Taking Back Islam

Moderate Muslims say their faith is compatible with freedom.

June 03, 2004, 8:47 a.m.

By Erick Stakelbeck & Nir Boms

There’s an elephant in the room whenever the current U.S. operation in Iraq is discussed: Is Islam truly compatible with democracy? Or do the U.S.’s troubles in stabilizing Iraq signal that Muslims simply have no desire to live in a free, democratic society?

Right now the answers to these questions are unclear. For every modern Islamic “success story” like Turkey or Malaysia, there are Islamist nightmares like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In the United States, too, there is reason for uncertainty. American Muslims with moderate views have been either unable or unwilling to engage in public discourse. As a result, militant groups with a moderate veneer have been able to set the tone.

A patriotic group of Arizona Muslims, however, is looking to change all that.

Earlier this spring in Phoenix, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) held a “Rally Against Terror” that gave moderate Muslims a platform on which to condemn terrorism and pledge support for the United States.

Identified by the Arizona Republic as “the nation’s first Muslim rally against terrorism,” the 50-minute event drew, according to various estimates, between 250 and 400 people, most of them non-Muslims.

Considering that the event was actively promoted within Phoenix’s 50,000-strong Muslim community, that number is a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, AIFD Chairman Zuhdi Jasser says the rally was a positive first step for the group, which was founded in March 2003 by Muslim professionals in the Phoenix area.

“When the moderates stay silent, the radicals speak for everyone,” says Jasser, a physician. “Up until now, moderates have not been articulating a moderate form of Islam which Americans can embrace. We want to take back our faith from the radicals and let them know that we are side-by-side with the U.S.”

Listening to Jasser, the son of Syrian immigrants, is a breath of fresh air at a time when anti-American sentiment engulfs a large part of the Arab and Muslim world. A former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander who served as a Navy medical officer from 1988 to 1999, Jasser clearly loves his country and his faith, and sees no reason why the two cannot coexist.

“Our inspiration for this is two things,” says Jasser. “Number one, at the core of the war on terror is a battle over ideology. World War II had fascism, the Cold War had Communism. Our present war has the targeting and killing of civilians in the name of religion: Islam. There needs to be a Muslim voice that speaks directly against that ideology. Secondly, there is a lack of any American Islamic institution that discusses the synergy of the U.S. Constitution with the Islamic faith. This makes it an obligation for us to be leaders in promoting a form of Islam that is tolerant and secular in nature.”

Jasser is quick to clarify his use of the word “secular.”

“Secularism as a term is almost associated with a lack of piety,” he says. “What I’m trying to say is that in America, there are many devout people who are politically active. But we don’t make decisions here based on theocracy or religious views.”

The values that Jasser and AIFD are promoting are deeply rooted in the American experience. Jasser is confident that Muslims in the U.S. will eventually embrace his message and realize that, as he says, “Freedom brings you closer to God.”

For now, though, Jasser realizes that views like the ones he expressed in a May 25 op-ed for azcentral.com aren’t likely to endear him to the al-Jazeera crowd. In the piece, titled “Iraq is Your War,” Jasser listed four reasons why the U.S. is currently fighting abroad:

It is impossible to keep America safe by just playing defense.

The Middle East is the epicenter of the terror network.

Despotic governments bring out the worst in religion.

Change the political environment in the Middle East and we change the associated religious pathology.

“Over half of the Muslim immigrants in the U.S. came here in the past 25 years,” says Jasser. “And many of them bring with them the baggage that government coercion and autonomy are necessary, just as in their former countries. We want to educate them and let them know that is not the case.”

It would help if U.S. government officials and the mainstream media took notice of AIFD’s efforts, rather than continuing to promote the agendas of radical Muslims with anti-American views. AIFD is attempting to increase its visibility through its website and by holding future anti-terrorism rallies.

By supporting the endeavors of AIFD and other moderate Muslim organizations, the U.S. may yet be able to avert the clash of civilizations simmering in its own backyard.

Nir Boms is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Council for Democracy and Tolerance. Erick Stakelbeck is senior writer for the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism research institute.

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