8 questions with Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser is the president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). A Syrian-American and devout Muslim, Jasser is one of the most outspoken, nationally recognized opponents of political Islam and Islamist organizations. As a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, Jasser served 11 years as a medical officer. In addition to heading AIFD, Jasser is a practicing physician specializing in internal medicine and nuclear cardiology.
Jasser recently spoke with The Daily Caller and answered some questions about the need for reform in Islam, the silence of moderate Muslims, and his view of the “Ground Zero” mosque.
1) Why did you start the American Islamic Forum for Democracy? What do you hope to accomplish?
We founded the group in 2003. After 9/11 there was really no sense of ownership of our problems within the Muslim community. All the groups that spoke for American Muslims were of the victimology mindset and only looked at terrorism as a problematic tactic rather than looking at the core problem, the root cause, which was an ideology that was pre-modern, that had not gone through a phase of enlightenment as we had in the West. These groups continued to promote their own platform of political Islam and took no responsibility for reform. My struggle against political Islam and Islamist imams and organizations was one I had my whole life, but the struggle could no longer wait generations. So we felt we needed to create an organization that systematically looked at and engaged political Islam in all of its manifestations as the problem in order to reform our faith and stop terrorism, which was only a symptom.
Our organization has a two-pronged goal. The first is as a think tank with a specific mission to “separate mosque and state” in the Islamic consciousness and to try to do that through a constant engagement of Muslims in the war of ideas between political Islam – Islamism — and western secular democracy. Americans and Muslims need to realize that this is a Muslim problem that needs a Muslim solution.
The second part of our mission is [as] an activist organization in that we are trying to gain supporters and members that will eventually help us create a movement that will reform the faith into modernity.
2) Do you believe that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and groups like it, accurately reflect the views of most American Muslims?
They absolutely do not.
I’ll tell you, my family came to this country in the sixties, coming to this nation based in freedom to escape the oppressive influence of both the secular fascists and the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. I think what Americans do not realize is that CAIR, the Islamic Society of North America, and all of the other Muslim Brotherhood front groups based in D.C. and pretending to speak for all American Muslims do not show the true diversity of the American Muslim population and are really a skewed product of the Islamist ideas and donors, such as some of the petrodollars that feed them.
3) So why don’t more moderate Muslims speak out against terrorism and say Islamists are preaching an incorrect version of the religion?
There are several reasons:
One is they see the constant hits I take from those Islamist groups and they don’t want to get into that fray. Islamists will openly label me as an “Uncle Tom” or to insist we have a small constituency when they know that the reverse is true and that it is only their tribal tactics of ad hominem, which retards a real expression of Muslim diversity.
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You see this exact same deflection and ad hominem with their response to our Ground Zero mosque opposition. It is just a constant tactic they use to avoid an honest engagement of ideas. We’re additionally told in that vein that we are airing dirty laundry and that as a minority our words will be used to tar the entire Muslim community. I think it is moreover a nebulous fear of social ostracization, and that tribal mentality that is often used as a pressure to silence dissent.
Secondly, there is a deep fear. For example, the group Revolution Muslim six months ago labeled me an apostate. They used the Arabic word for apostate “murtad” and said that anybody who advocated for the separation of mosque [and state] is an apostate…So that would obviously create a sense of fear among potential activists. I personally have never had a threat of violence against me, but in some countries the label of apostate is basically one.
The third part has to do with the sophistication necessary to deal with all of these relatively complex theo-political issues. The interplay of Islam, American democracy, Muslims and this society involves an understanding of multiple layers of the American and Muslim dynamic that many American Muslims just do not feel equipped to deal with.
4) Has the U.S. government’s Muslim outreach programs — such as the recent trip the State Department funded for “Ground Zero” mosque Imam Feisal Rauf — been effective?
I think the whole paradigm of government outreach has been misguided in that they view outreach like a social gathering. The Obama mantra of mutual interest and mutual respect gives a sense of “well, if you can break bread with somebody and share stories, somehow that is going to fix things.”
First, recent studies have shown that this approach has had no success at all. If somebody asks, “well Zuhdi how would you do outreach?” I would change the terminology from outreach to ideological engagement. That is, if you truly want to bring about change in these societies towards a respect for human rights and modernity — and this is Obama’s word, “change” – you have to sit down at the table and say, “okay, these are the parts of your society, legal structure, and culture that we find abhorrent and these are the parts of your society, culture and government that we find workable.”
