How Islam Can Work with Democracy
By Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, President, American Islamic Forum for Democracy
[The following is a full transcript of the speech given by Dr. Jasser on Tuesday, April 27, 2010 as part of the Second Annual Oslo Freedom Forum 2010 held in Oslo, Norway.]
The full video of Dr. Jasser’s remarks in Oslo can be found at this link at the Oslo Freedom Forum Youtube Channel
My name is Dr. Mohamed Zuhdi Jasser and I am a proud and devout American Muslim. I am the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy whose mission is to provide an authentic Muslim voice advocating for the preservation of the founding principles of the United States Constitution, liberty and freedom, through the separation of mosque and state.
Our organization is in daily fight against the ideology that fuels radical Islam and terror–Political Islam.
Chronologically our organization was born out of the attacks of September 11, but in truth our AIFD was born out of my families fight for freedom and democratic values in Syria. That fight led to my parents’ migration to a small town in the Midwestern United States called Neenah, Wisconsin where I was raised.
In Neenah, I learned my faith and Islamic connection with God in a small mosque my parents and a few other Muslim families built in the 70’s and 80’s. It was there that I learned about the value of the separation of mosque and state. That small town mosque immersed in the glow of new found freedom taught me the clarity of love of country, love of liberty, and love of faith- three concepts in synergy and not in conflict, three concepts that molded my un-conflicted identity. It was a breeding ground for the values that I believe will ultimately bring Islam into modernity.
By coming to America, my parents spared me and my sisters the suffocation of the corrupt, despotic environment that has stifled Muslims in the Middle East during the past half-century. The so called “Muslim world” is trapped in a binary choice between Arab secular fascism (the Naziism of the Middle East) and militant political Islam. We have seen this struggle born out —in Iran, between the mullahs and the secular fascists that preceded them– in Saudi Arabia, between the tribal despotic monarchs and the radical Wahhabis who control the law– in Egypt and Syria, between the fascists of Mubarak and the Assads and the theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood–and in Pakistan, between the oppressive secular Pakistani nationalists and the Deobandi radical Islamists.
Policy debate in this world has been wrongly focused on this binary choice. There is a third option – Universal Liberty! As freedom fighters all of you know about this third choice. The people who live every day under the boot of the fascists whether theocrats or secularists also understand very well the need for a liberty based interpretation of Islam and government, but many have been deceived that the West and secular governments defile their faith.
My parents embraced this third option from their first days in the United States. They abandoned failed Syrian nationalism for American nationalism which gave them opportunity- individual liberty. The opportunities for all of us included that of learning an unfiltered history, investigating and innovating from the essence of our philosophy and our faith, expressing our every idea whether wrong or right, questioning every authority unencumbered by tribalism, fealty, or thought police, creating ideas, poetry, and music without censorship, and building free, liberal Islamic institutions that will eventually leave a generational legacy for our children. This comfort, this Freedom, came out of a common secular nationalism, an equality under one law, under God, under Reason, where every citizen, blind to faith, race, or national origin has equal access to government.
My grandfather, Zuhdi Jasser, fought from inside and outside of Syria for a greater Middle East that recognized universal human rights, freedom, and democracy. It is in his memory and my father’s who brought our family to the U.S, and for my children that I have dedicated my work for liberty and against Islamism– political Islam.
My family’s experiences in Syria and America have taught me infinitely about how a nation based in a unifying immigrant ideology with central principles of religious freedom, individual rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and an Establishment clause like we have in the United States can be the laboratory for Muslim reform and modernization of our interpretations of Islam. My American Muslim understanding of universal liberty came not out of a vacuum but from my family’s values hatched out of despotic Syria, a western education, and an open-minded Islam. It also came as a result of growing up in the climate of religious freedom and debate of the United States.
In recent years being an American Muslim has come with many struggles and heartaches. The attacks of September 11th, the Fort Hood massacre, and the recent exponentially growing number of radicalized Muslims have instilled deep fear in my fellow citizens and hit at my own understanding of what it means to be Muslim and what it means to be free, to be American. I now realize that the struggles that my family faced in Syria have followed us to the U.S and we must face them here and now. The ideology of radical Islam is a significant threat to the universal liberty and it is incumbent on us to defeat it for our children.
As I watched the soldiers memorial services of the fallen from Nidal Hasan’s massacre, I was hit internally harder than any moment in my recent memory, when I realized that the core differences between my own psyche and that of Hasan’s is a central, soulful understanding of Americanism, freedom, and the underlying battle for the soul of Islam and liberty. In fact it empowered me with the very ideas that I believe are the antidote to the pathologies that create the Hasans, Bin Ladens, Awlakis, Gadahns, and Zawahiris of the world.
The Islamist narrative tells young Muslims that America is a nation that is against Muslims, and against Islam. It tells them that America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are a modern day crusade to eliminate Islam. That narrative, spread ubiquitously in Islamist sites around the world, has served as a major if not primary rallying cry for jihadists like Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki who get into the minds of individuals like Nidal Hasan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Christmas bomber). Unfortunately, unlike my small town mosque, today many mosques have become a breeding ground for radicalization because of this narrative. Toxic petrodollars feed this ideology of a militant virulent form of Islam which is not only political and anti-western, but frozen in medieval times and is the enemy of freedom and individual rights. Their Islam is the friend of the tribe, the monarchs, the theocrats, and the fascist scholars (so-called ulemaa).
Our Islam, that of us Muslims advocating for liberty rather than political Islam has been choked off, even in the west, by the penetration, and permeation of the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafists whose resources far exceed anything we have yet to muster.
