M. Zuhdi Jasser is the President of the American Islamic forum for Democracy. He is a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander. He is a former Vice-Chair and commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) appointed by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) from 2012-2016. He is a physician in private practice specializing in internal medicine, primary care, and medical ethics in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Jasser and his wife Gada and their three children live in Scottsdale, Arizona. You can find him on Twitter @DrZuhdiJasser
Canlorbe: Dear Dr Jasser, thank you for joining me. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are the first two Muslim women to serve in American Congress. Do you sense they are promoting an enlightened, tolerant version of Islam? Are they representative of the mentality of the majority of Muslims in America?
Jasser: Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) are simply byproducts of the Islamist farm teams that recruited them and trained them in the art of Islamist ideology and dissimulation. Those farm teams include the alphabet soup of Islamist organizations (‘Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups’) that exist in the United States including but not limited to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) for example. Whether future politicians all the way up to Congress, media pundits, or the many demagogic imams, they all rise up from within the Islamist populist movement in the United States and the West telling insular Islamist communities what they want to hear while claiming to speak for all Muslims.
Omar and Tlaib rose up in Democratic politics because they represent decades of cooperation and inter-connectivity between the Islamist movements here the West, if not globally, along with the far left’s progressivism. In 2011, I and other Muslim reform leaders were asked by various members of Congress to testify on the connection of the non-violent ideologies of Islamism to the radicalization process for militant Islamists. Since then, we have testified many more times on the Hill to the compromising influence of global Islamist ideologies and domestic Islam is organizations to our national security. The American Islamist groups worked in a coordinated fashion to attack me, the organization I represent, and the other Muslims in our Muslim Reform Movement each time we testified to Congress—their attempts at takfirism (declaring us not to be ‘real’ Muslims) were often less than subtle and typically disgusting. The Islamist groups and their domestic Islamist platform was piggybacked onto the social media popularity of various far left firebrands. They repeatedly attempted to smear us and never addressed the issues or ideas that we represented in our testimony. It is always beyond revealing how fearful Islamists are of actually addressing the connection between the separatism of their non-violent ‘political Islam’ (Islamism) and violent political Islam.
This is the classic method of Islamists—they tag onto identity movements and transform the belief in the ideology of the faith of Islam into an identity racial group which it is not. This stifles any real diversity of ideas and promotes a culture where the community is perceived to be a racial type monolith. Thus anyone who speaks out becomes a “uncle Tom” and against the tribe.
I believe there is nothing that better exemplifies and demonstrates the potent nature of the alliance between the far left and the Islamists (also known as the Red-Green alliance) than the so-called ‘squad’ and the combination of Congresswoman Omar, Tlaib and Cong. Ocazio-Cortez (D-NY) and Pressley (D-MA). In 2020, we saw the Islamist identity politics fit right in to the Black Lives Matter Movement and it’s racialization of every issue in its airspace. It is quite a cooperation to behold, even though ultimately the Islamists or theocrats in actuality agree with very little of the ideas of the far left for example when it comes to implementation of their draconian interpretations of ‘shariah law’.
The bottom line is that the template of the alliance between the far left extremists and Islamists is embodied in the relationship we see between AOC and her following and the Islamist members of Congress and their following.
To your question, and in pretty much every way, these two members of congress represent the current leading edge of political Islam in the West and its inherent collectivism and identity politics. They represent the stifling of dissent and dissidents against Islamism in otherwise diverse communities. They represent the empowerment of domestic and global Islamist supremacists and their Islamic nation-state ideologies over the exceptionalism of Americanism and of secular liberal democracy. Sure. They would ultimately deny this, and certainly there are some clear differences between Omar and Tlaib. For example, Omar‘s foreign policy is clearly proven over and over that she formulates her positions looking first for the interest and through the lens of the global political Islamist populist movement and then all else follows. She spins it to her benefit in a deceptively American context, yet you can see in her unwavering support of Turkey’s Erdogan, Qatar, various permutations of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and even Iran that her affinity for Islamists is something else! As a naval officer, there is nothing I found more offensive than her fabricated statements right before she was elected that somehow Americans killed thousands in Somalia, more than the terrorists we were fighting, implying that those of us who served in “Operation Restore Hope” were terrorists.
Canlorbe: You make no mystery of your Syrian origins. How do you assess Bachar al-Assad’s policy? Do you believe Donald Trump had the right attitude towards Bachar when, in April 2017, he decided a missile strike in response to the use of chemical attack?
