Muslim Phoenix Doctor Seeks to Save America and Islam from ISIS-Inspired Extremists

Jasser in 2013, paying a visit to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Jasser in 2013, paying a visit to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Courtesy Zuhdi Jasser

Two days after the mass shooting in San Bernardino at an office Christmas party that left 14 dead and 21 wounded, about a dozen Muslims held a press conference in Washington, D.C. to announce their prescription for the radical Islamist ideology that reportedly inspired the slaughter.

Authorities say Syed Rizwan Farook, an American-born citizen, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, a permanent resident from Pakistan, opened fire on a crowd at an event hosted by the San Bernardino Health Department, where Farook was employed as an environmental health specialist.

The couple later died in a shootout with law enforcement, leaving behind a 6-month-old baby, a cache of weapons, ammunition and explosives, and a lot of unanswered questions.

Since the incident, the Los Angeles Times has verified that before the massacre, Malik pledged her support for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in a Facebook post. And President Obama, in an address to the nation, has labeled the San Bernardino rampage as "an act of terror."

Whether Farook and Malik merely were inspired by Islamic extremists or were part of a larger plot, such as the November 13 Paris attacks that left 130 dead, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, remains to be seen.

But for Phoenix internist Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, the San Bernardino incident is another in a long line of terrorist acts that have resulted from the radical Islamist ideology he openly has battled since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Jasser's American Islamic Forum for Democracy organized the two-day conference of moderate Muslims in D.C. that culminated in the December 4 media event, where Jasser and the attending imams, journalists, and activists declared the beginning of what they call the Muslim Reform Movement.

Jasser told the assembled media that he and the others were there to answer the oft-repeated question: "Where are the voices of modernity, freedom, and liberty in the house of Islam?"

In response, Jasser and his colleagues offered a declaration of nine precepts, which, in the words of the document's preamble, seek "to reclaim the progressive spirit with which Islam was born in the 7th century to fast forward it into the 21st century."

Now a petition on Change.org, this declaration of the Muslim Reform Movement contains the sort of language that wouldn't raise an eyebrow among U.S. liberals.

It supports the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and rejects "interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice and politicized Islam."

The document also opposes "dictatorships, theocracies, and Islamist extremists" while supporting equal rights for women, freedom of religion and speech, and an end to all bigotry, including any prejudice based on "sexual orientation" and "gender equality."

It declares at one point: "Apostasy is not a crime." And at another: "Muslims don't have an exclusive right to 'heaven.'"

At the heart of the document is a Jeffersonian belief in "secular governance," which Jasser and his fellow reformists define as "the separation of mosque and state."

Following the press conference, in emulation of the start of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 with Martin Luther's nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, a delegation from the Muslim Reform Movement traveled to a nearby D.C. mosque with ties to Saudi Arabia and taped the movement's manifesto, albeit briefly, to the mosque's door.

A caretaker quickly took down the document. But the group of men and women then did something unheard of: They entered the mosque, where the women prayed in a central area normally reserved for men.

Jasser has promised similar Luther-like acts soon at metro Phoenix mosques.

Though the language of the declaration was carefully crafted by all of the original 14 signatories, the document very much reflects Jasser's concerns as a devout Muslim and patriotic American, a Navy veteran whose parents and grandparents fled brutal repression in Syria for the freedom of the United States.

Jasser during one of his frequent appearances on Fox News.
Jasser during one of his frequent appearances on Fox News.
Courtesy Zuhdi Jasser

Through appearances on Fox News and CNN, in op-eds and through the forum provided by AIFD, in Congressional hearings, and via his 2012 memoir, A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot's Fight to Save His Faith, Jasser, a sincere practitioner of Islam, has called out what he and others refer to as "Islamism," a political form of the religion that is anathema to liberal democracy and leads to radical extremism.

Jasser says it's not enough to denounce the violence of Islamic extremism, as many Muslim organizations in America do.

Instead, one must counter the concept of political Islam (i.e., Islamism) with American principles and ideals, thereby "inoculating" his fellow Muslims against the appeal of violent jihad, an Arabic word that can either speak to a personal, spiritual "struggle" or, in its more virulent form, the war against the West waged by ISIS.

