M. Zuhdi Jasser dreams of a Muslim Counterterrorism Unit, Jack Bauer-style.
In truth, his dreams are his work. Jasser, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander is president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix, Arizona. In an extensive interview with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez, Jasser talks about his military service, the duties of Muslims in America, how to destroy Islamofacism, and more.
Today we run part two of three with Dr. Jasser. Read part one here.
Lopez: It’s hard not to admire Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But does it depress you that so many who are willing to speak out the loudest against Islamic extremism are atheists or have otherwise rejected Islam?
Jasser: As a strong believer in God, I prefer to look at life’s challenges, rather than lose valuable time in non-productive feelings of depression. But I know what you mean. The fact that many of these loudest voices are atheists or former Muslims can be frustrating, but is not surprising to me, at least at this stage in the ideological battle against political Islam.
With the power and corruption of tribalism within the Muslim community, the first real challenges to treating the cancer of militant Islamism within the Muslim community are going to naturally be heard from those that have abandoned the faith in totality. This is a natural phenomenon. The courage that they summon to reveal the horrors of their past may ultimately impact devotional Muslims to correct the pathology which needs to be enlightened and brought into modernity.
When we look at the history of Islam, we should separate history from religion, as such highly respected scholars as Bernard Lewis have so often discussed. Similarly, the experiences of individuals like Ayaan Hirsi Ali are real, and certainly symptomatic of a disease of fanaticism and intolerance within cells of the Muslim community. But we also should separate cellular experiences from “religion” of the entire organism. We strategically hand over our greatest weapon at defeating militant Islamists — the mantle of Islam — if we blindly accept that her experiences and those of other former Muslims are due to Islam rather than simply due to the radical interpretations of Islam by barbaric Muslims that these individuals experienced. I and so many others of the majority of Muslims who are at home in Western pluralistic society are living modern interpretations of Islam which can if given a chance and the resources can directly counter the radical interpretations of fanatical Muslims which have abused so many in the world.
History has shown that in the west, Christian reformation and modernity was stimulated most by internal change from those accused of being atheists but were actually devotional reformers who loved God and loved their faith of Christianity. That position of love of God and their faith against the power of the Church gave them a position of credibility which was a catalyst for real and lasting change. Those, however, who were openly atheist or had left God and the faith of Christianity completely may have leveled valid criticism against the Church but did so from a position of disbelief in God and from outside the Christian community. Their critique could only serve as an external stimuli to change while possessing no remaining internal credibility to actually move the Christian community forward toward modernity.
What strikes me even more than the existence of the ‘former Muslim voices’ is the relative paucity of audible, devotional, anti-Islamist Muslim voices. For those of us immersed in the Muslim community for most of our life, we know that they exist, and we know they may even be a majority. Certainly, the anti-Islamist Muslim is a minority in the mosque scene or the political activist Muslim community scene. But studies have shown that less than a majority of Muslims attend mosque regularly, and even a far smaller percentage are involved in political Islamist organizations. Thus, the most Muslims are, in fact, raising their children Muslim without indoctrination into Islamism or Salafism, and staying away from some mosques, probably due to the offensive nature of the Islamist political agenda. Further study into the details of these assumptions will be central to defeating the ideology of Islamism. But again this can resonate more effectively with the non-Islamist, or anti-Islamist Muslims, if it is done from a devotional position of love of faith and God.
The engagement and awakening of the non-Islamist and anti-Islamist devotional Muslim is hampered by a number of factors. Fear, for one thing, plays a significant role in the silence of many moderate Muslims since they see other moderates become the primary targets of the militants, both physically and politically, through being ostracized. The other factor is knowledge and understanding. Many Muslims do not appreciate the penetration and control of Islamism upon the Muslim community because they just don’t understand political Islam and its inherent harm to society and faith. While I certainly believe that one can make a cogent argument for apolitical Islam and an apolitical interpretation of the Koran where history can be separated from religion, the reality is that the history of Islam and the tradition of the Prophet did not, for the most part, separate mosque and state. Mohammed himself wore both hats of spiritual leader and head of state. Despite that, one would be hard pressed to find clerics running government in Islamic history and in fact the Koran makes no suggestions at all about how Muslims should run their governments. If theocracy was supposed to be part of Islam, God would have made it clear in our holy scripture.
In the recent past, with the domination of dictatorships in the Muslim world today, often the only venue for any political discourse became the mosques. So it is not surprising that political Islam has especially flourished in the past century under the despotic regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran to name a few.
