AIFD Analysis: The Power of the Pulpit: An American Muslim’s struggle to define faith in an American perspective for his children

The following analysis posted also at the Arizona Republic blog gets to the core of AIFD’s mission which centers on strengthening the American Muslim identity free of the separatism of Islamist ideologies. This in depth analysis of a recent local sermon by Anas Hlayel during our recent holiday of Eid Al-Fitr is the type of constructive critique we hope to see American Muslims around the country engage in publicly with their local imams.— AIFD

The Power of the Pulpit: An American Muslim’s struggle to define faith in an American perspective for his children

By: M. Zuhdi Jasser, American Islamic Forum for Democracy

Posted by Zuhdi Tue Sep 27, 2011 04:53:43 MST
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The attacks of September 11, 2001 were a personal call to action and a tug of responsibility to fix the underlying problems that have placed a strangle hold on my faith and led a few of my co-religionists to unimaginable brutality. It is a mission that is driven by my desire to raise my children as orthodox Muslims who embrace the unparalleled freedom that is guaranteed for them in the United States Constitution.

While this effort is often paradoxically and bizarrely criticized as “Islamophobic” and I myself have been labeled an “Uncle Tom or traitor to Muslims, the truth is I have a deep seated fear of what version of my faith will influence my children and of what will happen should another devastating attack occur and Muslims are not seen as leading the fight against the cancer within our faith. There is the spiritual, moral, and profoundly humble and personal journey of Islam to God and then there is the version of Islam based in the Islamic state and political Islam. My work is to champion the former while exposing and defeating the latter.

The vast majority of American Muslims believe in and hold dear the liberties that America has codified for all people. But we cannot ignore the fact that radicalization occurs within our faith communities. We also cannot ignore the fact that this radicalization does not occur in a vacuum. Nidal Hasan did not wake up one morning and decide to be a radical. He over time was exposed to an ideology that led him down the path to radicalization.

There is a continuum that begins with a non-violent separatist, Islamist narrative and ends with an adherence to a violent militant ideology that believes in the supremacy of the Islamic faith. That does not mean that every Muslim travels the full continuum, but it does mean that a narrative that is common place in Muslim communities is the starting point. That narrative preaches a victim mindset and a separation of Muslims from American society. It is a narrative that is preached by supposed moderates and radicals alike. It is a narrative that as a Muslim father I do not want to ensnare my children.

A common retort from Muslim organizations in the United States is that American Muslims should not have to be bear the guilt of 9/11 or any terror incident. This stifles any acknowledgement by Muslim leaders of the reality that it is only Muslim communities that can counter those ideologies that ultimately radicalize. Guilt is certainly an overcharged premise, but certainly Muslim responsibility for change against the Muslim ideas that fuel Islamist terror is key– and cannot be denied. The reality is that while Muslims are less than 2 percent of the population, American Muslims make up more than 80 percent of terror arrests in the United States.

Critiquing ideas of our leaders is not personal: It comes from tough love

While ALL Muslims are not responsible for 9/11, ALL Muslims share a responsibility for repairing the models that are breeding radicals.

In the national discourse about Muslims and Islam ten years after 9/11, I have always felt that the most telling exchanges are those between Muslims who are put in positions of leadership, and the general Muslim population. These exchanges give crucial insight into what these Muslim “leaders” believe about their own responsibility for the past and the future of America, for our security, and for the general welfare of Muslims who live here.

My organization, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), and all of our Muslim supporters and colleagues have always called upon Muslims to be the solution and to lead reform toward modernity, holding our imams accountable for their teachings and their ideas. Critiquing sermons and the messages they give our families is one of the most vital ways of doing this. But we must also understand that critiquing their words as thought leaders is certainly not a personal attack upon our imams or upon our communities as Muslims but rather part of the honest and open discourse necessary to come to terms with the good and the bad ideas that influence our children and our communities. To look upon my work with AIFD in exposing the ideas of imams as anything but tough love is simply an effort to avoid real Islamic intellectual engagement and deceive Muslims that AIFD is anti-Muslim when in fact there is nothing more pro-Muslim and pro-Islam than critiquing the ideas of our leaders.

It is interesting that many of those (i.e. Islamists and their apologists) who try to subvert my work do so by saying that my ideological analyses like this are personal attacks which they are not. They then hypocritically run away from any substantive ideological arguments while having no qualms in using deep personal attacks against me like labeling me anti-Muslim or an Uncle Tom.

