The police aren't evildoers. They're under great pressure. But thank God we live in a society where things like this do come out.
—Sheik Hamza Yusuf
In what's become major news and a source of national outrage, thanks to months of reporting by the Associated Press, the New York Police Department has spent years investigating American Muslims throughout the Northeast. Of particular concern is an "NYPD Secret" document dating from November 2006; titled "Weekly MSA Report," the document was created by Mahmood Ahmad of the NYPD's Cyber Intelligence Unit, who as "a daily routine" visited the Web sites, blogs, and forums of Muslim Student Associations at the State University of New York at Buffalo, New York University, the Rutgers Newark campus, and, less frequently, similar sites at least a dozen other colleges, including Yale, Columbia, and Syracuse.
Since the report's release, President John E. Sexton of NYU, Yale's Richard C. Levin, and Columbia's Lee C. Bollinger have led a chorus of university leaders concerned about the surveillance. Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, worried about any government actions that might "chill the freedom of thought or intrude upon student privacy." Sexton found the reports "troubling and problematic." The consequences of NYPD surveillance, especially those that reduce the "free and peaceful exchange of ideas ... even of genuinely controversial ideas," Sexton emphasized, "are disquieting to our students and their families, harmful to our community-building efforts, and antithetical to the values we as a university cherish most highly."
It's not uncommon at times like this that we talk more about the controversy than anything interesting or valuable going on just below the surface of our outrageousness or outrage. Yet if we look at Officer Ahmad's cursory report of forthcoming events that had Muslim students atwitter in late 2006, we can see something of what matters to young American Muslims, and perhaps more importantly, who it is that's been guiding them along a bumpy road this past decade. Those named in the report come as no surprise to anyone who might join a Muslim Student Association: Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Sheik Hamza Yusuf.
Not a Muslim myself, nor a believer in any appreciable way, I've spent much of the last 18 months with these scholars and their students: at a venerable mosque in Brooklyn and a storefront mosque in Oakland; at fund raisers in Washington, D.C.; New Brunswick, N.J.; New York City, and throughout the Bay Area; in online forums and open houses; in classrooms and in the basement of a Roman Catholic church; and in Muslim community centers located in low-rent business parks. When I asked Sheik Hamza recently whether he was surprised to see his name in the report, he said no. Although he added, "A lot of these young Muslims born here are not always aware of the history of real persecution of other communities. They would do well reading more history."
Here's what I know. These three men, all converts, appeal to young American Muslims. They appeal, in large part, because they were born and raised in this country and have a vision for Islam that is unmistakably American. Though they've all spent time studying in Muslim-majority countries—Imam Zaid and Sheik Hamza were away for years—their focus remains on building a Muslim community that looks and feels, in every way possible, American. They are not alone, of course, and they do not always agree, but they have been in the vanguard over the last 15 years, at least; their students are just now growing into leadership roles of their own, compelled by the notion that the religion must adapt, within the norms of the tradition, to the culture of the lands where Islam has moved over the centuries.
Committed to building things up and not tearing things down, Siraj Wahhaj, throughout the 1980s, revitalized his little corner of the world—the dangerous corner of Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn—through the efforts of his community at Masjid At-Taqwa, or the Mosque of God-Consciousness. When last December he celebrated the 30th anniversary of the masjid and raised funds to build a state-of-the-art community center in Brooklyn, including space for a school to serve hundreds of local kids, he invited not just Imam Zaid and Sheik Hamza but also called on the Brooklyn native, Muslim emcee and film star Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, to offer his reflections on the neighborhood before the imam brought it back to life.
It's true, of the three Muslim leaders named in the NYPD report, Imam Siraj remains the least comfortable with modern American life, and especially modern American policing. According to the NYU adjunct law professor Paul M. Barrett, who writes about Imam Siraj in his book American Islam (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), he's most inclined to think of law-enforcement allegations against Muslims as "evidence of a government conspiracy," not one among the Muslims. My own interactions with Imam Siraj suggest he's eased up in recent years. It's also worth noting that his effort to clean up the crack houses of Bed-Stuy was met with high praise by the NYPD. The Brooklyn borough president honored the imam with an official Siraj Wahhaj Day on August 15, 2003.
As his own community in Brooklyn has grown, Siraj Wahhaj has become a national figure. He served for a time as vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, currently leads the Muslim Alliance in North America, and lectures and preaches around the country, usually on matters of special concern to inner-city communities. "Islam came," he has said, "to deal with the inequalities in the neighborhood." Moving seamlessly from English to Arabic and back, he brings Islamic ideas of justice, for instance, to bear on chronic unemployment among African-Americans, and in a recent speech, located within Islam the roots of black pride and self-love, bringing together two passages from the Koran: "It was Allah who created you in the womb—as He pleased." His gloss: "So if Allah was pleased to make me a black man, I was happy to be a black man."
Imam Zaid, who like Imam Siraj is African-American and who also has roots in poor, urban neighborhoods, has been likened to his hero Malcolm X. Born Ricky Mitchell in Berkeley, Calif., and raised in housing projects from Georgia to Connecticut, Imam Zaid, with Sheik Hamza, went on to found Zaytuna College, the nation's first four-year Muslim liberal-arts institution.
