As a Muslim child growing up in a small Midwestern town, M. Zuhdi Jasser remembers a controversy about building a mosque 30 years before anyone proposed an Islamic cultural center near the scarred site of the World Trade Center.
Back in 1980, his was one of the only Muslim families among some 24,000 people in the town of Neenah, Wisc., 40 miles south of Green Bay. His Syrian-born father and mother helped to build the first mosque in that part of the state.
"There was a significant protest," Jasser said. "A number of families spoke out against it because the American hostages had just been let out of Iran."
Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, will be the featured speaker at an American Jewish Committee Central NJ event Thursday evening, Nov. 11, in Princeton.
Speaking by cell phone Sept. 24 from Washington, DC, the Arizona-based activist told NJ Jewish News that the hostility his family faced "was like some of the misunderstanding going on now. I don't think most Americans have ever met a Muslim, and everywhere we have built mosques there have been local protests. Ninety-eight percent of the community has welcomed us — but some people have fears of the unknown."
Despite that early experience, and notwithstanding Americans' "misunderstanding," in 2010 he is speaking out against the controversial construction proposed a few blocks from Ground Zero.
"This is not about a house of worship. It is about respecting hallowed ground. If it were simply a house of worship I wouldn't have had a problem with it. This is a much bigger project. It is political. If the builder would pledge that he was getting no foreign money and the majority of the money would come from Manhattan Muslims, my protestation would go away" (see sidebar).
With fears and concerns about Islamic intentions troubling many Americans, Jasser is eager to address misconceptions about his faith and warn about what he considers the dangers of "political Islam."
"Political Islam is a system of government and an ideology that permeates not only religious beliefs but the legal system and civil society," he said. "It is not consistent with freedom and liberty. Islamists want to bring their faith and legalisms into government so that clerics and sheiks and experts in Sharia law can determine in an oligarchy what laws are right and what laws are wrong.
"They make government into God."
"To the Islamists, faith is not a choice," Jasser said. "It is a mentality where government becomes the instrument for religion. They don't believe in the separation of mosque and state."
He estimated that it will take five years to determine "scientifically" what percentage of the world's Muslim population are Islamists.
"Most studies have shown the violent radical Islamists are 3 to 5 percent," he said. "The vast majority of Islamists are peaceful people who believe in democracy and want to see elections happen. But 30 to 40 percent of all Muslims probably believe that the best state is one that is run by an emir or a caliph and is based on Islamic law, but they believe it in a nonviolent way. Our mission is to wake them up; but the non-Islamists are losing the battle because nobody is supporting us. The Islamists are being supported by petrodollars."
In his Nov. 11 address in Princeton, Jasser said, his message will be: "This is an American problem, not just a Muslim problem, because many of us love our faith and need help getting a voice and showing there is diversity in the Muslim community. Like the Jewish community, the Muslim community is not monolithic. But right now, because we are a minority we are being pigeonholed into one group in an identity politics. But to improve national security this diversity needs to be fostered and fertilized."
Jasser said such a system "would not happen overnight" in the United States, but his organization, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, based in his hometown of Phoenix, is "the only laboratory I have to fight Sharia globally."
Raised by parents he called "social conservatives" in an Orthodox Sunni family, Jasser said, "I observe my prayers five times a day and I fast every day of Ramadan and try to read my scripture as regularly as I can." He is insistent that his children, now eight, six, and two, grow up as observant Muslims, too.
Yet he is concerned about occasional threats to American Muslims' civil liberties. "How do we address the growing fear America may have about Muslims?" he asked. "There may be a time when our society starts to act more xenophobically and more aggressively. Then they are going to lose Muslims like me."
'Freedom to have ideas'
Like the neighborhood near Ground Zero where M. Zuhdi Jasser opposes the building of an Islamic cultural center on what he calls "sacred space," the areas of the Pentagon that were attacked are also, he said, "hallowed ground." But his objection to the site of the cultural center notwithstanding, he said it was "fine" that a prayer room accommodating Muslims and members of other religions was erected inside Pentagon walls just months after 9/11.
Looking toward the Middle East through his anti-Islamist perspective, he objected to "the attempt of Islamists to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a Muslim issue. That is wrong. It is not a coincidence that the terrorists are also oppressors of all — not only Jews, but non-Muslims and modern Muslims."
Regarding the conflict, he advocates a two-state solution. And "recognition of Israel," he said, "is paramount for Muslims to make it clear that we join all other free nations in recognizing its legitimate needs as a state."
Jasser recalled his 11 years as a physician in the United States Navy as he considered the torture of Iraqi prisoners and desecrations of their holy texts by American troops at Abu Ghraib Prison.
"As an American and a naval officer, I was offended that anybody would desecrate our uniform with such a thing," he said, but added, "It is hypocritical for Muslims to judge a half-million military in Iraq based on the actions of 30 or 40 people involved in torturing Islamic prisoners in Abu Ghraib."
He termed the Rev. Terry Jones' threat to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11 in Gainesville, Fla., "really offensive. Northing good ever comes from book-burning. Before the Holocaust began, the Nazis were burning Torahs. Clearly it is an act of hate," Jasser said.
Although he is a political conservative, Jasser would like to enlist "feminists on the Left to come to unity with the people on the Right to deal with the problematic way women are treated under Sharia law. Fighting these ideologies is beyond partisan politics."
The widespread support of abortion rights and gay equality among feminists "would not be a problem at all," even though they contravene his own beliefs "as a conservative."
"I would not be part of those movements since I personally disagree with them, but what makes America work is we have a society that gives those ideas equal space," he said.
"We want to create a Muslim consciousness that gives Muslims who have a personal sexuality or an approach to abortion rights the freedom to have those ideas."