M. Zuhdi Jasser dreams of a Muslim Counterterrorism Unit, Jack Bauer-style.
In truth, his dreams are his work. Jasser, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander is president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix, Arizona. In an extensive interview with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez, Jasser talks about his military service, the duties of Muslims in America, how to destroy Islamofacism, and more.
Today we run part one of three with Dr. Jasser.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You’re a medical doctor, aren’t you? Do you still practice? When did you start talking about Islam and terror?
M. Zuhdi Jasser: Yes, I’m a physician in solo-practice specializing in internal medicine and nuclear cardiology in Phoenix, Arizona. My primary dream and most of my days are spent in the practice of medicine and in dedication to the primary care of my patients and the medical profession in Arizona. I just finished my term as president of the Arizona Medical Association in June 2007, and I chair the bioethics committee of a large downtown Phoenix hospital. I graduated from the Medical College of Wisconsin in 1992 on a full U.S. Navy medical scholarship and completed my specialty training in internal medicine at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. in 1996. I served operational tours of duty on the USS El Paso as medical department head participating in Operation Restore Hope, and I also served a tour of duty as an internist at the Office of the Attending Physician for the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court Justices from 1997-1999.
A native of Wisconsin and the son of Syrian immigrants, joining the United States military was natural. I was raised to appreciate American freedom which guaranteed my right to life, liberty, and the practice of my personal faith of Islam, like in no so-called Muslim country. My grandfather used to talk about how the devastation of Syria brought by the military coups and the Baathists, and ultimately by Hafez Assad, was allowed to happen because moderate freedom-loving Syrians abandoned the military to the thugs, who ultimately repeatedly savaged the country, before entrenching the Assad family despots for generations.
I have always been a devout practicing Muslim maintaining a central personal spiritual relationship with God in my life. I have also held true to the importance of spiritual practices in my life including fasting, daily prayer, scriptural recitation, charity, community worship, and personal integrity. As a result, I have often been asked by the local communities in which I have lived, to speak about Islam, its role in my life, and my understanding of its history. Well, before 9/11, in the 1980s, as I found myself frustrated by the politicization of many but not all of the Muslim communities in which I participated, I began to focus on the main problem I experienced — the harmful impact of political Islam upon the practice of Islam in America. I slowly began to absorb as much information as I could about Salafism, Wahhabism, and its associated extremist ideology. I looked into the history and workings of the Muslim Brotherhood in America and realized that at some point anti-Islamists were going to need to take them on to rescue our faith from their clutches.
While I have never heard violence preached in any mosque I attended, I did hear conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and radical politics which often predominated instead of a focus on spirituality, humility, and moral courage. This led to a regular struggle with many, but not all, of the clerical leadership in many of the Muslim communities in which I have lived and participated. My refrain for decades has been to them, “why do you impose your Islamist agenda upon the congregants of your mosque who come to worship God, atone, and learn God’s scripture. Most of us don’t come to mosque to blame the world for our own maladies or to listen to your own political agenda.” I tried to intellectually counter them from within the community, but did so to no avail. For who was I to question clerical authority and interpretations? Who was I to take away their bully pulpit for Islamism?
After 9/11, it was immediately clear to me and a few other close friends in the Muslim business community in Arizona, that the Islamist agenda was the root cause of terrorism and Muslim radicalism. It was obvious to me that the only treatment of this cancer within was for devout Muslims who love America and love the spirituality of Islam to reclaim the mantle of faith from the Islamists. Our faith needed an expression which can be brought through an enlightenment process which separates mosque and state or separates the affairs of God and spirituality from the affairs of this world and our government. We formed the American Islamic Forum for Democracy in the Spring of 2003 as the early mitotic divisions of an institution which over the following years and decades we hoped would be a leading anti-Islamist force pushing for that separation, modernization, and counter-jihad.
While I don’t have a degree in Islamic law or Islamic affairs, I believe that a lifetime of internal political struggle and spiritual and theological investigation has prepared me quite adequately to take on Islamists intellectually and publicly as we struggle for the soul of our faith. It seems that at this point, the lifetime theologians or ulemaa (scholars) of the Muslim community appear to be the problem more than the solution.
I just couldn’t take any more local or national interviews from Muslims who espoused apologia and victimization while espousing Islamic supremacy and anti-American vitriol. I was moved to write an occasional column for our local Arizona Republic on Islamic Affairs after their reporters printed a few post 9/11 stories which quoted some local Muslims and imams defending the USS Cole bombing, and invoking conspiracy theories about 9-11, to name just a few of their offensive comments said on behalf of all American Muslims. My columns began my anti-Islamist foundation. I wrote about the synergy of being Muslim and believing in American ideas of pluralism. That platform led to a growing audience of readers starving for alternative Muslim viewpoints. AIFD then decided to sponsor and organize America’s first major Muslim rally against terrorism held in Phoenix on April 24, 2004 — Standing with Muslims Against Terrorism. That was just the beginning…
Lopez: Have you found that to be a dangerous thing to do?
Jasser: The power of minority politics to cloud the judgment of the masses cannot be overstated. One of the great achievements of classical liberalism and Western Enlightenment of our Founding Fathers was the appreciation of the need for our communities to always lift up the rights of the individual over that of the community. Western freedom is maintained in a tradition which questions authority, and rejects collectivism and tribalism. That tradition, while occasionally threatened and violated by various obvious political interests in the U.S. is still a central part of our behavior and character as Americans. Our liberty-culture will turn itself upside-down to help one child, one victim who immediately captures the hearts of Americans.