Embodying an American story if ever there was one—including proverbial bootstraps, military service, political activism, and deep religious commitment—Zaid Shakir draws young Muslims to himself because his message of social justice in the face of poverty and racism he has known first hand makes him endlessly and, it often seems, effortlessly relevant. He is as approachable a man as I've ever met; tall and somewhat too lean—he fasts one day per week—he's all wingspan when embracing his followers at the mosque. To them he says, "Islam is calling us to be bigger than what the world has made us." And they see in him—whether in his tirelessness, his intelligence, or his fire—a model.
His students call him Superman. When I first heard him preach in Oakland, not far from the new college in Berkeley, he faced what he called a "humble gathering ... representing 30 or 40 different ethnicities and national origin." To them he issued the charge: "We have to raise our voices, we have to present our example, and we have to institutionalize our example. We have to develop institutions that reflect our diversity. We have to develop institutions that bring all of this potential power ... of these people, coming with all of their collective experience, all of their collective spiritual and emotional energy, all of their collective histories ... and say, 'This is how we can live in this country.'"
Like Imam Siraj's Brooklyn mosque, Zaytuna College is one of those places where Muslims come together to learn how to live in this country. With a reputation for classical Islamic scholarship and community building dating back to 1996, when Sheik Hamza established the Zaytuna Institute and began his public life, the founders see the college in historic terms and as an essential part of the nation's religious fabric. Speakers at Zaytuna's inaugural convocation in August 2010 included Virginia Gray Henry, a descendent of Patrick Henry; the keynote speaker was the Jesuit-trained president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, the ethicist James A. Donahue. His address highlighted the work ahead for Zaytuna, as the school incorporates into its mission the value American democracy places on rights and liberties, pluralism, pragmatism, democratic justice, and creative novelty. "Zaytuna," he said, "is an academic institution—a college. It is not a mosque; it is not a community center; it is not a gathering space for religious rituals; it is not a cultural center—although elements of each of these will surely be part of Zaytuna. The challenge for Zaytuna will be to determine in what ways it will serve the Islamic tradition and how it can enable that tradition both to preserve and grow."
Sheik Hamza Yusuf, perhaps the most influential Muslim scholar in the country, praised Donahue for his remarks and drew connections between the challenges to founding Muslim institutions and the struggle Catholics faced to establish themselves in this country. About Virginia Gray Henry, he said, "I think it's auspicious—and I don't say this lightly—that a direct descendant of Patrick Henry is here with us in this convocation. ... What's happening here today is part of the American Revolution." And with a nod to the Prophet Mohammed in what appeared to be a Freudian slip, Sheik Hamza added, "What was articulated in starting this revelation—revolution—was 'Give me liberty or give me death.'"
What makes the appearance of these three scholars on the secret NYPD document a "teachable moment," as Sheik Hamza sees it—and so do I—has only partly to do with the enormous appeal of these teachers in their communities, especially among the young. Given the NYPD's interest in them in the wake of September 11, 2001—an interest Sheik Hamza, for instance, understands and sympathizes with—what's perhaps most important to grasp is that these hugely popular and widely influential Muslim leaders have time and again preached an anti-extremist message. "Islam doesn't teach anarchy," Imam Siraj declared on the stand when called to testify during a terrorism case in March 2001, "and people cannot take it upon themselves when they don't like something, even though something seems to be unjust, to get up and do that kind of violence." As for the NYPD, Sheik Hamza has said, we can't simply fault them—"that's too easy." From his perspective, "It's not us against the police. ... If those MSA-goers have an emergency, they're still going to call 911." We need the police. They just need to know that we don't need them spying on peaceful, patriotic American Muslims.
Sheik Hamza recently told me: "I have never advocated violence, never supported suicide. ... Those things are antithetical to everything that attracted me to Islam." And last September 10, Sheik Hamza and Imam Siraj gathered with a host of other leaders at a convention organized by Imam Zaid called "United for Change: One Nation, One Destiny." The event brought together Muslim activists and scholars from across the political and theological spectrum, a Jewish community organizer named Anya Cordell, and the former Catholic nun, Karen Armstrong, who concluded the event by presenting her "Charter for Compassion." In a single voice, everyone in attendance condemned violent Islamic extremism. On September 11 we saw not Islam, but what they all agreed was "a cult of death."
Three of the nation's most relevant and influential Muslim leaders—Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Sheik Hamza Yusuf—may criticize American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East; they may preach to the crowds gathered at Occupy Oakland and condemn the corruption in American markets and in American law enforcement. But then, public dissent is an American art. Indeed, the heroes these men call upon are just as often a Founding Father or a literary giant like Henry David Thoreau as they are a Muslim leader like Malcolm X.
These Muslims, like Malcolm, are Americans. This is the land they've always called home. They're building a tradition here that, against all apparent odds, they'd like to see last. And if they have a secret message, it's this: To those who don't like America, or who don't want to be here, or who wish to do harm in our neighborhoods, it's time for you to leave.
Scott Korb teaches writing at New York University and the New School. His forthcoming book, Light Without Fire: Zaytuna College and a Vision of Islam for America, will be published by Beacon Press next year.