Safe at Home Interviews Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser

by JOAN HARTING BARHAM March 31, 2008

Meet Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, our third profile in resilience.

We'd love to hear from you! At the end of this interview is information on how to get in touch with us regarding your thoughts about Safe at Home.

Joan Harting Barham: In a way, you are a man of many identities: you're a proud, native-born American, a devout Muslim, a physician, the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), a husband and father. How do you prioritize all these roles?

Zuhdi Jasser: First is my relationship with God. I've been taught through my faith that our life is but a dot in the life-span of our soul and that I'm tested in my life on earth and that test is what I do with the gifts God gave me. So the first test is how I treat my family, my wife and my kids. And that I don't squander those gifts I was talking about.

Until 9/11, I always felt my challenge was treating patients, helping people who come in feeling poorly or feeling that there is no hope and giving them some hope with regard to treatments. That's been my dedication. And, early in my life, I was able to mix that dedication with service to country via the Health Professions Scholarship Program. What HPSP does is pay for medical students' tuition in exchange for military service. So, four years of medical school translates to owing four years of service as a physician. I'd always wanted to serve in the military and it allowed me to combine those dreams.

JHB: Is there a question of reconciling any of these roles?

ZJ: It's interesting, some Muslims have asked me: Zuhdi, are you Muslim first or American first? They challenge my patriotism by asking that. The problem, I think, in the Muslim community is that most Muslims still mix government with religion; there's still a feeling that government should be God. I feel that religion ceases to be personal and becomes coercion when government gets involved in the relationship.

As far as life balance, yes. I've chosen to do things - fighting global terrorism and fighting political Islam - that have in some ways been imposed upon my family. When my wife and I married in 1998, neither of us envisioned that I'd be taking on this national and global issue, and doing the traveling, writing, speaking and other things that take time from my family and from my work as a physician.

JHB: You founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) in 2003, two years after 9/11. What was the impetus for creating it?

ZJ: After 9/11, local media started interviewing the Muslim on the street, the Muslim at the Arizona State University, whoever they could get. I saw interviews with two imams running the Imam Council here in Phoenix who basically blamed America for 9/11. They also condoned the bombing of the USS Cole, saying that America deserved that for our foreign policy. So, a group of us were sitting around a dinner table, complaining, and we said: That's enough. We need to form an organization that truly, truly understands what this ideological conflict is all about. Especially Muslims who came to the U.S. for political reasons; the silent majority of Muslim Americans who escaped theocracy and secular dictatorship as my parents did when they came from Syria.

We met in the summer of '02 and agreed to form an organization stating where the ideological separations are; that we are loyal to our citizenship oath - which is a secular constitution we believe in - and stating that we will defend the separation of religion and state. We had other points about gender equality and about the right of any Muslim to define and interpret the Koran - that it's not just the domain of the imams or the so-called Islamic scholars.

Then we formed our Board of Directors and put together a foundation that would take years to fully establish because the mosques and Islamist organizations such as Muslim Care, ISNA [Islamic Society of North America] and the Muslim Public Affairs Council were not being very receptive.

JHB: Your organization, as I understand it, is predicated on the notion that modern Western democracy and Islam are completely compatible. Can you explain?

ZJ: Yes, but we have to be clear on what we mean by democracy.

Democracy as it's being pushed by the State Department, is defined as elections and the ballot box and that, without a constitution that defends minority rights, becomes the oppression by the majority over the minority. In Muslim countries, where Islamists currently are wielding a plurality - if not a majority - they end up oppressing the rights of other faiths, of secular Muslims, of anti-Islamist Muslims, of Jews, of Christians, of Bahá'í, of atheists, of anybody who doesn't fit the Islamist mold.

We perceive Islam as being compatible with Western secular democracy - or what I prefer to call classical liberal democracy - because classical liberalism teaches that the best government is smaller government and that each faith needs to be based on choice, on free will, and if you coerce morality, it becomes an indoctrination of government upon its people.

