Self proclaimed moderate Muslim says there is a 'civil war in Islam' - so where are the others like him?
January 3, 2006
Battle for the Heart of Islam
One in an occasional series on the disparate forces shaping the world's second-largest religion.
A call for moderation sparks tension
"There is a civil war going on," says a U.S. Muslim critic of more established groups.
By Andrew Maykuth
Inquirer Staff Writer
PHOENIX - M. Zuhdi Jasser still gets worked up when he recalls what some Muslim Americans said after the 9/11 attacks.
"Their criticism of America was just unbelievable," said Jasser, an internist who describes himself as a pious Muslim.
Jasser saw it differently. He grew up in Wisconsin, where his parents settled after escaping Syria's dictatorship. He was raised an observant Muslim, and he prays five times daily. He served 11 years in the U.S. Navy. He has a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker on his black Corvette convertible.
"I cannot sit idly silent," said Jasser, 37. "I have an obligation to do what I can to create a world where my children can grow up, and there's no conflict in their hearts between being American and being Muslim."
Two years ago, Jasser and a few like-minded Muslims in Arizona founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. This Phoenix organization was one of the first created by Muslims to promote a tolerant form of Islam compatible with a secular, democratic nation. The leaders of the new organizations say the established national Islamic groups promote a political strain of Islam that creates sympathy for the extremists - a charge the national groups deny.
"Until we as Muslims admit we have some illness in our religion that needs to be cured, we won't go anywhere," said Ali Homsi, a civil engineer who joined the Phoenix organization's board.
Daniel Pipes, executive director of Philadelphia's Middle East Forum and a foe of radical Islam, says the new voices are shifting the debate within the faith.
"I see the emergence of these new groups as vital to present an alternative view to Muslims," said Pipes, who last year helped create a think tank opposed to militant Islamists, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, in Washington.
The struggle in Phoenix is typical of the worldwide battle among Muslims over their faith. In the Middle East, the battle is waged on television, where several miniseries are presenting radical Islam for the first time in an unflattering light.
In Britain, still stunned by the July suicide bombings in London's transit system, the battle plays out over the "moderate" credentials of the nation's most prominent Islamic organization, the Muslim Council of Britain, whose knighted leader endorsed the 1989 fatwa, or edict, against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses.
"There is a civil war going on within Islam," Jasser said.
The leaders of the new organizations acknowledge that their ranks are small. When Jasser's group put together a Muslim antiterrorism march, about 400 people showed up. The majority were non-Muslims.
But the new groups have gained some legitimacy. Their calls on Muslims to alienate terrorists have resonated particularly with non-Muslims. Jasser was invited to write a column for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.
"Zuhdi seems to be that moderate Muslim voice that people have been waiting to hear," said Phil Boas, the Republic's assistant editorial-page editor.
The reformists are also getting the ear of Washington's leaders. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last spring named Kamal Nawash, president of the Washington-based Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism, to a delegation that attended an international conference in Spain on intolerance.
"We grew very quickly and were recognized by the administration," said Nawash, a lawyer.
In the United States, critics have long complained that Islamists have propagated their point of view through advocacy groups and mosques that relied upon financing and radical literature from Saudi Arabia and Iran.
"In the '90s, we witnessed the takeover of power in America by elements of the Wahhabi trend, though they don't claim that publicly," said Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. "They isolated dissenters to the margins."
The national Muslim organizations deny that they are under the sway of extremists. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which calls itself the main defender of Muslim Americans, said the council would invariably clash with the government over civil liberties. He said dissent should not be confused with support for terrorism.
"It's the nature of civil rights work to challenge authority," he said.
Nevertheless, Muslims are under great pressure to take sides with other Muslims.
"For a believing Muslim, asking what if anything went wrong with the Islamic faith is an uncomfortable question," Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl writes in his book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists. "A Muslim cannot help but feel that he or she is somehow playing into the hands of Islam's enemies."
Indeed, Hooper said criticism from Muslims such as Jasser was "providing others with an opportunity to advance an agenda that is hostile to the American Muslim community."
Marwan Ahmad, publisher of the Muslim Voice newspaper in Phoenix, said Jasser was putting his allegiance to the dominant culture ahead of his faith. Last month, his newspaper printed a cartoon depicting Jasser as the Arizona Republic's attack dog, mauling other Muslims.
"Jasser is saying what they want to hear, and they publish it," he said.
"I can tell you from history in this country, with African Americans and Japanese, that there are always small groups that want to associate with the dominant group and stand against their own," Ahmad said. "Eventually, the people who stand for their own will win, and the small group doesn't have any respect in the end."
Jasser bristles at the suggestion that he is pandering. "So is their point that I'm contriving this, that I'm lying about my religious beliefs?" he said. "These are beliefs I've held since I was a youth."
Jasser acknowledges that he is living an American dream inaccessible to many more recent Muslim immigrants, who are more likely to be impoverished and resentful.
Jasser's parents had the skills to flourish in the United States; his mother is a pharmacist, and his father is a cardiologist. The Navy put him through medical school, and his last assignment was to provide medical care to members of Congress and U.S. Supreme Court justices. His Navy uniform still hangs on his office door, beneath a lab coat.
"I have more freedom to practice my faith here in America than anywhere else in the world," he said. "I didn't bring with me baggage from the Middle East."
Growing up in the United States, Jasser became a "Jeffersonian Muslim," a believer in a clear separation of religion and state. His belief in secularism - that the mosque should devote less time to politics and more to spiritual discussions about relationships with God - causes perhaps the greatest disagreement with the established Muslim groups.
"These individuals want to convert Muslims in general to secularism," said Ahmad, the Muslim Voice publisher. "Islam is not a secular society. They want us to separate religion from daily life and politics. They want to take everything but religion out of the mosque. That's not something Muslims stand for."
Jasser said he did not want Muslims to separate religion from their daily lives. He said his faith governed everything he did - his treatment of patients, his respect for people of other faiths, his diet, his prayer schedule. But he does not believe his is a faith that can be imposed upon others.
"I believe in the end, God is going to judge me by what I did when faced with this challenge," he said. "Did I stand up and try to preserve that harmony between Islam and America? Or did I actually go asleep and let the radicals... speak for my faith?"