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Muslim advocates path of conciliation

Jeff Heinrich, The Gazette

Published: Thursday, January 03

He was born Mark Hanson in Walla Walla, Wash., and was raised in northern California in a Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic home.

But at age 18 he was in a car accident and almost died - an event that changed his life and his outlook.

Before, he'd been a teenager with an unusual passion, the study of comparative religion, and one of the holy books he'd read was the Quran. Recuperating from his near-death experience, he decided to take a leap of faith. He converted to Islam.


Renamed Hamza Yusuf by his new Muslim friends, he started travelling to the Muslim world to learn more. He lived and studied in the Middle East and North Africa, returning home to California to study some more and, finally, establish an Islamic institute in Berkeley in 1996.

At age 50, Yusuf has become a world-renowned Islamic scholar, a voice of moderation - he prefers the term "orthodoxy" - who condemns terrorism done in the name of Islam.

In an era in which Islam is often equated with extremism, Yusuf has chosen the path of conciliation. He advised U.S. President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, helped the British government deal with Muslim fanatics and addressed world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

To his Islamist opponents, Yusuf is a sellout, a man some have taken to calling "Bush's pet Muslim."

He's also taken flak from secular critics, who see him as a staunch conservative who abhors the decadence of the West of which he's part; one of his favourite targets is singer Britney Spears.

Today, invited by local Muslim student groups who are trying to put a positive face on their religion, Yusuf brings his pacifist views and personality to Montreal , along with a rakish - and, he insists, not at all deliberate - image as a stylish sheik who sports a Vandyke beard and a turban.

This afternoon, he's to meet privately with Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, the chairpeople of Quebec's commission on reasonable accommodation of religious minorities.

Tonight he's to give an accommodation-themed speech to the public at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

So what is the popular scholar's take on the accommodation debate here?

"I've only read some articles about it and a couple of papers, so it's all new to me," Yusuf said Thursday as he travelled by train from Toronto, where he had attended a conference.

"I do know some people in Quebec don't want religious symbols like the hijab," he added. "They're following the model France has, of what some people call secular fundamentalism."

Too bad, he said - it's important to tell Muslims and non-Muslims alike that religious difference can be accommodated without throwing the prevailing culture of secularism into turmoil.

"All this stuff is being negotiated, and Canada, to me, represents a society that had really attempted to realize a pluralistic and diverse society, not just talk about it, like they do in Europe. It's very inspiring."

Having a government commission bring the issues into the open is a good thing, Yusuf said.

"Reasonable accommodation has to come from the middle ground; it can't come from the extremes," he said.

"And the idea of not having the hijab in any public space is an extreme. It's like asking not to be served by someone who's black, which used to be part of the law in the United States."

Except you can't take off your skin, no?

"Hold on, hold on - racial identity is nowhere near as profound as religious identity," he replied.

"For a believer, when you're asking them to take off (the hijab), you're asking them to take off their soul.

"You might tell someone to bleach their skin, but to (the devout), you're asking them to bleach their soul. That person truly believes God asked them to wear that."

That's what compassion is all about, he said.

"It's trying to see things from the other person's perspective."

. Tonight's lecture is at 8 o'clock at UQÀM's Salle Marie Gérin-Lajoie, 405 Ste. Catherine St. E. For more information, go to


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