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 two of three with Dr. Jasser. Read part one here.
Lopez: It’s hard not to admire Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But does it depress you that so many who are willing to speak out the loudest against Islamic extremism are atheists or have otherwise rejected Islam?
Jasser: As a strong believer in God, I prefer to look at life’s challenges, rather than lose valuable time in non-productive feelings of depression. But I know what you mean. The fact that many of these loudest voices are atheists or former Muslims can be frustrating, but is not surprising to me, at least at this stage in the ideological battle against political Islam.
With the power and corruption of tribalism within the Muslim community, the first real challenges to treating the cancer of militant Islamism within the Muslim community are going to naturally be heard from those that have abandoned the faith in totality. This is a natural phenomenon. The courage that they summon to reveal the horrors of their past may ultimately impact devotional Muslims to correct the pathology which needs to be enlightened and brought into modernity.
When we look at the history of Islam, we should separate history from religion, as such highly respected scholars as Bernard Lewis have so often discussed. Similarly, the experiences of individuals like Ayaan Hirsi Ali are real, and certainly symptomatic of a disease of fanaticism and intolerance within cells of the Muslim community. But we also should separate cellular experiences from “religion” of the entire organism. We strategically hand over our greatest weapon at defeating militant Islamists — the mantle of Islam — if we blindly accept that her experiences and those of other former Muslims are due to Islam rather than simply due to the radical interpretations of Islam by barbaric Muslims that these individuals experienced. I and so many others of the majority of Muslims who are at home in Western pluralistic society are living modern interpretations of Islam which can if given a chance and the resources can directly counter the radical interpretations of fanatical Muslims which have abused so many in the world.
History has shown that in the west, Christian reformation and modernity was stimulated most by internal change from those accused of being atheists but were actually devotional reformers who loved God and loved their faith of Christianity. That position of love of God and their faith against the power of the Church gave them a position of credibility which was a catalyst for real and lasting change. Those, however, who were openly atheist or had left God and the faith of Christianity completely may have leveled valid criticism against the Church but did so from a position of disbelief in God and from outside the Christian community. Their critique could only serve as an external stimuli to change while possessing no remaining internal credibility to actually move the Christian community forward toward modernity.
What strikes me even more than the existence of the ‘former Muslim voices’ is the relative paucity of audible, devotional, anti-Islamist Muslim voices. For those of us immersed in the Muslim community for most of our life, we know that they exist, and we know they may even be a majority. Certainly, the anti-Islamist Muslim is a minority in the mosque scene or the political activist Muslim community scene. But studies have shown that less than a majority of Muslims attend mosque regularly, and even a far smaller percentage are involved in political Islamist organizations. Thus, the most Muslims are, in fact, raising their children Muslim without indoctrination into Islamism or Salafism, and staying away from some mosques, probably due to the offensive nature of the Islamist political agenda. Further study into the details of these assumptions will be central to defeating the ideology of Islamism. But again this can resonate more effectively with the non-Islamist, or anti-Islamist Muslims, if it is done from a devotional position of love of faith and God.
The engagement and awakening of the non-Islamist and anti-Islamist devotional Muslim is hampered by a number of factors. Fear, for one thing, plays a significant role in the silence of many moderate Muslims since they see other moderates become the primary targets of the militants, both physically and politically, through being ostracized. The other factor is knowledge and understanding. Many Muslims do not appreciate the penetration and control of Islamism upon the Muslim community because they just don’t understand political Islam and its inherent harm to society and faith. While I certainly believe that one can make a cogent argument for apolitical Islam and an apolitical interpretation of the Koran where history can be separated from religion, the reality is that the history of Islam and the tradition of the Prophet did not, for the most part, separate mosque and state. Mohammed himself wore both hats of spiritual leader and head of state. Despite that, one would be hard pressed to find clerics running government in Islamic history and in fact the Koran makes no suggestions at all about how Muslims should run their governments. If theocracy was supposed to be part of Islam, God would have made it clear in our holy scripture.
In the recent past, with the domination of dictatorships in the Muslim world today, often the only venue for any political discourse became the mosques. So it is not surprising that political Islam has especially flourished in the past century under the despotic regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran to name a few.
This is why the removal of these despotic regimes is so central to the deconstruction of political Islam. One cannot happen without the other. Along the same vein, many Muslims simply don’t have the understanding of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and especially Koranic Arabic, in order to defeat the Islamists. The central nucleus of success of the Western enlightenment was education and infectious discovery. This desire to question authority with knowledge and thirst for freedom has yet to re-infect the Muslim mind en masse in over 500 years. Thus the intellectual voices of anti-Islamism are going to be less common. But with support they will awaken and triumph.
