An Opposing Viewpoint to Dr. Zuhdi Jasser
With the onset of the recent series of hearings by Rep. Peter King regarding Radicalization in the Muslim Community – the residents of Phoenix, AZ have seen a local figure emerge into a national star, of sorts. Dr. Zuhdi Jasser has been a very prominent figure locally – in my 6 years in the Phoenix area, he has been one of the only Muslims featured in the our local media outlets on a consistent basis. He has now emerged onto the national scene as a Fox News contributor, along with his role as a “concerned Muslim citizen” in the King hearings. In doing so, the doctor has carved out a niche for himself in the mainstream media, with widespread publication and a seemingly endless stream of soundbites.
While Dr. Jasser is certainly welcome and encouraged to give his opinion regarding these matters – one thing needs to be made clear: He does not speak for, nor represent the Muslim community at large. His writings and viewpoints do reflect a concern and condemnation for radicalization and terrorism – something that virtually every Muslim would agree with. However this is where the similarities end, and a stream of fear-mongering, academic dishonesty and opportunism begins.
You see, the doctor truly loves his religion – and nobody, including fellow Muslims can question that point. He just has an odd way of showing the love, so to speak. As the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, he seems to be the new opinion-leader regarding Islam’s relationship with the west. During the most tumultuous time for Muslims in American history, the picture that Dr. Jasser continues to paint is far from flattering. In Jasser’s 3/21 op-ed Q&A piece in the Arizona Republic found here, he states (correctly) that “Islam is not monolithic,” and that there are many different viewpoints and interpretations of scriptures, laws and practice. These are all true and valid points – however in reading Dr. Jasser’s writings, he has done an injustice to the Muslim community through a pattern of creating suspicion, buzzword-labels, while defaming those who oppose his point of view. Let’s be clear: The Dr. is prescribing fear among the public – a fear of what he labels “Islamists, Wahhabists, and Salafists.” These are labels that re-appear ad-nauseum in his writings and on his TV appearances. In doing so, Jasser has successfully contributed to foment a climate of fear among the public – one that is now boiling over into hatred of Muslims in many communities.
To 99.9% of Muslims – these terms: “Islamists, Wahhabists and Salafists” have absolutely no meaning. These are imaginary labels that have been dreamt up and propagated by talking heads within the media in a feeble, inaccurate attempt to define the Muslim community. In the case of Jasser’s political ambitions, he claims to represent a “reform” approach, while his opponents who follow the Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) are labeled as “revivalists.” So as a product of Jasser’s innuendo: Revivalist = Salafist. Add a few cups of militancy, and you get a Wahhabist. In Jasser’s world, you are seemingly with him, or against him, contrary to his previous point that there is room for variety of opinion. In his previous writings, he has referred to “Islamists” and “Salafists” coupled with the words: malignant, enemy, and war. One such column from 2009 can be found here: http://www.mzuhdijasser.com/3332/defeating-salafism-and-wahhabism-the-right-way
Based off this information, it doesn’t seem like the Jasser of 2011 doesn’t seem to embrace diversity of opinion, nor dialogue among the Muslim community. His writings also highlight a very telling viewpoint of how to deal with the so-called “Islamists” based off the model of — wait for it – Tajikistan. Dr. Jasser highlights how this Central Asian Republic has dealt with political opposition from what he labels “Islamist” parties over the years. It’s a telling sign, when you attempt to use an example of a country with a president – Emomali Rahmon, who is going on his 20th year in office. In light of recent world events, we have seen that America shouldn’t take Democratic leads from oil-rich despots who have been in office for decades.
But zoom in a little further into Jasser’s writings – and find out that:
A) He is great at creating scary labels for groups
B) He doesn’t offer any real solutions.
