U.S. Muslims can sideline domestic Islamists, says reformer

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Zuhdi Jasser is an Arizona medical doctor, a U.S. Navy veteran, and founder of the American Islamic Foundation for Democracy, and a co-founder of the American Islamic Leadership Coalition, which opposes the political goals of the Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood’s U.S. network of political groups. He’s testified before Congress on the goals and influence of the brotherhood groups, who use a mix of politics and violence to slowly build Islamist neighborhoods, towns and governments in the Arab world, in Europe and the United States.

Q. Where were you on 9/11, 2001?

I was in Phoenix. I had finished my tour in the Navy after 11 years and I was in private practice. I was getting ready to go to a clinic in my office, but by the time I was ready, I saw the TV. My first reaction — it was the American and the naval officer in me — was to find who did this and make them pay and get them. Once I learned it was done by Muslims, I realized that this was going to be a tipping point for a lot of the problems and conflicts of modernity in the Muslim community.

Q. When did you first see a conflict with the Islamic political movement, or Islamism?

Growing up among four Muslim families in Wisconsin, we had no political Islam. When I got to the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I saw the Muslim American Society at work, saw the sermons were all political, studied on the Muslim Brotherhood groups and found myself in conflict with all of them. I gravitated towards the more spiritual [non-political] Asian Muslim groups, Indonesians and Malaysians, and away from the [politicized] Arab groups.

When I was in the Navy, that [conflict] was on hold. One of the most modern imams I met was in Norfolk, which is a huge navy base. He was very non-political. But I remember interviewing an imam from a Northern Virginia mosque for a contract to give sermons on Fridays [at a Navy hospital]. They had me and another senior Navy officer who was a Muslim do the interviews. We asked some simple questions about what they would tell a Muslim [in the U.S. military] who did not want to fight against other Muslims. The answers were scary. We never appointed any of those guys.

Q. What did you do after 9/11?

The American Islamic Foundation for Democracy and the the American Islamic Leadership Coalition came out of my profound need to have other Muslim voices in the media. The Arizona Republic had done a number of stories on Muslim reaction to 9/11 and interviewed Muslims at local mosques. The imams barely condemned terrorism, offered conspiracy theories and blamed Jews. One Muslim student at the local university said the attack on the U.S.S. Cole was legitimate violence. I called the newspaper and they said ‘These are the local Muslim organizations.’ So we formed our group with nine families at my house. I started writing op-eds for the newspaper … and we had a rally against terrorism in 2004, which was boycotted by all the imams in the town.

Q. How were Muslim Americans affected by 9/11?

There are three broad groups. One group is the [political] Islamists, who thrive on deception and denial and claim ‘We’re victims of ‘Islamophobia.’ The next group is the reformers. In between is the silent majority.

Many [in the majority] agree with reformers. They came to this country to escape these Islamists, but the political freedom here means they don’t have to join the reformers. Instead, they either don’t go to the mosque, or go only on Eid or Muslim holidays and then go home. The Arab Spring is such a great example of Muslims taking ownership and responsibility against their own thugs and theocrats. (RELATED: New York marks moment of silence for 9/11 victims)

Q. Who in government is helping identify the politicized Islamists?

The first step, the biggest step, is to accept the point that al-Qaeda doesn’t come out of a vacuum. Political Islam leads to radical Islamism leads to al-Qaeda. There’s a conveyor belt there. Once we recognize that, then we can hold regular Muslims accountable for what they’re doing, or not doing, about political Islam in their area.

The government should engage everyone, but should not empower anyone except the ones on America’s side ideologically. We need to stop the meetings with Islamists [such as] Imam Magid and the Islamic Society of North America. The meetings empower them. Britain is far ahead of us with its new Prevent program, but we don’t have it here.

The House and Senate anti-terrorism caucuses have been very helpful. [Arizona Republican] Senator Jon Kyl has been a great asset. In the House, North Carolina’s Rep. Sue Myrick, Arizona Rep. Trent Franks and Congressman Pete King [of New York], as chairman of the committee, have been invaluable in looking at why Muslims are being radicalized. In the media, in the last 6 to 12 months, we have started to see a shift. Our media coverage has catapulted because there’s been a shift in understanding what those groups represent.

Q. What about attitudes among Americans towards Muslims?

Polls show negative perceptions about Islam were at 27 percent before 9/11. They went up to 38 percent after 9/11 and now they’re at 50 percent. If you look at what the American public thinks, it is not ‘Islamophobia.’ Americans are smart, and they see we have yet to launch a counter-ideology movement [against political Islam], so we’re going to have negative perceptions about our religion. Once Americans see us as a vital ally against the Islamists, the negative attitudes will melt way.

The public is getting more fearful and [acquiring] a more insidious fear of the unknown. [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg didn’t let faith leaders be part of the [9/11 commemoration] ceremony, and [politicians are] getting less able to discuss the importance of faith. But Americans realize that faith is important, and they’re getting more afraid [of Islam] because of this paralysis.

Q. What have progressives learned since 9/11?

My major complaint with the left is they have focused too much on minority victimization, and not their own core values, such as secularism. When it comes to [political] Muslim groups, they don’t hold them to the same standards [as they apply to Christian groups]. The Ground Zero mosque [debate] was very helpful because they know there’s no way that 75 percent of Americans [who oppose the mosque’s location] are radicals.

Q. What have the Islamists in America learned about us?

They have realized that our Achilles’ heel is the inability of Americans to discuss religion functionally. They’re able to transmit their ideology [through mosques], while we have no response and no counter-narrative. They’re capitalizing on that to spread their ideas unchecked because our government won’t get into the business of countering their theo-political movement, even though the theo- is camouflage for the political ideology of Islamism.