Many in the west from media to government to universities have facilitated the growth of Muslim Brotherhood front groups and the ideologies of political Islam naively under the guise of political correctness. Little do they know that they have facilitated an ideology incompatible with liberty and western society. Many of you in Muslim majority nations know that the Brotherhood is not the only party or platform populated by devout Muslims. But in the west, Islamists deceive the majority that they are Islam and deserve special treatment of religious freedom rather than the harsh critique of a political party.
But I know better; we know better.
The only effective counter to this narrative will come from Muslims who can testify and advocate a very different reality.
Muslims who like myself have embraced the freedom of thought to worship as we believe versus having to answer to “Mutaween” or religious police as you walk down the street in Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Muslims who are free to say that while the Qur’an is the word of God in Arabic, the Prophet’s life and times took place in a context that can and must be reinterpreted in real time and understood in modernity. Muslims who believe that we are free as human beings to dismiss parts of his example as historical and innovate not only in science but in political science, arts, and the humanities. What was relevant in the 7th century is not necessarily relevant in the 21st century. This is not heresy, but truth.
Perhaps most importantly, Muslims who realize that a theocratic Islamic society is still subject to the foibles of man and without the protections of individual liberty, open to the corruption which comes with absolute power. Living in a country with a secular government that protects individual liberty affords Muslims a better atmosphere to practice our faith than living in an Islamic society that is controlled by a theocratic despot no matter how moderated Islamists try to make their “councils” (majlis) appear.
A secular government does not have to mean a secular society. This is what America taught me. We do not live in a black and white world. We must show and teach Muslim youth what my family taught me in Wisconsin that a secular government, like in America, can be a beacon of liberty for religious freedom and devotional spiritual freedom. Yes, a government can stand against theocracy and governmental shar’iah while at the same time standing for the free practice of Islam.
These ideas are at the heart of the battle for the soul of Islam that is raging across the globe. As the contest of ideas grows in the struggle for the very souls of Muslims, the increase in the threats of radical Islam of 2009 makes me fear for the future that my children will inherit. Islamist ideologues need to realize that America is not Europe. Americans will not tacitly accept the Islamist vision of the world to dominate our society as the Europeans have. I fear for an increase in the distrust of Muslims within America and Europe as security threats mount. That distrust could quickly make it untenable for Muslims to coexist peacefully in non-Muslim communities.
At the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, we believe that the “Silent Majority” of American Muslims embrace the freedom that America guarantees and reject the ideology of Political Islam that at its core threatens the very existence of freedom. We believe that this silent majority must take the reins away from the radicals, the Islamists, and the victimologists and define a Muslim identity rooted in freedom of thought, separation of mosque and state and a rejection of the construct of the Islamic state, the ‘ummah’.
The Muslim consciousness needs a civil war between the ideas of liberty and theocracy. The Silent Majority needs to reclaim the very identity of Islam from the radicals and victim mongers who are a very vocal minority.
Our organization hopes to ignite a movement that unites this silent majority under a banner of liberty and freedom. It will protect a society for our children that separates mosque and state and the concept of one law for every man, woman and child.
No matter what rights I have or am denied, I will always be a Muslim. Even solitary confinement and torture will never take away my relationship with God. But what makes me alive, what makes me human, and gives me a vibrant soul are my human rights, my freedom to create, to author, to speak, and assemble. These rights while given by God, under God, are guaranteed and protected by government- yes only by a secular government. Once that government becomes an expression of any one faith, it becomes coercive and no longer a laboratory of genuine liberty. Just as the Muslim Brotherhood spread their ideas virally through booklets, tapes, DVDs and net clips and postings, so too can we liberty activists spread our ideas virally to take them on in a real intellectual civil war for the minds of our children of our communities.
This is why we have rushed to every opportunity to debate Islamist ideologues.
This is not about assimilation. It is about liberation of the soul from the shackles of theocracy and fascism. This struggle is the same for me as an American as it is for Syrians, for Saudis, Iranians, and all individuals seeking free societies. The nucleus of these ideas when presented in a fair playing field in every nation will win this civil war within the Muslim consciousness.
The security of the planet and the future of our children hang in the balance.
We must precede the seeds of radicalization by working together as a global unit of freedom loving Muslims and non-Muslims to lift up the voices of freedom from within the Muslim consciousness. We must encourage Muslims to speak to power, to speak against theocracy, to speak against secular fascism, to question authority, and be empowered to interpret our own faith. As Muslims we must teach our children to believe in the importance and predominance of these ideas over political Islam and shariah, over blind Arab fascism, Baathism and other toxic ideologies. We must do this for liberty and for our own future.
Lost in the battle for the very soul of Islam is your voices of freedom against the oppressors. Let our laboratory join your courage, your voices, your drive, your needs and together we can build a new future for Muslim majority nations that respect Reason, one Law, and universal human rights while not being dominated by governmental shar’iah or the illusion of the “Islamic state.” Together we can feed off of each other and exponentially augment our efforts which are otherwise in a vacuum- that is what the Brotherhood has done, so too can we freedom fighters.
Our Muslim Liberty Project seeks to give a voice and a platform for freedom loving Muslims against the agents of political Islam. Join us.
Let us work together to show Muslims around the world that there is a third pathway for Muslims aside from political Islam or secular fascism. Let us teach Muslims that universal liberty affords the freest practice of Islam. We dream of building a future of Islam through the separation of mosque and state and with your help we will bring this vision to a reality!
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M. Zuhdi Jasser is the President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. He is a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander and is also a physician in private practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org