Sure, he is trying to import a pseudo-Tajik model here – but do it with an American vibe – but what does that mean? To paraphrase that thought process: We couldn’t possibly just bomb ALL the Muslim countries into submission, there’s 1.5 Billion of them. We couldn’t possibly shut down ALL the mosques in the U.S, that would violate the constitution. We couldn’t possibly have editorial control over all the imams in America, that would be too costly and time consuming. What you are seeing in Jasser’s pieces is a seemingly endless stream of open ended, solution-less ideas. Those are coupled with fear-mongering and labeling those who Jasser perceives as “other” than his belief system. So what do we do about those labels?
Glenn Beck’s Favorite Muslim
While Jasser portrays the role of a concerned Muslim, his political alliances, along with the outlets for his opinions provide for strange bedfellows. He is the star witness of a man (King,) who has claimed that there are “too many mosques in America”, and that Islamophobia is largely imagined. He is a frequent guest on Fox News, a channel that also prominently features Islamophobes such as Brigitte Gabriel, Robert Spencer, Steven Emerson, and Pamela Geller – founder of what the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a hate group (Stop the Islamicization of America.) All these individuals have been fervent supporters of King’s hearings – with the exception of hate-mongers Geller and Spencer, due to the fact that they weren’t called to testify. While these individuals are given free-reign to spew hatred and misinformation through the airwaves, Fox brings a Muslim in Jasser, who in-turn, reinforces many of these same stereotypes. He has appeared with the hate-monger Spencer and Evangelist Wallid Shoebat on Christian programming – as a supposed defender of Islam. On programs such as these – the validity of Islam – the religion as a whole, is brought into question – and not the actions of a fraction of the faith’s adherents. The talking heads are able to express their utter disdain for the religion as a whole, cleverly framing this as a debate with a contemporary Muslim. While Jasser is able to semi-defend Muslims, he continues forth with his labels – in this debate dismissing the Islamic Society of North America as “apologetics,” while throwing the Salafist and Wahhabist terms out left and right. The question we must ask: Why are you allowing megalomaniacs such as Robert Spencer, Wallid Shoebat or any other of these aforementioned names define for you which faiths are or are not compatible with democracy and modern-day humanity? While one (Spencer) has been proven to be one of the foremost hate-mongers in American society today, the other – Shoebat, has been proven to be a fraud, with a fabricated past as an “ex-Palestinian terrorist.” His claims have even been debunked by the Israeli Defense Forces; however Mr. Shoebat remains as a prominent face in the anti-Islam movement. Appearing with those who represent the gutter of society will not help you achieve your goal of educating the public.
The Religious Maverick
And while he is successful in stoking fear among his audiences, his religious opinions and positions are highly controversial and lack a true scholastic backing. He is dismissive of large parts of Islamic religious traditions, or Sunnah in Arabic. Needless to say, this position is unpopular among the vast majority of Muslims — as the detailed instructions on how to pray, purify, pay charity, perform the hajj pilgrimage – just to scratch the surface, are all outlined within the Sunnah, therefore ignoring or glossing over this major aspect of the faith, is impossible from a scholarly perspective. That would be akin to basing U.S. law solely off the Bill of Rights – no Amendments or additional elaboration within the Constitution needed. You know you’re in trouble when Robert Spencer actually says something true – as when he told Jasser “you don’t have a theological leg to stand on.”
Jasser explicitly states that the so-called Salafists and Wahhabists arise from those who are revivalists, i.e. who are interested in practicing following the traditional Sunnah of Islam. His writings are quick to label groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) as arms of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with regurgitating far-right wing, defamatory allegations against these groups. You know who else frequently repeat those same talking points? The aforementioned Spencer, Geller, Gabriel and Emerson, to name a few. In reality, groups like CAIR are serving their explicitly stated purpose, in defending the rights of Muslims in the United States and Canada. Sadly, with an exponential growth in anti-Muslim bias crimes – such as shootings, mosque vandalism, and constant harassment that the Muslim community has faced recently – the role of groups such as CAIR has become that much more prominent. Here is where Jasser and Rep. King seemingly enter the picture.
