Over a month ago now, the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by terrorists, who killed twelve, and five others were killed the next day in an attack on a Jewish supermarket. Since then, more have died under the hands of Islamic terrorists — including 21 Egyptian Copts this weekend in Libya, simply for being Christian. M. Zuhdi Jasser is the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). A former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, a physician currently in private practice, and the author of The Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith, Jasser in an interview with National Review Online reflects on what happened in France, freedom, terrorism, and Islam. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is your response when you see Christians being slaughtered simply for being Christian, as we saw this past weekend?
M. Zuhdi Jasser: Militant Islamists are religious supremacists with a global mandate to subjugate minorities. Jews were the primary victims for the past century, but the past decade has seen a horrific level of persecution against Christians and other minority faiths as well as dissident Muslim voices. This latest mass execution of Egyptian Coptic Christians is another in a series of genocidal acts by Islamist savages who have committed many similar acts in Syria and Iraq.
They have laid this all out repeatedly. For example, in the October issue of their Dabiq magazine is a story called “Reflections on the Final Crusade,” in which they threaten to fly their black jihadist flag of death over Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
“We will conquer your Rome,” they wrote, “break your crosses and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah the Exalted. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market. Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader and kill him . . . and the Islamic State will remain until its banner flies over Rome.”
They mention Rome twice in “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross,” the barbaric video they issued last weekend. The Quilliam Foundation released a translation of an Arabic document, released by a Libyan ISIS leader, on the value of Libya to them: “Libya: The Strategic Gateway for the Islamic State.” It notes that Libya provides strategic relief for the pressure they feel in Iraq and Syria. They want the attention turned to Libya and away from Syria and Iraq.
Their ideology is spreading like wildfire, and they just increase the number of fronts whenever they begin to get cornered. Their narrative on Libya is well established in their propaganda to prospective jihadists emigrating to Italy; they use it to demonize Italy and Christians. In their video they use the phrase “to the shores of Tripoli,” alluding to the “Marines’ Hymn” and the Barbary Wars of the earliest years of the 19th century. ISIS went to Libya for propaganda value, human jihadist capital, military weaponry, and petrol acquisition, to name a few reasons. These videos, each more grotesque and horrifying than the previous one, are actually for jihadist recruitment, declarations of war on Christians, Jews, and non-Muslims but addressed to militant Islamist Muslims all over the world, including the West. They are contributing to a rising call for genocide against Christians in order to gather various militant jihadist movements — al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Khorasan Group — under the banner of ISIS.
The war against Christians is being waged not just by ISIS but by its ideological Sunni forefathers of the Wahhabi Islamist movement, nurtured by the house of Saud and the Muslim Brotherhood and fed by Islamist benefactors from the Gulf (e.g., Qatar) and beyond. ISIS’s attacks against Christians were simply learned from the ideologies of the Wahhabi militants of Saudi Arabia, the home and the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which sets the tone for the supremacist Islam, or Islamism, promoted across the planet. Saudi Arabia has a long, notorious track record of being one of the world’s worst offenders of religious freedom and notably of Christians, who are not allowed to worship publicly, build churches, or carry Bibles. The fate of Christians is tied to the abysmal fate of all minorities, including dissident Muslims — of all victims of persecution under political Islam and its militant fascist offshoots.
Lopez: What are your ongoing thoughts about the murders in Paris last month?
Jasser: There is an obvious growing pandemic of Islamist attacks being committed at the frontlines of Western freedom. Simply, Islamist bullies will continue hammering their enemies — free thinkers and the free world in general — harder and harder into submission. They will stop only when they have something to fear themselves. Our weakness on every level has encouraged them. Islamists have now seen us cower from military fights across the world, while we also run from any ideological confrontation.
The fronts of liberty are obvious. First it was the World Trade Center, representing our free market. Then our military at Fort Hood. Then our public sports events in Boston. Then our seats of government in the Ottawa parliament, our public restaurants in Australia, and now our media. It seems that our enemies know what defines our freedom better than we know what defines them: Islamism. It was not enough for militant Islamists to assassinate journalists trying to tell the truth in Syria and Iraq and then to post their horrific beheading videos. They wanted to strike a deeper fear into the hearts of all in the media who courageously confront their most sacredly held beliefs.
Remarkably, in the New York Times, Ross Douthat wrote about the “Blasphemy We Need,” giving a full-throated defense of the right to free speech:
The kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could, . . . and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it really isn’t a liberal civilization anymore.