Our own mosque’s holiday sermon on Eid Al-Fitr

This year I and my family attended services at my mosque on August 30, 2011 as we always do for our holiday of Eid Al-Fitr which commemorates the end of the holy month of Ramadan. At the outset, I had no intention of publicly addressing the content of his sermon. I have actually tried to steer clear of too much public critique of my own mosque for obvious reasons. But when Imam Anas Hlayel’s colleagues (a jmukarram, oddly affiliated with a “Jamaat Islah ul Muslimeen”) proudly posted it on YouTube as an exemplary sermon, this opened the ethical need and their obvious receptiveness to a public response from Muslims in our local community.

The sermon was a stark reminder of the subtle and not so subtle pervasiveness of many Islamist ideas that permeate leading narratives delivered to our communities. The service is typically a short group prayer followed by a sermon, which, in the highest tradition, carries a community spiritual message of renewal, after the long month of fasting. This year, as our holiday fell very close to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I prayed that imams across America would use this opportunity to demonstrate a distinctly American Muslim leadership. My hopes at least from my experience were not realized.

In the spirit of freedom, tough love and transparency, I offer the following review of my concerns regarding the sermon proffered by Imam Anas Hlayel at our local mosque.

Some in our community will try to inappropriate say that I am trying to attack Imam Hlayel personally or cause division within our community. I would simply ask that they look at the substance of this analysis and realize that respectful substantive public debate about the content of a sermon is in the highest Islamic tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and our faith that we love. Imam Hlayel is free, if not obligated, to respond to these ideas he posted for the world on YouTube as representing our Scottsdale community. But that is a healthy process, not a destructive one as many Muslims who attack me and AIFD try to insinuate.

The simple objective of this analysis is to begin a conversation on how supposedly innocuous statements from Muslim leaders can easily feed the Islamist, anti-American, narrative and whether deliberately or not, serve to separate Muslims from their American identity.

This process of public critique is essential if we are to ever hold imams and our boards accountable for their messages to our families. What was covered and what was not speaks to his agenda and the agenda of his colleagues. AIFD has posted the full video (22 min) of Imam Hlayel’s entire sermon (which was actually originally proudly posted by his colleague on YouTube by “jmukarram”). AIFD has also posted a full transcript of the entire sermon online for full review. The exact time (location in the 22 min video) of the sections we have highlighted are also noted in the critique below.

To his credit, Imam Hlayel, who also serves as executive director of the local Arizona chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-AZ) conveyed some of the very appropriate post-Ramadan messages of spiritual renewal, atonement, education (or “school” as he called it) and moral “unity.” He aptly reminded us of our humility, our need to avoid arrogance, and overreaction. But by far, the predominant message of his sermon was infected with toxic ideas and insinuations that reek of denial, obsessive victimology, and separatism. The fringe nature in comparison to mainstream American thought of some of his comments and the avoidance of Muslim culpability in the Islamist threat spoke volumes to the pathological mindset present in Muslim leaders that accept the Islamist narrative.

Analyzing the content and substance of Imam Hlayel’s sermon

Ten years after 9/11, who could imagine a sermon in a prominent American mosque in the Phoenix Valley, in affluent Scottsdale, would end with these thoughts, to American Muslims:

Now don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying that we accept what they say about us. We (Muslims) are not guilty of 9-1-1 and we have to be clear about it. We do not accept guilt by association. Also, we are not satisfied with all of the investigation that has gone so far. We need a more thorough investigation of what happened on 9-11. We should be clear about that, so the truth comes and we see who exactly did it. We are not saying that we should forget about that. At the same time, we have to be wise and we have to share this moment of sorrow with the people. We should not act like outsiders. We are a part of this society.
Any many of us were so happy when we got our citizenship. Well this is part of it. So let’s make sure that we are wise, we walk in the middle, we don’t go to either extreme. One extreme that says, you know, I live here, but I don’t really consider myself from this country. I hate these people, I hate the government, and I, you know, I want to just rebel. And the other side who says, you know, Muslims should swallow it, we are guilty, all of us are guilty, just because we are Muslims and we just should listen to Fox News and believe them and you know, listen and obey. We should be inshallah in the middle. Muslims have their own opinion. We should not follow either camp. We should make our own opinion in this country. And we should be proud of it. And, and with the lessons we learn from the month of Ramadan, inshallah we can walk through this fine line in the middle and will be successful with the help of Allah. [20:25 to 22:00] –excerpt of sermon (video/transcript lines 203-228) given on August 30, 2011 by Anas Hlayel, executive director of CAIR’s Arizona Chapter (Council on American Islamic Relations)

