Written statement by M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D., for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Hearing, November 9, 2012,

Lessons Learned for the Federal Government with regards to Arab and Muslim civil rights in America eleven years post 9/11




November 9, 2012

 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Hearing


I would first like to thank Commissioner Peter Kirsanow’s office for inviting us to submit a written statement to the commissioners and witnesses at the public briefing held on November 9, 2012 concerning “Federal Civil Rights Engagement with the Arab and Muslim American Communities Post 9/11”. In seeking our input, you demonstrate the Commission’s commitment to including diverse perspectives from within the Arab and Muslim communities. In the explanatory materials related to the mission of this briefing, your commission specifically highlighted the notion that:

“Some of these [anti-terrorism] programs have created real concerns for the civil rights impacts on these [Arab and Muslim] American communities. Evaluating the success and failure of the federal government in engaging the Arab and Muslim American community post 9/11 is significant in terms of redressing the very real discrimination faced by that community, but may be also instructive of how the federal government should respond in national crises or similar future events.”

It is with a focus on evaluating the successes and failures of the federal government, as well as the lessons learned with regard to Arab and Muslim civil rights in America that I submit the following statement on behalf of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD).

Which Muslim Community?”

American Muslims are not one monolithic community, but rather a diverse grouping of communities with varied cultural, ethnic, linguistic and even spiritual backgrounds. We hold a variety of perspectives and ideas when it comes to our post 9/11 responsibilities and focuses. These perspectives are not always in agreement. As your commission evaluates the successes and failures of the federal government, it is important that you not forget this fact. Doing so would render your analysis both myopic and less useful in the long term. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights must not only protect the rights of those minorities who have been well-represented in the media and in the government, but also those who are “minorities within minorities.”

We encourage the commission to include in its analysis and also educate the American public about these groups, so that they may no longer be isolated and hidden from the general public. In the Arab community, these groups include Arab Christians, Jewish Arabs, Baha’is and others. In the Muslim community, we encourage you to include the perspectives of Ahmadis, Shias (including Ismailis and other sub-groups), Bohra Muslims and others. Avoiding this inclusive focus paints American Muslims as monolithic and makes any engagement of our community superficial. Also, avoiding what can at times be challenging discussions on varied Muslim ideological subgroups can actually feed right into the very stigmatizing forces that the commission seeks to counter.

At AIFD we have long believed that the education of America about the internal diversity of the Muslim community is central to combating intolerance and hatred that may result in the compromise of our civil rights. As we build reform-minded coalitions at AIFD, we actively seek out and include individuals from the various sects and branches of Islam who share our commitment to individual liberty and universal human rights. We also do extensive interfaith work as well. We believe that this approach helps to protect our constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. These cherished rights are a cornerstone of this republic and should never be compromised for any group. To compromise the civil rights of any group is to betray the founding principles many of our families sought when they came here seeking liberty.

Background: What is AIFD?

We founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) in 2003, in the wake of the devastating attacks of 9/11. In our view, 9/11 and Al Qaeda are but symptoms of a deeper ideological conflict within the House of Islam. We could find little to no prominent American Muslim organizations speaking out with clarity about the need to align Islamic principles with American ones. Among our priorities was and is a focus on how political Islam (Islamism) and its adherents directly contradict the foundations of our constitutional republic. AIFD, and now our growing coalition of non-Islamist American Muslim organizations were created to serve as that distinct American Muslim voice for reform against domestic and foreign Islamist movements.

To that end, AIFD’s mission remains to advocate for the preservation of the principles of the United States Constitution, liberty and freedom, through the separation of mosque and state.

AIFD’s founding principles include the recognition that Muslims in the United States are freer to practice our faith here than we would be in any Muslim majority country or so-called “Islamic state.” We believe that American Muslims are uniquely positioned to advance meaningful reforms within our faith community, exactly because America allows pluralism and diversity of thought to flourish. In the United States, we are free to challenge entrenched power structures within our community – a freedom not enjoyed by Muslims in lands where we are the majority. Genuine, transparent and open engagement with Muslim and Arab American communities is a key component of AIFD’s work, and vital to helping our youth develop a healthy American Muslim identity. Our Muslim Liberty Project, founded in March 2010, is based on this premise.

While we see no conflict between our loyalty to the United States and our faith of Islam, we do acknowledge that there are many who insist that it is not possible to be a patriotic American and a faithful Muslim. We recognize that there are both Muslims and non-Muslims who hold this view, and both present challenges to our work.

