions casts a cloud of suspicion for those perceptive enough to see through the benevolent guise. Invoking the interfaith card is dubious as these initiatives appear to be instrumentalised for a conniving agenda which seeks to whitewash the brutality of the Gulf States and sell the genocide of Muslims as a tribulation to be passively endured. Your insistence on forming strategic alliances to benefit the Ummah as a judicious demonstration of Muslim outreach is proving highly counterproductive and disingenuous.

If anything, the conference was a savvy PR ploy which sought to exploit the supine apologetics of scholars like Abdullah Bin Bayyah- someone you extol as a master of Islamic jurisprudence and rank among the awliyah of Allah-to legitimate the neo-colonial project of secularising the Muslim world through tyrannical despots. Is it so implausible that as the head of a newly formed Emirates Fatwa Council, Bin Bayyah’s role makes him a vital asset in the UAE’s propaganda drive to push the narrative on religious moderation and censor any calls for transparent governance? Perhaps this is why the topic of unwavering allegiance to rulers featured in his keynote address at the conference’s inaugural forum.

When the balance of justice is so unfairly weighted against the Ummah, I believe your participation at this event was a monstrous betrayal of our collective fight against state sponsored terrorism. By conferring legitimacy to the UAE status quo, you do not become a positive catalyst for top-down change. Rather, you succumb to the insidious PR machine of a nation desperate to export a progressive global image, thereby enabling the institutions actively undermining and criminalising movements demanding greater accountability from their rulers.

Spurning such invitations, even at the risk of ostracism would have been a greater measure of your commitment to Muslim solidarity. Instead, you have plunged the dagger deeper into the emaciated children of Hodeidah, who must bear the misfortune of an esteemed scholar pandering to their murderers by allowing a culture of brown nosing to infiltrate his public discourse.

With Bin Bayyah’s recent endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s efforts in combating radicalisation and epitomising moderation, it is only so long one can maintain the façade. Beholden to state affiliations, one could easily infer that neither of you are any longer on guard against manipulative influences and are complicit in a culture of newspeak as apologists of tyranny, fatally compromising your abilities to publicly associate with the Ummah’s struggle against injustice.

Admittedly, I have benefited from your scholarship. In fact, the inspiration for some of my writing on contemporary Muslim affairs derived to an extent from your enlightening ruminations into the Islamic tradition. Your ability to explore interrelated religious and social topics with astuteness satiated an intellectual curiosity for which I remain indebted. It’s painful that I now find myself in a position where questioning your motives becomes a matter of religious necessity.

Speaking truth to power is a prophetic practice in urgent need of restoration. At the very least, you owe a full retraction and apology to the voiceless victims of the UAE’s unspeakable crimes against humanity.

One can no longer afford the luxury of claiming to feel the Ummah’s pain while deeming the cost of non-conformism too great a price to pay.

Your brother in Islam,

Hasten Lais

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