This concluding train of thought left a distinctly bad feeling in the pit of my stomach as I and my family left the mosque for the Eid celebrations. Emotionally, as an American and as a former Naval officer, it was like being hit over the head with a 2 by 4. I couldn’t believe I did not hear some departing prayers for our fellow Americans who died senselessly on 9-11. I could not believe I did not hear some departing supplication for those Muslim and non-Muslim dying senselessly against their Muslim oppressors in Syria as we try to celebrate Eid.

Instead we heard this “wacky” conspiracy theory fit for a 9-11 Truther convention. He preferred to leave us all with yet another useless attempt to deny that militants of our faith committed the acts of 9-11. How removed from the sentiment of the rest of America he and thus our mosque leadership was? Quite a different sentiment from the leadership I knew in 2002 of the same mosque which on 9-11-02 on the one year anniversary paid for a newspaper advertisement that I helped write which sent a far more forthright, honest, realistic and prayerful message to our fellow Americans across Arizona. A different time and different leadership.

Imam Hlayel’s underlying message of “Us vs. Them” or “Muslims vs. Americans” demonstrates a dangerous collectivization and separation of Muslims from American society. While he is not preaching violence, he ends his sermon by leaving Muslims with the groundwork for an Islamist mindset where Muslims view their connection to America in a confrontational mold.

Nidal Hasan, Faisal Shahzad, and Naser Abdo all referenced that they viewed themselves as part of the Ummah or nation state, not as Americans. Though all were American citizens their loyalty to the “us as Muslims” (Ummah) outweighed their loyalty to the “Them” (United States).

Rather than admitting head-on the ideas that fuel the radicalization of Muslims around the world, Imam Hlayel chose to use his pulpit to propagate one of the most toxic myths, that is central to that radicalization process: that the 9/11 attacks were not perpetrated by Muslims, but rather, by “someone else,” whom he did not have the courage to identify. There can be little doubt as to his insinuation, though that he wanted to further inculcate the belief among the Muslims in attendance that they are victims of another bigoted conspiracy.

Leading into this incomprehensible discussion on 9/11, Imam Hlayel invoked a story before that excerpt, from the time of the Prophet Mohammed, in which he compassionately spared the annihilation of “non-believers” (or “kuffar”) in Mecca, who “hated Muslims and Islam”:

One time, an angel came to the Prophet pbuh. We know the people of Mecca and how much they tortured the Muslims. And they gave a hard time to the prophet and his companions…:
Now the angel came to the Prophet pbuh and he said, you know what, I’m going to do something here, and tell me what you think. He said, I’m going to bring these two mountains of Mecca, bring them together and crush everybody in between. I’m going to get rid of all these kuffar. I’m going to get
id of all these criminals, all these people who are making fun of you, those people who are mocking you, I’m going to crush them. I am going to extinguish them. And it is so convenient in Mecca, you know it is surrounded by mountains, it is like the Valley here, except that it is closer. It was easy. You know the answer of the Prophet pbuh? He could have said, I want to retaliate, like some Muslims today. I want to seek revenge. You know, I’m going to go after these people. This is, you know, the best time now. I’m going to see my enemies die in front of me.
He said (Arabic). He said rather, I would rather see that from their progeny, I see some people who come out and they worship Allah. I don’t want to kill these people. What if they, you know, if they don’t become Muslims themselves, maybe their children, maybe their grandchildren will be Muslims and they will worship Allah and not associate anyone with Allah.[17:52 to 19:52] –excerpt of sermon (video/transcript lines 180-201) from Anas Hlayel, CAIR-Arizona

Hlayel uses this to story to set the stage for his conclusion which bases the relationship of Muslims and Americans as a challenge where Muslims are victimized by the non-believers. His underlying message here is that Muslims must accept the challenge and not take revenge on the “Kuffar” (non-believers) because the prophet said::

“that this culture is of life, I want them to live. So I see some people from their descendants, their progeny, who worship Allah.” [20:10 to 20:20] –excerpt of sermon (video/transcript lines 206-207)

