Herman, Meet Hamza















For some rather serious health-related reasons, my doctor recommends not reading too many political blogs. It’s a shame, I know, and this from a man who features US Weekly in the waiting room of his offices.

I can, however, for the most part anyway, stomach Twitter feeds from a decent variety of newsy sources, which is how I came across this gem from Herman Cain, the former CEO of the National Restaurant Association and, as of early November, a front-runner for the GOP Presidential nomination. On the potentiality of appointing Muslims to his Cabinet, Cain has said: “I would have to have people totally committed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. And many of the Muslims, they’re not totally dedicated to this country.”

Herman, I know it might be a socially awkward time to say this: You really need to get out more – and meet new people.

O.K., so, as a Catholic friend recently reminded me over soccer and pints: this salvo by Cain toward Muslims is hardly the first time in America’s political theater that a non-Protestant’s faith affiliation has been necessarily pitted against love of country. Nonetheless, I told my friend, this is undeniably inspiring stuff from the man who once upon a time brought us “More topping.”

Before facilitating the question of American Muslim identity, let me emphatically say, as a white evangelical Christian who, I am told, is supposed to find Cain particularly pleasing to my calibrated religious-beliefs-and-political-views sensibility: I do not find him particularly pleasing to the actual senses. Additionally, but not altogether unrelated, I never really cared for Godfather’s Pizza. It is possible for a buffet to be quite overrated, which, if we are to read the signs, might provide an omen for the Republican Party in November 2012.

As for the allegations of sexual harassment coming from Cain’s former employees, well, is it too soon to bring Dick Cheney into the debate? In another American economic lifetime Cheney famously quipped: “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” Maybe, for Cain, Clarence Thomas proved sexual harassment doesn’t matter.

I will certainly give Cain this: when he likes a number, he likes a number. He puts his heart and soul into it. See, for instance, his tax policy plan, which goes by the name “9-9-9.” If you flip those digits, of course, you get something much scarier – for the rapture-enthused Christian, and, I suppose, for anyone with a predilection for numerology. Such is Cain’s fondness for the number 9 that on an appearance on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor he corrected Bill O’Reilly’s information, saying that his campaign has at least 9 full-time staff in Iowa.

But even if it throws off his hallowed number thing, I am hoping that Cain might at least consider adding another full-time staffer to his campaign. Herman, would you do me the distinct honor of introducing you to Hamza? Hamza Yusuf.












Since Cain is of the Baptist persuasion and since he appears persistent in stoking post-9/11 American anxieties about Islam and Muslims, his stature and his statements have a growing significance for Christian-Muslim relations in America. Not to mention U.S. foreign policy. So whether he is uncomfortable having a Muslim surgeon operating on him or he is on the trail raising the specter of Sharia, Herman would do well to break pizza with Hamza.

An American convert to Islam in 1977, Yusuf co-founded Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California. He has been deemed “the Western world’s most influential Islamic scholar” by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre’s 500 Most Influential Muslims (2009) and serves on the board of advisors for One Nation, a national philanthropic initiative.

The preeminent reason I would – if I could – urge Herman to make Hamza a campaign tutor lies at the vital intersection of a dramatic and multifaceted question: How will American Muslims reconcile religious identity with national identity in the current political and cultural climate?

For your listening pleasure, then, if interested, I offer the following YouTube video as a primer on the question. It features a 2003 speech by Yusuf at the annual gathering of the Islamic Society of North America. What Yusuf communicates here seems as timely for Muslims – and for Christians sincerely engaging the question – as the original context of the speech, which was given three months after the war in Iraq had begun.

To give you a small taste, Yusuf calls Muslims in America “inheritors of a struggle in this country to keep this country in course with its founding principles,” going on to implore: “Are you willing to live up to the traits of your formative declarations?” By asking this question Yusuf is provocatively correlating America’s founding principles with Islamic principles, using “formative declarations” to refer both to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and to the Qur’an. This is, as you might sense, as subtle as it is loud.

Furthermore, he reminds everyone listening that Muslims have been a part of America from the beginning (think: African Muslim slaves). Yusuf is defining a very particular Muslim space in America while at the same time pointedly calling American Muslims, precisely on the basis of religion and religious identity, to go deeper into the co-making of the larger American cultural narrative.

(Especially view the video from approximately 19:40+.)

So, yes, about Herman. I highly doubt he has the time to watch a speech like this. Still, with every minute leading up to Iowa, if he makes it to Iowa, I wish he’d make the time to meet Hamza. And if they indeed end up going out for pizza, I’d surely recommend Matchbox in Palm Springs or Mary Angela’s in Richmond.


The Song of Machpelah is an interfaith writing project borne out of my Christian-Muslim exchanges, experiences and ongoing study. At Machpelah, God willing, in small, medium or large ways a living song will arise. And it is a composition being put together by both Christians and Muslims. Peace by piece. For more on the project, go here.

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