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.
Lopez: What’s the most important question you get when you speak on radical Islam?
Jasser: I would weigh the importance of all of the various questions I get with their centrality in promoting American security. That said, the most important question or concern I get from audiences to which I have the privilege to speak, is whether spiritual Islam and political Islam are in fact contrary to my beliefs — inseparable? And whether I am whitewashing a dangerous political ideology? An appropriate answer to this question would need volumes of discourse. Ultimately, I ask them not only to believe my voice and my ideas, which appear to be in the wilderness, but rather to begin the ground work of speaking to Muslims in the grass roots about their political and spiritual constructs. We need to multiply this debate exponentially within the Muslim community.
While certainly, much of Islamic academia and established jurisprudence is still frozen in the 14th century, the majority of Muslims, I believe, have modernized their faith by virtue of their daily practices living in America. They raise their children pluralistically, and engage American politics and business not through faith, but through civic responsibility to nation. Their faith inspires their morality but does not direct their political collectivism. You shouldn’t take my word for it, but simply engage American Muslims in every walk of life on this very issue of political Islam. The vast majority of Muslims shares the Judeo-Christian moral construct of life, and has never felt freer, or more at home, than they do in America- a nation based under God, but not under one faith’s jurisprudence. Thus, it is not the ideology of spiritual Islam which is the problem, but rather it is the only solution to displace political Islam from the consciousness of the Muslim mind. The only way to depoliticize the ummah (Muslim community or nation) is for spiritual Muslims to take back the mantle of faith.
For those who ask the fair question of whether I am but a voice in the wilderness, I ask them back to look at those lone voices in Western enlightenment who worked against terrible odds to defeat the political control of the Church of England in Europe. History has shown that theocrats will do anything to maintain control over society, and will work most strenuously to marginalize those who work to defeat them from within the faith. Anti-Islamists Muslims need to be taken at their word and kept to their word. This is why the debate is so important. Creating a public record and open debate about political Islam, and the ability or inability of Muslims to separate mosque and state, will serve as our best insurance policy against the ‘Islamicization’ of the west.
Strategically, I also will add that to identify Islam as the problem will also serve to ultimately alienate even the anti-Islamist Muslims, like myself, who are loyal to America first — over any identification with the Muslim community, but yet are personally and morally empowered by a deep personal connection with God and Islam. When it is all said and done, I do believe that my faith is personal and its laws and scripture should stay at home, but the power of my conviction and my personal reliance upon God comes from my own interpretation of Islam, a faith I believe came from God. To alienate all those who follow Islam is to alienate our most necessary allies in the defeat of political Islam and Islamist terror.
Lopez: Do you like what you’re hearing out of any of the presidential candidates?
Jasser: (First a necessary caveat — the following is my personal opinion only and in no way that of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy).
Yes, I think most of the Republican presidential field is much more honest than the Democrats in articulating the real stakes in this war of ideas of the free world versus the Islamists. While most of the Republican candidates are in the right anti-Islamist arena, only a few have been able to articulate it clearly enough and with enough candor to get my attention. I am far from making up my mind on a candidate yet, but am encouraged by a lot of what I see from some of the candidates.
I am most heartened by what I am hearing from Rudy Guliani’s campaign, with Governor Mitt Romney very close behind in my mind. Mayor Guliani understands the toxicity of the Saudis and their Wahhabis. He backed that up with action, even before announcing his campaign, by sending back the $10 million gift to NYC from the Saudis after 9-11. He is not afraid to articulate the conflict in ideas between Western freedom and Islamist theocracy. His recent call for an expansion of NATO confirms this. He names our enemies by name, and is not afraid to stand for principle and substance in foreign policy over diplomatic platitudes (i.e. against the Saudis, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood), and other Islamists.
Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign has also demonstrated a willingness to mince no words when discussing the ideologies we are facing. He identifies jihadists as our enemies and uses his important position of national and global leadership to clearly frame the debate as one between the ideology of Islamism (Caliphism, jihadism, and theocracy) versus freedom.