Muslims who insist that we cannot be loyal Americans and faithful Muslims adhere to a theo-political ideology referred to as political Islam (Islamism). Some of these individuals may claim loyalty to America’s constitutional principles, but reveal their true nature when they attempt to marginalize liberty-minded Muslims who dare to speak out against Islamism, and actively promote the American ideals of freedom, liberty and equality.

We have several programs to combat Islamism and advocate for the liberties that safeguard our civil liberties. They include:

  1. The Muslim Liberty Project (MLP): MLP is AIFD’s community building effort targeting young Muslims ages 15-30. Liberty-minded youth become MLP Ambassadors, engaging their communities on American ideals of freedom and liberty. Dialogue with their peers and interfaith efforts focus on topics like balancing an American and Muslim identity, current events, and the importance of community service.
  1. The American Islamic Leadership Coalition (AILC): the AILC is a broad, nonpartisan coalition of diverse Muslim organizations that provide an alternative to the global network of Islamist organizations. The coalition is dedicated to upholding religious pluralism, protecting American security, and cherishing genuine diversity in the practice of Islam.
  1. The Public Engagement Project (PEP): the PEP is a venue for information sharing and public debate on Islamic issues. AIFD’s experts are regularly requested to appear in the media (television, radio and print) and participate in public forums as credible and trusted voices on myriad issues. PEP’s primary goal is to demonstrate in the public space that Muslims are ideologically diverse, do not tow the Islamist line, and do take seriously our personal responsibility to counter the ideas which radicalize Muslims.


Civil rights protections must extend to all Muslims

Most discussions on civil rights in the U.S. emanate from the noble desire to shield identifiable groups, specifically minorities, from acts of discrimination committed by government as well as private individuals and corporations. We believe that while concerns of national security should not compromise even one iota of any group’s civil rights, those who claim to organize around civil rights should not be able to compromise necessary discussions on national security. There are indeed separatist ideologies seeking to threaten our nation, and their prevalence must not be understated. There is no doubt that, as this commission has made clear, since 9/11 we have seen “in religious, national, and ethnic communities the seeds of a national security challenge—especially within the Arab and Muslim American community.” We believe this challenge can be handled in a responsible fashion, protecting both civil liberties and national security.

In the context of civil rights and religious identity, it is important to recognize the following: being Arabic, Indian, Pakistani, Indonesian, or of any other national or ethnic origin is an immutable aspect of identity. Identifying as “Muslim” (or Christian, Jewish, Hindu, etc) makes one a member of a diverse belief system. Beliefs are not immutable, and as such can include a wide variety of spiritual, political, peaceful, and even extreme beliefs and practices. Both Islamists and virulent opponents of Islam refuse to acknowledge this aspect of religious identity, which is ultimately a tremendous threat to civil and religious liberties. For this commission’s work to be effective, it must remember that beliefs are mutable. This should be seen as a source of hope rather than a challenge.

Our democracy protects freedom of all beliefs, no matter how repugnant they may be, as long as individuals are not openly and directly inciting violence. Moreover, our respect for individual freedom of belief should not bar us from publically criticizing, exposing, or analyzing the ideas even if dressed in religious garb that may threaten our security. Ideas must always be open for discussion, understanding, or critique even if individuals or groups attach religious identifiers or language to their ideology.

Dealing with the reality of anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States does not necessitate its disproportionate exaggeration. Commissions like yours can preserve our civil rights without becoming unnecessarily apologetic or alarmist about the situation with regards to American Muslim civil rights or any group. Your response must be measured. If overblown, it fuels the anti-American narrative of our Islamist enemies, and it may also impact the ability of our communities to be taken seriously when more egregious and systematic infractions against our civil rights occur.

As a Muslim organization, we believe that it is in fact reverse bigotry when the government is overly apologetic toward our Muslim communities while actively ignoring the civil rights violations propagated against Muslim minority subgroups by some Muslim organizations and leaders. Commissions like yours must insist that discriminatory practices against women, “apostates”, “blasphemers”, minority sects, and other vulnerable populations within our communities end, just as you seek similarly to protect Muslims from attacks by non-Muslims in America.

We are certainly not calling for any change in the free speech or assembly rights of those groups who may advocate ideas with which we disagree. In fact, we can only defeat their ideas in the public sphere, with the antiseptic of daylight. However, it is also important that your commission recognize the grievances of our Muslim anti-Islamist subgroups as legitimate and deserving of national attention.

