|Dr. Jasser, prominent voice in the debate on Islamism and reform, speaks candidly on the petro-Islamic billion dollar industry and the roots of terrorism.
Mohamed Zuhdi Jasser is an American medical doctor, former lieutenant commander in the US Navy, and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a think tank dedicated to challenging Islamism and advocating for the separation of religion and state. He is a prominent voice in the contemporary debate regarding political Islam and Islamic reform, with frequent media appearances on channels including FOX, CNN, MSNBC and bylines in The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Times.
When I spoke to Dr Jasser, his conviction in the American potential to reconcile his faith with democratic values was palpable – and unmistakably passionate. He demonstrated remarkable expansiveness in his answers to my questions, which I posed unreservedly.
Caught between the two poles of an increasingly demarcated political spectrum, Muslim progressive reformers – and progressives, in general – often find themselves stranded in a desert of impasses. One side would see Islam banned altogether whilst the other will not even admit to the necessity of open debate regarding the ideology’s unfortunate association with terrorism.
With this knowledge in mind, we frankly and thoroughly discussed a plethora of topics: the history of political Islam, the Arab Spring, the exegetical basis for reform, the sticky question of spying on mosques, the position of human rights in the battle against Islamism, celebrity reformer Imam Tawhidi, and the future of the religion.
The war on terror – a failure?
I began by gauging his thoughts on some disputed terminology. Was it safe to say we were engaged in ideological warfare, more so than a war on terror, as it had been defined in the past?
It should have never been defined as a war on terror,” Dr Jasser said.
He provided a most striking metaphor to explain his position.
“Terrorism is a tactic, the tip of the iceberg of an underlying process – a political movement that has one splinter, namely, its terrorist arm. Calling our conflict a ‘war on terror’ would be the equivalent of calling the war against the Nazis a war against Blitzkrieg.
Ultimately, the conflict we are in now is never going to be a military one. It will have to be one of ideological confrontation within the house of Islam between classical liberalism, or those who believe in modernity and liberty, and Islamists and theocrats, or any permutation of that.
The West can decide whether it will continue this vague whack-a-mole programme called ‘countering violent extremism’ (CVE) and wait for groups like Isis and Al-Shabaab to spring up, or we can begin to take sides with those who share our values.
If we do not wish to lose more of our sons and daughters to war, we need to start helping like-minded people within these countries to counter the non-violent precursors of violent Islamism.
We need to shift our construct in homeland security and foreign policy away from CVE to a counter-ideology, counter-Islamism programme (CVI).”
The degree of separation between non-violent extremism and terrorism was negligible indeed. Preachers all too often actively incited hatred against the West, successfully rallying members of their community, especially young men between the ages of 15-25, around an Islamic supremacist cause that led directly to violence. But was this a distinctly modern problem, or did its roots stretch farther back into history?
Islamism – a modern problem?
I asked Dr Jasser whether he would make the distinction between recent manifestations of an Islamic-imperialist worldview and similar phenomena in the past, such as the Ottoman Empire. Would he agree that politicised Islam is a twentieth/twenty-first century product, a grassroots movement that power-grabbers have exploited to further their aims?
“There is definitely a twentieth-century component to political Islam, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Deobandi movement in Pakistan, which arose at the same time.
These were populist, Islamist, viral (if you will), grassroots movements that were a reaction to monarchical, autocratic, military dictatorships. These dictatorships, however, practised some form of ‘Sharia’ state themselves.
I liken the corporate Islamists to a mafia in a large city. It may control various neighbourhoods and may dish out drugs to gangs who sell them on street corners. But both the viral gang mentality on the streets and the white-collar mafiosos who run the operation behind the scenes are suffering from the same form of corruption.
As far as our relationship with Saudi Arabia is concerned, the window dressing is that they are our allies and they sell oil to us in what is a peaceable, symbiotic relationship. They are often men in suits and ties who look very Western and who are educated at Oxford and Harvard. At the end of the day, though, they go back to running a mafia-esque corrupt environment, in which they imprison liberal thinkers. Ninety percent of social media activity in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabi radical Islamist activity. They claim they work against militants, but all they work against are those who overtly protest the regime.