This mindset is the greatest antidote to Islamist tribalism and collectivism. With my work since 9/11 in combating political Islam, I would have been much less concerned about my safety and that of my family if only the vast majority of my Islamist enemies would simply address the ideas which I raise and debate me in an open respectful forum. However, endemic tribalism, corruption, and often fascism drive a political propaganda machine which would much rather demonize its adversaries than actually address the substance of the issues raised. When they are not demonizing me and other anti-Islamists, or portraying false exaggerated associations, Islamists prefer to just run and hide from open respectful debate about the issue of Islamism. Islamists would rather continue wallowing in denial. They prefer to project responsibility for terrorism upon everyone else in the world, rather than placing the responsibility upon the ideology of political Islam and the toxicity of the dreams of an Islamic state. They would much rather debate non-Muslims or former Muslims, because they can change the debate focus to Islamophobia, rather than the central issue of Islamism.
While I often receive disgusting hate mail, it is far outweighed by the volumes of gratitude and appreciation from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. So many in America have been hungry to hear about devotional Muslims unafraid to build institutions which are leading a counter-jihad. America is hungry to hear Muslims condemn apologetics for terrorism, identify terrorists and their organizations by name, and lead the effort to deconstruct the religious legitimacy of the Islamic state.
This is why I founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. We are not only “at home with American liberty” but, we recognize that our nation is under God and we are all American first and everything else second. We refuse to accept Muslim, Arabic, or any minority collectivism. We look at ourselves as Americans who happen to be Muslim rather than Muslims who demand to be Americans. Our political activism is not about being Muslim, but is guided by the platforms of our individual political party affiliation — not by the agenda of clerics who seek a theocracy. For these beliefs, the Islamist activists ignore real debate and prefer to call me an ‘Uncle Tom’, ‘a sellout’, or a ‘tool of some made up conspiracy theory.”
I’ve never been threatened physically. But if I allow such frivolous attacks or fear of them to modify the intensity of my work, I would dishonor the freedoms which our serviceman and women are fighting to preserve and I might as well take my family back to their motherland of Syria where there are no freedoms and the masses are silent out of fear of the ruling despots. If I stay silent I would no longer be an American.
Lopez: What do you think of the word Islamofascism?
Jasser: I find the term “Islamofascism” to be quite accurate when defining the ideological goals of Islamist militants. Yes, as a devout Muslim who believes that Islam is a faith from the God of Abraham, and could never be fascistic, the existence of Islamofascism saddens me. But it is not the term that saddens me but rather the Muslim supremacist organizations who employ fascism in the name of Islam. They are real and their Islamofascism is real whether I deny it or not. The longevity of this term will depend upon how long moderate Muslims continue to sit on their hands rather than fight the real fascists Muslims — like the Wahhabis, the Taliban, al Qaeda, or a host of other militant Islamist organizations and ideologies.
My love for my faith should drive me to wage a counter-jihad, and not blame the messenger (users of this term) and demand that the term be stricken so that I can live in denial. These thugs spread an evil in the name of a warped version of the faith they believe is Islam. However, I become like “al Qaeda” if I refuse to call them “Muslim” and commit takfir (determining who is and who is not a Muslim) by saying they are not “Muslim.” Their Muslim or Islamic identity is between them and God as it is for every Muslim. Once we open the door to debate who is and who is not a Muslim it empowers a theological hierarchy which will purport to speak for the faith community. I will never subscribe to that. As a moral human being and as an American, it is obvious that their actions are evil and barbaric and we should do everything we can to destroy them and defeat them wherever we find them.
A moral, pluralistic, spiritual Islam is the only way to defeat Islamofascism. We saw with the London plots this summer, perpetrated by Muslim physicians, that this ideology utilizes terror as a tactic to achieve fascistic political ends blind to the professional training or level of education of the individual foot soldiers. The ends which these militants seek, is a warped, utopian dream of a caliphate or some form of so-called Islamic state, which imposes their despotic theocratic interpretation of Islamic law upon citizens. The Nazis had physicians and professionals of all walks of life helping them to commit genocide against the Jews through a supremacist dehumanization of their enemies — true fascism. So too do militant Islamists dehumanize their enemies (anti-Islamists) and exact their barbaric punishments upon innocents in an evil torn right out of the pages of every fascist regime in history.
This is why the anti-Islamist work of organizations like AIFD is so vital. The only way to destroy the Islamofascists is to de-link their theological interpretation of the supremacy and exclusivism of the Islamic state over every other form of government. This de-linking will take some real work. Once devout Muslims can deconstruct the goal of the Islamic state and prove to our fellow co-religionists that the most pious form of society is one where government and religion are separate and faith practice is allowed only to be judged by God in a laboratory of free will, Islamofascism will die in the dustbin of history.
I will finally add a caveat that my only fear is that many exposed to the term will have little prior knowledge of Islam or contact with Muslims and will carry away a belief that Islam as a spiritual faith is fascistic in its ideology. That cannot be further from the truth of the Islam which I teach my children and so many of the vast majority of Muslims teach their families. But that should stimulate Muslims to even more actively defeat the Islamists who have hijacked our faith for their own political agenda. In fact we can also cannot forget that the Islamofascists are a subset of a much larger ideological threat to the west of the Islamists. The Islamists include all those who believe in political Islam from the fascists of Al Qaeda to the rank and file political Islamists who believe in democracy, elections, and parliaments but still hold tight to a theocratically exclusivist Islamic state.