While many praise Jasser's courage, large Muslim organizations in this country label him an "Islamophobe," deride him as a Muslim "Uncle Tom," Fox News' go-to Muslim, who helps anti-Muslim bigots paint all devotees of Islam with the broad brush of stereotypes.

And yet, as the post-9/11 cases of radicalized Muslims acting out violently on U.S. soil – such as the horrific events in San Bernardino, Boston, and Ft. Hood, Texas – add up, Jasser's criticism of Islamism seems both prescient and impossible to dismiss.

"I'm an American," Jasser said, introducing himself at the D.C. press conference. "I'm a former Naval officer. I love my family, and I want to ensure that the legacy that I leave for my children is one in which the faith that I love and the country that I love are compatible."

This is a recurring theme of Jasser's life and work, one that combines an unflagging patriotism with a deep commitment to his faith.

Born in Canton, Ohio in 1967 and raised primarily in Appleton, Wisconsin, Jasser's love of his religion and his country reflects the experiences and teachings of his Syrian-born parents and his paternal grandfather, Zuhdi Al-Jasser, a businessman and newspaper columnist who had a profound influence upon his grandson.

As Jasser tells it in his memoir, after the French administration of Syria – originally imposed following World War I by the League of Nations – ended in 1946, his grandfather hoped Western-style democracy would take root in Syria.

Rather, military coups plagued the country. Then in 1958, Syria briefly joined Egypt in the formation of the United Arab Republic, which ended in yet another coup in 1961 and Syria's leaving the union.

In 1963, the fascist Ba'ath Party took over, and Jasser's paternal grandfather's businesses were nationalized.

As a political dissident, Al-Jasser regularly was placed under house arrest. Eventually, Jasser's grandparents and parents fled for Beirut, Lebanon and later the United States, where Jasser's father would finish his medical training and become a cardiologist and his mother would earn a master's degree in pharmacology from Tulane University in New Orleans.

The family eventually ended up in Wisconsin, where Muslims were a tiny minority, and Jasser grew up as a regular, all-American kid, a Green Bay Packers fan, who collected football trading cards and liked listening to Bruce Springsteen and U2.

Religion mostly was a private matter, something he learned from his father and his grandfather. Country came first.

Jasser writes that his grandfather taught him that in the United States he could be "as Muslim as you want to be or practice any other faith."

Jasser addresses troops at the U.S. Army base in Ft. Benning, Georgia.
Jasser addresses troops at the U.S. Army base in Ft. Benning, Georgia.
Courtesy Zuhdi Jasser

This was a contrast to Syria, where, Jasser says, individuals "were classified as Sunni or a Shia Muslim or Alawite or Druze...In the United States, you were an American first and a Muslim second."

Even when his family faced some form of discrimination, Jasser took a positive lesson from it.

His father and other Muslims encountered local resistance, he writes, when they planned to build the area's first mosque in 1980, on the heels of the Iranian hostage crisis.

Jasser relates that his dad and the others took their case to the media, persisted in their plans for a house of worship, and public opinion eventually was won over.

In another formative incident, Jasser's mother, a naturalized citizen, was not allowed to vote in one election because she did not have her naturalization papers handy. His dad hired a lawyer, the family sued the state, and won a revision of the local rules.

"My father," writes Jasser, "though he had spent just over twelve years in the United States, had a deeply passionate and lifelong understanding of 'equal protection' under the law, a passion that he instilled in me and that lives on in my own passionate opposition to Islamism."

Jasser's life would parallel his father's in many ways. Like his dad, he married a pharmacology major (Jasser's wife now is a doctor of pharmacology), with whom he had three children. And like his father, he ultimately moved to the Valley of the Sun, where he would practice medicine.

In the young Jasser's case, he moved to the Phoenix area after a long stint in the U.S. Navy. He served part of his time aboard the U.S.S. El Paso and then was sent to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he finished his training in internal medicine.

During his final years in the military, he was selected to be a Navy doctor on Capitol Hill at the Office of the Attending Physician for Congress, which provides medical care to both the House and Senate, as well as to the Supreme Court.

In 1999, he received an honorable discharge at the rank of lieutenant commander and decided to join his father's practice in Phoenix.

While living in Glendale, Jasser took another page from his father's book and was instrumental in helping a mosque get built during trying times.