In the world of King and Jasser – there are two realities. In their world, the majority of mosques are have a radical element, and the pervasiveness of demonized groups such as CAIR, is eroding American society. Outside of this narrow-minded circle however, exists the true reality. On a local level, the very same mosques and leaders that Jasser has demonized in his writings and recent testimony –are out at interfaith events within the local Phoenix community and having many positive interactions. I personally have attended a series of events at the Paradise Valley United Methodist Church with Jewish and Christian congregations and leadership. At these events, Muslims, Christians and Jews along with their clergy sat down and discussed in depth the commonalities and misrepresentations of their religions. The scope of the Muslims, Jews and Christians spanned all levels of faith and tradition – and there was a greater understanding achieved by conducting this dialogue. And while Jasser likes to use terms such as “Muslim separatism,” the truth is that successful interfaith activities such as these are nothing new to Arizona, or nationally.
On a national level – the same group that King and Jasser demonize, CAIR, is doing vital work as well. King states that Islamophobia is imaginary, and that groups like CAIR have been “delegitimized.” Reality tells us however, that CAIR is serving a vital function in helping drive attention to a rash of hatred that has been directed at the Muslim and immigrant communities. Within the last year, we have heard stories of a cab driver having his throat slashed because he was a Muslim. We have seen numerous mosques torched, along with actual bombs and vandalism at these houses of worship. In fact, the very mosque that Jasser attends locally was vandalized during the Pastor Terry Jones Quran controversy. For Jasser and King to level allegations and suspicion to CAIR – a group that helps maintain the very rights that all religions are granted via the 1st amendment is abhorrent and irresponsible. There is much to gain for these individuals by continue the mantra of talking points – namely notoriety.
The Danger in Creating Labels
It is fine for there to be opposing viewpoints within the Muslim community – there are different interpretations and practices among all major religions. It becomes problematic, when those different interpretations lead one group to demonize and create suspicion of the other. For example, practitioners of Reform Judaism do not call for the monitoring or the defeat of those who practice Conservative Judaism. Baptists do not call for the elimination of the Catholic ideology. While Jasser is claiming to love and cherish his faith, he is creating broad-brushed labels and un-necessarily stoking fear of a large segment of the Muslim population.
What does it mean to be a “revivalist” for the “reformer” – Jasser? Does a man wearing a beard for religious purposes constitute a revivalist? Does a woman who wears the headscarf constitute a revivalist? Those are both examples of individuals who are technically holding onto Islamic traditions and could be perceived as part of what Jasser refers to as “the enemy.” At least, that has been the thought process of those who have committed recent hate crimes – with a rise in attacks of “Muslim-looking” individuals. Just recently, a pair of Sikh men – who are not Muslim, but whose appearance can be mistaken for looking Muslim-esque, were murdered in cold blood as a product of a hate crime. Locally in Phoenix, a Sikh man was murdered in the aftermath of 9/11 for resembling a Muslim. These are just a few examples of how unsubstantiated fear produces unnecessary violence. Continued paranoia, creating labels and a sense of otherness will only play into the public’s fear. As we have seen, the results can be disastrous.
In closing, it is hard to identify the true spirit behind Dr. Jasser’s work. On the primary topic of radicalization within the community, there is no doubt that Muslims support finding a solution. While the Jassers and Kings of the world are claiming nothing is being done by the Muslim community, nothing could be further from the truth. Hate and violence in the name of religion has no place in American, nor any other society. This thought process is reinforced by groups like CAIR, many prominent Muslim leaders in America, in addition to the community at large – much to the chagrin of Dr. Jasser. While he continues to garner fame and national attention by pandering to groups that hate Islam as a whole, Dr. Jasser needs to actually doing more harm, than good. Instead of creating false labels and further stoking the public’s fear, it would serve the doctor better to gain a second opinion of his community.