The ideas that radicalise Islamists- misogyny, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, and so on – are fuelled by these governments. Trying to distinguish between populist Islamists and governing ‘corporate-like’ Islamists is like trying to distinguish between populist communists and Soviet, top-down, autocratic communists. They’re all communists.”
And just what were these ideas? If we were to run with the communism metaphor, I would have to infer that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were responsible for defining their ideology. Who was responsible for these radicalising notions?
Was Mohammad an Islamist?
“On Reform This!, my podcast,” said Dr Jasser, “I discussed the question of whether the Prophet was an Islamist. We believe Mohammad was the head of a military in addition to being the messenger of God. When the same person is wearing all hats, you don’t have a separation of mosque and state and, ultimately, he was obviously running a form of Sharia state.
I can give you apologetics about this and say that, when the Prophet was alive, it may have been the only legitimate time to not have this separation. But once he died, we should have evolved to see the necessity of a clear demarcation between religion and state.
I see political science the same way I see medical or any other science. If Muslims believe in adapting to modern society and every other science, why can’t we do that with political science?
The question is not whether Mohammad was an Islamist in 620 CE, but whether he would be one if he were alive today. There were no secular liberal democracies anywhere to which anyone could hold the Prophet Muhammad and his Islamic community accountable to as a benchmark until the late 18th centuries.
Presented with a choice in using modern medicine or seventh century medicine, we will always choose the former. We must undertake a reform by which we no longer institutionalise Sharia in governments and apply it to criminal law, but base our laws on reason. Everyone, whether you are Christian, Muslim, atheist, or Jewish, must have equal access to government.”
Was there a Quranic basis for this reform?
“Absolutely. Every person who self-identifies as a Muslim has an equal right to ijtihad, or independent reasoning. That’s heresy to most. Many would say it would be the equivalent of endowing every patient with the right to write out prescriptions. My response to that is the following: doctors don’t shove medication down their patients’ throats when we write prescriptions. They have the freedom to frequent any other doctor of their choice.
All Muslims should have the right to publicly debate and rationalise their arguments. The less the government is involved, the more society becomes a laboratory for religious freedom.”
A precedent for independent thinking?
“In the first few hundred years of Islamic history,” Dr Jasser continued, “there were more than 4,000 different schools of thought. This is why critical thinking was dominant and mathematics, poetry, astronomy, art, and philosophy flourished.
From the 11th and 12th centuries onward, however, these schools began to vanish as the clerical class began theocratising in order to gain more power. They increasingly placed Islam under control through the codifying processes of traditions and ceremonies and all those diverse schools, for example in the Sunni tradition, whittled down to only four – Shafi, Maliki, Hanbali, and Hanafi – that exhibit very little difference between their texts.
Draconian rules took precedence, the doors of ijtihad were closed, and the nail in the coffin was the Ottoman Empire, which closed down so many universities investigating into the original Arabic of the Quran. You cannot reform Islam if you cannot examine the original language. Similarly, for example, in the first few hundred years of Catholicism, one way the Catholic Church controlled the laity was preventing them from learning Latin.
Islam slid back significantly with the Ottomans, and this continued all the way into the 20th century and reform receded further in memory. Hundreds of years of tribalisation, a decrease in critical thinking, and colonialism, through which people in the area were exposed to Western ideas that were subsequently demonised by autocratic regimes, and you are left with the mess we have today.”
Today, when we speak of autocratic regimes in the Middle East, it is usually in the context of a ‘lesser of two evils’ scenario. Revolts against these regimes served to further prove their unsustainability. They were obviously not ideal, but did they not keep extremism at bay to an extent?
Hussein, Mubarak, Gaddafi – responsible for the rise of extremism?
I asked Dr Jasser if he thought dictatorships, like the ones in Iraq and Egypt, were indirectly responsible for fostering rebellions against them that exploited fundamentalist Islam as a rallying factor.
“I have to say yes.”
He elaborated, using an example that was a little closer to home.