To me, the reason the American way of life is so much in line with Islam is because Islam is a very decentralized faith. There is no clergy. "Imam" actually means teacher; it doesn't mean clergy. When I choose every day to be Muslim I do it without any coercion. I think even the most radical Islamist will say that you can't force anybody to pray. So if the most central communication with God can't be forced, everything else in the Koran can't be either, so religion has to be personal. It has to be personal in order to be religion.

Having said that, there are a lot of laws in the Koran - a book I as a Muslim believe is from God - but there's nowhere that God tells Muslims how to run government. Thus, our affairs on this earth are our own.

JHB: You've spoken and written a great deal about America's hunger since 9/11 for moderate Muslim voices. It's arguable that hunger remains unsatisfied. How come?

ZJ: It's not only arguable, it's true; that hunger hasn't been in any way satisfied. All I can say is that organizations like AIFD and others that are anti-Islamist have a long way to go. It's going to take the establishment of anti-Islamist institutions operating from within the soul of a Muslim consciousness that acknowledges that we love our faith at the same time we understand the responsibility to cure the Islamist cancer. It's not going to happen in an election cycle. This is something that is going to take a generation or two to do.

JHB: Is the audience for the AIFD website primarily Muslim or non-Muslim? And what about its membership?

ZJ: The intended audience for the American Islamic Forum for Democracy is Muslims. But our message has been increasingly accepted by non-Muslims; right now we have about 20 times the number of non-Muslim associate members as active, dues-paying Muslim members. It shows you the amount of work we have to do to wake up the unaffiliated Muslim.

JHB: What's the difference between a Muslim and an Islamist?

ZJ: A Muslim, to me, is anybody who states that their faith is Islam and that the Koran is, in their belief, the revealed word of God. Basically, Islamists are those who want the constitution of a given government to be the Koran. And when you take a book from God and you make it the constitution, the only people who can write law are clerics. That's the problem. Versus a human document such as an American constitution which is based on natural law and which we can argue about - but there's no question of "What did God mean?"

Muslims can be anything, including non-Islamists, Islamists or anti-Islamists.

And it's important to note that Islamist doesn't always mean terrorist. There are some studies showing that 5-10% of Muslims actually condone terrorism, but political Islam is an ideology that may include 50-60% of Muslims globally. I've never met a Muslim who actually believes in acts of terror, but I've met many Muslims who believe in political Islam. So one is a militant Islamist, the other a lawful Islamist.

JHB: From your vantage point, what are the most important things average Americans can do to contribute to national, community and personal security?

ZJ: Ultimately what terrorists seek to do is utilize the fabric of a free and open society to instill fear in individuals. Militant Islamists want nothing more than to see America's freedoms being eroded. They'd be elated if we instituted marshal law because that would mean we'd surrendered and lost the war. One of the things I talk to groups about is the need to inoculate ourselves against over-reaction, once another terrorist incident happens.

We've been so fortunate that something like 32 terrorist incidents have been prevented since 9/11. It's only a matter of time until one of those gets through. Our Homeland Security is doing as fantastic job, but we've been lucky. And if, at some point, another incident occurs, I hope America follows Israel's example. They've been fighting terrorism for decades and they still haven't changed the way their democracy and their society works. Similarly, in America, if there was, say, a dirty bomb attack, we'd need to figure out who did it and try to preserve society and life as much as possible. But we can't take away the freedom that is the cornerstone of America.

In terms of individuals, there are the programs such as "See Something, Say Something," that every citizen should do. We need to protect our schools - some have said that the next target may be school systems - we need to protect our civilian population and engage the public. Right now, the public is not really engaged. Even in this presidential election year, it's as if terrorism is less of a concern, that it's a problem only because of the Iraq war. To me, the Iraq war is just one front in a multi-national conflict that extends from Europe to Asia to our own homeland.

And, as far as our AIFD foundation is concerned, people can help us deconstruct political Islam ideologically. We should be holding Islamic organizations accountable for their ideas, asking them to identify terrorist organizations by name, finding out where they stand on women's rights. You can go to your neighborhood mosque and ask how they run their Board of Directors, whether women have any rights on them, how they handle inter-faith relations. People can listen to sermons at their local mosques to see if they're fraught with domestic and foreign policy versus spiritual messages.