Honest Muslims must argue that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were heroes who did us a favor in exposing how Islamism is incompatible with genuine liberty. Muslims who sit silent against Islamism are giving violent and non-violent Islamists veto power over our interpretation of Islam.
We Muslims need to acknowledge that there is no difference between the militant Islamists who assassinated the staff of Charlie Hebdo and the imposition of sharia in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Pakistan, to name just a few of the 56 nations belonging to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). There, Muslims and non-Muslims sit on death row for the violation of state-enforced anti-blasphemy laws. Blasphemy laws, apostasy laws, jihad, and sharia in general are based in a theocratic mindset in which liberty is sacrificed to the ruling class’s vision of Islam. All the OIC countries have varying forms and degrees of repressive blasphemy laws enacted in the name of protecting Islam and the image of the Prophet Mohammed.
An example: Last month the liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi began to undergo a weekly flogging of 50 lashes, of a total of 1,000 to be meted out over time, for the crime of founding Free Saudi Liberals, an organization and website based on principles of liberty not much different from our own principles at AIFD. His attorney, Waleed Abu Al-Khair, was also arrested and sentenced to 15 years for the crime of defending Raif. His case exemplifies the deep pathologies that, combined with with inaction from leaders of the free world, have prevented the voices of reformers from gaining ground inside Muslim-majority nations.
We cannot waver in our defense of free speech. The future of liberty and of the possibility of a modern Islam also intimately depends on the freedom to express what so many clerics and their Islamic allies may consider blasphemy. Here, from the Middle East Media Research Institute, is a partial list of prisoners of conscience convicted for blasphemy that certainly contains moderate voices we will never hear against Islamism.
Lopez: A segment like this one in which you were mentioned last month on CNN seems like a real opportunity. Has there been a media wakeup call?
Jasser: It is simply heartbreaking that it took the assassination of so many courageous members of a magazine to bring us to what appears to be a tipping point in our understanding of our enemy: Islamism. Inside the reform movement, among Muslims against Islamism, we are teaming with people of all political stripes (in fact, tilting heavily toward liberals in the American sense — toward feminists, gay-rights activists, and others) outside our coalition. Our diverse group of reformers recently ran this quite momentous full-page ad in the New York Times. People often blame me for “avoiding” liberal media, as I am a conservative, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is the liberal media that avoid Islamism and anti-Islamists, not we who avoid them.
I have recently been on CNN (here) and (here) a few times and even on Al Jazeera America. There’s no doubt that television and print media, especially left of center, have had a wakeup call. But the further a terrorist attack recedes into the past, the more likely we are to slip back into blind mind-numbing apologetic narratives, such as those offered recently by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Meet the Press and in Time.
As a society, can we move to a more coordinated, strategic, and systematic approach to shed light on Muslims who are pro-liberty and anti-Islamist? The fault lines between the free world and the Islamist world are huge, but Islamism will be defeated only if Muslims lead a push for modernity and the separation of mosque and state.
Lopez: What is the “soul of Islam” right now, in practical terms? What should it be? And who is to say what it should be?
Jasser: The soul of the faith of Islam, the faith I love, is ailing, and is being slowly but surely consumed by the cancer of Islamism, or political Islam. “The Islamic state” is a concept in which human beings, almost always men, believe that their interpretation of God’s words in the Arabic Koran is the only interpretation acceptable. And, by God, they will impose belief in that interpretation on everyone possible, with the sanction of “their God.”
We can each debate what the correct interpretation of the Koran is, but by far the most important question today for those who believe in liberty is “What role should government play in imposing those interpretations or beliefs?” If the answer is none, since religion and politics should be separate and the establishment of the mosque as government should be prevented, then the world can wait for generations for an Islamic reformation that modernizes sharia and brings forth modern schools of thought. But if Muslims are unable to achieve separation of mosque and state, then Islamism will control the identity of Islam and will pit Islam against the West and the free world forever.
Lopez: Is a reformation of Islam really plausible? Without, say, a pope?
Jasser: Around the twelfth and 13th centuries, the proverbial “doors of ijtihad,” or the critical interpretation of scripture in light of modernity, closed to jurists. Up to then, diverse voices and thousands of schools of various tracks of jurisprudence existed within both the Sunni and Shia traditions, especially up to the tenth century. Slowly intellectual stagnation conspired with the clerical class and government to shut down any semblance of academic dissent. The nails in the coffin of ijtihad were hammered in during the centuries of Ottoman control of the caliphate, from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Without open study in Arabic, the language of the Koran and hadith, critical analysis was nearly impossible.
