Muslim Activists: To Avoid Future Tragedies Like Orlando Massacre, Reform Islam

Muslim critics of political Islamists say Omar Mateen was inspired by anti-gay interpretations of Islamic scriptures.EXPAND
Muslim critics of political Islamists say Omar Mateen was inspired by anti-gay interpretations of Islamic scriptures.
Via MySpace

In the wake of a gunman's attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 50 dead, including the shooter, and 53 injured, condemnations of the killer, Omar Mateen, who in a 911 call to authorities reportedly swore allegiance to the terrorist group ISIS, have poured in from across the globe.

Notable among these: a statement issued by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which decries "in the strongest terms the attack on innocent people in Orlando, Florida."

Yet, Saudi Arabia is one of the 10 largely Muslim nations where homosexuality can be punished by death.

Iran, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates reportedly issued similar statements, drawing criticism from a spokesperson for the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, who called the statements of condemnation "hypocritical," given these nations' lack of basic human rights for gays.

For local Muslim activist Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, an internist and founder of the Phoenix-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy, such hypocrisy underlines the need for reform in Islam and for constant vigilance against what he and others label as "Islamism," or political Islam, which is violently opposed to the separation of mosque and state.

"When the Saudis came out and condemned the Orlando attack," Jasser said during a recent interview with New Times, "that's no different than when they condemned ISIS. The Wahhabis believe ISIS is an aberration, though I would tell you that the vast majority of [ISIS's] ideas are simply a more frontal form of exactly what happens in the kingdom."

In Wahhabism, Jasser is referring to a puritanical strand of Sunni Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia across the globe, which adheres to an interpretation of sharia law that prescribes death for homosexuals, adulterers, and apostates. It is such interpretations that Jasser believes guide extremists and terrorists such as Mateen, who according to his ex-wife and his father was an unapologetic homophobe.

New Times profiled Jasser in December 2015, in an article published on the heels of the mass slaughter in San Bernardino by a married couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who like Mateen, were homegrown violent extremists inspired by radical Islam. An American of Syrian descent and author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith, Jasser argues that the teachings of Islam must be brought in line with Western and American ideals of freedom and liberty in order to combat the ideas that inspire Mateen and those like him.

During his most recent discussion with New Times in the wake of the Orlando massacre, Jasser said the Quran itself does not specifically assign a punishment for homosexuality, but instead refers more generally to the story of Lot, also told in the Old Testament in reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the story, Lot tries to save male angels from being raped by the men of the town, and ultimately Lot is spared the punishment meted out to his fellow residents: a deadly rain of stones from the sky.

"Is homosexuality forbidden in Islam?" asks Jasser. "It's interesting that in the Quran, it's actually pretty silent about homosexuality. There is the story of Lot, but other than that, it doesn't say anything about the individual choices, if you will, and what the punishment is, et cetera. Ninety-nine percent of all the hate and homophobia doesn't come from the Quran, it actually comes from sharia, from hadith, and other things that I think need deep reforms."

Sharia is the body of Islamic law based on the Quran and other sources, such as hadith, accounts of the words and deeds of Muhammad. The hadith contains passages declaring the death penalty for gays, and offering specific options, such as stoning offenders or throwing them off cliffs. But Jasser points to scholars who have interpreted the hadith differently or have argued that the passages themselves lack authority.

"That's the Islam I believe," he says. "I can't believe that God wouldn't treat equally people because of their sexual identity."

He says Islamic scholars either need to be "marginalized" or pushed to find a way to make Islam comport with modernity.

Although Jasser's organization is nonpartisan, he identifies as a Republican and is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News. He believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but he says that the "gay community might be right in its choice," and that doesn't negate his take on Islam.

"It's about tolerating other interpretations and other possibilities for a pathway to Heaven," Jasser explains. "That may not be my pathway, but all I can tell you is that I don't want government involvement [in religion]."

