Born in American Muslim family Zuhdi Jasser, who had just finished his service in the United States Navy horrified by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th, 2001, decided to take upon this enemy. He had no doubts that perpetrators of the attacks were Muslims. Unlike his other co-believers he never tried to deny it.
In the following days after attacks he waited for other Muslims to denounce the atrocities of the 9/11 terrorists and to protest the very idea that their religion could be used as excuse for such acts. Not many Muslims came out. After publishing his own condemnation of this attack as an advertisement in the local newspaper Jaser met with anger and criticism from the Islamic community. In their rage some prominent members feeling offended wanted to make harm to his profession.
As respected medical doctor Jasser realised that his professional approach may be also effective as a strategy of dealing with abnormalities in his Islamic community and religion in particular. “As a doctor, it is my responsibility not only to tend to the needs of my patients, but to respond if I see… “coding”…”. He decided to respond to the accelerating and impending “coding” that he saw happening to his religion. The cause of coding were Islamists. He explains that they are Muslims who subscribe to the politicised, radicalised version of Islam which threatened all free thinking Muslims and the world, at large. It is the problem of Islamists and not generic term “violent extremism” which West should consider its counterterrorism policies. Wars and arrests, alone, cannot be successful strategy to defeat this enemy. As Jasser argues West should get to the root causes, the poisonous mentality that allows one to think that one’s religion must dominate above all others at all costs, where “balanced thinking on such matters is dismissed as a compromise with infidel.”This ideology can sometimes manifests itself in those who commit terrorist attacks but is as destructive in minds of non-violent practitioners, who continue through lawful means of advancing their global vision of pan-Islamism.
Zuhdi Jasser emphasises that after West understands the real difference between Islam and Islamism, which is being also professed by “moderate Muslims”. He explains what it seems as a paradoxical phrase using an attitude of his co-believers to sharia, Muslim divine law) as an example. For Islamists, he says, Islam comes before all else and according to them everything should be done to make this religion dominant one in the world and “for laws to be based not on secular government but purely on shariah (Islamic jurisprudence)”. As he emphasises for Islamist the goal is not liberty or democracy but some form of theocracy. Radicals would implement the legal system of Saudi Arabia. Zuhdi Jasser continues “many Muslims, who profess moderation will try to say to those societies “just screwed up the implementation of sharia if done right it can be like the United States if not better.” Their answer cannot be better evidence of their lack of understanding of Western system of liberties and democracy he argues in his book A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Patriot’s Fight To Save His Faith. This is why West should formulate new strategy that would win the war of ideas. which right now is loosing.
We asked Zuhdi Jasser about source of his optimism for transformation of Islam. We discussed his vision of reformation and secularisation of Islam.
History of Islam is filled with stories of Muslim armies invading different nations. Muslims conquered North Africa, Middle East and almost defeated Europe. Successful offensive which defeated Islamic Turkish invasion in the battle of Vienna was led by Polish King John the 3rd Sobieski in 1683. After the Bolshevik Revolution its leaders decided to reinforce the Muslim militarism, which in our century became public face of Islam. One can find a summary of this view on bumper-stickers which read “Everything I wanted to know about Islam I learnt on 9/11”. Are Muslims not concerned that their religion will be associated with images of terrorism and suffering?
After 9/11 the West realised that there are interpretations of Islam, which are incompatible with freedom and democracy. But it is important also to understand that Islam, like any other religion, is not monolithic. There is not one Islam. This statement leads us to the question: what Islam predominates? Judging from what we can see in the Arab countries, we can say that most of them are fascist, dictatorship, monarchies and autocracies.
“Islam, like any other religion, is not monolithic. There is not one Islam.”
Some of them were radicalised by theocrats like in the case of Iran or Afghanistan under the rule of Taliban. However, most of the Muslim countries are run by secular dictators like Assad in Syria, Mubarak in Egypt before his fall, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or monarchs in Gulf States. In many ways they have fuelled radical Islam.
How did it happen?
Mubarak and Qaddafi told their people that they have to keep them in power, otherwise they would be replaced by the radical Islamist – Al Qaeda. However Mubarak regime aired on television the anti-Semitic, conspiracy movies like Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Such programs were shown regularly on the Egyptian television. He established a University where radical imams were lecturing. Their teachings were anti-women and anti-Christian. In many ways Mubarak prevented any type of reformist ideas from taking hold. As one can see on this example there has been cooperation between two types of fascism in the majority of Muslim countries: secular and theocratic.