“After the 2015 attacks in Paris, police raided a number of mosques and, in three of them, they found arms. If a mosque is being used to plot terror attacks, it is no longer a place of worship but an insurgency in your country that should be shut down. If, however, they are spewing hate speech, they should not be shut down, as much as I detest it.
In Brandenbury vs Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that the KKK had a right to preach hate as long as they were not calling for an imminent act of violence. American law protects the right to speak out in ways that may be seditious. Europe, by contrast, which has anti hate speech laws, has a much larger problem with hate groups precisely because the latter are pushed underground. You have a much more difficult time monitoring and exposing these groups without the antiseptic of sunlight.
When my own mosque was accusing my work of being anti-Islamic, I recorded the sermon and I published it on my website, criticising the Imam and exposing his radioactive ideas. If we had pushed these ideas underground, I would have never known what was happening.”
Austria passed a resolution to ban the distribution of the Quran. I wondered whether this did not set a dangerous precedent for banning controversial material. On the other hand, was religion not treated with too much leniency?
Authoritarianism and the freedom of bad ideas
“There are two distinct conversations,” Dr Jasser responded. “One, what should be legal and illegal. Two, what should be critiqued and exposed. Islamists like to conflate criticism against them by reformers and ex-Muslims with the attempt to deny Islamists their rights. If we defend the New York Police Department for monitoring mosques, it automatically somehow means we are trying to get them shut down.
Just as police officers get to know their neighbourhoods – the churches, the delis, and so on – it is likewise appropriate for them to know what is being publicly said at mosques. This does not imply they should place any illegal wire taps or rob anyone of their civil rights, but simply that they should familiarise themselves with their community and the ideas being put forth in much the same way a cop on the beat gets familiar with the neighbourhood and its public footprints.
The best way to defeat bad ideas is to expose them and counter them with good ideas.
It is crucial that we not protect Islam in a bigotry of low expectations. If we want Muslims to reform their faith and defend universal human rights, the underpinnings of modern society, then we have to put a fire under their feet and say, ‘Listen, ninety percent of Imams at mosques are peddling in conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. They may not be openly violent, but they endorse supremacist ideas that radicalise Muslims into hating the West rather than telling them the cause of their problems is Islamic supremacy and the concept that violent jihad is the obligation of every Muslim.
Every Muslim-majority country, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, has proven that the more authoritarian it becomes, the more these groups are radicalised.
“Up to this point, I noticed the blame had consistently fallen on the shoulders of religious authorities. To what extent, however, did Islamic teachings themselves influence behaviour? Would violent passages in the Quran matter at all if Imams were teaching peaceful interpretations?
The responsibility of power: Imams, interpretation, and the petro-Islamic industry
“When we talk about normative Islam,” said Dr Jasser, “the Islam of the Saudi, Turkish, Pakistani, or Iranian governments immediately comes to mind. Their Islam may not be my Islam, but, as reformers, we must admit that our interpretation of scripture is in the minority.
My grandfather was a Sharia court judge, and he rejected seventh century interpretations in favour of modern, sometimes metaphorical, reinterpretations. The Quranic passage calling for the amputation of a thief’s hand, for example, may be reinterpreted as a metaphoric severing from society. Again, this may seem like apologetics, but it is absolutely vital that we favour an exegesis that is compatible with 21st century human rights.
I was also never taught that Mohammad consummated his marriage with Aisha when she was nine. If I were to say that, in order to be honest with myself as a Muslim, I must then also have to bizarrely accept the Prophet was a ‘pedophile’, how could I possibly be in a position to reform my faith from a position of love and belief? Paedophilia is a psychiatric diagnosis that is disturbed.
We should, rather, marginalise and displace any Imam who thinks it is appropriate for a nine-year old to enter into marriage. Until 150 years ago, there were child marriages here in America. So the problem is the current Islamic establishment – the petro-Islamic billion dollar industry that is spreading a singular interpretation of Islam.”
It struck me as unusual to hear Dr Jasser say that the peaceful interpretations that those who fought for reform encouraged were peripheral. In the wake of an attack, commentators eager to stave off a backlash against the Muslim community will often say that radical Muslims are the ones in the minority.
