By all indications, Hamza Yusuf is the most influential and recognizable Muslim figure in North America. He routinely gives talks at conventions in the United States and Canada that draw out tens of thousands of Muslims. Having studied with well-known scholars in the Muslim world, Yusuf adds to his sophisticated “Western” sensibilities a serious Islamic academic background.
He also co-founded the first Muslim seminary in the United States (Zaytuna College). He was an independent advisor to George W. Bush and other political figures (to no avail it would seem). He routinely appears on media outlets throughout the world.
So why is it that the non-Muslim populations in North America have basically no idea who he is? Why is it that his voice, and the voices of Muslim scholars like him, is almost never heard in the contemporary Muslim discourse of North America?
It’s true that Yusuf has spoken at non-Muslim gatherings and has appeared on some mainstream media programs since 9/11. This is good. For those of us who observe the Muslim communities in North America, it is obvious that even Yusuf’s religious detractors recognize his position as a pillar of the community. Yet, his presence is lacking when journalists report on issues of particular interest to Muslims. The examples are too many to list.
Sh. Hamza Yusuf spoke at the 2011 RIS Convention and gave what may perhaps be the most important lecture (in recent years) regarding the role of Muslims in the issue of economic justice. The talk was heard by thousands of Muslims, but the conference was ignored by most established media.
This absence is emblematic of the Western Muslim communities’ abhorrent public relations situation in general. The relationship between the mass media and the vast majority of Muslim populations in the West has been unproductive. Many Muslims blame the media for perpetuating lies and stereotypes and choose not to participate. This is understandable. However, this stark absence of Muslim voices leaves a vacuum to be filled. Unfortunately, those who fill such a space often misrepresent both Muslims and Islam itself.
This is primarily why Hamza Yusuf is not a household name when it comes to setting the framework of debate on Muslim-related issues. His spot has already been taken. Of course, this can be said about many leaders within the Muslim communities, all of whom deserve to be heard when there’s a discussion on “honor killings”, “halal meat”, so-called “Islamic terrorism”, or whatever else.
Those who do pontificate on such issues usually lack the scholarly erudition of a Yusuf (or of another qualified scholar). Sadly, many such commentators delegate to themselves the task of partitioning what kind of Muslim can or cannot be trusted. Often, these very commentators describe themselves as subscribing to the Muslim faith, but paint the bulk of “lived Islam” as incompatible with “Western values”. This isolates them as the lone, brave, Muslims who stand up to the onslaught of intolerance shown to them by their co-religionists.
This handful of commentators has better public relations than all the Western Muslim communities combined.
These problems can be solved by putting someone like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf at the center of public discussions on Islam and Muslims. It’s not so we can show off his erudition. Rather, placing serious scholars and Muslim intellectuals in the middle of agenda-setting media is the only way we can solve what is perhaps the most pressing sociopolitical problem facing Muslims in North America today. Given the prevalence of television and visual media, this means having knowledgeable Muslim commentators appear on outlets like CNN and CBC. This is certainly not being done in Canada, for example.
Muslim organizations have to actively pursue journalists and feed them stories. They have to regularly meet with the board members of major newspapers and other media outlets. A journalist’s success in terms of completing a story is highly dependent on whether his/her sources call or email back on time (this is known as “the waiting game”). As far as Muslim-related matters are concerned, respected scholars like Hamza Yusuf should consistently be one of those sources. The bulk of Muslims in the West should become those sources. Organizations like the Muslim Public Affairs Council (U.S.) as well as Civic Muslims (Canada), among other groups, have already started doing these things.
Being committed to these tasks will help foster understanding and dispels myths. It will familiarize the broader society with Muslims and their concerns. It will help facilitate justice and peace for Muslims and non-Muslims this continent.