Giving Moderate Islam a Voice

Kathryn Lopez

12/29/2007 12:01:00 AM - Kathryn Lopez

"I wish there were more Islamic moderates," Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim and author of the emotionally gripping and horrifying book "Infidel," wrote in a New York Times piece in early December. Answering that call is one Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, who is doing his best to make the world safe for Islamic moderates -- or at least encourage the ones in the United States to speak out.

Jasser, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy and a full-time physician, founded a Phoenix, Ariz.-based group of professionals who are Muslim, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush said, "The 19 suicide terrorists hijacked a great religion." But as Jasser will tell you, there are Muslims right here in the United States preaching what could lead to the same drive for violence that killed almost 3,000 Americans.

As Jasser recently told me, "While I have never heard violence preached in any mosque I attended, I did hear conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and radical politics, which often predominated instead of a focus on spirituality, humility and moral courage. This led to a regular struggle with many, but not all, of the clerical leadership in many of the Muslim communities in which I have lived and participated."

The Islam he loves -- essentially, "maintaining a central, personal spiritual relationship with God" in his life -- can thrive in a pluralistic country, he argues, which is sometimes contrary to what some American Muslims may hear in their local mosques. "I tried to intellectually counter them from within the community, but did so to no avail. For who was I to question clerical authority and interpretations?"

The 2002 attacks changed things for Jasser. "After 9/11, it was immediately clear to me ... that the Islamist agenda was the root cause of terrorism and Muslim radicalism. It was obvious to me that the only treatment of this cancer within was for devout Muslims who love America and love the spirituality of Islam to reclaim the mantle of faith from the Islamists."

He is grateful to Hirsi Ali, who is no longer Muslim, for sharing her story and giving an opening to Muslims like himself -- people who want to fight back against militant Islam and the violent interpretations of a faith he loves.

But there are not enough Jassers. He laments, "What strikes me even more than the existence of the 'former Muslim voices' is the relative paucity of audible, devotional, anti-Islamist Muslim voices. For those of us immersed in the Muslim community for most of our life, we know that they exist, and we know they may even be a majority."

But inside the mosque, that's not the case, in his experience: "The anti-Islamist Muslim is a minority in the mosque scene or the political-activist Muslim-community scene. But studies have shown that less than a majority of Muslims attend mosque regularly, and even a far smaller percentage are involved in political Islamist organizations."

He surmises that many of his brothers in faith are staying away from their local mosques for fear of or in protest against what they are teaching there.

In the news over the past year, we've seen militant Islamic groups in the United States on trial, we've seen calls for the death of a British schoolteacher in Sudan over a teddy bear named Muhammad, we've seen a woman in the Islamic state of Saudi Arabia sentenced to lashes and jail time after being raped. (She was pardoned -- an exception for the kingdom rather than the rule.) These incidents are all outrageous -- and too few Muslims in America voiced their outrage loudly. This frustrates Jasser. He lives in a country he loves and practices a religion he loves, even as practitioners of his religion want to do harm to his beloved United States. But in a time of war, Jasser is doing his part. The rest of us need to listen and encourage the Jassers of our country. We owe it to ourselves as much as to him.