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some Scottsdale residents opposed the building of the Islamic Center of the Northeast Valley at 122nd Street and Via Linda, claiming that it was too soon after the tragedy to okay the building of a mosque.

Jasser acted as spokesman for the project, argued in favor of it before Scottsdale's Development Review Board in early 2002, vowing to move his family to Scottsdale to attend. He told the media that, contrary to the opinions of naysayers, the timing for the new mosque was perfect and showed the resilience of the American way of life.

And so the Scottsdale mosque was built. Though, interestingly, Jasser would be a vocal opponent in 2010 of the building of the proposed 13-story "Ground Zero Mosque" in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks from the site where the World Trade Center's Twin Towers fell.

In his book, Jasser says he felt the building of the Ground Zero Mosque would have been "insensitive to those who lost loved ones on 9/11," and would have conveyed the wrong message about his religion. Though he says he would not have opposed the building of a smaller mosque nearby.

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, in his office at his Central Phoenix practice.
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, in his office at his Central Phoenix practice.
Jim Louvau

In a September 2010 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, he struck a patriotic note on the issue:

"In relation to Ground Zero, I am an American first, Muslim second, just as I would be at Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy Beach, Pearl Harbor or any other battlefield where my fellow countrymen lost their lives."

Jasser's strident, pro-American rhetoric has been met with disapproval from some Valley Muslim leaders, who tend to regard him as a perennial nuisance, and his frequent appearances on Fox News as contemptible.

According to Jasser and others, this attitude toward him came home in an address by a local imam at the same Scottsdale mosque Jasser helped get built in the face of anti-Islam sentiment.

On his blog and in letters to the editor, Jasser called out the imam for haranguing him as an "Islamophobe" and as one of the "Muslims who go on Fox News and speak ill against Muslims."

Online and in the letters section of the Arizona Republic, some of those present at the sermon claimed that Jasser was not the object of the imam's ire.

But Jasser, who was at the mosque with his family for a Muslim holiday, the feast of Eid al-Fitr, still chafes at the slight.

"I guess what's insulting about it," he tells New Times, "is when faith is such a central part of your life, and they try to label you as someone who is actively antagonistic to religion, especially your own religion, especially when you have kids that are 13, 11, and 7."

Jasser explains that the imam had decried the "Islamophobes amongst us, and people who claim to be Muslim."

He ended up having to explain the holy man's words to his children.

"The Qur'an talks about 'spies' who were 'fake Muslims,' who existed at the time of war and were traitors," he says. "And that was the reference."

But the imam's mention of Fox News, says Jasser, was a red flag.

"My 13 year old – at the time he was 12 – turns to me and says, `Dad, I think he was talking about you,'" Jasser recalls. "Try getting a 12 year old up to speed on this whole dynamic."

The incident at the Scottsdale mosque offers an inkling of the blow-back Jasser's received from his own community and his fellow Muslims for his criticism of radical Islam.

For instance, in 2005, a local newspaper, the Muslim Voice, depicted Jasser and Arizona Republic political cartoonist Steve Benson — who had drawn a cartoon the local Muslim community found offensive – as mangy dogs devouring an imam, limb by limb.

In 2011, controversy again erupted when Republican New York Congressman Peter King, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, announced that he would hold hearings into the threat of radicalization of American Muslims.

Before the hearings could take place, they were denounced by many Democrats and many Muslim organizations, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as an exercise in religious McCarthyism and fear-mongering.

Because of Jasser's work with AIFD, King invited the doctor to testify. A crude Facebook page titled "Zudhi Jasser is a Clown and an Uncle Tom Muslim" took Jasser to task for his willingness to appear.

There also were serious threats made against the hearing's participants, Jasser writes in his book, and he felt the need to "hire private security staff" to guard him on the trip.

Jasser's testimony proved to be less controversial than what might have been expected from the outrage that preceded it.

The doctor spoke of the "polarization" over the issue of Muslim radicalization, with one side's refusal "to believe that any Muslim could be radicalized" and the other side's insisting that "Islam is the problem."

Between these poles, Jasser sought middle ground, stating that the United States "has a significant problem with Muslim radicalization" while maintaining that it was a problem only Muslims themselves could solve.