On immigration policy, another issue vital to the protection of our homeland, Congressman Duncan Hunter lays out the issues most clearly avoiding sanctuary cities and standing by strict enforcement and a border fence so vital to those of us on border states.
John McCain’s articulation of the stakes in the Iraq war has always been very impressive, and I hope that other candidates can look to his clarity on the issue as an example of principle.
Lopez: Do you find Americans fully understand the jihad threat we face?
Jasser: This is a good follow-up to the last question since I believe that most candidates reflect the range of understanding found among most Americans. Some truly get it. And others are living in denial or oblivion. At the end of the day, I believe that once most Americans take the time to walk through an understanding of the threat we face, they will understand it. This is not a partisan issue. Whether left or right, both sides will agree on the incompatibility of Islamist theocratic ambitions with our American Constitutional republic. Both sides will agree on the evil inherent in the anti-freedom, misogynistic, jihadist, theocratic mentality of the militant Islamists.
With my work, I am trying to explain to media and government alike, that we could never afford to look at Islamist terror as simply a crime problem. If we do so our Homeland Security apparatus will be chasing its tail for the next century putting out terror cells. In order to take the Jihadist threat seriously Americans need to understand that this is not a conflict against a tactic but rather a common ideology which utilizes a radical interpretation of Islam and is a natural off-shoot from political Islam.
The recent NYPD report on “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat” walks its reader through the process of ideological conversion of a peaceful Muslim into a jihadist one. Only Muslims can defeat this transformation process. But certainly, a better informed American citizenry can hold Muslims and non-Muslims alike more accountable for their facilitation of the radicalization of Muslims. Once this process is understood the contribution to jihadism of political Islam and the dreams of the Islamic state will become clearer to every American and the ideological threat will be realized.
With a more public acknowledgment of the jihadist threat, Muslim organizations which live and breathe political Islam will be held more accountable for their Islamist ideology whether or not they condemn terrorism. Ultimately, with a more open public debate and discourse about political Islam, the climate in America will be more conducive to a real discourse about the real source of jihadism and begin the difficult work of facilitating an enlightenment process within Islam that will be the only way to diffuse the real threat.
Lopez: What more can politicians do?
Jasser: Politicians can face this political ideology (Islamism) which threatens our security with clarity and without fear of the PC police and the Islamists who only want to divert the debate to victimology. Obviously, I would agree with those that believe in making it clear up front that this is not a quarrel with the faith of Islam- that is, spiritual Islam and its practice. This is important from a strategic sense and also very important in a society based upon politicians staying out of the internal ideological debates of various spiritual paths.
However, political Islam is not a spiritual path. It only pretends to be one. It is a governmental and societal ideology which cloaks itself in a religion. By focusing on a tactic or ‘counterterrorism’, we miss the far more lethal and insidious threat to America and the west of the political Islamic state. Our politicians can choose to engage this ideological threat today or later when the Middle East has evolved from secular dictatorships and monarchies to Islamist states. At which time it will be far more difficult in my estimation for freedom to win this debate. I and many other anti-Islamist Muslims believe that our chance for the victory of our enlightenment ideas over Islamism is much better now than after Islamist democracies have been established.
Genuine political leaders are able to frame the issues which face the American public in a way that guides public debate to focus on real differences rather than platitudes. Our politicians should engage Muslim organizations domestically and globally on the very issue of political Islam and what their goals are for government — the role of sharia in government and their acceptance of governments with Constitutions like that in America — whether or not Muslims were a majority.
Our politicians need to stop coddling Islamists who carry an agenda of political Islam which is an anathema to American freedom and change our currently empty engagement to one which is a critical political engagement. This can be done no different than the way we engaged the ideology of communism and communist ideologues in the United States during the Cold War.