This is why the removal of these despotic regimes is so central to the deconstruction of political Islam. One cannot happen without the other. Along the same vein, many Muslims simply don’t have the understanding of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and especially Koranic Arabic, in order to defeat the Islamists. The central nucleus of success of the Western enlightenment was education and infectious discovery. This desire to question authority with knowledge and thirst for freedom has yet to re-infect the Muslim mind en masse in over 500 years. Thus the intellectual voices of anti-Islamism are going to be less common. But with support they will awaken and triumph.
At some point I hope our nation realizes that our greatest asset in defeating political Islam is devotional Muslims.
Lopez: What do you say to people who contend that Islam is by its very nature violent?
Jasser: I would contend that certainly many extremist Muslims (some studies say 5-10 percent of all Muslims are militant) demonstrate a predilection toward violence, which they enact in the name of Islam. This is no doubt a very concerning figure considering the total number of Muslims in the world and the impact of only one event upon our way of life. Also, there are certainly passages in the Koran which provide for specific examples in Islamic history of a “just war,” in which God permitted Muslims the armed defense of their community against the pagans. It is my belief that these were specific examples in the early seventh century, and are not transferable to today, except as concerns a “just war theory.” All of the major faiths have theological underpinnings of “just war theory,” and it being a principle of last resort. The interpretation of those verses discussing war is dependent upon the morality of the Muslim reader, and the separation of history and religion. The Muslims of today must theologically articulate a primary loyalty and reliance upon their individual nation’s decisions for war, and thus relegate to history any concept of a Muslim nation or ummah playing a role in just war theory. Certainly, Muslims must modernize our theology of just war. The key is that I, as a Muslim, articulate an ideology that coincides with unqualified allegiance to my citizenship pledge and American national interests, over any Islamist interpretations.
I would argue that I was not created in a vacuum, and my family taught me the same moral constructs that my Jewish and Christian friends throughout my life, shared with me concerning national allegiance, war, and violence. I read from the same Koran as the radicals. But I was taught to be, by nature, humble, honest, compassionate, and loving. There is no doubt that Muslims need to build American institutions, which flood the public space after every evil pronouncement from militant Islamists with a counter-jihad interpretation — – a jihad against jihad. Nonviolent re-interpretations of the passages in today’s context to counter Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda’s twisted injunctions to war against the west are very prevalent in the Muslim community, but unfortunately, difficult to find in the theological academia since that was abandoned by the pious masses around the 14th century. It should be the work of organizations like AIFD to respond directly to Bin Laden, the Wahhabis, salafists, deobandis, the Taliban, and other extremists when they interpret our scripture in a way that is violent or incompatible with our citizenship pledge or loyalty to our nation.
The question of the central nature of Islam rests on two issues. First, the values and morality of Islam are not derived de novo from the text itself, which can be twisted by any deviant who chooses to become God on earth. But rather, the individual morality comes from the superego or conscience of the individual reading the text. Thus the nature of Islam is measured more by the values which Muslim families teach their children, than by the radical published interpretations of passages, which can be more of a reflection of the thugs and theocrats in power over publishing houses, rather than the religion itself as it is practiced by the Muslim masses. Thus, while ultimately, all morality comes from God, the faithful are moral from within themselves and not from a text.
Second, the morality of the messenger of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, is central to the believability of the question of the violent or non-violent nature of Islam. Ultimately, what matters the most is not whether I can come to an agreement with Osama bin Laden over how violently aggressive, or humbly nonviolent the Prophet Mohammed was. What matters most to the world today is that my interpretation of my faith, its messenger, and its scripture today is based upon a moral code which is consistent with the moral code of the vast majority of other Americans, and our rule of law in the 21st century. What matters most is that my construct of citizenship and belief in American exceptionalism is not at conflict with any aspect of being Muslim.
I supported and continue to support the doctrine of preemption in Iraq on moral grounds that greater harm to Iraqis and global security would come from leaving Saddam in power. This could be considered violent but it is reasonable, because our leaders and military generals are moral people who enforced a war of liberation in the long term interests of the Iraqi citizenry. This does not make Americans by nature violent. Similarly, in as far as ‘just war theory’ is concerned in Islamic history, Muslims believe that Mohammed was a moral man, and that while God corrected him in our scripture if he went astray, the passages which condone violence do so as a last resort, and with the same moral mandate of “just war” as our free governments use today. This is all with the understanding that for Muslims now living in modernity, the concept of a ‘religious state’ is archaic, and must be relegated to history as inferior and outdated when compared to today’s Western secular democracies.
A great deal of Islamic scripture discourages war and encourages peace. Some argue that the peaceful verses are abrogated. Many Muslims however believe that unless a verse is specifically identified as abrogated and since God left it in the Koran it is still valid and His word and instruction cannot be abrogated but rather just put into the context of the time of its revelation. Thus, almost every Muslim I have ever known would not subscribe to the abrogation of peaceful verses.
Lopez: What’s the biggest challenge Muslims in America face?