Jasser: Bashar Assad’s policies are in line with the Syrian Ba’ath party fascism of over 50 years. The Syrian revolution which begun in 2011 needs to be understood in the context of the methods with which the ruling party wields its power. The Syrian Ba’ath Party is an Arab nationalist socialist party (akin to an Arab Nazism) which seized power by military coup in 1963. The Alawite (a Shi’a heterodox offshoot) sectarian faction of Ba’ath Party loyalists then took power in another bloody coup in February 1966. After the Alawite coup of 1966, the fascist Ba’ath transformed its predominantly supremacist political platform to incorporate a preference for Alawite religious sectarianism. Members of Sunni Muslim leadership were purged from the military. The entire leadership became comprised of Alawite Ba’athist faithful. Sunni, Christian, Druze, and Ismaili influence was all but eliminated. Non-Alawite officers who were ousted reported that in the late 1960s and early ‘70s Syria was on the verge of a sectarian civil war. This condition was often difficult to ascertain for blind analysts since like many Arab tyrants Hafez Assad ruled in a predominantly secular fashion rather than theocratic. Now this began to shift as the son, Bashar moved Syria into the complete orbit of Iran and essentially became a client-state of Iran as well as Russia.
But, in 1970, Hafez al-Assad took the reins from his fellow Alawites in another coup. Assad, in line with the totalitarian doctrine of the Ba’athist Party, ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years. Assad ended the Ba’ath Alawite in-fighting and the regime cleansed any non-Alawites in its midst, obliterating any Sunni protestations within or outside the party. To quell religious sectarian unrest, Assad placed a few party loyalists who were Sunni, Christian, and Druze in mid-level and a few higher levels of political, but not military, leadership, though most knew them to be window dressing and sympathizers. The Syria of Hafez Assad was much like the Iraq of Ba’athist Saddam Hussein, described by a pseudonymous expatriate as “A Republic of Fear”: “a regime of totalitarian rule, institutionalized violence, universal fear, and unchecked personal dictatorship.” Many of our Syrian families, after suffering for years in and out of prison, muzzled in every form of expression left for American freedom after realizing that a revolution to topple one of the world’s most ruthless military tyrannies would likely never materialize in their lifetimes.
The Assad regime paralyzed the humanity of 22 million Syrians for two generations using incalculably cruel methods. Brothers, sisters, families reported on one another to Syrian intelligence (Mukhabarat); many vanished, never to be seen again; and anyone who dared dissent from the ruling party was systematically tortured and made an example with frequent collective punishment. By the twenty-first century, there would come to be more Syrians living outside Syria than inside, and some analyses claim that one in nine expatriates living abroad provided steady information to the Assad regime on expatriate Syrian activities in order to spare family. The Syrian Human Rights Committee has chronicled many of the atrocities committed in the past 45 years by the Assad regime: the Hama Massacres of 1963, 1982, and again in 2011, Tadmur, and the countless prisoners of conscience systematically snuffed out by the regime.
It is upon this background that the Syrian revolution commenced in March 2011 as part of the greater regional Arab awakening. The Assad regime calculated that it would be able to slow walk a persistent genocidal cleansing operation against the Syrian people who are part of the revolution. While the first year of the revolution showed significant diversity with a proportional representation from Sunni, Alawaite, Druze, Christian and others involved marching in the streets, Assad did as his party always did, driving internal sectarian divisions to rip apart the country leaving his regime alone. He was sustained with heavy foreign sustenance from Russia and Iran in military, financial, and human assets. The Sunni population eventually was significantly radicalized with ISIS arising in 2013 in Syria and Iraq due to a perfect storm of Assad’s radicalization of Sunnis, their ideological influence from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as well as Iraq’s descension into anarchy. The growth of ISIS provided the Assad regime a convenient cover for continued military genocidal operations with the use of chemical weapons against the majority of the population who were unarmed and had naively thought the world would put enough pressure on Assad if they saw it on Youtube to bring it to an end. Sadly, Russia and Iran were likely the primary reason Assad urvived and the civil war did not evolve organically. The UN remained feckless as Russia and Iran consolidated Assad’s grip on Syria’s humanity systematically exterminating over 600,000 people and displacing 10,000,000 of Syria’s 22,000,000.