The coffin was cemented shut in the 20th century by Arab League petro-tyrants and national socialists, the Nazis of the Arab world. Those tyrants in various shapes and forms created fascist alliances with Islamist clerics, alliances in which the military and governmental dictators of OIC nations gave over much of their judiciaries and educational and religious establishments to “dyed-in-the-wool” Islamists who believed in the supremacy of the Islamic state. Repressive regimes used Islamism as an “opiate of the masses” which left ijtihad deep-sixed on so many levels.
The only way to turn this miserable situation around toward reformation or enlightenment would be to decentralize the faith. The centralization of Islam in the Islamist mafia that is the OIC, the neo-caliphate, has suffocated the diversity of voices that are needed to reform the faith. That diversity can come only when the laboratories for critical discourse are available. Right now, as the Wall Street Journal noted this week, “the clock is turning back in the Middle East.” That’s what happens when the United States and Europe, the world’s greatest advocates for liberty, are entirely missing in the world conversation as the Arab Awakening opens both opportunities and vacuums.
Muslims in America number only 3 to 4 million. We are blessed to live in one of the world’s only truly open laboratories, where we can do the work of reform and modernization, work that cannot be done in any of the Muslim-majority nations at this time. If cartoonists who criticize the Prophet are assassinated in Paris, in a non-Muslim country, imagine what happens in Muslim-majority nations. Just ask Raif Badawi. This devout Sunni will likely die at the end of a stick wielded by the Saudi government, while King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died mercifully in bed and was nauseatingly eulogized as a man of “courage” by Western leaders, including former U.S. presidents, many of whose libraries benefited from grotesque Saudi largess even as many Saudi people remained impoverished. I and other religious-freedom advocates tried to bring light to Raif’s case this month — see #IamRaif. The Saudis in their torture and humiliation of him and of thousands like him are no different from the Islamist assassins of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
It will take generations to reform Islam, to open ijtihad and develop new schools of thought, but the most important first step will be a populist movement against Islamism and for liberty. Like every free human being in history, Muslims can and will, when given a real choice, eventually embrace liberty over theocracy, freedom over Islamism, the secular free nation-state over the Islamic state. The separation of religion and politics, together with the protection of liberty, will create the conditions for building the schools, media, institutions, and public spaces necessary to reform the theological underpinnings of Islamism.
In an event missed by many in the media last month, millions of Tunisians democratically rejected the Islamists of Ennahda. The Tunisians seem to be moving more quickly toward a Tunisian state based in secular liberty rather than Islamism. Will it hold? Perhaps not. Rhetorically, on New Year’s Day, Al-Sisi in Egypt confronted the ideology of violent Islamism in the belly of the beast, Al-Azhar University, somewhat of a Vatican of Sunni Islam; however, he already seems to be backpedaling. That should come as no surprise, since missing from the dictator’s rhetoric about the problem of violence has been any discourse on solutions — the terms “liberty,” “freedom,” “democracy,” and “modernity” were painfully missing. Remember that the Muslim Brotherhood cut its teeth under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, Arabist-Islamist tyrants who radicalized their populations with Islamism and anti-Semitism only to later claim victimization by those radical populist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that they helped foster. There were always two sides of the same Islamist coin: one autocratic Arabists, the other jihadi populists. The only solution is liberty.
Lopez: Is reform of Islam really possible if images of Mohammed are forbidden? If sharia law is insisted on? If conversion is expected?
Jasser: No. Mustafa Akyol rightly points out that the obsession with images of the Prophet Mohammed is not necessarily a theological concern but rather a form supporting indoctrination into what I would call Islamo-nationalism or Islamo-patriotism. Theologically, to a Muslim the greatest sin is kiffur, disrespecting or rejecting God. Disrespect shown to the Prophet Mohammed is a lesser sin, on par with disrespect toward any of those whom we as Muslims believe to be the prophets of the God of Abraham. Yet Islamists are upset only with criticism of the Prophet Mohammed, not with any critique of Abraham, Moses, or Jesus — prophets who we hold in similar esteem. The reason is that Mohammed is the unifying leader of the Muslim ummah. He is unique to Muslims and therefore is made to serve as an icon that rallies the Islamic state.