At some point I hope our nation realizes that our greatest asset in defeating political Islam is devotional Muslims.
Lopez: What do you say to people who contend that Islam is by its very nature violent?
Jasser: I would contend that certainly many extremist Muslims (some studies say 5-10 percent of all Muslims are militant) demonstrate a predilection toward violence, which they enact in the name of Islam. This is no doubt a very concerning figure considering the total number of Muslims in the world and the impact of only one event upon our way of life. Also, there are certainly passages in the Koran which provide for specific examples in Islamic history of a “just war,” in which God permitted Muslims the armed defense of their community against the pagans. It is my belief that these were specific examples in the early seventh century, and are not transferable to today, except as concerns a “just war theory.” All of the major faiths have theological underpinnings of “just war theory,” and it being a principle of last resort. The interpretation of those verses discussing war is dependent upon the morality of the Muslim reader, and the separation of history and religion. The Muslims of today must theologically articulate a primary loyalty and reliance upon their individual nation’s decisions for war, and thus relegate to history any concept of a Muslim nation or ummah playing a role in just war theory. Certainly, Muslims must modernize our theology of just war. The key is that I, as a Muslim, articulate an ideology that coincides with unqualified allegiance to my citizenship pledge and American national interests, over any Islamist interpretations.
I would argue that I was not created in a vacuum, and my family taught me the same moral constructs that my Jewish and Christian friends throughout my life, shared with me concerning national allegiance, war, and violence. I read from the same Koran as the radicals. But I was taught to be, by nature, humble, honest, compassionate, and loving. There is no doubt that Muslims need to build American institutions, which flood the public space after every evil pronouncement from militant Islamists with a counter-jihad interpretation — — a jihad against jihad. Nonviolent re-interpretations of the passages in today’s context to counter Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda’s twisted injunctions to war against the west are very prevalent in the Muslim community, but unfortunately, difficult to find in the theological academia since that was abandoned by the pious masses around the 14th century. It should be the work of organizations like AIFD to respond directly to Bin Laden, the Wahhabis, salafists, deobandis, the Taliban, and other extremists when they interpret our scripture in a way that is violent or incompatible with our citizenship pledge or loyalty to our nation.
The question of the central nature of Islam rests on two issues. First, the values and morality of Islam are not derived de novo from the text itself, which can be twisted by any deviant who chooses to become God on earth. But rather, the individual morality comes from the superego or conscience of the individual reading the text. Thus the nature of Islam is measured more by the values which Muslim families teach their children, than by the radical published interpretations of passages, which can be more of a reflection of the thugs and theocrats in power over publishing houses, rather than the religion itself as it is practiced by the Muslim masses. Thus, while ultimately, all morality comes from God, the faithful are moral from within themselves and not from a text.
Second, the morality of the messenger of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, is central to the believability of the question of the violent or non-violent nature of Islam. Ultimately, what matters the most is not whether I can come to an agreement with Osama bin Laden over how violently aggressive, or humbly nonviolent the Prophet Mohammed was. What matters most to the world today is that my interpretation of my faith, its messenger, and its scripture today is based upon a moral code which is consistent with the moral code of the vast majority of other Americans, and our rule of law in the 21st century. What matters most is that my construct of citizenship and belief in American exceptionalism is not at conflict with any aspect of being Muslim.
I supported and continue to support the doctrine of preemption in Iraq on moral grounds that greater harm to Iraqis and global security would come from leaving Saddam in power. This could be considered violent but it is reasonable, because our leaders and military generals are moral people who enforced a war of liberation in the long term interests of the Iraqi citizenry. This does not make Americans by nature violent. Similarly, in as far as ‘just war theory’ is concerned in Islamic history, Muslims believe that Mohammed was a moral man, and that while God corrected him in our scripture if he went astray, the passages which condone violence do so as a last resort, and with the same moral mandate of “just war” as our free governments use today. This is all with the understanding that for Muslims now living in modernity, the concept of a ‘religious state’ is archaic, and must be relegated to history as inferior and outdated when compared to today’s Western secular democracies.
A great deal of Islamic scripture discourages war and encourages peace. Some argue that the peaceful verses are abrogated. Many Muslims however believe that unless a verse is specifically identified as abrogated and since God left it in the Koran it is still valid and His word and instruction cannot be abrogated but rather just put into the context of the time of its revelation. Thus, almost every Muslim I have ever known would not subscribe to the abrogation of peaceful verses.
Lopez: What’s the biggest challenge Muslims in America face?
