The twin faces of Islam
by M. Zuhdi Jasser
The complexities of the "Muslim issue" in America are often exploited and bandied about between two extremes -- one that wants to be believe that Islam is universally peaceful and no "real" Muslim could be a radical, and the other that has become suspicious of every American Muslim. The vast majority of Americans are hopelessly confused somewhere in between. They are fearful but searching for solutions and looking for hope.
The greatest security threat we face as Americans has one common ideological thread across the globe -- not spiritual Islam but political Islam (Islamism). That threat is a byproduct of a soulful Muslim battle between liberalism and Islamism.
Liberalism in this context is the Western post-Enlightenment political movement centered on reason, natural law, individual equality and unalienable rights "under God." Contrarily, Islamism is the theopolitical movement of Muslims wedded to the "Islamic state" and its legal infrastructure, its clerics, scholars and their shariah law "under Islam."
Put another way, Muslim reformists are at odds with Muslim revivalists. The battle is not between moderate and extremist Islam. It is not between non-Muslims and Muslims. It is inside the House of Islam.
Sadly, America has been absent, paralyzed by fear of religious discourse and political correctness. Unfortunately, Americans cannot sit this one out. Hope is palpable from the narrative of many Muslims who, when given a choice, choose liberalism.
With the Ennahad in Tunisia and now Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamists and their parties are able to handily win elections. The awakening hope of the so-called spring is, democratically so far, bringing in an Islamist winter. The good news is that Islamists are already being potently challenged by diverse, albeit immature, groups of secular Muslims.
My personal story from my Wisconsin youth to the post-9/11 Arizona call to duty lays bare this struggle. Even in America, I felt the heat of the fronts of this Muslim battle in college, my family, my mosque, the Navy and my communities.
The closer I got to God, country and faith, the further I wanted from the Islamists in our religious leadership.
I was a product of generations in Syria that valued freedom, having it ripped from their hearts by Baathist despots. Hearts mended only when my parents came to the U.S. Their identity was immediately American, in the process modernizing their understanding of Islam. This was in contrast to Islamists, who are here to evangelize their movement.
Fueled with billions in petrodollars around the world, Islamists try to monopolize Muslim leadership. When Muslim free thinkers wake up, there will be no better laboratory than America to wage the battle against Islamists. The technology of social media was grown in the West and yet used by Arabs to awaken their masses. So, too, can the technology of liberty for Muslims.
By focusing on "violent extremism," our massive Department of Homeland Security sees "good Muslims" as non-violent and "bad Muslims" as violent, ignoring the ideological continuum between them.
That dangerous binary thinking has turned DHS operations into a highly sophisticated whack-a-mole program. Snatching militants in their last few steps along a long path of radicalization is doomed to fail.
Abroad, our State Department similarly is like a deer in the headlights -- ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with the post-convulsive environment of the Arab Awakening and its emerging often Islamist societies. Finding common threads will give us hope.
No Muslim has an internal Jeffersonian light switch. Before Muslims can plant the seeds of liberalism through Muslim reform, they need to till the fertile soil of change.
Before Maj. Nidal Hasan committed the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, he had a resume frighteningly similar to mine. His soul, however, long harbored an identity that embraced the supremacy of the Islamic state. Mine never has. He and other militant Islamists are not lone wolves.
The Arab Awakening in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria is not unrelated. The internal conflict over freedom, identity and Islam is the same worldwide. Our Founding Fathers found common identity in the religious diversity and freedom of the Establishment Clause. If we could only put that into a pill and give it to Muslims, the world would be safer.
The premise of my book "A Battle for the Soul of Islam" is that Muslims need a reformation exposing the deceptive allure of the Islamic state. It has yet to happen, and anyone who suggests otherwise is either being deceptive or in deep denial. This book is a call to the hearts of all Muslims, as Americans and as Muslims, to expose the false allure of the Islamic state and its incompatibility with freedom.
We need a national consensus to reboot our strategies at home and abroad with Muslims. The White House and Congress should look at Muslim populations through the lens of a "liberty doctrine," consistently advocating a "muscular liberalism," in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron.
After 9/11, it was on these very pages that I began our local work at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). Spurred on by my frustrations with the apologetics, victim mantra and conspiracy theories coming from leading Muslims in the Valley, my life experiences taught me this was not unique to Arizona.
The Islamist responses to Americanism were predictable, and there was no reason to expect 9/11 to change them.
After our Muslim rally against terrorism in April 2004 in Phoenix, our work went national confronting global Islamist movements. Recently, our bipartisan American Islamic Leadership Coalition (AILC) has emerged with more than 25 Muslim leaders in North America as a viable alternative to the old Islamist Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups.
This is not a conflict our military can solve. At AIFD, our Muslim Liberty Project inoculates young Muslim adults with the ideas of Americanism to protect them from Islamism and its anti-American path toward radicalization.
Agree or disagree, there is no "one Islam." My Islam is certainly compatible with being American, but "their" Islam is not. I am under no illusion that the Islamist hydra will go away quietly into the night. As I tell my children in the letter to them in the epilogue of my book, this is about legacy.
I and many Muslims in Phoenix and North America have started this battle, but it is theirs and yours to finish.