Speaking with journalist and author Asra Nomani for my recent cover story on her fellow Muslim reformer, Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser of Phoenix, I asked why Jasser draws such enormous flak from Muslim organizations in America.
Nomani has garnered her share of fire for her ardent advocacy of gender equality in Islam, specifically for her efforts to end the segregation of men and women during prayer in mosques.
But she has not yet attracted the same infamy and invective as Jasser, president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. For instance, she has escaped being listed as a hater of Islam on Islamophobia.org, a master list of offenders drawn up by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the seemingly ubiquitous Muslim civil rights organization.
Jasser has made the list, as has über-liberal talk-show host Bill Maher, a critic of all religion, including Islam. Maybe CAIR just hasn't gotten around to Nomani yet.
"I get my share of criticism," she told me. "But I go after women's rights. That's really contentious, but there's something particularly threatening about [Jasser] and his high priority to [go after] political Islam."
Indeed, in appearance after appearance on cable TV talk shows, Jasser hammers home the need for a "separation of mosque and state," which is bitter poison to so-called "Islamists," who have no problem with political Islam.
Of course, it's safe to say that the separation of church and state is the bane of groups like the Center for Arizona Policy, which seeks the eradication of abortion and opposes equal rights for gays.
In fact, one of the most disturbing experiences that I've had in a church in recent memory was listening to the pastor of a large congregation in metro Phoenix talk about how the separation of church and state in this country is bunk and that Christian churches need to be involved in politics, just like his friends at CAP tell him.
Following the murderous assault by deranged anti-abortion wacko Robert Lewis Dear on a Planned Parenthood clinic, CAP posted a note on its website saying there had been "a rush to judgment" by the media, and even if Dear was drinking from the same ideological well as CAP, this didn't mean CAP was to blame.
"Senseless killing is never 'pro-life,'" the note stated, calling the shooting "abhorrent."
I don't blame CAP or the Republican Party for Dear's killing of three people, including one cop. But many of my fellow liberals do.
After the shooting, a steady drumbeat began on Twitter demanding that Republicans condemn the killings. I was more interested in hearing from CAP president Cathi Herrod, who no doubt also sees herself as a "warrior for babies," though not in the same way that Dear did.
Some have used the Colorado shootings to minimize what happened in San Bernardino less than a week later, when a U.S. citizen and his Pakistani wife mowed down 14 people at an office holiday party before hopping back in the SUV for a Mad Max-like shootout with law enforcement, wherein both perished.
Sure, religious fanaticism of all stripes can inspire acts of terror. And yet there's a weird kind of moral relativism and denial at work in that argument that I cannot get over.
It reminds me of a quote from Jasser in a documentary called The Third Jihad. The film is inflammatory and paints with a broad brush, and it often is used by CAIR and other groups to decry Jasser's work.
This may be a fair ideological shot. However, despite the documentary's poor quality, something Jasser said in it stuck with me.
"Have you ever stopped to think about what would happen if Islamists won, and their version of sharia law was put into place?" he asks. "All you need to do is look at countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and Somalia, and places like the Gaza Strip. And you'll see that those places are human rights disasters."
Even if you quibble with his inclusion of Gaza, the underlying truth of the statement is unavoidable, as is the case with much that Jasser has to say about political Islam and why we must adhere to Jeffersonian principles as a bulwark against those who hanker after theocracy.
You know, like those guys in ISIS — or Saudi Arabia, for that matter.
Don't get me wrong. If there were a Queen Herrod the Great ruling over a desert kingdom somewhere, you can bet your Costco card it would not be a fun place to be.
Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, set in a fictional theocracy called the Republic of Gilead, comes to mind. Though I don't want to give Herrod any ideas.
Thing is, the Republic of Gilead is the invention of a clever mind. Saudi Arabia exists, and it funds the expansion of an extremist brand of Islam that has influenced the violent jihadis of al-Qaeda and, later, ISIS.
In other words, there are Islamic theocracies. Christian theocracies, not so much. Though Uganda's inhuman policies toward homosexuals might fill the bill.
So when Jasser declares that he is "an American first, Muslim second," denounces theocracy, and inveighs against "Islamism" (what he calls political Islam), he goes to the heart of the matter.
But in America, Muslims are a minority, a mere 1 percent of the population, and yet they are the new bugbear of the far right, with bad actors like GOP presidential candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump making suggestions so un-American and hysterical that they sound insane.
So when Imraan Siddiqi, head of CAIR in Arizona, says he is worried about Islamophobia and attacks against Muslims, it certainly is understandable.
He pointed to recent vandalism at a local mosque, as well as to a fire at a mosque in California as examples of hatred directed at Muslims. And though Phoenix police say they are not investigating the vandalism at the Islamic Community Center as a bias crime, it's not hard to imagine that it could have been.
After all, Arizona is the home of anti-Islam bigot Jon Ritzheimer, who has found plenty of dumb rednecks to back him in his armed protests at local mosques.
Siddiqi suggests that Jasser contributes to such prejudice, despite the doctor's being a devout Muslim whose family has built mosques in America in the face of local opposition.
Jasser and other members of the Muslim Reform Movement "create this faulty binary of the good Muslim versus the bad Muslim," which he says is untrue because the overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose groups like ISIS.
Still, isn't labeling Jasser one of the top Islamophobes along with real Islamophobes, like the virulent anti-Muslim ideologue Pamela Geller, way off base? After all Geller and others like her believe that Jasser is an apologist at worst, naive at best.
"Having someone who is their go-to Muslim is helpful to [Islamophobes]," Siddiqi said, and, therefore, Jasser is a member of what the CAIR leader calls the "Islamophobia industry."
I couldn't disagree more when it comes to individuals like Maher or Jasser, who are asking difficult questions and regularly engage in vigorous debate on the issue. Calling them Islamophobes is, frankly, ridiculous.
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Opposing the dictates of the overly religious is not bigotry. In most cases, it's common sense.
I mean, I take the John Lennon view of religion, in the sense of Lennon's song "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," as opposed to that of writer Christopher Hitchens, who famously believed religion was inherently pernicious.
That said, either one of these views might get me thrown in prison or my head lopped off in a theocracy. The San Bernardino terrorists were not live-and-let-live folks. And the only antidote to their faith-based fanaticism is what Jasser's been preaching.
Correction: Islamophobe.org is non-existent. The correct site is Islamophobia.org. Apologies for the error.