By this description non-Muslims are not valued for their individual rights and human qualities, but rather they have value mostly as potential future Muslims. Imam Hlayel bolstered that message when he told our audience that the Kuffar were spared in order to give Muslims time to “deliver Islam.” He also basically labels Fox News and all “those people” (presumably here conservatives and security arms of the government) that “blame” or “defame” Muslims for 9/11 as “enemies” of Muslims. (at 16:10-17:40) To invoke repeatedly terms like “enemies” is hardly a spiritually uplifting or moderating influence as American Muslims! He said::

It says all of a sudden those people that we have enmity with. There are some people who want to be enemies with you. It says then when you do this, what’s going to happen, the enemy will turn into a dear friend, a dear close friend, when you initiate the good action. When you initiate the good thought, the Quran is telling us the enemy will turn into a friend. Now that’s not easy sometimes when people are insulting you and defaming you. It is not easy, but that is the challenge. That is why it is a challenge, because it is not easy. So let us try to do it in shallah the month of Ramadan. I tell you the vast majority of this country are very nice. But we have to know how to approach them. How to deliver Islam. How to explain Islam to them in a beautiful way. And inshallah only good will happen, because this is the message of the Quran. [16:10-17:20 Video/transcript line 164-174]

One cannot help but fear that Imam Hlayel here is teaching us and our children who joined us for this sermon that “those Americans,” like the supposedly evil enemies at Fox News and those evil conspirators in the government, are Muslims’ enemies – and that they want to be our enemies. Again a message of “Us vs. Them”.

Sadly, rather than leading Muslims into acceptance of the fact that the root cause of terrorism is the supremacism of political Islam, he actually continues with the exact same denial and accusations typical of political Islam and its collectivism which prevents any admissions as to the harm of political Islam. Mr. Hlayel’s message actually equates the hate and violence of Al Qaeda with the belief system of millions of Americans and his supremacist fixation on the conspiracy theory that Muslims did not do 9-11.

Imam’s like Hlayel and his mother organization CAIR as well as so many other Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups equate the hatred of Al Qaeda to a contrived and exaggerated anti-Muslim bogeyman who forces otherwise peaceful Muslims into a primitive, tribal response of circling the wagons and claiming victimization. This allows them to avoid any acknowledgement whatsoever that al Qaeda comes not out of Islamophobia, but rather out of the ideologies of Islamism and its supremacist constructs of the Islamic state and its anti-western identity for Muslims.

Given all this, it is grimly ironic that while Imam Hlayel is the senior official of CAIR’s Arizona office, CAIR itself steadfastly denies that it bears any responsibility for contributing to the radicalization of American Muslims.

And one cannot dismiss Imam Hlayel as an ignorant individual – he is a well-educated engineer. So his absurd conspiracy theories and stereotyping of Fox News and the U.S. government is both Islamist, and strategic.

I wish I could tell you that after that closing, the mosque’s president and its board of directors added an apology for the offense he gave our sensibilities. And I wish I could tell you that CAIR’s national office apologized for the bizarre ideas expressed on the pulpit by the director of their Arizona office. Instead, for the weeks following the sermon, both the mosque’s and CAIR’s leadership have remained silent and his sermon remains proudly displayed.

This sermon through the eyes of our children

My children were with us at this sermon. Thank God, they are too young yet to really understand much of the nonsense spewed by Imam Hlayel (and other apologists like him). But the foundations of the Islamist narrative are being laid each time my children come to pray at our Mosque. Soon they will be of an age where this Imam and those that follow will have impact on the way my children identify themselves as Muslims and as Americans.

As we left the mosque, I thought about how my oldest son, only 9 years of age now, or any of my younger children for that matter, may react later in a few years after being exposed to a similar diatribe. Will they internalize these ideas? Since they know that I am in conflict with the imam’s ideals will they have the strength of character to question the imam or I pray to at least give me the opportunity to respond to their thoughts. Perhaps, once they are older, they will ask me questions like these:

  • “Dad, Imam Hlayel portrayed Fox news, where I often see you defend Islam against Islamists all of time and portrayed conservative Americans, which most of our American and Muslim friends are, as enemies of Muslims? How can that be true? If so, why did he say so many Americans hate us? Why are we still living here if that’s true, dad?”