He rejected the "panoply of excuses" given for radicalization by certain apologists, like claims that U.S. foreign policy is responsible for Muslim radicalization.

"At the end of the day," he testified, "it is a moral corruption within a certain segment that is using our religion, hijacking it for a theopolitical movement that is not only domestic...it is global."

Jasser quoted British Prime Minister David Cameron on the need for a "muscular liberalism" to defeat the backward elements of Islam, as represented by terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and nation states like Saudi Arabia, where offenses to the Qur'an can result in floggings or beheadings.

Though the threat of ISIS had yet to emerge when the King hearings were held, ISIS' self-declared caliphate, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its leader, or caliph, eventually would eclipse al-Qaeda in this realm.

Jasser suggested to King and the other congress members that it was time to stop playing defense in the war of ideas.

"Until we have an ideological offense into the Muslim communities, domestically and globally," he said, "to teach liberty, to teach the separation of mosque and state...we are not going to solve [this problem]."

In questioning from Democrats on the committee, Jasser declared himself a "devout Muslim who prays and fasts and tries to raise his kids to be conservative orthodox Muslims."

He also rejected the "blind profiling" of all Muslims in America as unconstitutional and dismissed the suggestion that there might be too many mosques in America.

"My family has built a number of mosques," he replied to one such question, adding, "I feel [that] one of the reasons they came to this country [was] to exercise that freedom."

California Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez questioned Jasser's criticism of civil rights groups like CAIR, who advise Muslims not to speak with the FBI or other law enforcement without advice of counsel.

Sanchez asked, if law enforcement approached him at his office, say late at night, wouldn't he assert the privilege of having an attorney present?

Jasser's response was more nuanced than his critics often give him credit.

"Not all the time, no, I would not," he told Sanchez. "I am not constantly under fear from the government, because I have nothing to hide. I am not saying you don't have civil rights...That is part of the discussion.

"But when that discussion...dominates the entire conversation about Muslims in America, it creates a narrative that this government is against you."

That Jasser appeared at King's hearings is often used against him, as are his many appearances on various Fox News cable shows or right-wing forums, including Glenn Beck's radio program.

Sitting in his cramped office at his central Phoenix practice during one New Times interview, Jasser noted that he's also appeared on CNN, and on the MSNBC talk show Morning Joe. Recently, he's been interviewed by the Washington Post and USA Today.

But he acknowledged that conservative outlets tend to be more receptive to AIFD's message.

"It's not by strategy [to appear on conservative programs]," he says. "We pitch everybody... I think we do our share of centrist and liberal media, but by no means is it what we prefer, because in some ways, you're preaching to the choir."

Jasser admits his personal politics "are pretty conservative," but he says many of those who work with AIFD lean to the left and that his message aims to be non-partisan.

Even when appearing on conservative TV shows, Jasser's opinions on the latest crazy statement by a Republican presidential candidate or the most recent controversy involving Syria, ISIS, or Islam, generally are not reactionary.

For instance, when quizzed on the Syrian refugee crisis during one appearance in November on the Fox Business Channel, where he has appeared scores of times, Jasser argued that the Obama administration should impose a "no-fly zone" over parts of Syria, creating safe zones where migrants could stay and not have to flee to Europe or the United States.

But given that this was unlikely to happen, what did Jasser want the United States to do, asked the host?

There should be an "ideological filter" for radical "Islamists and jihadists," said Jasser. But he reminded the conservative talking head what America should be about.

"We can't change who we are as a beacon of liberty," Jasser said. "We can't allow these millions, the victims, to become the criminals, if you will."

What about GOP presidential contender Donald Trump's suggestions that the United States close mosques, or that Muslims simply not be allowed into this country – even if they are American citizens?

"Countries where you shut down mosques," Jasser told Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly recently, "are countries where radical Islam flourishes. [In] countries that are free, where you can shed the light of day upon political Islam that radicalizes Muslims, those ideas begin to dissipate."

Regarding Trump's latest, outrageous stance – "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" – Jasser termed it a win for ISIS in the propaganda war.

