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Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, who is of Syrian descent but grew up in Wisconsin, has headed the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), an organization that seeks to fight radical Islamic ideology, since 2003. Jasser, a devout Muslim, is perhaps best known as a prominent witness at U.S. Rep. Peter King’s (R-NY) “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response” hearing in March 2011.
Jasser is also regularly involved in the Muslim Liberty project, which brings Muslim youth to an annual retreat and conducts social media activism, and promotes the American-Islamic Leadership Coalition (AILC). He currently lives with his family in Arizona, where he heads a private practice in internal medicine and nuclear cardiology.
JointMedia News Service recently spoke with Jasser about Islam in America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the implications of criticizing his own religion.
What was it like to grow up as a Syrian and a Muslim in Wisconsin?
So many people define Islam and Muslims by the radicals and by the topic of the day versus actually knowing an individual who grew up in a family that carries many of the same values. My parents were educated and came from some prominent families in Syria. They had a significant affection for the United States and felt American from the moment they came here. To us home was America, not Syria. They felt we could practice more freely here than anywhere else in the world.
If you had to define your political and religious philosophy in 2-3 sentences, what would it be?
My religious philosophy is devout, Conservative to Orthodox Muslim. I say Orthodox because in my religion I pray five times a day, I fast and we attend to all what we believe to be the core traditions of our faith at home. That doesn’t necessarily mean I buy into the Orthodox leadership in our faith. Politically, I view myself as a Conservative with some Libertarian leanings.
As the founder of a group whose mission is to fight radical Islam, do you think Islam is a religion of peace?
In my mind and in my own family obviously Islam is not only peaceful but also a moral grounding in doing what’s right: giving back to my family, giving back to God, and giving back to my country and community. But the reality is that operationally, Islam is not peaceful. The title of my book, which is coming out next year, is called “The Battle for the Soul of Islam” because I think that the silent majority of Muslims who believe that Islam is peaceful, that Sharia is a personal decision which should not be part of government, can’t sit back and be in denial. We have to demonstrate that the Islam of Wahhabism, of the Muslim Brotherhood and all these radical groups, is not our Islam by publicly engaging other Muslims to prove that these things can be reformed, and that we can do that without losing our faith.
How do people respond to that statement?
When people take that out of context, it’s used against me. But when they take it in context and they know how much I love my faith, they realize that I am just a realist. It’s like treating a person with cancer. Does the whole patient become evil if they have a cancer that you’re trying to get rid of? I never said that Islam is an evil religion; it’s my faith. But I am realistic enough to realize that when you look at the last 220 arrests on terrorism in the U.S., 180 of them are Muslim. You can’t sit back and say that these are just crazy people and it has nothing to do with their interpretation of the religion. There is nothing more pro-Islamic to me than marginalizing theocrats and radicalism.
What is the state of Islamic extremism in America?
That was what my whole testimony was about when I testified before congress in March of this year. Chairman Peter King of the Homeland Security Committee was brave enough to hold a specific hearing dedicated to the extent of the radicalization within the American Muslim community. He was vilified for it and was attacked as if he were anti-Muslim. I talked about Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki, assassinated a few months ago in Yemen, who was born in New Mexico, trained and learned his Islam on our soil. He was an Imam at mosques in Denver, San Diego and northern Virginia. After 9/11 he led prayers at the U.S. Capitol. Where was the Muslim community congratulating our military on targeting him? How absurd. We’re in a state of war and instead they’re focused on civil rights. These guys don’t go to sleep one night peaceful and compassionate Muslims and wake up the next moment radical Islamists who want to kill every American they can.
Why might some Muslims be unwilling to act on this issue? What is the state of the Muslim community in America?
One of the misconceptions in America about Muslims is that the groups that have organized themselves speak for all Muslim communities. In fact the vast majority of Muslims don’t belong to mosques or Islamic organizations, and because we don’t have clergy, it’s a very personal religion. The vast majority of Muslims like me and my family are the ones who will actually be in Rotary clubs, women’s organizations, bar associations, etc… Those people are much more representative of the general Muslim community.
In the 1960s and 1970s there was an influx of Muslim Brotherhood-type members who were either kicked out of the Middle East or shipped into the West in order to do evangelical work toward the Islamist movement. They formed a number of groups which are, as I would categorize, Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups. Cooperation was significantly catapulted by petrol dollars, especially Saudi and Gulf money, which fed into these groups and gave them a huge head start. The Muslims who are not part of this Islamist movement have no drive to form organized groups because we’re living in a country that separates mosque and state. The hardest part of my work since 9/11 has been to prove to American Muslims that our faith is at stake.
As a Muslim, how do you feel about the state of Israel? Do you support a two-state solution?
I believe that Israel is not only the only democracy, except maybe Iraq which is still very dysfunctional, but it has proven to be a very reliable ally for the United States in the region. The Muslims who live in Israel have more rights than in any other Muslim majority country to this point. We’ve always advocated for a two-state solution, but the problem with it is that you can’t take thugs like Hamas and give them a state. Until the Palestinians get a leadership that recognizes modernity, pluralism and Israel, I think they shouldn’t be recognized with a state. It’s amazing the hypocrisy in the standards (the United Nations) set for Israel versus them being silent on what’s being done in China and other dictatorships. The security that Israel had under the dictatorships of Mubarak, Ben Ali in Tunisia and others was an illusion. The ideologies that we’re dealing with now all came out of that environment. Mubarak, who was thought to be an ally of Israel, showed “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” repeatedly. He was destroying his country for generations and creating this Machiavellian hate for Jews and Israel. A lot of the mentality that is so anti-western and anti-Israel was created by these dictators in order to continue to say people need the dictators in order to prevent radical Islam from coming up. That whole paradigm has to change in the long run. The problem is that in the short run it will be very messy.
Some Muslims deny that Jews have a historical tie to the land of Israel. What do you think this means for the two-state solution?
That’s another symptom of an underlying problem. They’re trying to find ways to demonize Israel through propaganda, through brainwashing youth with cartoon images and other things. There is nothing more powerful than convincing people that religiously this is not a Jewish land. I can’t tell you how false that is. Anybody who has even the most basic understanding of the history of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, will know. Our biggest holiday in Islam is the holiday of the sacrifice, which is based on Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. That should tell Muslims that we are rooted closely to Judaism, and then obviously that area is as much of Jews as of Muslims.