Jasser: I’ll first tell you what it is not- it’s not Islamophobia. If anyone is to blame for the existence of the concept of Islamophobia, if it even exists, it is Muslims who have been unable to articulate a manifestation of Islam which is free of a political state which threatens the sovereignty of the states in which Muslims reside. I don’t subscribe to the existence of the notion of Islamophobia because I believe that we are in just the beginning of a global conflict of political ideologies (Islamism vs. Americanism), and the conflation of “Islamophobia” is intentional by Islamists to deflect Americans and the free world from the necessary debate of political ideologies.
From where I sit, as a devout anti-Islamist Muslim, the greatest challenge facing Muslims today is an intellectual victory over the Islamists — — rescuing our faith from their clutches. We are also challenged to expose Islamists for their exploitation of victimology to isolate Muslims and divide America. We are also challenged by how to educate Muslims and non-Muslims about the existence of a separation between spiritual Islam and political Islam, and the need to protect spiritual Islam and defeat political Islam. The enablers of political Islam are many — both from within and without the Muslim community. Within we are suffocated by the control (financial and structural) of most mosques and organizations by Islamists, Wahabbists, and Salafists. Outside the Muslim community we are suffocated by enablers of Islamists including those in media, government, universities, and positions of influence. These are generally individuals who in the spirit of America’s First Amendment are not willing to question the political ideas of Islamists since it is cloaked in a faith despite the fact that that their ideology is an anathema to the principles of the American body politic. As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson said in 1949, “the Constitutional Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact” and moreover, Islamism is not a protected faith practice, but rather a political ideology which threatens the sovereignty of the United States of America.
These challenges are profound since the steps toward victory are many. First, the majority of Muslims need to wake up from their denial and acknowledge that the root cause of Islamist terrorism is not external but internal — — political Islam and the false dreams of the Islamic state. Take away the Islamic mandate of their dreams and we defeat Islamist terror. Second, I believe that Muslims need to accept responsibility for the interpretation of our own faith and its exploitation by the Islamist agenda. Great thinkers have said that every people deserve the leaders they have. A great challenge is to convince the rank and file Muslim that Islamists don’t control the academia of our faith, and that every one of us has an equal right to reinterpret and practice our faith as we believe. The Salafists and other extremists have created a pseudo-clergy which controls the theology of Islam, and it is time for the common Muslim to displace these clerics — with institutions and a voice which drowns them out and defeats their exclusivist interpretation of Koran, Sunnah, and sharia (Islamic Jurisprudence).
While most studies have shown that those Muslims who believe in political Islam are a plurality and not necessarily a majority, certainly the remaining majority have been for the most part asleep. The remaining majority must not only be non-Islamists but they need to awaken from their slumber and become anti-Islamists. This the greatest challenge. AIFD and other anti-Islamist Muslims are working on how to wake up that silent majority of Muslims to their national responsibility and faith responsibility to separate the political from the spiritual within the Muslim community and take away the mantle of faith from the Islamist politicians.
Third, the defeat of political Islam will need a recalibration of the public Muslim consciousness away from victimology and apologia toward character, unrelenting moral courage, personal responsibility, and a steady focus on defeating the ideology of Islamism. After the embarrassment of the appointment of Essam Omeish by Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia, the AIFD promulgated an example of a set of standards, which could be used by public entities to vet Islamist Muslims from anti-Islamist Muslims.
Fourth, these challenges can only be met if Muslims begin to build institutions which build the foundations of an anti-Islamist mindset. These Institutions will need to do the hard work of modernizing the sharia, de-politicizing the faith, and de-collectivizing the Muslim community in the body politic, and deconstructing the whole concept of the Islamic state. This process is basically bringing Muslims through enlightenment and into modernity.
Lopez: You’re an Islamic American. Does CAIR speak for you? (Why or why not?)
Jasser: Not only does CAIR not speak for me, their Islamist approach to American politics and discourse is one of the greatest liabilities to the American Muslim community and a liability to America in the war against militant Islamists. Not only does CAIR not speak for me but the panel of Islamist organizations — CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council), ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America), MAS (Muslim American Society), and CSID (Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy) to name a few, supposedly representing Muslims in Washington, do not represent me. They only represent their members and their donors. They are the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ in the American Muslim community in Washington, so the media and government use them despite their core Islamist ideologies. It seems that the only filter used is that they condemn terrorism. It is important that they not only condemn the tactic but the whole ideology of Islamists. As groups they are either openly Islamist working in defense of political Islam or they are silently Islamist, and equally dangerous by virtue of their refusal to genuinely take on political Islam and the establishment of Islamic states.
