'Zaytuna College' and Its Continuing Media Circus

With the beginning of the 2010-2011 academic year, it was doubtless predictable that mainstream media as well as the educational trade press would resume its biased and inaccurate publicity, only lightly presented as reportage, on Zaytuna College. Based in Berkeley, California, Zaytuna is an effort to establish an "Islamic university" headed by the American Muslim preacher Hamza Yusuf Hanson.

Much coverage of the Zaytuna scheme unquestioningly accepts descriptions of it as "America's first Islamic college." That, for example, was how it was described in a September 9, 2010 feature published by StateUniversity.com, a website and print directory of public colleges, titled "First Muslim College Opens in United States." The description is inaccurate in that the American Islamic College (AIC) in Chicago was established in 1981 as "a private, not-for-profit, four-year college offering programs leading to the Bachelor of Arts degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies."  

Unlike the Zaytuna enterprise, representatives of which are forced to admit their lack of accreditation, AIC claims that "in 1991 the College was granted the authority to offer the Associate of Arts degree in addition to the Bachelor of Arts degree." AIC's 2010 offerings include religious classes and courses on the life and oral commentaries of Muhammad, the history of Islam, and the history of Christian-Muslim relations. It also advertises instruction in calligraphy, Turkish art, the oud or oriental lute, and stained glass. 

AIC has advertised the "grand opening" of a new dormitory and auditorium during a conference on "Islam and Muslims in America" set for September 28-29, with a musical concert by Sami Yusuf, a British Muslim religious singer. AIC's conference has gained support from Turkish Airlines and the Zaman media conglomerate, the latter controlled by Turkish Islamist ideologue Fethullah Gülen, who has established an extensive network of primary and secondary schools for non-Muslim as well as Muslim students in the U.S. Other listed sponsors for the end-of-September AIC conference include Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, the fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Hamas-front Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC), and Radio Islam, a daily Muslim talk-radio program in Chicago.

As narrow as its curricula -- and as questionable as its ideological orientation -- may be, AIC obviously enjoys a resource Zaytuna lacks: substantial backing from Islamist lobbies active in the U.S. By contrast, Zaytuna, notwithstanding its media access and exaggerated pretensions, commands fewer significant ideological and other resources. 

Like Gülen, Hamza Yusuf Hanson presents himself as a benevolent spiritual teacher with millions of admirers. For example, in a sycophantic National Public Radio feature aired on September 9, 2010, "New College Teaches Young American Muslims," a student at Zaytuna, Faatimah (cq) Knight, claimed that Hanson and his main associate, African-American Muslim Zaid Shakir, have "'thousands, maybe millions' of teenagers around the world" who "follow Shakir and Yusuf on YouTube." In addition, Gülen and Hanson are both notable for participating in Islamist overtures to the papacy in Rome.

But unlike Gülen, whose movement has gained influence in the Turkish Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and benefits from generous contributions by Turkish business magnates, Hanson has yet to obtain sufficient financial backing for him to set up Zaytuna College in the ambitious way he has projected.   

Everything in Zaytuna's publicity history indicates that it is intended as a religious facility to train preachers and clerics in Hanson's fundamentalist brand of Islam rather than, as it is portrayed on NPR, as an "Islamic liberal arts college." Hanson had a long and ugly career as one of the most radical Muslim speakers in the U.S., which he abandoned after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yet he still advertises his attachment to the Saudi-based cleric Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, who was born in Mauritania in 1935 and is a member of the European Council for Fatwas and Research, headed by the notorious Egyptian-born and Qatar-based fundamentalist cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. Al-Qaradawi, for his part, is distinguished by his fatwas in support of wife-beating and female genital mutilation, as well as Islamist radical positions in general. 

Al-Qaradawi has praised bin Bayyah, Hamza Yusuf Hanson's mentor, and the legal authority to whom Hanson and students at Zaytuna will turn in their teaching of Islamic jurisprudence, as "between Salafism and Sufism." "Salafism" is a term appropriated from a group of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Muslim reformers who were pro-European and non-jihadist. The term is currently used as a cover for the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia, the most violent, exclusionary, and fundamentalist phenomenon in the history of Sunni Islam, and the inspirer of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaradawi, soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, praised Osama bin Laden as "a symbol of the world uprising against American hegemony."

Zaytuna's "academic" apparatus, as catalogued on its September 2010 website, details no more than Hanson and his cohort had offered students in the past through his "Zaytuna Institute." As a college, Zaytuna includes only four faculty members: Hanson; Shakir; UC Berkeley adjunct professor Hatem Bazian, who bears the title of chair for Zaytuna's "Academic Affairs Committee"; and Abdullah bin Hamid Ali. An American-born Muslim, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali was formerly "assistant head chaplain for 5 years at the Chester State Correctional Institution" in Pennsylvania and claims to be "the only Western graduate of the Shariah Faculty of the University of al-Qarawiyin located in Fes, Morocco." Bazian, unlike Hamza Yusuf Hanson, remains an unapologetically radical exponent, perhaps best-known for his 2004 summons to an "intifada" in the United States.  

The education offered by these four, touted as aspiring to outdo America's great universities, is currently sparse. Zaytuna has curricula in Islamic law and theology and Arabic language. Students of Arabic are required to have completed a prior summer intensive course in the language. Course listings for the major in Islamic Law and Theology comprise -- aside from topics in Islamic study and debate -- English Composition, Islamic History, Introduction to Economics, and Ancient Civilizations. But syllabi for these themes are minimal, and the course instructors are not identified. 

After its first year, beginning in 2010, according to its promotional website, Zaytuna will also teach Comparative Politics, Critical Thinking and Logic, Astronomy, Cosmology, Rhetoric, Sociology, American History, American Constitutional Law, Comparative Religion, and Islamic Business Law.

With its few students and skimpy faculty, as well as its lack of all the usual features of a university -- such as a campus -- why should Zaytuna have been so favored by American media attention? It appears as a novelty, and not a very interesting one, at a moment when discussion of Islam has returned to priority status. How can such an enterprise be needed, considering the plenitude of Middle East studies courses available at America's existing universities and colleges? The answer seems to be that Zaytuna will presumably vindicate "Sheikh" Hamza Yusuf Hanson's overweening narcissism while providing a platform for the Islamist ideology of his mentors, bin Bayyah and, by extension, Al-Qaradawi. 

Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.
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