Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser. (Image source: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)
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 think 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 teams that recruited them and trained them in the art of ideology and dissimulation. Those teams include the alphabet soup of Islamist organizations—"Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups"—that exist in the United States. These include, for instance, 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). Future politicians, media pundits, or the many demagogic imams, they all rise up from within the Islamist populist movement in the West by 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 between the Islamist movements here in the West, and the far left's progressivism. Since 2011, other Muslim reform leaders and I were asked by Congress to testify many times on the Hill on the compromising influence of Islamist organizations and ideologies, both global and domestic, to our national security.
The American Islamist groups worked in a coordinated fashion to attack me, the organization I represent, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) 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 defamatory. They repeatedly attempted to smear us on social media and never addressed the issues or ideas that we represented in our testimony. It is always revealing how fearful Islamists are of actually addressing the connection between their non-violent 'political Islam' (Islamism) and violent political Islam.
This is the classic method of many Islamists: they tag onto "identity movements" and transform the belief in the ideology of a faith, Islam, into an identity racial group—which it is not. This distortion stifles any real diversity of ideas and promotes a culture where the community is perceived to be a racial monolith. Thus, anyone who speaks out becomes an "Uncle Tom" and supposedly against the whole tribe.
In 2020, we saw Islamist identity politics fit right into the Black Lives Matter Movement and its racialization of every issue. It is quite a cooperation to behold, even though ultimately the Islamists actually agree with very little of the ideas of the far left—for example when it comes to implementing extremist Muslims' draconian interpretations of 'shariah law,' such as child marriage, slavery, unequal legal rights for men and women, death for homosexuals, female genital mutilation, or beating women, to name a few.
The bottom line is that there is one alliance, progressive, that exists between AOC and her progressive extremists, and another different, alliance, Islamic fundamentalist, that exists between, say, AOC and her following and the Islamist members of Congress and their following.
Those two members of Congress represent the current leading edge, in identity politics, of political Islam in the West and its emphasis on group rights rather than individual rights. Both women, however, represent the trend to stifle dissent and dissidents. They also both represent the effort to empower domestic and global Islamist supremacists and their Islamic nation-state ideologies over the exceptionalism of secular liberal American democracy. They would most likely deny this, and certainly there are some clear differences between Omar and Tlaib. For example, Omar's foreign policy has clearly proven that she formulates her positions by looking first for the interests 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 paramount. 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, and 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 Bashar al-Assad's policy? Do you believe that former President Donald J. Trump had the right attitude towards Bashar when, in April 2017, he decided on 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 more than 50 years. The Syrian revolution, which began 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'ite offshoot—faction of Ba'ath Party loyalists then took power in another bloody coup in February 1966. After that Alawite coup, the fascist Ba'ath transformed its predominantly supremacist political platform to incorporate a preference for the Alawite Shi'ite sect. Members of Sunni Muslim leadership were purged from the military. The entire leadership became comprised of Alawite Ba'athist faithful. The influence of Sunnis, Christians, Druze and Ismailis 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 civil war among all their sects. 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 his son, Bashar, moved Syria into the orbit of Iran and essentially became a client-state of Iran as well as Russia.
In 1970, however, Hafez al-Assad took the reins from his fellow Alawites in still another coup. In line with the totalitarian doctrine of the Ba'athist Party, Assad, ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years. He ended the Ba'ath-Alawite in-fighting and his regime cleansed any non-Alawites in its midst, and obliterated any Sunni protestations. To quell the religious unrest of other sects, Assad placed a few party loyalists who were Sunni, Christian, and Druze in mid-level, and a few higher levels, of political leadership—but not military. Most people knew they were window dressing and sympathizers. The Syria of Hafez Assad was much like the Iraq of Ba'athist Saddam Hussein, described by one expatriate, who used a pseudonym, 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, and 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, using incalculably cruel methods, paralyzed the humanity of 22 million Syrians for two generations. Brothers, sisters, families reported on one another to Syrian intelligence (Mukhabarat). Many vanished, never to be seen again, and anyone who dared to dissent from the ruling party was systematically tortured and made an example of by frequent collective punishment. By the twenty-first century, there were 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 the 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 were 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 genocidal cleansing operation against the Syrian people who were part of the revolution. While the first year of the revolution showed significant diversity—with Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, Christians and others marching in the streets—Assad did as his party always did. He drove internal divisions among the sects to rip his country apart, while leaving his regime alone. He was sustained with heavy foreign help, from Russia and Iran
, in military, financial, and human assets. The Sunni population was eventually radicalized, with ISIS arising in 2013 in Syria and Iraq. It was due to a perfect storm of Assad's radicalizing Sunnis—combined with their ideological influence from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—at the same time as Iraq's descent into anarchy. The growth of ISIS provided the Assad regime a convenient cover for continued military genocidal operations and the use of chemical weapons against the majority of the population who were unarmed and who had naively thought that if the world saw it on YouTube, the public would put enough pressure on Assad to bring it to an end. Sadly, Russia and Iran were likely the primary reason Assad survived and the civil war did not evolve organically. Russia and Iran consolidated Assad's grip on Syria's humanity and systematically exterminated more than 600,000 people and displaced 10,000,000 people out of Syria's 22,000,000. The UN remained feckless.
