I interviewed Dr. M Zuhdi Jasser in January and July of 2017 on Islamism and what he believes is its antidote, the Muslim reform movement. This is a follow-up interview.
Jasser is president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), co-founder of the Muslim reform movement (MRM), and author of "A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot's Fight to Save His Faith." He is a practicing Muslim.
He is also an active physician and former U.S. Navy officer whose parents fled Syria in the 1960s, and host of the Blaze Radio Podcast "Reform This!" and founder of TakeBackIslam.com. Jasser and I discussed recent events in New Mexico, and developments in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Islamism in New Mexico
Recently, five defendants in a New Mexico case, where authorities found 11 starving children and weapons in a remote compound, have appeared before a federal judge. Local authorities had raided the compound on August 3, and local prosecutors alleged that the accused, now facing federal charges, were training the 11 children to commit school shootings.
Postal: Should the public view the New Mexico compound incident as a case of Islamism, in addition to a child abuse (or neglect), or a gun violence case?
Jasser: Yes. Court records identified that children were being starved and trained in jihad to imminently shoot up a school and a hospital. After the state of New Mexico incredulously dropped the ball and charges were dismissed as time ran out on them, the FBI and DOJ have since moved in with their own charges against the cell leaders. Thankfully, the federal government now controls the fate of the cell.
Following the initial raid, authorities confirmed that the body of the three-year-old found in the compound was that of Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj. Abdul-Hani Wahhaj is the grandson of radical Islamist preacher Siraj Ibn Wahhaj Sr. Out of the five suspects arrested in this case, one is Siraj Ibn Wahhaj's son, and another two are his daughters.
Postal: But to date, it doesn't appear that Wahhaj Sr. was involved with the compound. So why is the connection to Wahhaj Sr. important?
Jasser: This case and what happened with the younger generation of the Wahhaj family will likely demonstrate the pathways of how American Muslims are often radicalized.
Granted, there is no evidence that the senior Siraj Wahhaj had anything to do with the New Mexico compound and his children's jihadi terror training camp. In a Facebook video the day after the story broke, he stated that he "want[ed] to find out what happened, what made [his] children act in such a dramatic way." I believe that his non-violent Islamist preaching spawned the separatist, violent Islamism that we saw in the New Mexico compound.
Siraj Wahhaj Sr.'s sordid history of association with radical Islamism is well known. I have been calling for the ostracization of Siraj Wahhaj Sr. since I personally publicly called him out in the one and only meeting of the Islamic Society of North America I had the misfortune of attending in 1995. At that meeting, I stood up and protested after he seditiously called for Muslims to actively seek the replacement of the "godless" man-made Constitution with the Qur'an. I described this in depth in my 2012 book, "A Battle for the Soul of Islam."
He is a leading fundraiser and preacher for major American Islamist organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim American Society, and the Islamic Society of North America. The head of the American Muslim Council, the organization that invited him to give the first Muslim invocation to the U.S. Congress in 1991, is still serving time for trafficking over $300,000 cash from Libyan dictator Gaddafi in a plot to assassinate then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in addition to other terror finance charges.
Since the New Mexico jihadi compound story broke, the mainstream media has gone to great lengths to avoid any in-depth coverage of this story. I believe the mainstream media is protecting the senior Wahhaj's reputation as well as that of the major network of organizations to which he is tied. Had Siraj Wahhaj Sr. not been related to this story, the coverage would have been very different.
Postal: What should Americans learn from the New Mexico case?
Jasser: I believe the American Muslim community is at a defining moment. How American Muslims learn and respond to the slippery slope of non-violent Islamism and its inherent separatism, as evidenced in the Wahhaj family, is critical. Will we remain in hopeless denial of the evils of Islamism? Will we as a diverse ideological community continue to allow the Islamist "establishment" to dominate and oppress our communities? Or will we finally garner the strength to stand up to Islamism and its separatism?
The Wahhaj family patriarch planted the seeds of Islamist separatism for decades. His hateful rhetoric spreads both within his family and in leadership positions throughout our communities. We can stay silent and enable this radicalization process, or we can fight with every fiber of our being against Islamist brainwashing.
The Global Fight Against Islamism: Syria
Postal: In the midst of what many are predicting to be an imminent massacre against the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib, many believe that President Bashar al Assad has emerged victorious in Syria. He has consolidated his power on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, following the end of the Southern Syrian Offensive on July 31 and the re-capture of Daara and Quneitra Provinces. Possibly in recognition of a return to the status quo, Israel has frozen its multi-year, multi-million-dollar aid program to Syrian citizens, dubbed "Operation Good Neighbor," and has begun to dismantle its field clinic used to treat those wounded in the Syrian conflict.
In one view, Assad's victory is a victory against Islamism, as Assad's gains come at the expense of Islamist groups like the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front. However, Assad has committed mass atrocities against his own people. How should those in the West make sense of everything?