  • “Dad, what does Imam Hlayel mean when he says ‘We need to find out the truth behind who did 9/11’? Why can he not accept that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda did this horrific act to our country? And why does he think that I would be afraid as an American Muslim to commemorate this attack on my people by going to a 9/11 ceremony. He said::

    As we all know, in a few days we are going to have the 10th anniversary of 9-11. And I know many Muslims are a little bit scared. They don’t know what to do. Do we participate? Do we participate in services commemorating 9-11? Some people are afraid that maybe the Islam hatred and Islamophobia will increase. Maybe some Muslims will be attacked. We don’t know. We ask Allah SWT to spare every Muslim. We ask Allah SWT to protect every Muslim and Muslima. But there are challenges and we have to be up to the challenge.[14:10-14:50 Video/transcript line 143-150]
  • “He even prayed for our protection if we go to these commemorations – like we were going into battle, possibly to get shot by our fellow Americans. Why would we need to be so afraid, and need his prayer of protection against all my American friends on 9/11? He told me that we are citizens and should be proud – then turned around and told me to be afraid of Americans. Are we under attack Dad? We are commemorating 9/11 at school, and he made me scared now, when I wasn’t before.

  • “Dad, he said, ‘Muslims should make our own opinion in this country and be proud of it.” .[21:45 Video/transcript line 225-226]. Will he be upset if I choose to believe that Muslims attacked us on 9/11 or does he expect that we all should think alike? He said ‘We are part of this society,’ as citizens. Yet he said ‘Muslims should form our own opinion,’ as if we are a monolith, as if we all think alike, and our political opinions were tied to being Muslim? How can this not be confusing? If I am Muslim do I have to forfeit my individualism and conform to a Muslim collective?

  • “Dad, he began early in his sermon by saying that we need to pray for all Muslims, and to unite and not argue. Shouldn’t we pray for everyone? He confused me when he used the European Union as an example of unity citing how over 70 million died in World War II in Europe, yet now they are unified under the EU::

    We all know in the last century what happened in Europe. There were 2 major wars and the first war, 15 million people died. 15 million. In the 2nd war about 55 million people died. A total of 70 million people. What do we have today? We have the European Union. You are able to get over the differences. Europeans fighting each other, country vs. another. And nowadays we have one big country. We call it the EU or the European Union. Within a few decades, they were able to get over the differences. Can’t we do that as Muslims? Inshallah we can. [9:48-10:51 Video/transcript]. .[9:48-10:51 Video/transcript line 104-110]
  • “Dad, those are nation-states that separate church and state, which came together to form a union – a federation. If we apply that to our own Muslim context, is he saying that we should come together as Muslims around the world and form a global Islamic state based in his version of shariah law, like a Caliphate? If he didn’t mean that, is he naïve enough to believe that we would not interpret it that way? This is not to mention that the EU is a complex union that has maintained each individual nation’s identity and sovereignty. How can we defeat the Islamists’ dreams of the Islamic state, if our imam keeps invoking nation-state examples to teach us about Muslim unity?

  • Dad, he mentioned enemies of Muslims here on TV and in society, but our families escaped from the dictatorship in Syria where I thought our real enemies were actually killing our people? Now we see and hear of Syrian citizens being slaughtered daily since their peaceful uprising on the streets in March. Why didn’t he use those examples of “kuffar” to talk about the Assad regime? Why didn’t we pray for all the citizens of Syria bravely dying for freedom that we have here and he takes for granted here? What is wrong with his priorities?


These are just a few of the questions that our children and other young Muslims may ask, upon leaving such sermons – and they deserve thoughtful answers. They most importantly deserve an exposure as to what ideas exactly Imams like Hlayel are actually pedaling.

When reviewing the ideas of Muslim leaders, we must start looking at how the gullible, fertile minds of our youth would take these ideas of clerics and activists like Imam Hlayel, and asking ourselves: will his ideas lead them toward loving and identifying with Western secular democracy (as in America) – or conversely towards needing and loving the Islamic state? His sermon to our community missed far too many opportunities, and instead, demonstrated a pathological mindset of victimization which remains the greatest liability for Muslims, and for American security today.

The only way to change the damage that is being done to the Muslim community, and particularly to our youth, is to demand transparency and accountability, and to have an open, honest debate over what is preached at American mosques and what exactly is the real ideology, self-identity, and agenda of Muslim speakers and leaders like Hlayel.

M. Zuhdi Jasser, MD is the founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix Arizona. He is also a former US Navy Lieutenant Commander and is a physician in private practice. He can be reached at info@aifdemocracy.org

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