It seems that this is a desperate situation but nevertheless you are convinced that the transformation of Islam is taking place.
You have to separate the world which is filled with destruction by so-called Islam from the world of private believers. You can see beginning of change among Muslim families in the United Stated. Therefore I think that families are the answer. We have a kind of laboratory here in America and the Western countries where we are able to practice our faith more freely than we can anywhere under Muslim rule. Yet we profess the same faith. We read the same Quran, which also the radicals are reading, but we use reformed interpretation. I think that the majority of Muslims would like to practice their faith in Western countries. They do want to live in Islamic states. This is why they are coming to the West.
The silence of dissent Muslims in the Middle East is not surprising for Westerner, who understands that moderates are afraid of radicals. Muslim radicals have rather limited influence in the West but the Western Muslims seem not be actively protesting against the atrocities committed in the name of their religion…
Unfortunately the mentality of Muslim Brotherhood dominated many Muslims minds in the West. This theocratic mentality has been fuelled by petrodollars. They have spread the ideas of Wahhabism, Salafism, Jihadism, but the democratic thinkers among moderate Muslims have not any resources to counter these ideas.
Despite this fact there is hope for change. It will happen as it had happened in the history of Christianity. The transformation of Christianity started during the Enlightenment from the separation of church and the state. Islam is still waiting for such reform. Its theological perspective is frozen in thirteenth century. We need to push to lead the fight against radicals in order that these reform would take place.
“I think that the majority of Muslims would like to practice their faith in Western countries. They do not want to live in Islamic states, that is why they are coming to the West.”
Reformation you mentioned was initiated by Christians who were inspired by the independent study of the Bible. These students of the Bible resisted against the dominant religious organisation of their times. A scholar from Harvard University recently argued in his book that the birth of democracy has its roots in the return to the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament. One could ask where is such a solid foundation for peace as Bible in the Islamic culture and religion? What are then the core beliefs of the religion that could help initiate as deep reforms as Reformation was for Christianity?
This is very deep and important question Our organisation the American Islamic Forum for Democracy was formed and dedicated to convince Muslims that Islam needs separation of mosque and state. This is our mission. The essence of being devout Muslim is necessity to learn free choice. The West is democratic and free society that allows everyone both to accept or reject his or her religion. A person, who makes informed choice rediscovers his or her religion. If I believe that I am not supposed to drink alcohol I want to be able to choose between drinking and not drinking it. I do not want to be forced to do that. The Sharia law must be detached from state laws, otherwise it will not religious law. For Muslim sharia law is divine law. If theocratic system has full control over the interpretation of it then the law is attached to government. Western Muslims want classical understanding of government, not theocracy.
How do you teach such a new understanding of the Muslim law?
Our organisation has youth program that teaches liberal attitudes. We explain to young people that they can choose between being conservative, liberal or atheist. They are free to reject their faith because faith is not a dominion of government or any other group, which decided what is divine law.
It took 1789 years until the Western constitution honoured principle of rendering of what belongs God to God and what is Caesar to Caesar. Earlier, Church of England mixed civic laws with Church canon regulations. During Reformation the Protestant movement started to reclaim these fundamental principles.
Can you find support among Islamic scholars for these views?
I can find it in writings of non-Wahhabi and non-radical scholars. Judge Mohammed Said al-Ashmawy, who wrote a book titled “Against Islamic Extremism” shares such views. He did not agreed that government should have right to decide whom one should marry. In traditional Islam Muslim man can marry Christian woman, but a woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man. Judge al-Ashmawy was requested to annul a marriage after woman became Christian. He denied and protested against the dictated of government.
The eminent historian of Islam and the Middle East Professor Bernard Lewis in his book “What Went Wrong” argues that the Ottomans prevented reforms reducing thousands and thousands of different schools of thoughts in Islam into four or eight. According to him this is why there was very little stimulus for critical thinking in Muslim world in the past. That is not a fault of Islam as a religion. This is grave mistake of rulers and some people. But this mistake reveals part of the problem which is a lack of public debate – sine qua non of reform.
We as Muslims of modern thinking need to look forward and not look back. One can ask who am I that I am trying to reinterpret Quran? But I would answer where is, for instance, an instruction for running the state in Quran? There are loose principles and laws but nothing else. But when these principles or laws are interpreted by anybody they become man-made laws, whether they are called Sharia or not. Let’s take a passage about cutting hands of thieves. I would say that this is a metaphor. It should be interpreted as metaphor that the person should be jailed according to the modern society laws. It does not mean that hands should be cut off like the literalist are interpreting. There is a passage of punishment of inheritance laws. I am interpreting this law also in a modern way. This is struggle with modernity that all faiths have had.