Reformers vs Radicals: Who is in the minority?
“Most studies show” explained Dr Jasser, “that those who believe there is an excuse for violence are, at the most, 20 percent. The Islamists ideologues (whether violent or non-violent) whom I believe are the core enemies of modern society, are probably at around 30 to 40 percent. They are a frighteningly large plurality, but not a majority.
The reason they are winning elections in the wake of the Arab Awakening and the reason reformers are a minority is that the remaining 60 percent are divided into many factions – free market proponents, communists, socialists, atheists. They are unable to develop into a unified majority.
This is compounded by a lack of education and illiteracy in Muslim-majority countries. While we do not have that problem in America, recent polls show that even in the United States 50 percent of American Muslims would want Sharia to play some role in public life.
The real problem is that 90 percent of the money spent on public conversations concerning Islam is being spent by Islamists. The billions coming in from abroad, from governments wedded to Islamist control, are responsible for steering the discourse. The Muslim Brotherhood’s legacy in the West has created an environment in which three groups – the Salafists, Wahhabists, and Islamists – dominate the conversation.
Our constituency, the 70 to 80 percent that do not frequent and dominate mosques, that do not identify with Muslim organisations in America, lead the reform. Just as the Christian reform movement in Europe was spearheaded by the laity and the business communities, so it will be in this case. But the establishment will certainly not walk away peacefully.
“If Islamists were responsible for creating this environment, what might be done to counter their influence? Should the Muslim community be more open in their condemnation of non-violent extremism? Some would argue that Muslims should not have to come out and condemn terror attacks, as doing so might imply collective culpability.
Should Muslims condemn terror attacks?
“Look at our website,” responded Dr Jasser. “You will not find a single condemnation of an act of terror. The reason is that people know our work is dedicated to counter-terrorism and counter-Islamism. Nobody expects me to condemn a viciously barbaric act on non-combatants at restaurants, airports, and concerts because they know we are dedicated to fighting this battle.
Those within the Muslim community who are sitting on their hands, doing nothing for reform, and spouting their grievance narratives while our fundamental rights are being threatened are the ones people take issue with.
People aren’t stupid. If they saw us using the bandwidth of attention for Islam in working towards reform and countering ideas that are creating radicals, I don’t think they’d be saying, ‘Where’s your condemnation of these acts?’ The problem is that they don’t see us as any different from the silent Germans who allowed Nazis to take over Germany and did nothing to stop Adolf Hitler.
The day I have to put out a press release to condemn an attack is the day I shut shop because it means my values are no longer obvious for what they are.”
Popular sentiment would be key in fostering unity, sorely needed in Europe, where a lack of integration has led to ghettoisation and hostility to the wider society, and in America, where identity politics have produced discord in similar measure. Dr Jasser’s analogy regarding Nazi Germany was thought-provoking, but what role did the law play in countering the spread of dangerous ideology?
Theresa May made an infamous tweet saying that if human rights were to get in the way of countering extremism, the end would justify the means. I inquired into Dr Jasser’s opinion regarding the state of our laws. Were they strong enough to handle people who stopped just short of expressing outright support for Isis? Were such people easily finding ways around our system? Was it too lenient?
Should human rights be sacrificed in order to win the battle with Islamism?
“Theresa May was a short time away from an election,” explained Dr Jasser. “She said that in order to come across as tough on radicals when, in fact, she had been cosying up for years, to Islamist groups, like the Muslim Council of Britain, when she was home secretary.
The day we change the narrative of what it means to be free and what a republican democracy is in the West is the day we lose the war. Islamists would want nothing more than for their future constituents – Muslims in the West – to feel no more free in our society than they would be in an Islamist society.
Isis commits acts of terror for two reasons. One: to turn the West into isolationists. They do not want the West interfering because they want to fill in the vacuums left by dictatorships and the biggest impediment to that is free society, free markets, Google, Twitter, and so on. Two: they want these Western societies to become inhospitable to Muslims. The more inhospitable they become, the more radicalised Muslims will become and the more we are pushed into the arms of jihadists.