Jasser: There is no victory for anyone in Syria. ISIS may be nearly decimated, but the root causes that created ISIS are larger than ever inside and outside Syria. Syria has been a police state since 1963 and basically an open-air prison for anyone daring to be human.
I have previously laid out how the Syrian regime's over 50-year Ba'athist and Assadist cauldron of evil played a primary role in the radicalization of large swaths of their population. As I stated in 2016, if Assad's killing machines were serious about destroying ISIS and radical Islamists alone, these groups would never have grown from nothing in 2013 and Assad, Russia and Iran would have dispensed with them far more quickly. Instead, per the Arab tyrant playbook, the Islamist groups remained a foil that Assad slowly walled off as he exterminated over 600,000 Sunnis and displaced over 10 million, one half of the Syrian population.
Sadly, Islamism and its byproducts from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to the Jubhat al-Nusra and over 200 other radical Islamist offshoots are stronger than ever in the hearts and minds of many Syrians. This is because the Syrian police state, its tyranny, and the means by which Assad and his Iranian radical Islamist (Khomeinist) allies effectively imperialized Syria.
Assad's secularism is a veneer, as his masters are the Shi'a militant Islamists out of Tehran and their Hezbollah allies. The West's whack-a-mole process against jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq, and beyond will be unsuccessful long-term as long as the inspiration of non-violent and violent Islamism continues.
Postal: Where did the Syrian Revolution go wrong?
Jasser: After seven years of revolution, Syria has gone from seeing its diverse peaceful revolution with secular democratic yearnings deteriorate into one that is embracing the role of a radical Iranian satellite. Many opportunities were missed in Syria, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse nations in the Middle East. Diversity could have been Syria's democratic strength.
Instead, Assad weaponized its diversity to become his and Iran's greatest asset. Syria has now become an even greater Khomeinist state fulfilling the Shi'a crescent dreams of Ayatollah Khamenei against the Sunnis and the West. Lost in the seven years were many opportunities for a more hopeful attempt at democracy in lieu of twin evils of Shi'a and Sunni extremism.
Postal: What do you think the future holds for Syria?
Jasser: First, in observing the carnage in Syria, many have missed the silver lining that is Tunisia, as essentially a democratic party dealt the Islamists a peaceful loss at the ballot box. In Tunisia, the strongman walked away from that society in 2011 without decimating the majority of the population like Assad has. The Syrian revolution and government tore apart its society, whereas this was not the case in Tunisia.
Despite all that I mentioned I still believe Syrians want to be free. I believe that the humanity of the motherland from which my parents escaped in 1966 will find a way to defeat both its Islamist and Assadist oppressors. In the end, freedom and liberty will win out.
Hopefully, this generation will not be lost. As another massacre now looms in Idlib, there is very little positive outlook for the Syrian people in the short term. In the long term, after the Iranian revolution topples the Khomeinists, Assad's regime will be next. I pray that our families and friends stay safe and weather the storms to one day be free.
The Global Fight Against Islamism: Turkey and Iran
Postal: What ramifications, if any, do recent U.S. sanctions have for the liberal citizens and Islamist regimes in Turkey and Iran?
Jasser: The far left dogma that sanctions against these countries supposedly harm the people is beyond ignorant. Such rationale ignores the realities of the socialist economies of these Islamist tyrannies. The sanctions relief of President Obama's Iranian nuclear deal was a lifeline for the ruling tyrants alone. The Iranian people were motivated to revolt en masse across the country beginning in December 2017 because they saw that their government was taking hundreds of billions of dollars from the West to spread terror in Syria, Yemen and across the region while doing nothing for the people.
They went to the streets and chanted for the government to stop sending their money abroad and to give them the freedom to work and be paid. The renewed U.S. sanctions stopped the lifeblood of the Khomeinist regime and in fact gave the people newfound respect and support from the West instead of coddling their oppressors.
Sanctions are the best way to put pressure on the Islamist regime, in addition to containing its hegemony in the region. The Iranian riyal has plummeted upwards of 60 percent in the past few months. The combination of a growing revolution, sanctions, and withdrawal of Western corporations from Iran has sent their currency into a death spiral. The clerics are of course blaming the West. But this brewing revolution is one calling for religious freedom against the Islamist religious establishment, rather than just for economic reforms. I think for this reason, the revolution we now see in Iran has staying power and the regime's days are numbered.
As for Turkey, similarly, [President] Erdogan is tyrannically doing everything he can to consolidate power against the secular Turkish establishment in the government, military, academia, and media. The sanctions against him and his regime have been long overdue and are a perfect message to send to the people of Turkey that we are on their side and will no longer treat their increasingly oppressive government as an ally. In fact, we should begin the process of suspending them from NATO as they fall far from American interests and values at almost every level.
