Muslim Leaders Struggle With Mixed Messages
By Hanna Rosin and John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 2, 2001; Page A16
On Sept. 20, FBI agents showed up at the house of Hamza Yusuf, a
Muslim teacher and speaker in Northern California. They wanted to
question him about a speech he had given two days before the Sept. 11
attacks, in which he said that the U.S. "stands condemned" and that
"this country has a great, great tribulation coming to it."
"He's not home," his wife said. "He's with the president."
The agents thought she was joking, Yusuf said. But she wasn't. That
day Yusuf was at the White House, the only Muslim in a group of
religious leaders invited to pray with President Bush, sing "God Bless
America," and endorse the president's plans for military action.
"Hate knows no religion. Hate knows no country," Yusuf said that day
outside the White House. "Islam was hijacked on that September 11,
2001, on that plane as an innocent victim."
Yusuf's mixed message created awkwardness for the White House -- and
revealed a dilemma for the suddenly very visible Muslim leadership in
The president invited Yusuf because he is one of the "leading Muslim
clerics," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. When the
president meets with a group, "you should never assume . . . that he
would ever agree with anything anybody in that group has said," added
another Bush spokesman, Ari Fleischer.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Yusuf's speeches would occasionally stray
into anti-American rhetoric, hitting apocalyptic themes. At least one
other Muslim leader invited to the White House since the attacks also
has made provocative remarks about America.
But now Yusuf has joined other American Muslim leaders as they have
closed ranks behind the message that Islam is a peaceful religion and
that extremists are outside its fold.
No one suggests that Yusuf had anything directly to do with the
attacks, and he has not endorsed violence against American targets.
But some Islamic experts said Yusuf is one example of a Muslim leader
who speaks of peace to the American public though he has used
incendiary language in private.
The contradictory idioms are, in part, an outgrowth of the American
Muslim community's reluctance to air its disagreements in public, said
Ali Asani, an Islamic studies professor at Harvard University.
Muslims "are so sensitive about the perception of Islam," Asani said.
"Even when there are disagreements within the Muslim community about
extremism, they will project to the outside that we are all monolithic
Asani, who has watched the spread of rhetoric such as Yusuf's with
dismay, added that it was time for a reckoning. After Sept. 11, the
more extreme leaders went "on alert," said Asani. "They realize that
they are part of the problem, that the Sept. 11 incident can be the
result of this kind of thinking they have been propagating for so many
Yusuf said he partly regrets the speech, adding that it was "tragic
timing" and that he would never give it now, after the attacks. "I
don't want this country to be destroyed," he said. "I don't want to
have punishment come to this country. I'm not a wrathful person."
Yusuf was born in California to an American Catholic father and a
Greek Orthodox mother. He converted to Islam at age 17, and studied
with Muslim scholars in the Middle East. Then he returned to college
in this country and began teaching Arabic and Islamic affairs at a
center in California. He is known among his students as a charismatic
teacher who can speak to the experiences of young second-generation
His Sept. 9 speech was not the first time Yusuf drew criticism. In
1995 he said, "the Jews would have us believe that God had this bias
to this little small tribe in the middle of the Sinai desert, and all
the rest of humanity is just rubbish. I mean, that is the basic
doctrine of the Jewish religion and that's why it is a most racist
"Those are old speeches," Yusuf said yesterday about those remarks.
"I've spent 10 years in the Arab world and I've learned their
language. . . . Anti-semitism, anti-anything does not reflect my core
values. If people were fair, they would see my spiritual growth, as a
person, as a religious scholar."
He gave his Sept. 9 speech in Irvine, Calif., to a gathering to
support Jamil Al-Amin, a Muslim cleric facing charges in the slaying
of a sheriff's deputy during an Atlanta shootout and the wounding of a
second deputy. The case of Al-Amin, known previously as the 1960s
black radical leader H. Rap Brown, has rallied Muslim activists around
the country who say he is being railroaded.
"He's a man who by necessity must speak the truth," Yusuf said of
Al-Amin in the speech. "That is a dangerous man. . . . Within this
government are elements who will do anything to silence the truth.
They'll assassinate either the person or the character."
He told his audience that that was merely one example of the injustice
and immorality rampant in America.
"This country is facing a very terrible fate," he said. "The reason
for that is that this country stands condemned. It stands condemned
like Europe stood condemned because of what it did. And lest people
forget that Europe suffered two world wars after conquering the Muslim
lands. . . . [Europe's] countries were devastated, they were
completely destroyed. Their young people were killed."
Yusuf also mentioned the conviction of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the
blind Egyptian cleric convicted of sedition and sentenced to life in a
U.S. prison in connection with a plot to bomb Manhattan's Lincoln and
Holland tunnels and other New York landmarks. "That sheikh was
unjustly tried, was condemned against any standards of justice in any
legal system," Yusuf said, citing Rahman's lawyer, former U.S.
attorney general Ramsey Clark. "Now [he] sits in jail because it was a
Yusuf said yesterday that the attacks had taught him a lesson.
"One of the things I have learned is that we in the Muslim community
have allowed a discourse of rage," he said. "This has been a wake-up
call for me as well, in that I feel in some ways there is a
complicity, that we have allowed a discourse centered in anger."
Another popular Muslim cleric invited to the White House after the
attacks also has made controversial remarks. Muzammil Siddiqi, who
also spoke at a service at the Washington National Cathedral after the
attacks, harshly criticized U.S. support for Israel at a rally outside
the White House last October, at which marchers chanted in praise of
the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist group.
"America has to learn," Siddiqi said at the rally. "If you remain on
the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come. Please, all
Americans. Do you remember that? Allah is watching everyone. God is
watching everyone. If you continue doing injustice, and tolerate
injustice, the wrath of God will come."
Siddiqi could not be reached for comment.