For example, Imam Rauf went to meet with the tribal leaders of the Gulf States, basically the existing power structure in the Middle East, which is a waste of time. The monarchies in control have not affected any change in their societies. If you really want to do the hard work of ideological engagement you would actually go and meet with dissidents. You would go and meet with the people in prisons and the activists working hard for liberal democratic reforms. His wife, Daisy, would ask to drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Rather than give platitudes about America and Islam, he would tell them how backwards, un-Islamic, and inhumane their legal systems are.
5) I was at a panel discussion the other day in which two Muslims and one Catholic Arab advertised as moderates spoke about sharia, and all three of them said it is not something Americans should fear because it merely means “the way of God.” What do you say?
We have to be objective and realistic about what “sharia” means everywhere it is implemented, not just in the minds of elitists sitting safely in a nation with a secular constitution and protective Bill of Rights. The reality of sharia is that, yes, the word itself in Arabic does mean “the pathway to God,” and to me the debate is the very same debate we have about Islam itself.
Islam, as I was taught by my parents, is a very moral faith, which teaches steadfast principles of character and integrity that are absolutes. There can be no justification for lying, stealing, or harming another person — same as the Judeo-Christian principles. However, the Islam of Bin Laden, the Wahhabis, the Taliban, Iranian mullahs and other radicals is from the very same Quran as I use but their Islam is vastly different. It is a vicious, supremacist, fascist doctrine that treats even moderate Muslims as apostates and will kill them at no expense in order to expand their oppressive vision. So I don’t know what planet many of these academic elitists are living on where they can come up with a definition of sharia in their own mind, but expect us to believe that human beings have just gotten it wrong almost every time they’ve tried to implement it. The bottom line is that a system based in one faith only and based in clerical interpretations can never be free like our American system.
6.) What do you think of Muslim soldier PFC Nasser Abdo, who is saying that he will not fight because he is a Muslim and cannot fight against other Muslims? He is claiming that he is a conscientious objector.
His claims are absolutely invalid. First of all, the rules of conscientious objection demand that the person is against all wars and yet almost all of the statements we have from Abdo are that he says he is against fighting Muslims and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet you will find in later interviews he started to look as though he had gotten ‘lawyered-up’ and began speaking about all wars. The bottom line is you cannot pick and choose certain groups of people you won’t fight against.
7.) What do you think the best solution for the Ground Zero mosque controversy would be?
I don’t see how, in its current shape it will happen, even if they try to ram it down the throat of the population. I more importantly, don’t see that it will achieve what the imam says he wants it to — true healing. I think as a spiritual leader I hope that he will come out of his hiding and come forth to tell Americans, that he is sorry this is the way it has evolved and sincerely apologize.
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As a reformist, I believe that history has shown that when American Muslims are funded from abroad, they become apologists for Islamism and terrorism [and] avoid the hard work of real reform. I would like for them to sign a pledge or at least say publicly that they will not take foreign money, because I am not aware of any majority Muslim countries that share our principles of freedom and liberty of our Constitution and are not in some form an ideological threat to the principles that we want to teach our own children in this country.
8.) Do you have a good estimate of how many Muslims share your point of view?
That is a great question that is really relevant to this. If you look at the population of Muslims in America — and it is about 3 million — I would say that most of the studies I’ve seen and my own experience is that 20-30 percent believe in the Islamist construct, which is political Islam. Now that parallels somewhat with the fact that 20-30 percent of Muslims go to mosque regularly. So there is about 60 percent — over half of Muslims — do not go to mosque or are estranged from the mosque and I would say that is our primary constituency. It is not that they are not religious, but organized Islam in America has failed them because the majority of mosques and Islamic institutions are advocates of political Islam and not just the faith of Islam. In fact, most Muslims will tell you that those institutions being built here so far are a product of something they were running away from in the Middle East.
I think over 60 percent of Muslims probably agree with us in the primary tenet of the need to separate mosque and state. But at some point, we hope we can legitimately and academically address this issue though scientific measures and genuine polling.