The Global Fight Against Islamism: Saudi Arabia
Postal: Since becoming the crown prince a year ago, Mohammed bin Salman has enacted many reforms in Saudi Arabia, including domestic reforms such as allowing women to drive cars and re-opening its first movie theater in over 30 years, and foreign policy reforms such as its breaking of ties with Islamist Qatar and its détente with Israel. Do you see these reforms as genuine steps in moving Saudi Arabia away from Islamist Wahhabism, or more of an insincere charm offensive?
Jasser: You cannot change a zebra's stripes. The royal family's approach to its people remains tyrannical and devoid of human rights. As I noted previously, their so-called reforms are not about genuine religious and political reforms but rather about modernization of the tribal state and diversification of their economy motivated only by survival of the ruling class.
The Royal Rumble in Riyadh was a great WWE metaphor of their reforms — bring in liberalized entertainment, which is actually fake wrestling — to give the people something new but fake. Yes, allowing women to drive was a concrete move. But, as expected, this has been followed by draconian limitations on the associated human needs for expression that come with that driving.
The House of Saud has been lying about reforms ever since they endeared themselves to the West in the early 20th century. If the reforms were real, bin Salman's proclamations would have been followed with legitimate religious edicts declaring modern interpretations allowing liberalization and the empowerment of Saudi jurists to begin to develop a new 21st-century school of thought rather than their draconian 7th-century one to which they are putting on a few modern faces.
Saudi Arabia's recent efforts against the Muslim Brotherhood and its funding is a real and welcomed shift, and long overdue. But Saudi Arabia's continued cooperation with many global Islamist Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups is concerning. So it seems to me that Saudi efforts against the Muslim Brotherhood are based more on pragmatism than on ideology.
Publicly cutting off funding to all western Muslim Brotherhood legacy group entities would show a more sincere departure from Islamism, and would also benefit American interests. I see, however, no sign of any ideological epiphanies against the Islamism of the Brotherhood coming out of any genuine Saudi jurists. Without such legal "fatwas" and reformist explanations underpinning such shifts, Saudi efforts to date against the Muslim Brotherhood remain power plays rather than real long-lasting reforms.
Postal: In our first interview, we discussed how Saudi Arabia In the last 30 years has spent more than an estimated $100 billion to fund the spread of Wahhabism worldwide (in contrast to the $7 billion the USSR spent spreading communism from 1921 through 1991). What would it take to move Saudi Arabia away from Islamist Wahhabism? Do you think this is possible, or are the Kingdom and Wahhabism inextricably linked?
Jasser: Saudi Arabia might slowly move away from Wahhabism towards a more Arabist monarchical state fueled more by Saudi nationalism than Wahhabism. But the Wahhabis have immense power in Saudi Arabia, and have successfully indoctrinated the younger generations for decades.
For example, some reports indicate that 80-90 percent of Twitter activity in Saudi Arabia is from radical Wahhabi youth. There is no sign that the House of Saud is turning towards genuine secularism or liberty. Rather, the royal family is simply convincing the Wahhabis to liberalize a bit.
Again, without the underpinnings of reform-minded clerics making a new school of legal thought in Islam compatible with modernity, all these changes are just power shifts, and a fossilized interpretation of Islam will continue to dominate Saudi educational and judicial thought. Additionally, the royal family had really never shown any evidence that it is not a true believer of Wahhabi Islam. Sadly anything short of a revolution will do little to give hope to the Saudi people, who are over 90 percent employed by the regime.
Postal: What is your opinion of Saudi Arabia's trade sanctions against Canada, following Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs protesting the arrest of human rights activist Samar Badawi, sister of imprisoned human rights activist Raif Badawi?
Jasser: The Saudis are now trying to make an example of a nation with a weak leader in Justin Trudeau. I sat with various members of the Saudi leadership multiple times when I was on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2012 to 2016. Whenever we brought up the need to release Badawi and his attorney imprisoned falsely for thought crimes against the regime, the Saudi royals saw Badawi as a primary example of a much deeper human rights movement and threat within Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government seemed unprepared to deal with this movement either humanely or transparently.
Trudeau, long an appeaser of Muslim tyrannies, got backed into speaking out for the Badawis as his foreign minister made a statement in support of Raif's and Samar's release. USCIRF has called annually for Country of Particular Concern status for Saudi Arabia, which would have imposed mandatory sanctions on the country until it changed its course on religious freedom, when I was on the commission and for every year since 2002. Yet the White House would perennially provide a national security waiver from the sanctions for the petro-Islamist tyranny.
Perhaps now, Saudi belligerence toward the Canadians and their simple defense of Saudi dissidents imprisoned for years will finally begin a cascade of events that will spur others in the West to finally treat Saudi Arabia as the two-bit tyranny it is. Sadly, and more likely, Canada and the West will continue to bow to the Saudis as we continue to turn away from our own Western values in our treatment of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Only time will tell.