Moderate American Muslim Gives a Challenging Response to the Six Imams

Moderate American Muslim gives a challenging response to the six imams March 29, 2007 By Tribune Star Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of Phoenix was deeply troubled after 9-11. A Muslim, he saw his faith threatened by extremists seeking to hijack it for political ends. “Islam is a spiritual path,” he says. “The mixture of politics and religion is toxic to our faith.” In 2003, Jasser founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy with several like-minded Arizona Muslims. “We are pro-Islam and anti-Islamist,” he says. In Jasser’s view, Islamists believe that governments should incorporate Islamic law, and that spiritual leaders should also be political leaders. Though he is well-known in Arizona, he has not been visible outside the state. But that changed a few weeks ago, when he publicly challenged the six imams who filed suit after being detained at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Five of them are from Arizona, and Jasser knows several of them, he says. He has volunteered to raise money to help any passengers they sue for reporting their behavior, as they have threatened to do. Suddenly Jasser is a sought-after radio and TV commentator. His new role is taking lots of time, a scarce commodity for Jasser, who practices internal medicine and is president of the Arizona Medical Association. But he believes that a Muslim voice is critical in response to the imams’ charges, which include one that they were discriminated against for praying in the airport gate area. “Americans are so worried about offending religious sensibilities,” he says. “We as Muslims must step forward and say, ‘This is not about prayer, it’s about airline security.’ ” The context in which faith is displayed is important, according to Jasser. “I pray five times a day; for example, I pray publicly in the park with my family when we are on a picnic,” he says. “But the issue is one of prudence. After 9/11, the airport gate is the most anxiety-laden area for Americans. It is supreme naivete for these individuals to feel the way to exercise their religious freedom is embodied by their ability to pray as a group at an airport gate.” The imams could have prayed quietly in their seats on the plane or after they arrived home, says Jasser, as several of them did. This is what “less rigid but equally devout Muslims” would have done, he adds. “Prayer is not about demonstrating your piety to the world. It’s about a personal appointment with God.” Unfortunately, the imams’ prayers at the gate only created resentment, not the understanding and acceptance of Islam they claim to seek from others, says Jasser. “Muslims’ freedoms and rights are guaranteed in the Constitution,” he explains. “But even more important to our freedom is the tenor of our relationship with the majority of Americans.” At home in the Phoenix area, the imams often mix prayer with politics, according to Jasser. He cites the Tempe Islamic Community Center, where Ahmed Shqeirat, one of the detained men, is imam, and where Jasser often used to attend prayers. Shortly after the Iraq war began, Jasser says, Shqeirat displayed during Friday services an inflammatory picture of an American soldier making sport of an Iraqi child. When Jassser objected, saying that he had come for spiritual nourishment, not politics, Shqeirat accused him of being “secular” and causing division, he says. In response, Shqueirat says that he displayed the picture only to demonstrate that American soldiers need more multicultural education. Jasser’s views on separation of religion and state are extreme, Shqueirat adds. Jasser also cites the imams’ refusal to participate in a rally called “Standing with Muslims against Terrorism,” which he organized in Phoenix in April 2004. The Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix endorsed the rally, and praised Jasser as “one of the most vigorous and articulate spokesmen in America denouncing indiscriminate violence in the name of Islam.” But Jasser says the imams backed out after they learned that the rally would focus only on Islam’s prohibitions against the targeting of innocents, and not on potential justifications for terrorism such as American foreign policy and Israel. Shqeirat responds that they did not attend because Jasser insisted on approving their speeches and signs in advance. Jasser, he says, is seeking attention because he aspires to political office (a claim Jasser denies), and is not authorized to speak for any Muslim community. “I believe I represent the views of the large majority of Muslims in this country,” says Jasser. “They are repulsed by political sermons, by apologetics for terrorism. The vast majority do want to separate their spiritual identity from their political identity.”

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