I am in no way suggesting curtailing the freedoms of Islamists, but rather to the contrary beginning a more open and critical engagement of them on their stances with regards to governance. Our politicians do this nation a great disservice in the war against militant Islamism by meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as Sen. Pat Leahy and Cong. Steny Hoyer did recently in Egypt. The new condemnation of terror does not equate to groups like the MB being friends of American liberty. The existence of Islamist groups does not necessarily mean that their form of politics is the will of the people they purport to represent. Our politicians do the cause of freedom great disservice, for example by speaking at a local D.C. Wahhabi funded mosque surrounded by domestic Islamist organizations and suggesting that we will go and ‘listen’ to the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) as President Bush did recently in June. This type of ideologically empty leadership rather facilitates Islamists and suppresses anti-Islamists contrary to the interests of our nation in this conflict of ideologies.
Lopez: Care to weigh in on the Ijaz-Romney controversy? Do we need a Muslim in the Cabient?
Jasser: After reading some of the reports on this, my first comment is “where’s the YouTube video of Mr. Ijaz’s question and Governor Romney’s comments when we need it?” Mr. Ijaz’s recollection of the question he posed to Governor Romney as he described it in his Christian Science Monitor op-ed and response from Governor Romney seems to be very different from the version discussed in subsequent media queries by the Romney campaign. NRO’s Jim Geraghty has an excellent summary of the tit-for-tat.
My opinion about the controversy would thus depend on the facts of the wording of the question posed and the facts about the response from Governor Romney.
Regardless, as I mention in your question about the candidates with which I am impressed, Governor Romney has been refreshingly clear about fighting “jihadists” and their ideology. But setting aside basic factual disputes about “he said, she said,” reviewing the latest response from the Romney campaign, I would entirely concur with them that there should not be a faith-based litmus test for any position in government and that it should be based solely on merit and what is best for the United States of America. That response is far more appropriate than the version reported initially by Mansoor Ijaz.
Having said that, however, I am now actually much more curious about how Governor Romney, and for that matter any other candidate, may envision defeating the Islamist ideology without anti-Islamist Muslims. Never mind a Cabinet position. Let us simply look at the engagement and assistance of our most needed allies — anti-Islamist Muslims.
Governor Romney’s comparison to WWII is certainly apt on the battlefield against established terror networks but is misplaced in the war of ideas. The ideological plagues of the 20th century, fascism and communism, were obvious totalitarian political movements that were ultimately defeated both on the battlefield and more importantly in the war of ideas of that era. Obvious political movements could easily be defeated in the political arena of governmental ideas. The anti-Communists in the west ultimately proved that communism and socialism are failed ideologies. But political movements cloaking themselves in religion can only be diffused and marginalized by fellow Muslims — - especially in this nation founded on religious freedom which our Islamist enemies use against us and our anti-Islamist allies came to this nation seeking. That is the real implication of Mansoor’s question as I see it.
It is long overdue for all those in the public sphere whether media or government or otherwise to clearly understand that the root cause of terror is political Islam and the national aspirations of Islamists. The most effective if not the only way to defeat political Islam is to engage anti-Islamist Muslims. Thus, in essence Mansoor is correct, that finding and empowering dissident Muslims working against the Islamist establishment and with the resources of the west is essential if we are to win the ideological war of the 21st century. A cabinet position may be a stretch unless the most qualified candidate happens to be Muslim. Moreover, in regards to the global conflict, without anti-Islamist Muslims who are devotional, credible practitioners of Islam, the war of political ideas will degenerate into an intellectually fruitless clash of religions. The cognitive arguments of reason change to visceral arguments of passion. Questions and answers about Muslims and Islam like this posed without ideologically separating anti-Islamist from Islamist Muslims, and simply identifying Muslims by their personal faith identity actually directly feed into the collectivist and sectarian agenda of Islamists.
Neither the question nor the answer address the real issue of litmus tests — not religious but rather political ones. Campaigns are all about political litmus tests and Romney should not be afraid to tell questioners that he will have a litmus test against Islamists, but not against Muslims.