Contrarily, the more functional we can become in the confrontation of Islam domestically, the more we will be able to lift those who share our values and marginalise those who don’t. If we suffocate all conversation about Islam and compromise human rights in the process, we are going to provide a narrative for Isis.
We must not change the narrative about what and who we are – a city on a hill and a sanctuary for freedom.”
Assimilation and identity
Dr Jasser’s words inevitably elicited an impression of the paradigmatic America, melting pot par excellence, where identity was always hyphenated. Without assimilation, though, or at least an adoption of universal human values, how could a host country provide a unifying, common denominator?
“I think that’s at the core of the battle,” he responded. “How does a Muslim become radicalised in the West? Grievance groups start the radicalisation process and tell Muslims that society hates them and they, therefore, need to ghettoise as a tribe to protect themselves against bigots. The jihadists tell them that the Prophet said, ‘If one finger is infected, the whole body gets sick,’ so they need to be an ummah, or a united Muslim community. This is precisely why reformers insist that we cannot win this war unless we redefine ummah as all of humanity and not just Muslims.
Jihadists also teach Muslims that the only thing they should want to die for is God.
The reason I joined the Navy is because the only thing I would ever want to die for is America and our constitution. Although I am devout, I would never want to die for my faith. God does fine without us dying for Him. I want my kids to have the same freedoms I have and I believe the preservation of freedom, as Reagan said, is ‘one generation away from extinction’.
I identify as American first. We teach our youths that we are Americans who happen to be Muslim, not Muslims who demand to be American. That is the difference with the Islamist narrative. They (the Islamists) come to the West, evangelically trying to convert everyone to Islam, or at least their worldview of Islamist hegemony.
Being Muslim is not a political identity, but a personal faith that embodies my morals, my character, my integrity. It does not have any role in determining which groups I affiliate myself with at the national or local level.”
Imam Tawhidi: Reform in the headlines
Dr Jasser’s words echoed those of celebrity reformer, Imam Tawhidi, who conveyed a similar patriotism to his country of Australia. To say Tawhidi has been outspoken about the state of affairs between Muslims and the West is an understatement. His sudden rise to fame is usually attributed to his bold personality and his readiness to say what others are reluctant to, whether out of a commitment to political correctness or, simply, out of fear.
Many, however, have accused him of merely being a media puppet, glib and exploitative of a tense atmosphere in which saying what the West wants to hear can garner extraordinary publicity. He has been accused of being divisive, due to his strong condemnation of the Sunni hadith texts, the Sahih al-Bukhari, and many Muslims say he is not representative of their communities.
“Just because certain people may say they are reformers,” explained Dr Jasser, “does not mean we would want to be working arm in arm with them. One of the key requisites for Islamic reform is that its proponents are publicly consistent and honest in what they are saying. Even if someone happens to have been a radical in the past, it does not matter so long as they are transparent and honest in their public commentary. When we talk about dishonest tactics as Muslims, we call it taqiyya; when we talk about politicians, we call it pandering. It’s the same corruption. We reformers desperately need diversity, debate, and even disruption. But we must always be vigilant for any so-called reformers who bring with them obvious dishonesty and corruption. Mr. Tawhidi’s statements and body of work should raise many alarm bells.
If you look at Mr. Tawhidi’s interviews, there is a deep inconsistency to his narrative that doesn’t make any sense. His social media footprint is bizarrely deceptive. He has changed Twitter handles, erased tweets, and cleaned out Facebook posts several times. There is a picture of him shaking the hand of a woman with a glove on and yet that doesn’t raise any red flags because he is saying all the right things – for some people – about Islam now.