JHB: Would a non-Muslim be allowed to go into a mosque and listen to a sermon?

ZJ: Absolutely.

JHB: Would the sermon be in English?

MZJ: Actually many of them are given in two languages. For example, there are some mosques that conduct services both in English and Arabic, others in English and Bosnian or English and Turkish, depending on the predominant language of those in the mosque. One of the things that we at AIFD have found to be very effective is to videotape sermons, then translate them and post them on the Internet.

We've also taken newspaper reporters to the mosque to look at the literature distributed there as well as to listen to the sermons. That's something anyone could do: urge local TV stations and print reporters to learn about what type of literature is distributed at the neighborhood mosque, what type of theology is taught there. And not in a confrontational sense, but to actually learn. You may find a gold mine of anti-Islamist ideas; you also might expose some of the Wahhabist mosques that are disseminating a lot of vile anti-Semitic, anti-American propaganda.

JHB: And finally, what would you most like to see our next President accomplish in terms of the Islamist threat?

ZJ: I would like to see our next President have the courage to identify this as a war against militant Islamism and not a war against terror; to create a strategy, a national strategy to defeat political Islam. And identify it as a political movement. Consistently making it clear that this is not a quarrel with the personal faith of individual Muslims, but it is a quarrel with those who believe that theocracy is better than liberal democracy. It'll be tough and the President will get some blowback. But it's like the treatment of cancer: patients treated with chemo sometimes get sicker before they get better.

As a Muslim I'll tell you the reason I've formed this organization [AIFD] is that I refuse to hand over the mantle of religion to the Islamists. It's not theirs and it's not mine either. It's God's - just as it is for other faiths.

Similarly, the President shouldn't hand over the mantle to Islamists who cloak their politics in religion. And there needs to be a continuum of engagement. It should be clear that there is only one sort of Muslim we will openly support: the liberty-minded Muslims who believe in freedom and liberty for all faiths, and in the separation of religion and politics. And all the rest we should critically engage, from al Qaeda, whom we'll engage on the battlefield, to the dictatorships like Ahmadinejad's [in Iran] to the monarchies like Saudi Arabia - which in some ways is the primary cancer cell because they promote Wahhabism and yet they are working with us against al Qaeda.

At AIFD, we've been talking about actually handing out grades: al Qaeda and Iran would get Fs; Saudi Arabia and Pakistan would get D-minuses; the Ds are Egypt and other dictatorships; the Cs of the world such as Morocco, Yemen, Jordan and some of the monarchies that don't necessarily have democracies, but are working with us and need to evolve.

JHB: This "continuum of engagement" could help promote the separation of Islam and politics?

ZJ: Well, there are two principles. One is the separation of Islam and government - but remember, Hitler and Saddam Hussein were secular. So there also has to be a respect for minority rights and freedom and liberty.

I think we should critically engage everybody. Even Ahmadinejad. We should say: Your denial of the Holocaust is immoral. Your anti-Semitism is immoral. Gender rights issues in your country are completely immoral. We should engage them in debate.

But there is also positive engagement. The only Muslims we should lift up and help and do photo-ops with are the liberty-minded Muslims.

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, is the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. He is a practicing specialist in internal medicine and nuclear cardiology in Phoenix, Arizona, where he lives with his wife and two children; a third child is due in May.

*We welcome feedback about the Safe at Home initiative. If you would like more information about Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, or if you have any other comments regarding Safe at Home, please e-mail us at EditorialDirector@familysecuritymatters.org. For further information about Safe at Home, click here. Thank you!

# #

Safe at Home Editor Joan Harting Barham is a writer and editor who has spent more than two decades communicating to and with women. In New York City, she served as a Senior Editor at Glamour, Harper's Bazaar and Elle magazines and in Toronto, where she currently lives with her husband, as Editor-in-Chief of Fashion magazine. Joan has interviewed such luminaries as First Lady Nancy Reagan, business titan Leonard Lauder, and Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins.

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