Let me share a few illustrative anecdotes. When California resident Shaima Alawadi was murdered in March of 2012, the media almost immediately reported the story as a “hate crime”. While there was a note at the scene indicating that the perpetrator may have been an anti-Muslim bigot, there were several other indications that the murderer may have been a family member motivated by tribal notions of ‘honor.’  Despite the investigation being at only its earliest stages, groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations had already reached their verdict: Shaima Alawadi was murdered because of the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.  A “million hijabi” march was organized, as were days on which women wore the hijab, or headscarf, “in solidarity” with Ms. Alwadi.

One of CAIR’s most vocal advocates, New York’s Linda Sarsour, penned  an article for CNN entitled “My Hijab is my Hoodie,” comparing Alawadi’s death to the murder of Trayvon Martin and comparing Alawadi’s life to her own. In it, she claimed that those Muslims who wondered about Alawadi’s death as being a possible “honor killing” had allowed “our internalized oppression to lead us to believe the stereotypes perpetuated against our community,” instead of “looking at Alawadi’s death in light of the anti-Muslim environment we live in.” Ms. Sarsour recklessly used Ms. Alawadi’s death (and Trayvon Martin’s for that matter) for her own political agenda. Those Muslims who quietly wondered about the circumstances around Ms. Alawadi’s death had reason to: rumors of a failing marriage, the discovery of divorce papers, and a daughter who somehow didn’t hear the screams of her mother as she was being bludgeoned to death. Many of us had the decency to wait for the investigation to proceed before making conclusive statements.

As it turns out, Ms. Alwadi’s husband, Kassim Ahimidi, has now been arrested and charged with her murder. Should he be found guilty, the damage to the relationship of Muslims and non-Muslims cannot be overstated. By making the conclusive statements they did, groups like CAIR cause non-Muslims to be suspicious of legitimate reports of hate crimes and civil rights violations committed against Muslims.

When Muslims like us question the conclusions of Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups like CAIR, they brand us as being “anti-Muslim bigots” – a tremendous insult to those of us who consider ourselves devout and/or strongly tied to our religious identity. The impact of their public bullying tactics is the silencing of those of us who seek to defend women’s rights and the rights of other minorities which these so-called ‘civil rights’ groups claim to protect but simply do not.

The case of Imam Luqman Abdullah in Detroit is also illustrative. He led a violent separatist group which stocked arms and called itself al-Ummah (the Islamic nation).  In October of 2009, during an attempt by the FBI to apprehend him, he was shot and killed. The narrative imparted by Islamists led by CAIR-Michigan Executive Director Dawud Walid continues to be that Abdullah was unfairly targeted, and that the officers responsible for his death should be penalized. Two investigations have concluded that the officers conducted themselves appropriately, yet these supposedly mainstream organizations choose to promulgate a narrative that Imam Abdullah was a “Muslim victim.” To the contrary, he was a violent Islamist separatist.

Unfortunately, many supposedly “mainstream” Muslim organizations openly and proudly ignore their responsibility to counter radical ideologies and foster the kind of productive dialogue they claim to value. Instead, they label Muslims like us as “Uncle Toms,” “Aunt Jemimahs,” “Agent Provocateurs,” “sellouts” and “bigots.” This is a civil rights infringement that your commission should not ignore. For, it happens not only in the U.S. but wherever Islamist leaders and their institutions have dominance over other Muslims and vulnerable minorities.

Improving the civil rights discourse: protecting dissident voices

The Muslim community is currently not a healthy civil rights environment for all its members. We are asking you to address the plight of reform-minded groups like ours during your deliberations, for we are combating civil rights violations from within our own faith community.

We categorically refuse to submit that the coordinated private and public exposure and analysis of that separatist ideology which we as Muslims identify as Islamism (political Islam) in any way compromises our civil rights.

It was very disappointing that missing from this hearing were the voices of reformists, minorities (for example, the Ahmadi Muslim community, which is one of the largest Muslim organizations in the United States), women survivors of honor-based violence and experts on gender based violence. We encourage you to reconsider your approach for inclusion in future hearings.

When I was selected to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and leaders of many mosques in America (Appendix 1) hurried to publicly vilify me with bigoted hate speech befitting the very groups your commission seeks to marginalize. They did so under the guise that they alone are the arbiters of who is and who is not “Muslim enough” for their constituencies and that any Muslim who criticizes the theo-political movement of Islamism must be an anti-Muslim bigot.