The reasons why these groups do not speak for me, and like-minded Muslims, are too numerous to list here. But at its core is an ideological division. To understand the ideological premise of AIFD is to understand what it is about CAIR and other Islamist organizations which repulses the anti-Islamist Muslim.
We acknowledge our responsibility to defeat political Islam, they empower political Islam. We will name terror groups and terrorists by name as our enemy, they will not. We refuse to accept victimology and apologia. They will not. We speak out openly against oppression and dictatorship committed by so-called ‘Muslim’ leaders in the Middle East, from the Wahhabis and monarchies, to the secular dictators of Egypt and Syria, to the theocracy of Iran. They will not. Some will actually solicit support from some of these governments like Saudi Arabia or Dubai. We will not collectivize Muslims to any national political agenda Left or Right. They do. They claim a civil rights focus when it suits them and use their Muslim membership for their own domestic and foreign policy agenda when it suits them. We will not. The only collectivization we will employ is an anti-Islamist movement.
Ultimately, these organizations operate under a grand hypocrisy — which is that they come to prominence by virtue of America’s fear of terrorism and the American hope that they will help in the frontlines — and yet they spend most of their public bandwidth and finances on promoting Islamism. Counterterrorism is only done as an afterthought for window dressing and is combined with a self-righteous indignation about them having any role in fighting militancy and Islamism.
Today’s American Muslim organizations need to reflect where the majority of the American mindset is — concerned about Islamist terror, its ideology, and how to defeat it.
Lopez: Can a group like CAIR be reformed?
Jasser: Unfortunately, I am not too optimistic about their reformation. The source of their ideological and financial lifeblood is from those within the national and global Muslim community who believe in political Islam. It is no different than expecting the non-Soviet Communists to reform away from Communism during the Cold War against the Soviets. Not all Communists domestically and globally subscribed to the Soviet militant agenda, but the Communist ideology, whether violent or nonviolent, ran in opposition to American interests and the American ideology of freedom and liberty. Similarly, Islamists may condemn terrorism as a tactic but their outlook for America is an Islamist one that runs contrary to the interests of individual freedoms and universal religious pluralism. Thus it’s not about reforming Islamism but creating an alternative Muslim narrative which can defeat Islamism.
Just as we see today many former Communists who have embraced American ideas of liberty and capitalism, so too may the next generation of Muslims see former Islamists embrace Americanism and believe in the personal practice of devotional Islam separate from government. But this change will not come from within these Islamist organizations but rather by their ideological defeat by other liberty-minded Muslim organizations. Recent evidence that their membership rolls are decreasing speaks to this.
Can an addict be reformed? Yes. Can the addict’s poison become a channel of moderation? Never. The toxicity of political Islam is a poisonous addiction that can only abandoned by the Islamists once they realize defeat and are able to come out of denial.
Lopez: Can your group ever reach the same level of notoriety?
Jasser: The AIFD is first and foremost based upon remaining true to an idea — an anti-Islamist ideology which from a pious Muslim perspective stands in defense of American liberty and freedom in order to defeat political Islam. There are organizations and individuals which lead by demagoguery and those which lead by staying true to themselves and the principles they hold dear. I will never allow AIFD to become an organization which tells Muslims what they want to hear in order to build a constituency of numbers driven by victim minority politics.
No matter how long it takes whether in my generation or my children’s, we need to build Muslim organizations which stay true to God, our nation, and our moral character. Moral courage will gain the respect of the greater American community when Muslims hold true to universal truths and laws which are not exclusivist or supremacist. At the core of apologetics for terrorism is a moral decadence in which the ends justify the means. This is an affront to the faith of Islam as I was taught as a person of morality. It is an abandonment of God’s morality and the laws of mankind, regardless of what the Islamists say the list of excuses includes. AIFD’s belief in the separation of specific faith practice from government, in order to preserve the sanctity of the personal relationship between an individual and God, free from any coercion, is at the core of real faith. AIFD will not abandon those principles in order to achieve notoriety or a larger constituency.
I believe that with education and with opportunities like this interview, the ideas of enlightenment, liberty, and modernity will take hold within a new activist American Muslim community that will wake up to their national and faith responsibilities.
Most importantly, the goal ultimately is not anyone’s or any organization’s notoriety. It is the victory of the ideas of liberty against the Islamists, regardless of the individual or organization leading it.
The forces working against the AIFD, and the like-minded mission of other anti-Islamist Muslims are numerous, powerful, and well-funded. At the end of the day, I believe that the AIFD will become an established voice of reason for the American Muslim community, simply by virtue of the weight of our ideas. My prayer is that the hunger of America for more voices of reason will be channeled into helping anti-Islamist Muslims establish needed institutions, which will be our greatest strategic weapon against Islamism.