This is not to say that the West or anyone should have intervened in any way close to what happened in Iraq. What use is the UN, however, if ruthless tyrants can use chemical weapons and eradicate swaths of their own population with no repercussions. A Bosnia type response akin to President Clinton’s and the UN’s response to Serbia’s crimes in 1995. President Obama however did not just avoid military intervention but his administration essentially actively supported the Assad regime at the altar of their “nuclear deal” with the Islamic Republic of Iran and empowerment of The Iranian Republican Guard Corps and it’s Masters in Tehran. Their hundreds of billions of dollars handed to the theocrats as well as their insurance of security gave them a green light to spread terror into Syria along with thousands of troops and the empowerment of the terror group Hizballah.
President Trump’s administration’s response to the Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons in April 2018, while minimal in the scheme of what had happened in Syria to that point, did send a message that reverberated within the Assad regime, not to mention Russia and Iran, that red lines do mean something for this administration. It did appear to have some deterrent effect as limited as it was.
Canlorbe: At Trump’s request, Saudi Arabia, but also the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (who have just signed the Abraham Accords), promised to make peace with Israel. They also promised to stop financing, hoisting terrorist organizations. Do you believe those regimes can be trusted? How will they behave under Biden’s presidency?
Jasser: In Reagan’s words, “trust but verify”. But first, if I can reflect on the failed “Arab Awakening”? While it was not a Spring, except for Tunisia where a culture of democracy and some liberalism is actually beginning to take hold, a complete reset in the Arab world against tyranny, was certainly very appealing to those of us from families that have been fighting against these dictators, autocratic monarchs, and otherwise Islamist theocrats for now over two generations. But now after a decade of failed revolutions, there must be a better path forward? Somewhere between the 20th century’s ossified tyrannies and the chaos after 2011, must be a way forward? Some may appropriately simply say that no real democracies evolved quickly after centuries of tyranny and in fact often needed multiple revolutions before taking hold. Perhaps there can be a more methodical transition towards modernity with steady benchmarks of reform and liberalization?
The challenge as always, will be in keeping it from being too slow to the point of fiction which has been plan ‘A’ for the tyrants across the Middle East since WWII as they lied to the West about reforms in order to placate each new administration with a 5 or 10 year plan while transitions in power in the West along with our societal ADD gave them a pass. Remember the changes in 2011 created vacuums facilitating the re-emergence of tyranny and radical Islamists, but sometimes, like treating cancer, the patient has to get much more ill first before the dawn and return of health.
Essentially, a model of reform that I see possible, perhaps remotely, but possible, for liberalism and freedom may be an evolution in a brisk pace towards constitutional monarchies (as much as I disdain genetic supremacism), for example, that build civil society institutions that begin to modernize Islamic thought, end the concept of an Islamic state and its jihad, and instead look at their state and citizens through the prism of universal human rights. What we’ve been seeing in the UAE does frankly give some hope as does Bahrain, Sudan, and more to come. I so far have less optimism for Saudi Arabia relinquishing the dominance of the ideas of salafi-jihadism and its draconian interpretation of Islam even as the Saudis openly condemn and declare war on ‘political Islam’. Their track record is abysmal. But as we see them outlaw child marriage and make other changes, the principle of “trust but verify” may be appropriate to push them forward?
I am sure this is likely confusing to many non-Muslims, if we try to say, that well the Saudis are now anti-Islamist despite decades of supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups across the planet? And how can anyone blame them? However, please understand that the concept of an Islamic Republic, with an Islamic flag and an Islamic jurisprudence (sharia) in which the Qur’an is the source, not just a source of law, is in fact certainly still a form of political Islam, but rather just more of a top-down, corporate, theocracy no matter which way you cut it–while the Islamist populist movements (like the Muslim Brotherhood) are bottom-up grass roots (viral) theocracies founded in populist sharia ideologies. Regardless, of whether it’s a top-down corporate approach or a grassroots bottom-up one, if the state’s raison d’etre is based in Islam and the primacy of Islamic law rather than individual rights and the protection of minorities as in secular liberal democracies then it will always be anti-freedom and illiberal.
We will have to watch very closely if there is an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel whether, it will also be followed by new interpretations from the pulpits of the grand mosque in Mecca or mosques in Medina and across the country. The fact that we heard this coming from the pulpits in the Emirates and Bahrain is what made the Abraham Accords a reality to believe rather than doubt.