Ani Zonneveld is president of the Los Angeles-based Muslims for Progressive Values. She and Jasser are miles apart politically, but their views of Islam and Islamism dovetail in important areas. Like Jasser, Zonneveld faults a reactionary interpretation of Islam as being a breeding ground for intolerance.

Sharia law is a "100-percent manmade construct" and a product of a medieval era, Zonneveld tells New Times. She agrees with Jasser that "there is no punishment for homosexuality" in the Quran, and she says there are sacred texts that indicate that Muhammad's wives had transgender companions.

"The way we look at it — Muslims for Progressive Values — the practice of Islam today is the complete bastardization of the Quran," says Zonneveld. As for mainstream Muslim organizations now claiming on TV news shows that they have always supported LGBT rights, she calls that "hogwash."

Such "lies," as she refers to them, are meant to distract from the responsibility these organizations have for what is being preached in Islam and taught at its religious schools, which has directly led to the tragedy in Orlando, she says. In response, her group has issued a statement calling on all imams and all mosques to preach against homophobia this Friday, June 17.

"I want to see them do that at the Friday prayers," Zonneveld says "and to end once and for all this teaching of homophobia, supposedly within Islamic sharia law."

Zonneveld says there are Christian churches that teach homophobia as well, but that as "progressive Muslims," she and other like-minded followers of Islam need to call out those who preach that one cannot be both a Muslim and gay. Referring to news reports that the Orlando shooter had visited the Pulse nightclub before and had interacted with the customers there, she opines that the twice-married Omar Mateen may have been a "self-hating" homosexual in part because of the intolerant teachings of many in Islam.

Both Jasser and Zonneveld have been called "Islamophobes" for their criticism of Islam and mainstream Muslim organizations, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations. But both were born and raised Muslims and rankle at the epithet.

"They need to try a little bit harder than that," Zonneveld says of her traditionalist critics. "As an organization, [MPV has] built our positions on various issues, including LGBT, based on theology. And we have used the scholarship of progressive Muslim scholars and even scholars throughout the centuries. We're not reinventing Islam, we're going back to an Islam that is truly rooted in ethics."

Jasser's family has helped to establish mosques in Arizona and in Wisconsin, where he was raised. Nevertheless, CAIR has added his name to an online list of Islamophobes, alongside comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher, an atheist critic of Islam. Jasser says he sees such efforts as an attempt to place him outside of his faith as an apostate, which in a theocracy such as Saudi Arabia could be punished by death.

Jasser has been a harsh critic of his party's presumptive nominee for president, Donald Trump, who has made a ban on Muslims entering the United States a key part of his platform. When there was still hope of a brokered GOP convention in Cleveland, Jasser became a delegate from Arizona to the national convention.

But in a June 5 e-mail to local GOP officials that Jasser shared with New Times, he resigned as a delegate, writing, "I cannot at the altar of our party lend my name to the daily embarrassment to conservatism that Mr. Trump represents," and, "Never has a GOP candidate in my recollection fallen almost every day so far below the bar of what I can explain and take ownership for with myself and my family and my public integrity."

Jasser suggested giving his delegate slot to "another more malleable Arizonan."

Jasser is equally critical of Democrats like President Obama and the party's presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, if not more so. He did, though, give Clinton credit for using the term "radical Islamism" in a recent interview.  He hopes the attack on a gay nightclub by a violent Islamic extremist serves as a wakeup call for some on the left who, unlike Zonneveld, have been loath to criticize Islam for fear of being branded racists or Islamophobes. But he seems skeptical that it will be.

"I thought Charlie Hebdo was going to be a wakeup call," says Jasser, referring to the January 2015 attack on the satirical French newspaper. "And it was, for a few weeks. But unfortunately, the center of gravity of ideological debate, political debate, social debate in America and the West is so partisan and is such a force that we eventually after these attacks, after a few weeks, go back to the center of gravity."

Jasser adds that he hopes those on the left realize, with the Orlando massacre in the rearview mirror, that Islamist extremists "are targeting them too."


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