Once reformers defeat the idea of the Islamic state, so too will vanish this Islamo-patriotism and its global jihad. So too will vanish this obsession with the Prophet Mohammed’s depictions, and we will become a more God-centric faith, more tawhid. Just as America was created by our founding fathers who envisioned a nation “under God” rather than under “Christianity,” so too Islam will need its Thomas Jeffersons and Thomas Paines to refocus Muslims on God.
Lopez: If a reformation is possible, how can non-Muslims help?
Jasser: Please, we beg the free world to simply take sides within the house of Islam. Don’t sit this one out. Your own self-interests are at stake if you believe in liberty. You cannot sit this one out. Islamist agents of terror are not “lone wolves.” They are the tips of the iceberg of a common global cancer of political Islam. Iranian Shia Islamists or ISIS militants with a nuclear weapon would be no different in their supremacism from the assassins of the Charlie Hebdo staff.
We need a new consensus among Americans that, domestically and across the globe, Islamists are the enemies of freedom, while Muslims who believe in liberty are our allies. Ask your Muslim friends what kind of state or government would they would be willing to die for. I served in the U.S. Navy because I was willing to die for the U.S., for our liberty. When we have achieved consensus as to who our enemies and who our allies are, we will need a coherent strategy to help “liberty-minded Muslims” build institutions to spread their ideas, while we also help them defeat their and our jihadist enemies.
Lopez: What do you make of the Egyptian president’s going to the Coptic cathedral in Cairo for Christmas Mass?
Jasser: That was a good move to help repair the sectarian divisions that widened in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood. The Copts of Egypt are central to Egyptian identity, and President Al-Sisi is demonstrating that he would like to unify his fractured nation under a common nationalism for Egypt, not just for Muslims but for all Egyptians of all faiths. There are even some early signs that other minorities may receive overdue recognition. The Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power in Egypt was marked by, among other things, an increase in violence against Copts. Al-Sisi went to their Christmas mass as a gesture that likely went a long way toward staving off sectarian violence and division. While this is a vast improvement, do not be deceived that Al-Sisi is somehow a liberal democrat or not an Islamist. He’s not the Muslim Brotherhood, but he’s still a strongman.
Lopez: What do you make of the situation of Christians in Islamic countries and under the hand of ISIS? Do Muslims have a responsibility to them?
Jasser: The formation of ISIS has been a defining moment for our work at AIFD. When we formed our mission statement back in 2003, we wrote of the “promotion of freedom and liberty through the separation of mosque and state.” Now we see the most horrific and barbaric manifestation of evil from a terror group that has organized itself into its own nation-state and seeks to globalize its vision through the establishment of a caliphate. Those of us Muslims dedicated to defeating theocracy are not surprised.
To others, it has been a wakeup call. In their vision of the Islamic state, the current plight of Christians has no place — is horrific. It is worse in some Islamic states than in others, but it could not get worse than it is under ISIS, which makes clear that its goal is to cleanse Syria and Iraq of Christians. Its ideology is a natural by-product of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, Christians are not allowed to build churches, worship in public, or carry Bibles. ISIS just does openly, Saudi Arabia does covertly. And, yes, Muslims have a responsibility to reject governments and ideas that emanate from Islamism and to reject its most monstrous manifestations, including ISIS, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and all Islamist movements.
Lopez: What are the most important images and lessons of this month?
Jasser: There is no overaching military solution to the problem of global Islamism.
The enemy feeds off both military and ideological appeasement and weakness. We need to strike fear into the hearts of would-be radical Islamists rather than pretend that they don’t exist. Ideologically, we need to call them by name and to give reformists a seat at the table, making us relevant and waking Muslims up and forcing them to address the need to treat the cancer within our communities. Islamism is a disease that only we can treat.
We desperately need a solutions-based approach from within Islam, a solution involving a long-term strategy to both defeat jihad and promote liberty. Non-interventionism, apathy, avoidance — these simply do not work. They only empower our enemies.
The greatest image of the week was the millions of French of all faiths who took to the streets to express their unity for free speech and for the defeat of Islamism at home and abroad. Sadly, perhaps significantly, our president and our secretary of state were not there. Among the millions of demonstrators in Paris were thousands of Muslims who would be willing to die for France and to fight for it against the jihad. We desperately need to engage those Muslims and so many more. The future of the free world hangs in the balance.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.