Zuhdi Jasser at age 11 in Wisconsin, with his maternal grandfather Subhi Sabbagh.
Zuhdi Jasser at age 11 in Wisconsin, with his maternal grandfather Subhi Sabbagh.
Courtesy Zuhdi Jasser

"This type of knee-jerk, if not demagogic policy stance," Jasser told Fox News, "is unmitigated surrender to the Islamist global narrative that they, ISIS, and all the Islamist theocrats of the world own what is and is not Islam and faithful Muslim."

CAIR and many well-meaning Democrats like to say that ISIS does not represent Islam, but contributing editor Graeme Wood's influential March piece for The Atlantic, "What ISIS Really Wants," argues otherwise.

"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic," Wood writes. "Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam."

In fact, though Saudi Arabia is not expansionist, like ISIS, the conservative form of Islam that it has helped spread, known as Wahhabism, imposes many of the same draconian, Medieval tenets as ISIS. These are tenets that oppress women, prescribe floggings for minor offenses, and punish homosexuality or renouncing Islam with the death sentence, under the harsh interpretation of Islamic religious law known as sharia.

Indeed, for Jasser, whose own adherence to Islam rejects such extremism, Saudi Arabia, America's supposed ally in the war on terror, was a nefarious, theocratic Islamic State long before ISIS came to the forefront.

"We say ISIS is not Islamic, and President Obama says it's not Islamic," Jasser tells New Times. "And yet, we sit with the Saudis and respect them being the grand protectors of the Holy Mosque [in Mecca], and we call the Republic of Iran Islamic, and these are the cauldrons that brew the ideas of ISIS. Saudi Arabia has beheaded more people in the last three months than ISIS has in the last year."

Jasser may not be off base. In August, the British newspaper the Independent reported that according to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia executes people at the rate of one "every two days." The article cited the kingdom's "system of religion-backed sharia law" and noted that some of the beheadings, often carried out in public, involved such offenses as "adultery, 'apostasy,' witchcraft, and sorcery."

Jasser traveled to Saudi Arabia in December 2013, as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, arriving a day before his delegation so he could visit Mecca.

This was not the hajj, the religious pilgrimage that devout Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetimes but rather a less-involved version of the hajj, known as umrah, which contains many of the same elements.

Because of his criticism of Islam as practiced by Saudi Arabia, Jasser doubts that he would have been able to travel there, were it not on a diplomatic passport from the USCIRF.

During the umrah, pilgrims are clothed in a white sheet, removing all class or other distinction, he explains. Men and women walk together and are not separated like they are in many mosques, where women often are made to sit in the back, behind men.

"It's just all spiritual," Jasser says of his visit to the Masjid al-Haram, the sacred mosque that surrounds Islam's holiest site, the black-shrouded kaaba, the temple toward which Muslims all over the world are supposed to pray.

"And then you walk outside of that mosque," he adds, "and [Saudi Arabia] is one of the most heinous, racist, materialistic, and I think, un-Islamic societies on the planet."

Jasser argues that the West's hunger for oil and the Saudis' profit from this addiction has allowed the Saudis to spread fundamentalist Islam worldwide, leading to the rise of al-Qaeda and later ISIS.

Thanks to the Internet, this version of Islam, and what Jasser calls Islamism, or political Islam, can infect the minds of wannabe radicals in places like Phoenix and San Bernardino.

Thus making the need for a Muslim Reform Movement, like the AIFD helped put together in D.C. recently, ever more pressing.

In the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, talking heads for the major Muslim groups in the country warned of Islamophobia, but Jasser believes this avoids a more difficult conversation.

"They stick to their talking points," Jasser says. "Like, `Oh, this is not Islamic, [the violent jihadists] are always killing Muslims, etc."

Which according to Jasser, does not change the negative view that many Americans have of his religion, nor does it make the U.S. safer.

But the declaration of the Muslim Reform Movement, he says, creates a "firewall" between it and apologetic Muslim organizations, a red line that allows Americans to see who is part of the problem versus who is part of the solution.

"What we want to do is sort of like when President Kennedy said we want to go to the moon," Jasser explains. "He didn't debate whether we had the science to do it; he knew it could be done."

Similarly, Jasser says the Muslim Reform Movement's declaration is a diagnosis of a type of cancer in Islam.

"The laboratory research in how to [cure] it will be done over the next generation," he says. "But we will separate mosque and state in our lifetime."


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