For the first time I do also see peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia as not only a short-term possibility but even a long-term one. The combination of the populist Islamist movement threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its radical offshoots of ISIS and al Qaeda combined with the threat of Shia Islamism of Khomeinism has shaken the foundations of the Saudi state establishment and forced them to reckon with monsters they helped create (Muslim Brotherhood and their mosques) while also pushing them to forge more meaningful acknowledgement of the state of Israel and the West. Let us not also underestimate the role of the Trump administration and the Pompeo State Department in making this happen. This early reform however will only be real when it’s met with genuine reinterpretation of the antisemitic translations and interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith (Prophet’s sayings) that the government of Saudi Arabia pushes. Not until their imams begin to marginalize the bigotry (anti-Semitism) of so many of those interpretations and begin to present new interpretations will that change be in fact durable.
As for Qatar I’m strongly of the opinion that we should begin the process of closing our base there and finding other options for our regional security. Their state propaganda arm of Al Jazeera in addition to their relationship with Iran, Turkey and global Islamist movements of the Muslim Brotherhood has rendered them no longer an ally let alone hardly even a “frenemy”. This should not surprise anyone. The Al-Thani family went all in the Muslim Brotherhood since 1961 when they have safe haven to the spiritual guide of the Ikhwani movement– Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. He has since been a close partner of the royal family aligned ideologically and strategically with a global reach of at least tens of millions of Islamists. We have long followed and dissected Qaradawi’s English and Arabic work and there is little doubt that he and his followers are the central cancer of the Sunni Islamist global movement against the west and our way of life. The Qatari government’s fealty for Islamists has brought them economically and ideologically closer to Iran’s Khomeinists in addition to the Taliban. My position has always been that Qatar sees itself as the global center for Islamists ie. “The Caliphate”. Their extreme wealth makes for a toxic global brew for most of our Islamist enemies.
I see no inkling of reform or change on the programming of Al Jazeera or any of their imams or clerics. In fact, only months ago did we see systematic Holocaust denial on the programming of Al Jazeera as they attempted to quickly erase history of that. They are too deeply embedded at heart and economically with Iran, Turkey and other Islamist supremacists across the planet to have any hope at reform unless their regime falls. We can only pray.
There’s little doubt that the Biden administration will simply be Obama 3.0. It may even be worse than the Obama administration because it’s going to trip over itself in such an exaggerated fashion trying to whiplash the progress against Islamists domestically and abroad we have made since ’16 that the pendulum will swing back further than even the Obama administration was proud to advance in defense of Islamists.
We’re already seeing this in the Islamist that was selected to be a senior White House staffer for legislative affairs—Reema Dodin. She is notably not only historically an operative with Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups like CAIR in DC but she also stated as a student at UC-Berkley, “Palestinian suicide bombings are the last resort of a desperate people”. With her likes running interference with the Hill for the White House, we may see an even more radicalized policy in favor of not only Iranian appeasement but overt support of Islamist interests domestically and abroad. What is certain based on how Dodin while at Senator Durbin’s office with her allies at Muslim Advocates beat the drum of Muslim American victimization against our testimony on the Hill, it will only get worse.
As for Biden’s foreign policy, he is already signaling that the Pentagon will focus on diplomacy first and the military second. So the Pentagon is a branch of the State Department? If that’s not “leading from behind 3.0”, I don’t know what is. Sources say he wants to “de-emphasize the military” and lift up diplomacy. If that vision is by openly weakening our defense programming, that will signal a green light to actually usher in more war, not less. Peace through weakness doesn’t work against thugs like Khamanei and Assad across the planet. We are thus likely to see a re-emergence of Islamist belligerence and a testing of the waters as they try to make gains against Biden’s apparent appeasement strategy. Now more than ever, our private work needs to push for anti-Islamist reformers against the likely ascendant Islamist threats.
Canlorbe: Putin is an ally to the mullahs and sits at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In Russia, Muslims are representing 10% of the total population (and Islam is the second most widely professed religion). Is the Russian regime a trustworthy ally in promoting enlightened Islam and fighting against terrorist, theo-political Islam?
Jasser: Oh my, is that a trick question? Just kidding. Domestically, as Michael Weiss pointed out in 2017, the Russians have long played a double game with radical Islamist terror, in fact helping fuel ISIS with recruits from Chechnya to give Assad cover and allow Russia to ship out the jihadists it creates. Regionally, Putin’s regime has empowered our greatest enemies—Iran’s terror regime from its IRGC to Hizballah, and Assad. Its state propaganda, RT, is finally listed under FARA and is an unwavering part of the Assad/Khameinist media arm—state sponsored media. They have worked with our nominal ally, Turkey (selling them missiles) and giving them the greenlight against our Kurdish allies in Syria. Part of their longtime interest in Syria is their only Mediterranean port and base at Tartus. Chechnya’s tyrant, Kadyrov portrays himself as a devout Muslim but he is a two-bit radical tyrant and Putin tool who has systematically radicalized his population while violating the human rights of every minority group from the gay community to dissidents.
