Is California an Islamic Republic?

Is California an Islamic Republic?

Stephen Schwartz

October 25, 2006

I am not a native Californian, but was taken there as a small child by my parents, grew up there, and stayed, in all, 48 years, until 1999. From early on, I was fascinated by the inscription on the state flag, “California Republic.” It obviously suggested that California is a country unto itself.

In elementary school, we were taught the brief history of the “Bear Flag” Republic, as it was more commonly known, and which lasted for less than a month in 1846. Many years went by, and in 1998 I published a book on California history, titled From West to East, embodying my experience and outlook on California’s “separatist” identity. In 2003, I contributed an essay on the state’s progressive legacy, concluding with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political gambit, to a volume edited by Brian Janiskee and Ken Masugi, The California Republic.

The topic of California separatism is a fascinating one, but it gained a new and unusual aspect on October 17, when the Saudi daily newspaper Okaz published a startling interview. Hamza Yusuf Hanson, a convert to Islam, was described as “the mufti of California.”   He complained to the Saudi paper about American incomprehension of Islam as well as racism. (Hanson himself is white.)

Few non-Muslims will understand the title “mufti” or the claim that it expresses. A mufti is a religious judge, directing sharia courts in Sunni Muslim countries. Muftis are appointed by or recognized by governments. Because Islamic law is not standard in non-Muslim countries, only three of the latter, all of which have significant Muslim majorities, have a mufti. France, with six million Muslims, understandably has a mufti, Soheib Bencheikh, of Algerian origin.   Russia, with more than 20 million Muslims, has a mufti, Talgat Tajuddin. Croatia, with a Croatian-Bosnian Muslim community, has a mufti, as do other former-Yugoslav republics, such as
Slovenia, with Muslim minorities, but they lack governmental recognition.

Why would California have a mufti?   Sharia governs such minor aspects of Islamic life as the issuance of halal butchers’ licenses, which are comparable to certification of kosher meat by rabbis.    Sharia also determines the propriety of certain financial transactions between observant Muslims, and many American and other Western banks, investment houses, and related institutions have sharia consultants for the preparation of business contracts by their Muslim clients.

But California has no sharia courts. California’s Muslim population is about one million, or 3.4 percent of the whole population, which does not justify appointment of a mufti.   How then does a major Saudi daily describe Hamza Yusuf Hanson as “mufti of California?”

The most benevolent interpretation of this extraordinary incident must begin with an unpleasant task – identifying Hamza Yusuf Hanson himself. Born of a Catholic father and Greek Orthodox mother, Hanson became Muslim as a youth and distinguished himself, until September 11, as one of the loudest, most radical, vulgar, and provocative Islamist agitators in the West.   In 1995, Hanson delivered himself of the opinion that Judaism is “a most racist religion.” (No such condemnation appears in the Koran or in mainstream Islamic theology, which honor the Jewish prophets.)   On September 9, 2001, Hanson declaimed in Los Angeles, “This country {America} unfortunately has a great, a great tribulation coming to it.   And much of it is already here, yet people are too illiterate to read the writing on the wall.”

With the passage of two days, of course, the world changed. Hamza Yusuf Hanson saw the difficulties that would face radical Muslim preachers in the West.   He briskly reinvented himself as a peaceful, spiritual Sufi, although he has never given any indication of a real knowledge of the Sufi way or its cultural legacy.   He also had the incredible luck to benefit from cluelessness inside the Beltway, and got to meet President George W. Bush. On the strength of that trivial encounter, he has built himself up as a major Western Muslim leader, claiming now to be a “Bush adviser” as well as the epitome of moderate Islam. Recently, he figured as a leading exponent of a curious declaration of 38 Muslim scholars, directed to Pope Benedict XVI, and which has gained considerable media attention.

Numerous Sufis and other moderate Muslims doubt that Hamza Yusuf Hanson has really changed. One of the leading Sufis in the Muslim world told me Hanson’s “spiritual teaching” was New Age mush, suitable for daytime television talk-shows but not for a real and distinguished mosque with a long history of scholarship, moderation, and good relations between Shia and Sunni Muslims as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims. Such is the mosque in which my interlocutor (who shall remain anonymous) is the imam..

Is California an Islamic republic, with sharia courts and a state-recognized mufti? Of course not.

Does Hamza Yusuf Hanson, a poseur living in California, fantasize that such a reality will come about?

Of course. Even in his alleged Sufi incarnation, Hamza Yusuf Hanson propagandizes for the Islamization of America.

Is “Islamic America” a mainstream Muslim principle? Of course not. Moderate Muslims long ago accepted that the West is ruled by non-Muslims, and that Muslims who emigrate to the West have to accept that fact.   All religious believers are proud of their faith, and many engage in proselytism.  But none except radical Muslims propose a wholesale transformation of Western religious life.  Mormons actively seek new members but do not proclaim that some day soon the world, or even America , will be Mormon; nor do Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Christian Scientists.  Nor, most important, do Catholics and Protestants, who are the leading communities in America , and who certainly accept converts. Nor do Buddhists, who are widely approached by religious seekers.  Born-again Christians do not declare that all Americans must some day join their particular denominations.  Jews do not proselytize at all.

It is one thing to argue that one’s religion is the sure path to paradise. It is quite another to argue that one’s faith is the sole basis for good governance on earth, or that its law should soon prevail in a country where it now represents a small, mainly-immigrant minority.    Normal Muslims, aside from the ignorant and gullible, consider such views madness.

It is neither a mainstream nor a moderate Muslim position to claim, as Hamza Yusuf’s chief deputy, an individual named Ziad Shakir, did as recently as June 18, 2006, in the pages of The New York Times: “ ‘Every Muslim who is honest would say, I would like to see America become a Muslim country,’ he said.”   That means the great majority of Muslims, according to Hanson and his cohort, are dishonest, because they, from Bosnia to Borneo and from Algeria to Zanzibar, accept the non-Muslim religious identity of the West. 

It is Hamza Yusuf Hanson who is dishonest, when he calls himself, ridiculously, “the mufti of California,” and when he claims to be a Muslim moderate. He is neither, and it is time for mainstream media like The New York Times to quit flattering him.   

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Stephen Schwartz is Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.

© 2003-2006 FamilySecurityMatters.org All Rights Reserved

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Note — The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views, and/or philosophy of Family Security Matters.

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