Christianity shaped the Western culture with its understanding of human rights. Man has inalienable rights, which were given to him by God. It means that no-one can deprive human person of his or her rights. In Christianity they do not exits independently of God. They are rights because God equipped human person with them. It is very important truth, which even some Christians forget that no laws or rights the Bible are autonomous including Decalogue. They do not exists without God: God said, God ordered, God gave etc. So Christian culture is only Christian when God is present there through the acts of mercy and goodness of Christian men and women on this earth. It is not exactly secularism but it also limits a Christian mission to the display of love instead of building moral societies or God’s states. In such sense true Christians never wanted to make a dominant religion out of Christianity. We know that history was different but at least Christians have their mission formulated in the Bible…. Can you find similar concept in Islam?
I served in the American Army for eleven years. I never had any conflict while serving to protect our Constitution from foreign and domestic enemies with my devout practice. I have learnt from my grandfather, who came from Syria. He believed as a devout Muslim in secular government. He learned secularism in London. But ideas he learned from the West needed internal, Islamic re-interpretation.
Former president of Bosnia Aliya Izetbegovic in his book “Islam between East and West” argues that creative culture requires freedom. Imam from Emory University makes the same point in his book “Secular State”. Reformed Muslims need to create their own vision.
With small exceptions reformed Muslims are not visible in the West…
There may be conviction that Islamic radicals are majority but truth is different. Most Muslims would not choose Islamic party in democratic elections.
Having said that if one believes that radicalism can be defeated then he has to put resources. The strategy of cultural influence which was used to defeat Communism during Cold War is need now in the Muslim world. The West won that conflict without firing a missile. The war of ideas was absolutely successful. Similarly now we have to understand that the violence of radical Islam is just a symptom of totally different worldview that stands against individual liberties and freedom.
How would you like shape peaceful culture among Muslims, especially in the Middle East?
Once we will persuade Muslims that to seek for liberty and freedom is not anti-Islam or anti-Muslim, we will shape peaceful culture. Many people have already understood that this is solution. Late President of Indonesia who wrote book titled “Illusion of Islamic State” helped to defeat Islamism and radicalism. Secular ideas are aimed not against Islam but they transform Islam like once Christianity transformed West.
Many people have already understood that this is solution. Late President of Indonesia who wrote book titled “Illusion of Islamic State” helped to defeat Islamism and radicalism. Secular ideas are aimed not against Islam but they transform Islam like once Christianity transformed West.
It seems that the problem comes down to the free interoperation of Quran. Christians through Reformation achieved freedom of interpretation of Bible independent of any church. Obviously religious elites are trying to impose regulations through different means from enforcing on them their regulations, such as memberships to more subtle manipulation on behalf of alleged unity. Nevertheless one can say that if Christians are willing they can be free themselves from the coercion of religious elites. Can Muslims achieve certain degree of independence to freely read and interpret Quran?
This is great question! Personal and religious freedom is a core value of our organisation. When somebody subscribes to principles of American Islamic Forum for Democracy he agrees that the Quran is open for interpretation for every Muslim. We do not have formal clergy in Islam.
Islamic clerics created system I call pseudo-clergy. Quran does not empower any type of clergy or any religious class. It is development of Islamic tradition. Quran does not impose any mediator between man and God. Even Mohammed is not mediator between us and God. He is a Prophet. In Islam Imam simply means a teacher and not a leader. Anybody
in Islamic community has right to preach a sermon. Therefore, religion in itself is focused on a personal relationship between individual believer and God. As a consequence we teach our youth that they can have and they can express freely their thoughts and opinions in relation to religion and particularly to Quran.
M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D. – medical doctor. Founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). He is Commissioner at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
He served 11 years as a medical officer in the U. S. Navy. His tours of duty included Medical Department Head aboard the U.S.S. El Paso which deployed to Somalia during Operation Restore Hope; Chief Resident at Bethesda Naval Hospital; and Staff Internist for the Office of theAttending Physician to the U. S. Congress. He is a recipient of theMeritorious Service Medal. Dr. Jasser is a respected physician currently in private practice in Phoenix, Arizona specializing in internal medicine and nuclear cardiology. He is a Past-President of the Arizona Medical Association.
Dr. Jasser earned his medical degree on a U.S. Navy scholarship at the Medical College of Wisconsin in 1992. He recently published A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith.