call for moderation sparks tension
"There is a civil war going
on," says a U.S. Muslim critic of more established groups.
PHOENIX -- M.
Zuhdi Jasser still gets worked up when he recalls what some Muslim
Americans said after the 9/11 attacks.
"Their criticism of America was
just unbelievable," said Jasser, an internist who describes himself
as a pious Muslim.
Jasser saw it differently. He grew up in
Wisconsin, where his parents settled after escaping Syria's dictatorship.
He was raised an observant Muslim, and he prays five times daily. He
served 11 years in the U.S. Navy. He has a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker on
his black Corvette convertible.
"I cannot sit idly silent,"
said Jasser, 37. "I have an obligation to do what I can to create a
world where my children can grow up, and there's no conflict in their
hearts between being American and being Muslim."
Two years ago, Jasser and a few
like-minded Muslims in Arizona founded the American Islamic Forum for
Democracy. This Phoenix organization was one of the first created by
Muslims to promote a tolerant form of Islam compatible with a secular,
democratic nation. The leaders of the new organizations say the
established national Islamic groups promote a political strain of Islam
that creates sympathy for the extremists - a charge the national groups
"Until we as Muslims admit we have
some illness in our religion that needs to be cured, we won't go
anywhere," said Ali Homsi, a civil engineer who joined the Phoenix
Daniel Pipes, executive director of
Philadelphia's Middle East Forum and a foe of radical Islam, says the new
voices are shifting the debate within the faith.
"I see the emergence of these new
groups as vital to present an alternative view to Muslims," said
Pipes, who last year helped create a think tank opposed to militant
Islamists, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, in Washington.
The struggle in Phoenix is typical of
the worldwide battle among Muslims over their faith. In the Middle East,
the battle is waged on television, where several miniseries are presenting
radical Islam for the first time in an unflattering light.
In Britain, still stunned by the July
suicide bombings in London's transit system, the battle plays out over the
"moderate" credentials of the nation's most prominent Islamic
organization, the Muslim Council of Britain, whose knighted leader
endorsed the 1989 fatwa, or edict, against Salman Rushdie, author of The
"There is a civil war going on
within Islam," Jasser said.
The leaders of the new organizations
acknowledge that their ranks are small. When Jasser's group put together a
Muslim antiterrorism march, about 400 people showed up. The majority were
But the new groups have gained some
legitimacy. Their calls on Muslims to alienate terrorists have resonated
particularly with non-Muslims. Jasser was invited to write a column for
the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.
"Zuhdi seems to be that moderate
Muslim voice that people have been waiting to hear," said Phil Boas,
the Republic's assistant editorial-page editor.
The reformists are also getting the ear
of Washington's leaders. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last spring
named Kamal Nawash, president of the Washington-based Free Muslim
Coalition Against Terrorism, to a delegation that attended an
international conference in Spain on intolerance.
"We grew very quickly and were
recognized by the administration," said Nawash, a lawyer.
In the United States, critics have long
complained that Islamists have propagated their point of view through
advocacy groups and mosques that relied upon financing and radical
literature from Saudi Arabia and Iran.
"In the '90s, we witnessed the
takeover of power in America by elements of the Wahhabi trend, though they
don't claim that publicly," said Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. "They
isolated dissenters to the margins."
The national Muslim organizations deny
that they are under the sway of extremists. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for
the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which calls itself the main
defender of Muslim Americans, said the council would invariably clash with
the government over civil liberties. He said dissent should not be
confused with support for terrorism.
"It's the nature of civil rights
work to challenge authority," he said.
Nevertheless, Muslims are under great
pressure to take sides with other Muslims.
"For a believing Muslim, asking
what if anything went wrong with the Islamic faith is an uncomfortable
question," Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl writes in his book, The
Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists. "A Muslim
cannot help but feel that he or she is somehow playing into the hands of
Indeed, Hooper said criticism from
Muslims such as Jasser was "providing others with an opportunity to
advance an agenda that is hostile to the American Muslim community."
Marwan Ahmad, publisher of the Muslim
Voice newspaper in Phoenix, said Jasser was putting his allegiance to the
dominant culture ahead of his faith. Last month, his newspaper printed a
cartoon depicting Jasser as the Arizona Republic's attack dog, mauling
"Jasser is saying what they want to
hear, and they publish it," he said.
"I can tell you from history in
this country, with African Americans and Japanese, that there are always
small groups that want to associate with the dominant group and stand
against their own," Ahmad said. "Eventually, the people who
stand for their own will win, and the small group doesn't have any respect
in the end."
Jasser bristles at the suggestion that
he is pandering. "So is their point that I'm contriving this, that
I'm lying about my religious beliefs?" he said. "These are
beliefs I've held since I was a youth."
Jasser acknowledges that he is living an
American dream inaccessible to many more recent Muslim immigrants, who are
more likely to be impoverished and resentful.
Jasser's parents had the skills to
flourish in the United States; his mother is a pharmacist, and his father
is a cardiologist. The Navy put him through medical school, and his last
assignment was to provide medical care to members of Congress and U.S.
Supreme Court justices. His Navy uniform still hangs on his office door,
beneath a lab coat.
"I have more freedom to practice my
faith here in America than anywhere else in the world," he said.
"I didn't bring with me baggage from the Middle East."
Growing up in the United States, Jasser
became a "Jeffersonian Muslim," a believer in a clear separation
of religion and state. His belief in secularism - that the mosque should
devote less time to politics and more to spiritual discussions about
relationships with God - causes perhaps the greatest disagreement with the
established Muslim groups.
"These individuals want to convert
Muslims in general to secularism," said Ahmad, the Muslim Voice
publisher. "Islam is not a secular society. They want us to separate
religion from daily life and politics. They want to take everything but
religion out of the mosque. That's not something Muslims stand for."
Jasser said he did not want Muslims to
separate religion from their daily lives. He said his faith governed
everything he did - his treatment of patients, his respect for people of
other faiths, his diet, his prayer schedule. But he does not believe his
is a faith that can be imposed upon others.
"I believe in the end, God is going
to judge me by what I did when faced with this challenge," he said.
"Did I stand up and try to preserve that harmony between Islam and
America? Or did I actually go asleep and let the radicals... speak for my