Most of his work is almost exclusively anti-Sunni. I’m a Sunni Muslim, but I criticise all Islamists, whether Sunni or Shia and am focussed on Islamism, not sectarian division. Just as I criticise the Khomeinists and the Shia Islamists, I also, if not more vociferously, criticise Sunni Islamists, from the Wahhabis to the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Mr. Tawhidi is thus highly divisive and sectarian. In his sermons, he has cursed the Prophet’s wife, Aisha, and has cursed the first three caliphs, which is classical radical Shia behaviour. He’ll say that this was in the past and that he has since moved on, but he has neither condemned these things nor written a coherent, rational explanation of such a transformation. He will say he has been outspoken about Khomeinism, but he hasn’t been outspoken about his own teacher. He comes from a Shirazi school. Shirazi has a 900-page book on Sharia that condones child marriage, the use of chemical weapons, and the minimisation of the rights of women, similar to Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law that I would ask you all to read. You should note how only a matter of months ago he was on Australian television, handing out brochures recommending Shirazi’s Sharia texts.
I’m with him, not in condemning it in its entirety, but in condemning the vast majority of the Sahih al-Bukhari, which we believe is the origin of many of the radical interpretations in Sunni Islam.
The bizarre problem with Tawhidi and his claim of reform is that there is no nuance involved that would be typical of a Muslim giving his own faith some ‘tough love’. He says Islam is about war and terrorism. As a Muslim, I would never say that. He is well received by non-Muslim audiences precisely for this reason. Because I criticise him, he doesn’t engage with me and tells me on Twitter that I’m working with Wahhabis and that I’m a radical in disguise.
This is not someone who is rational. If we respect our Muslim brothers and sisters, we cannot hold them to low standards. We need those who sincerely believe in reform, but if we work with the wrong ones who are duplicitous and who are not working for honest, humble reform, but simply trying to get audiences, it could destroy the whole movement.
I could see how this sort of rhetoric might smack of self-loathing, which would not be entirely conducive to reform and inclusivity within the Muslim community. Some might argue, however, that an aggressive, unapologetic stance is absolutely necessary. I, for my part, doubted the role of provocation for its own sake.
The freedom to mock Islam
“As a Muslim,” said Dr Jasser, “it does not make sense for me to start mocking and ridiculing Islam in order to prove I’m a reformer. But any movement that feels it needs to suppress free speech is not a faith worth saving.
If we cannot handle ridicule of Mohammad or of the Quran, we are headed for a slippery slope that will end up taking reformers with it. This is what happens all the time in Saudi Arabia. The Raif Badawis of the world are put in prison for criticising Islam. Erdogan puts people in prison for ridiculing Islam, when they only want to approach Islam from a more liberal perspective.
The way we treat those who say the harshest things about our faith is the way we are going to be treated when we engage in constructive criticism of it. It’s a litmus test if there can ever be any criticism in the future.
I wholeheartedly defend the right to criticise Islam. But if people stipulate that somehow we, as Muslims, also need to articulate what they are saying in order to prove the veracity of our own approach to Islam, I would have to disagree. We do not have to agree with them, however, in order to prove we support their right to do so. If we have to worry that mocking Islam will get people killed, there is a fundamental problem.”
The road ahead – What would the future have in hold?
It might be tempting to wring our hands in despair at the state of things, to mourn photographs of bygone days in which Iranian women wore their hair down. Was Dr Jasser optimistic for the future?
“Compared to five years ago, there are many more substantive conversations being had about Islam. I think people are finally being able to have the tough conversations we should have been having after 9/11.
I’m a little concerned that both political extremes are becoming increasingly isolationist, saying that we are not the world’s policemen. While that is true, I do want to see civil society endorsed. I want America to be the leader of the free world, the best ambassadors of liberty and freedom.
I would like to see Western policy shift towards not only defending the rights of people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to argue against the faith, but also to defend those who risk their lives for reform, and prisoners of conscience within the House of Islam. The latter’s names should be on the tips of the tongues of every politician in the free world. We demand they be released. We need to be virally promoting their messages in the Middle East. Just as we had Radio Free Europe in the Cold War, we need to help or just protect reform-minded, anti-Islamist, pro-freedom Muslims broadcast Radio Free Islam into Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It’s time to hold Muslims up to the same standards. We’ll find that when we do, we will expedite progress and reform and bring our community dragging and screaming into the 21st century.”
I figured a powerful closing statement such as that needed no further conclusion. I rather liked ‘Radio Free Islam’. It had a revolutionary echo to it.