Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Scottsdale resident M. Zuhdi Jasser has been asked over and over again, “Where are the moderate voices in the Islamic world?”
They’re here, but it may take a “battle of the mosque” for them to be heard, Jasser said.
“We still haven’t overcome the fear of moderates speaking out against the religious establishment in our community,” said Jasser, 39, a physician, president of the Arizona Medical Association and regular worshipper at the Islamic Center of the Northeast Valley in Scottsdale.
Jasser and six other Scottsdale Muslims formed a nonprofit organization called the American Islamic Forum for Democracy in 2003 to foster an alternative school of thought to Islamism — a movement that seeks to establish governments ruled by Islamic law.
The group has attracted about 45 Muslim members.
“You have imams that are not only spiritual leaders, they are political leaders. It becomes coercion,” he said. “Get politics out of our faith. Marginalize the ones who have hijacked our faith for political agendas.”
Most of the sermons delivered in Valley mosques are political, he said.
“It’s a corruption. You make government into God,” Jasser said. “The Prophet (Muhammad) was the leader of Islamic society, but there’s nothing in the Quran that mandates that you have to mix religion and government.”
Naser Ahmad, secretary of the Islamic Center of the Northeast Valley, 12125 E. Via Linda, disagreed with how Jasser is attempting to reform Islam.
“There’s no such thing as reforming a religion. It’s a divine thing,” Ahmad said.
He said it’s more a matter of getting people to understand the religion.
“If people use that to do something wrong, they are going outside the bounds of religion,” Ahmad said. “Using violence means their understanding of religion may be lacking.”
One of the group’s missions, Jasser said, is to encourage the separation of religion and politics.
“We will not make any headway in our war against Islamists until Muslims take the lead in articulating that separation,” he said.
Another goal is to foster among American Muslims a support for the ideals of the United States, namely religious pluralism, equality of the sexes and a respect for freedom and liberty.
“Some Muslims have said, ‘That means you just support America blindly.’ That’s not true,” Jasser said. “We want American Muslims ... to be able to understand that you can be patriotic Americans and believe in the Constitution and its laws.”
Jasser was born and raised in the American Midwest. But his grandfather spent many years under house arrest in Syria for his democratic activism there.
Jasser himself is a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander. Between 1997 and 1999, he served as a staff physician attending the U.S. Congress. To some in the Islamic community, though, he is a “liberal extremist.”
In 2004, he and other Valley Muslims staged a rally in Phoenix to denounce terrorism as un-Islamic, but the idea quickly ran into objections from several local imams, who wanted to lay blame on America, Israel and the West, Jasser said.
“We said there’s no excuses here. I call them ‘those that condemn terrorism, but...’ They always have a but after it, which completely waters down the message,” he said. “It was very contentious. We were basically working against the power structure of the Islamic community in the Valley.”
A reluctance to question authority is one of the major difficulties facing moderate Muslims, Jasser said.
“There has been such a difficulty in trying to get people to stand up to the established power structures,” he said.
Another obstacle moderates face is the dynamics of “minority politics,” he said.
Recently the Public Broadcasting Service made headlines because of its decision to drop a documentary titled “Islam vs. Islamists,” which features Muslims from around the world, including Jasser, talking about what happens to moderates when they speak out. “(PBS is) so blinded by the concern of offending a minority that they don’t even want to look into what is the ideology of the people leading that minority,” he said. “If they actually looked at the social ideals of the imams they are protecting, they would have a huge problem with that.”
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees PBS, said the documentary competed for but did not win a slot in the “America at a Crossroads” series, which premiers Sunday. The program didn’t comply with established PBS standards, according to a CPB release.
Jasser is not without his detractors in the local Muslim community.
In 2005, the Arizona Muslim Voice newspaper published an editorial cartoon depicting Jasser and a dog dismembering and devouring another Muslim. Messages left at the newspaper’s office seeking comment were not returned.
Jasser said the time has come for an Islamic enlightenment.
“There should be a wide stimulus in the Islamic community to question authority,” he said. “It’s a generational process.”