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 Bosnian type of response, akin to President William Jefferson Clinton's and the UN's response to Serbia's crimes in 1995 might have helped. President Barack Obama, however, did not just avoid military intervention; his administration actively supported the Assad regime at the altar of their "nuclear deal" with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the empowerment of The Iranian Republican Guard Corps and its Masters in Tehran. The Obama Administration handed hundreds of billions of dollars to the theocrats as well as an insurance of security, as well as a future with a nuclear bomb. These, along with thousands of troops and the empowerment of the terror group Hizballah, gave Iran's leaders a green light to spread terror into Syria.
President Donald 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 that administration. It did have some deterrent effect, as limited as it was.
Canlorbe: At Trump's request, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Sudan and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords, promising to make peace with Israel. They also promised to stop financing and hosting terrorist organizations. Do you believe those regimes can be trusted? How will they behave under a Biden presidency?
Jasser: In President Ronald Reagan's words, "trust but verify". But first, it is important to 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 more than two generations. After a decade of failed revolutions—between the 20th century's tyrannies and the chaos after 2011—was there a better path forward?
Some may appropriately say that no real democracies evolved quickly in the "Arab Awakening," after centuries of tyranny. In fact, there may be a need for multiple revolutions before democracy can take hold. Perhaps, though, there can be a more methodical transition towards modernity with steady benchmarks of reform and liberalization, as we have seen done so successfully with the 2020 Middle East agreements?
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 World War II. They lie to the West about reforms in order to placate each new administration with a five- or ten-year plan while transitions in power in the West along with our short-term, societal "attention deficit disorder" give 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 first to get more ill before returning to health.
Essentially, a model of reform that I see possible—perhaps remotely, but possible—for liberalism and freedom, may be an evolution towards constitutional monarchies (much as I disagree with "genetic supremacism"). Some of them have been building civil society institutions that begin to modernize Islamic thought, end the concept of an Islamic state and its jihad, and instead are looking at their state and citizens through the prism of universal human rights. What we have been seeing in the UAE gives hope, as do Bahrain, Sudan, with, one hopes, more to come. So far, I 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 just so 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?
This is likely confusing to many non-Muslims, if we try to say, that the Saudis are now anti-Islamist despite decades of supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups across the planet? Please understand, though, 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, just more of a top-down, corporate, theocracy no matter which way you cut it. However, even the Islamist populist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are not much better. They are simply bottom-up, grass roots theocracies founded in sharia ideologies. Regardless of whether a state's approach is top-down or bottom-up one, if its raison d'être is based in Islam and the primacy of Islamic law rather than on individual rights and the protection of minorities, as in secular liberal democracies, it will always be anti-freedom and illiberal.
We will have to watch very closely if there will be 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—such as the 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 is met with a genuine reinterpretation of the antisemitic translations and interpretations of the Qur'an and Hadith (the Prophet's deeds and sayings) that the government of Saudi Arabia pushes. Not until their imams begin to marginalize the anti-Semitic bigotry of so many of those interpretations and begin to present new interpretations will that change be in fact durable.
As for Qatar, we should begin 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 even a "frenemy". This should not surprise anyone. The Al-Thani family went all in the Muslim Brotherhood since 1961 when they gave 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, meaning "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 we saw systematic Holocaust denial on the programming of Al Jazeera as they attempted quickly to 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 is little doubt that the Biden administration will simply be Obama 3.0. It may even be worse than the Obama administration because it is going to trip over itself in such an exaggerated fashion trying to undo the progress against the Islamists—domestically and abroad—that we have made since 2016, that the pendulum will swing back further than even the Obama administration in defense of Islamists.
We are 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 such as 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 is 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 actually to usher in more war, not less. Peace through weakness doesn't work against thugs like Khamenei 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 of the mullahs and sits at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In Russia, Muslims represent 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, political Islam?
Jasser: 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 Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (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 green light 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, Ramzan 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.
In my book, A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Patriots' fight to Save his Faith, I recount how my father told me that our family's deep seeded anti-communism and anti-Islamism is what drove them to become enamored of 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 a theocracy. They still have a state-sponsored church; the other faiths, whether within Christianity or outside, have lesser to no rights. There is 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 philosophy. How do you assess the legacy of Averroes in Islam and 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. It was not necessarily the specifics of their ideas, but the courage of their inquiry. Scholars have often 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 that of 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, as 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 will contribute not to what the Islamists want—a revivalism of the old—but rather a genuine reform towards a Western model of Islam based in infinite diversity of thought and protection of individual inquiry and their universal human rights, rather than the oppressive collective and the proverbial Islamic state.
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 also a physician in private practice specializing in internal medicine, primary care, and medical ethics in Phoenix, Arizona. You can find him on Twitter @DrZuhdiJasser