In a very similar scenario, when I was asked to testify to the House Committee on Homeland Security in March 2011 and again in June 2012, I was similarly attacked as being “not Muslim enough” if not “anti-Muslim” for these groups. They essentially ignored the substance of my remarks and attacked me and my co-panelists with the same invective they supposedly seek to prevent through their advocacy for “Muslim civil rights”. Unfortunately for many of these Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups and their progeny, the civil rights narrative is less about real infringement of civil rights and more about controlling the discourse about Islam and Muslims in the public space and filling the bandwidth of your attention with grievances rather than confronting our need as diverse communities to reform, modernize, and counter-radicalize.

Countering anti-Muslim bigotry

When non-Muslims insist that we cannot be patriotic Americans and faithful Muslims, they fail to recognize that reform within the “house of Islam” is a necessary tool in advancing liberty as well as protecting our national security. They also fail to recognize that liberty-minded Muslims like myself and my colleagues at AIFD are on the front lines in a battle of ideas, fought against Islamists funded by petrodollars and fueled by a malignant brand of supremacist politics masked in piety.

As I said in a March 2010 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Appendix 2), we (America) will lose the support of liberty-minded Muslims when we block the free Muslim expression of faith. We believe that those who insist that all Muslims are a threat to the United States are often operating out of fear, but also recognize the danger these tensions can present to civil liberties and individual safety. Just as we at AIFD are committed to recognizing and addressing radicalization within the Muslim community, we must also insist that when there are real violations of civil liberties and religious freedom, they must be investigated and addressed. Every effort should be made to prevent infringements on civil liberties and truly peaceful religious expression.

Our work at AIFD regularly opens the minds of those who may otherwise be suspicious of Muslims, by engaging them in honest dialogue about the problems we recognize within our community, and by promoting real, workable solutions to radicalism and violence committed in the name of religion and culture. The answer to both radical Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry lies not in the victim mantra of Islamists, but in the empowerment of liberty-minded Muslim voices. Thank you for including ours in this hearing.

Why is protecting civil rights for Muslims so important?

At the end of the day, the protection of American Muslim civil rights is not only a mandate of our rule of law and our constitutional principles, but it is an essential component of any wise counter-terrorism policy. Those subsets of devout Muslims who will lead reform and lead counter-ideological movements against the separatist ideas of Islamism which threaten our security are our greatest asset in this battle.

At the end of my book released this year, A Battle for the Soul of Islam, I include a letter to my three children, who are being raised as devout American Muslims. I remind them that being American and being Muslim is not about making demands, listing grievances, or being a victim. It is about being balanced in our enjoyment of freedom and rights in America, and never forgetting our responsibility to think critically and take a stand against injustice committed in the name of religion or culture.

I will leave you with a summary of “lessons learned” in civil rights from our perspective at AIFD:

Lessons learned

  1. Avoid an apologetic civil rights narrative where Americans and our government are constantly on the defensive.
  2. Demand consistency in the public discourse about the rights of Muslims from within and outside our Muslim faith communities
  3. Lift up diverse voices and subsets of groups within Muslim communities.  Recognize that Muslims are not monolithic.
  4. Avoid blanket and often blind (media based) criticism of counter-terrorism police work not grounded in actual judicial decisions and judicial review of cases or policies emanating from the rule of law. We do not and will not compromise on our civil rights, but we also will not submit to anecdotal one-sided criticism of homeland security operations without a full judicial review of cases in question where the government is allowed to defend its operations in full without compromising ongoing cases.
  5. This discussion should empower future tempered responses to any incident(s) in the future so that our national conversation about the Islamist threat can be had without being hamstrung by a fear of immature and ignorant reactions from American citizens or our government.
  6. Constantly recognize the national security threat of mistaking the above.
  7. Understand that American Muslims must essentially lead the public response to the ideological threat(s).

Commissioners, thank you for protecting our civil rights. An America that begins to blindly attack the civil rights of Muslims is not the America my family came to celebrate when they escaped Syria in the mid 1960’s. It would also be an America that will not avail itself of the leadership which devout Muslims have who possess the capacity to lead the reform necessary to counter the ideas at the core of this conflict.

Respectfully submitted,

M. Zuhdi Jasser, MD

President, American Islamic Forum for Democracy

Phoenix, Arizona