In the second half of our interview, Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum on Democracy and Save Syria Now!’s most prominent American of Syrian descent, talks about the battle against Islamic extremism, the toxic co-dependency between Muslim victim-mongers, the theological debate within the American Muslim community, and the effort to promote pluralism and constitutional values among Muslim youth.
At a panel at the Heritage Foundation last week, Zuhdi and other participants talked about the unfortunate prominence of certain Muslim groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) that promote victimology and excuse Islamic radicals. I asked Zuhdi to explain why administrations of both parties continue to cultivate such groups. He explains that these groups “make money with a siege mentality.” They promote the notion that American Muslims are in constant danger from Islamophobic Americans while promoting extremist rhetoric and carrying water for Islamic radicals. In turn, the government and the media — which “are so anxious not to be labeled as Islamophobic” — reach out to these groups and give them undeserved prominence. That victim-mongering, Zuhdi says, is dangerous for the average American Muslim. “They may look at their donation to Gaddafi and say, ‘Hey what’s going on there,’ ” he says. “But they get sucked in. ‘We’re just going to stand with them because they protect Muslims.’ ”
The unfortunate result is that so long as victimology is the order of the day, “There is no fixing this problem.” The problem is a brand of Islam that advocates against separation of state, tolerates or propounds extremist rhetoric, and sees a Muslim state as the ideal (“although they can’t point to anywhere this works”).
He points to a column he wrote in his home-state Arizona Republic, decrying a judge’s opining during sentencing of Faleh Hassan Al-Maleki for second-degree murder that running over his daughter, Noor, was not an “honor killing.”:
The reasons are complicated, but there is profound import placed on family “honor” and, more importantly, on “shame” in some Muslim communities across America. The attention given to these tribal perceptions has great impact on the treatment of women within those communities. Shame and honor understood this way are a slippery slope of more pervasive cultural, social and, yes, religious mores that oppress women and cannot be ignored. Judge [Roland] Steinle chose to ignore them. . . .
We cannot deny that there are some Muslim women in our American society who are shunned for how they dress or behave. Physical and mental abuse are often used to force a girl to understand the consequences of shame. Honor killings in the West are only increasing because our communities have avoided any open discussion about the interplay of culture, tribalism, family, honor, shame and faith. The self-destruction of families like Al-Maleki’s cannot be prevented when society enables such deep-seeded denial.
How many Noors do we need to lose before we begin to take some responsibility for reform against the cultural and theological ideologies that denigrate women? The jury should have convicted the father of first-degree murder. At sentencing, Judge Steinle should have made clear to the entire world that in the United States we do not tolerate or mitigate for shame or honor.
Zuhdi is lambasted as a “puppet of the right” by self-appointed Muslim leaders and accused by the extreme right of presenting “Zudhi’s private Islam” to conceal the violent, anti-American, intolerant ideology they associate with all Muslims. Both, ironically, stem from the same literalist interpretation of the Koran and other religious texts. The radical Islamists point to phrases in the Koran to justify violence, exclusion and superiority over other religions. Zuhdi explains that while the later advocate an Islamic state and may make up 20 or 30 percent of all Muslims, he and the majority of Muslims get their religious understanding from their parents and see Islam (consistent with “Ijtihad,” the tradition of critical interpretation of Islamic scripture in the modern day) as applicable in the modern world and subject to logic and reason. (A very readable discussion of the process of the myth that “the doors of Ijtihad remain closed” — that is, the only legitimate Islam is fixed and literal, without historical context — can be found here.)
However, the intellectual battle over the primacy of the Koran in law and the fusion of mosque and state is ongoing. Zuhdi recollects a debate at Drake University with the head of the Islamic Center. Zuhdi tells me (still with sense of incredulity), “He says, ‘You can’t separate mosque and state.’ ” He also recalls that about 15 years ago while on leave from the Navy, he attended an Islamic Medical Association meeting (which was running t the same time as the ISNA convention). A prominent CAIR and ISNA leader held up the Koran and said that it was every Muslim’s duty to replace the Constitution. Zuhdi stood up to denounce this and urged the other military personnel to renounce their membership in ISNA, as he did on the spot. Zuhdi says, “This is sedition.”
Zuhdi is not merely denouncing and trying to discredit those who would choose an Islamic state over a diverse American society governed by the Constitution. At the time of the Islamic radicalization hearings chaired by Rep. Peter King(R-N.Y.) Zuhdi wrote in the New York Post:
[O]nly liberty-minded Muslims working from within Muslim communities can counter the narrative of Muslim victimization. But America needs to be unashamed of taking the side of those Muslims who advocate reform against political Islam.
In 2011, more Americans need to understand that jihadism is a natural by-product of a political Islam that is incompatible with Western secular democracies based in liberty. America is at war with theocratic Muslim despots who seek the imposition of sharia and don’t believe in the equality of all before the law, blind to faith. They detest the association of religious freedom with liberty.
We need a coordinated national strategy of offense that gives Muslim youth an Islamic counternarrative, that defends liberty and that separates mosque and state.
To that end, Zuhdi operates the Muslim Liberty Project, designed to reach out to Muslims between 15 and 30 years old. MLP launched with 30 people in March and just held a retreat, selecting participants from among 200 to 300 Muslim youths who submitted essays. A summary of the event included this explanation:
Who are we? An active partnership of young American Muslims and mentors. Why are we in existence? To continuously strive for compatibility of Islam with American national identity What do we do? MLP advocates awareness of individual liberty by aligning core principles of Islamic pluralism with the larger American community and being a voice of the silent majority. What ties us together? We are Muslims who believe in the Constitution of the United States, its core principle of religious freedom and separation of religion and state. Who is our community? Americans.
Zudhi tells me that a core concern is to push back against groups such as CAIR and ISNA that seek to “collectivize” American Muslims to think of themselves as Muslims first. The MLP is only beginning, but already there are plans to increase its numbers, with the goal of establishing “a core group of young Muslims who are willing to be publicly interviewed and [become] ambassadors for our ideas.”
It is no easy task so long as the media and politicians consider groups with long-standing ties to the Muslim Brotherhood to be the “real” spokesmen for American Muslims. But Zuhdi is dogged, and he, like a savvy activist, understands if you have the youth you can help determine the future.