We are in a conflict of ideologies and it is time to replace elected officials unwilling to specifically identify those individuals working for the U.S. government and in the public sphere who sympathize or enable the Islamist political ideology under the guise of religious inclusion. Islamism as a political ideology is in conflict with the western ideology of post-Enlightenment freedom and liberty. Enabling Islamists actually enables those who are subverting our entire political and justice system. That is the answer Gov. Romney should have given. But he should also have stated that since this political ideology wraps itself in the false cloak of a faith it is essential that his or any administration work to enable anti-Islamist Muslims to remove that cloak and expose the transnational political agenda of Islamism for what it is — a threat to enlightened liberal democracies and our security.
We may never know what was actually said at the fundraiser. Both Mr. Ijaz and Governor Romney I hope turn their focus not to the political collectivization of Muslims and identity politics (which is the modus operande of Islamism) but rather to the engagement of anti-Islamists against Islamists as the necessary litmus test in this war of ideologies.
Finally, the reality is that Mansoor’s premise is also predicated on the fact that the ‘bench’ of anti-Islamist Muslims is deep enough to fill positions of need in American leadership today and represent considerable anti-Islamist Muslim organizations and movements. That has not occurred yet and is not palpable enough to be a reality in filling government positions of leadership. So aides and appointees are going to inevitably be ‘lone voices’ in the short term. I’m not sure that it rises to the need of being a cabinet post. Yet. But this is the primary conflict of the 21st century and such a profile or similar may be necessary. If our nation had an ‘anti-Islamist czar’, it would certainly help our credibility for that person to be both a devout Muslim and an anti-Islamist. There’s a fine line to tread for all of us Muslim activists to tread — between making sure America understands the need to have devout Muslims represented so that we remain credible to our nation, to our personal faith of Islam, and against Islamism while also not appearing to be self-promoting of our own deeply held ideological causes.
Lopez: Who are your heroes?
Jasser: My grandfather, Zuhdi Al-Jasser, a Muslim Syrian journalist and businessman who struggled for freedom in Syria after the French pulled out. He initially helped a short-lived positive transition toward democracy and parliamentary governance in Syria. But then Syria was ravaged by military coups. He and his immediate family then paid dearly for his ideas. He lost his Syrian businesses and freedom to the military coups of the 1950’s. It was his love for the ideology of Western freedom which led my father and mother to want to immigrate to the United States in 1966 and make America my family’s home. While he passed away when I was only 9, his generational impact and example upon some of the ideas which my father then imparted on to me as to the synergy of Islam and America’s Constitutional republic make me who I am.
President Ronald Reagan, for his steadfast ideological leadership of our nation against the global scourge of Communism. Reagan conservatism had a profound foundational impact upon me at a very young age of 12 and attracted me in almost every facet. His expression of “peace through strength” was prescient and clear. His belief in deregulation, free markets, and less taxation and that “government wasn’t the solution to our problems, government was the problem” resonated deeply to the core of my own political ideology engaging me for life as a conservative, as a Republican, and more importantly as an advocate for American liberty. Ronald Reagan’s ability to communicate the pressing ideas of the day and maintain steadfast leadership in the challenges of our time made him my hero.
President Thomas Jefferson, whose writings and leadership on religious freedom during the founding of our great nation profoundly impacted my own thinking on universal religious liberty more than any other figure in history. My intense love for this country comes from an appreciation of the protective nature of the ideals of our founding fathers. Our republic is not based upon democracy which can end up being an oppression of the minority but rather universal freedom and liberty. Jefferson’s Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was a cornerstone of these ideas. As an anti-Islamist Muslim I like to think of myself as a “Jeffersonian Muslim”. I believe no other single individual had more impact upon the creation of an American nation which was under God and also which honored religious liberty for all its citizens with inalienable rights. Jefferson said, “the Almighty God created the mind free…” and “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
If we can awaken other Jeffersonian Muslims, they will by nature combat political Islam and we will win the war against political Islam.
[Fictitious Hero] Jack Bauer. You can’t help but love Jack’s character, his steadfast intense adherence to righteousness, and the defense of America from evil. He is willing to risk it all for his country and for the preservation of freedom and the sanctity of life. My only hope is that I live to see a Muslim CTU (Counterterrorism Unit) come to reality and many American Muslim Jack Bauers serve as examples for Muslim youth.