When it comes to engaging with governments, Muslims are naturally suspicious given the long track record of oppression against their people and Muslims. This is particularly the case when a Muslim leader willingly participates in forums sponsored by rulers overseas since these seem to serve no other purpose except lend credibility to some of the world’s worst criminals and human-rights abusers.
This issue reemerged recently when United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) hosted a 3-day conference entitled the forum for promoting peace and Shaikh Hamza Yusuf from California attended alongside his teacher Shaikh Abdullah bin Bayyah. Given Shaikh Hamza’s long history as an icon in the English-speaking Muslim world, this has naturally led to a polarized response with some bending over backward to defend his participation and rhetoric and others strongly criticizing his actions. While it is necessary to directly engage with even oppressive rulers, one must never do anything to rubber stamp their actions which unfortunately took place in this case.
When dealing with this issue, it is essential to understand that it is not the mere location that people are objecting to but the fact that it is directly hosted by the Emirati government. Similar to other Middle Eastern countries, the UAE is run by an incredibly oppressive regime which regularly jails dissidents to the point that it has one of the highest rates of political prisoners according to a study by several academics.
Furthermore, the UAE’s oppression actually extends far beyond its borders with the Emirates playing a role in facilitating Saudi Arabia’s atrocious bombing campaign in Yemen. The Emirates has tried to poke its filthy hands in American Muslim life by declaring mainstream Muslim organizations like CAIR has “terrorists” much to the delight of the Islamophobia industry in the US.
Furthermore, the country is infamous for its exploitative labor practices which have been compared to a modern form of slavery all done in the hopes of constructing ever more extravagant structures. By now, it should be clear that the UAE does not have the values of Islam at heart nor the interests of American Muslims in general.
Those criticizing Hamza Yusuf are not doing so for his mere presence there but for his echoing of UAE propaganda about the supposed tolerance of the country.
In particular, the statement that drew scorn from fellow Muslims was when Shaikh said “The Emirates-inside the country is a country that is committed to tolerance; they [even] have a Ministry of Tolerance”.
He went on to justify the statement by citing the apparent safety within the UAE and the general tolerance of Emirati people. When dissecting the statement, it becomes clear that why so many found these comments particularly problematic.
To begin, the premise of the statement is simply false, almost Orwellian, since the fact that a country has a ministry or department dedicated to a particular topic does not mean that they excel at it. Rather, oppressive governments like that of the UAE will often try to try to cover up their manifest lack of virtue by forming agencies or bodies in the name of promoting these whilst they are actually undermining it.
In fact, when I heard Shaikh Hamza’s comments I couldn’t help; a thing of the ministry of propaganda in George Orwell’s 1984 aptly styled the “Ministry of Truth”. If American Muslims are going to establish themselves in the country, they can’t allow themselves to be drawn into such cynical propaganda campaigns like the one previously described.
When it comes to establishing institutions that are both credible and effective, American Muslims must do their utmost to maintain independence both in appearance and in fact. An essential component of this is to oppose extreme actions both perpetrated by non-state actors or governments themselves. No matter what the UAE or its defenders may say, a government which regularly imprisons and tortures dissidents facilitates the slaughter of Yemenis and tries to sabotage American Muslim life cannot be described as peaceful or moderate.
Furthermore, Muslim leadership must do their utmost to ensure that they do not lend any credence to the facade that such countries try to project to the world by echoing their propaganda. While we always appreciate the good that they have done, our loyalties are to the principles, not individuals meaning that we are to speak out when we see otherwise respectable people like Hamza Yusuf make such serious blunders.