As I discuss in my book, A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Patriots’ fight to Save his Faith” my father told me that our family’s deep seeded anti-communism and anti-Islamism is what drove them to become enamored with the West and learn about the exceptionalism of secular democracy and especially about Americanism. Russia’s Putin and its kleptocrats would never promote an enlightened anything, let alone defeat theocracy. They still have a state sponsored church and the other faiths whether within Christianity or outside have lesser to no rights. There’s a reason their entire economy is oil and produce no products of any kind competing in the free markets. The Putin regime is against individual creativity and battles of ideology. In order for reformists to emerge, we need a public platform of critical thinking and modern civil institutions that protect universal human rights.
Canlorbe: Both Maimonides and Averroes endeavored to conciliate religion and Hellenic philosophy (especially Aristotle). They believed the obeisance to God’s law was consistent with the philosophical, rational exegesis of the latter. How do you assess the legacy of Averroes in Islam with respect to that of Maimonides in Judaism?
Jasser: As a physician dedicated to treating the ill, your question resonates with me more than you would ever know. My chosen profession is as a doctor and it was the inspiration of clear broad-minded thinkers (and doctors) like Maimonides and Averroes who influenced so much of my idealism about medicine and medical ethics. Their confidence in weighing in on philosophy, theology, legalisms, and politics are an example of what I have always aspired to be and do in my own life even if their ideas are from almost 1000 years ago. Because it was not necessarily the specifics of their ideas, but the courage of their inquiry. Scholars have oft pointed out the strong resemblance between Maimonides’ “understanding of God’s manifestness in the order of nature” and Averroes’ “conception of God and providence which focuses heavily on God’s essential preservation of all species, and his role as the cause of being and unity in all hylomorphic substances.” Averroes, for example, saw God in every element of nature’s diversity. Averroes’s gift or legacy to Islamic thought was much like Maimonides, he took human feelings and sensations, like ‘heat’, ‘intellect’, ‘mind’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘creativity’ and used them to broaden our human understanding of God. To most Salafists, even the suggestion of imparting human-like attributes to God is blasphemy whether or not it is intended just to understand and relate better to our understanding of God. Giving philosophical descriptions of God using human metaphors and nature provided Averroes, like Maimonides, a flexibility of thought about God which in the right era of boundless human creativity and inquiry can become the foundation of real enlightenment and liberalism.
Similar to Maimonides, Averroes sought to bring to Islamic thought a “blending of God as pure unity and God as intellect” a very Hellenic thought process seen throughout Arabic discourse seen in, for example, the Theology of Aristotle.
Contrary to essentially every extremist or literalist movement in Islam today, Averroes’ legacy was about taking God’s unity (tawhid) and giving Muslims a way of looking at that unity, consistency, and omnipresence in a way that does not conflict and actually explains the infinite diversity of the human condition, our nature, and our laws. This is actually also the essence of our Muslim Reform Movement—an attempt to bring back such a deep understanding of diversity of thought and interpretations of Islamic law (shariah) in a way that allows us to live in harmony with modernity and secular liberal democracy through a separation of ‘history and religion’ or more allegory and less literalism. Averroes may not have explicitly gone so far as real liberalism. But then again there were no liberal democracies upon which to reflect for these thinkers at the time. But the foundations of his thought, similar to what Maimonides was to Judaism, gave metaphysical nuggets of what God is and what God is not, along with the infinite possibilities for human nature brought about by God. Averroes, like Maimonides, looked at scripture, the Qur’an for Averroes as allegory. This courage to go beyond literalism is part of his legacy and similarities to Maimonides.
Sadly, while both Maimonides and Averroes did their amazingly open-minded and deep work during the 12th century, both in Muslim majority nation states, Averroes’ legacy has so far been very difficult to find in the “Islamic world” if not lost to hundreds and hundreds of years of intellectual and philosophical stagnation and reactionary movements that ultimately dominated and decimated most free Islamic academic and civil institutions since his life. It is my hope and prayer that our work contribute not to what the Islamists want—a revivalism of the old—but rather a genuine reform towards a Western model of Islam based on infinite diversity of thought and protection of individual inquiry and their universal human rights rather than the oppressive collective and the proverbial Islamic state.
That conversation was initially published by the Gatestone Institute, in March 2021