Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser is president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement (MRM), and author of “A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith.” He is a practicing Muslim who has actively opposed Islamism.
The author interviewed him in January on the Muslim Reform Movement, Islamism, and the war in Syria. This is a follow-up interview. Jasser agreed to discuss Islamism and searching for its antidote in the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Middle East.
Lessons from London
Q (Postal): As a co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, what lessons do you want the West to learn from the recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom?
A (Jasser): We in the free world cannot ever afford to be complacent. Military victories in Iraq and Syria will increase ISIS’ global chatter calling for acts of war against the West and subsequent attempts at more attacks will follow. The emergence of ISIS in 2013 after the diminishment of al-Qaeda by 2008 should serve as a reminder that we are in a long global war against militant Islamism, and more broadly non-violent Islamism.
The precursor of violent Islamism and violent jihad is non-violent Islamism and its civilizational jihad. Islamists of any variety divide the world into the “Land of Islam” (Dar-al-Islam) and the “Land of War” (Dar al-Harb). Islamists will continue to promote the consciousness that non-Muslim majority nations are the “Land of War.”
Nearly every one of these attacks is following the same pattern and we should learn from them. Sadly, we are not. The perpetrators over and over prove to be “known wolves” (radicals already on the radar of security apparatuses). The concept of a “lone wolf” is a fictitious construct absolving non-violent Islamists of any responsibility.
Islamists know that the greatest threat to their supremacist program is when we advance the ideas of liberty, freedom, and universal values of human rights protected by secular national identity. That is the only antidote to Islamism (political Islam and the idea of an Islamic state). The means of terror has now morphed from suicide belts and bombs to vehicular jihad and machetes. While we must learn to confront this changing landscape, we must see all these attacks for what they are: the very tip of the iceberg, the militant violent expressions of the massive global Islamist movement.
We can and will continue to fight this war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. But victories there are only pyrrhic and fleeting. In order for the West to see a day free from wars against Islamist terror and its caliphate(s), we must wage an ideological war to influence the minds of Muslims against political Islam.
Muslim reformers have a laboratory here in the West to dissect theocratic Islam in ways that just cannot be done in any Muslim-majority nation. We, for example, reached out with a plea to Ariana Grande for her to use her enormous cultural platform of millions to empower Muslim reformers to become ambassadors of freedom, gender equality, sexual identity, free speech and all the issues that distinguish us from Islamist societies and their sharia states. Unfortunately, her One Love benefit concert was another in a long history of lost opportunities.
Q: One of the London bridge terrorists (Khuram Butt) reportedly viewed sermons online by Ahmad Musa Jibril, an Islamist preacher in Dearborn, Michigan, who praises violent jihad. Butt also allegedly associated with Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary, who is set to be released from prison next year after calling for British Muslims to support ISIS in 2013. (You called for his arrest seven years ago). How should U.S. and U.K. authorities, and Muslim communities in those countries, deal with Islamist websites, preachers, and mosques in the future?
A: Essentially, once homeland security agents finally shift their focus to “Countering Violent Islamism” (CVI) all Islamist groups and individuals can be rightfully viewed by authorities as possible cultivators of violent Islamism. Individuals are not “radicalized” on the Internet. Their ideas are brewed in a local cauldron of Islamism that then drives them towards further Islamism and jihadism.
The Internet is merely a tool for the already radicalized Islamist. Islamist ideas include antipathy for Western society, governments, military, and foreign policy. Islamists are misogynists and anti-Semites. They obsess with conspiracy theories and condition Muslims to always be victims and bear grievances against non-Muslims. Islamist grievance groups in the West, such as most Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups, are the first steps in Muslim radicalization.
Authorities should closely monitor Islamist speech short of advocacy of violence and war against the West, in addition to obviously treasonous speech advocated by clerics like Anjem Choudary. Authorities shouldn’t evaluate those who have traveled abroad or are connected to known militants in a vacuum, but rather drill down on the ideological adherence to elements of the Islamist movement.
We should also, however, not fall prey to the autocratic inclination of just shutting down non-violent Islamist and jihadi-sympathizing mosques. Rather, our entire security apparatus domestically (DHS) and abroad (DOD and State) should be mapping and monitoring their public (not private) footprints. Our Muslim Reform Movement’s declaration is an ideological firewall that can be used to determine which Muslim groups are part of the problem and which Muslim groups are part of the solution.
Q: The United Kingdom is monitoring up to 23,000 Islamists as “subjects of interest,” and yet Khuram Butt, the Manchester terrorist (Salman Abedi) and the Westminster terrorist (Khalid Masood) were able to successfully carry out attacks despite being previously monitored or investigated. What can the United States learn from this to prevent further attacks? How should the United States deal with its “known wolves,” as you like to call them?
A: The central axis upon which our homeland security focus is currently centered is labeled “CVE: Countering Violent Extremism.” Thus, our agents are not told or encouraged to focus on obvious precursor Islamist ideologies to that violence but rather somehow they are supposed to focus on the moment some non-descript extremism becomes violent. This is impossible, as our agents hamstring themselves waiting for that virtual needle in a haystack.
In the United Kingdom, they are following 23,000 suspects looking for both a confirmed predilection for violence and also an imminent threat. A security strategy that only focuses on behavior will fail over and over as we have seen. Many so-called “violent extremists” have no violent precursors, but Islamist extremists always have Islamist precursors. Thus, we need to shift from a focus simply upon those imminently planning acts of violence (terror) upon citizens to focusing upon those harboring the precursor ideology of non-violent Islamism. The axis of DHS security work should center on CVI (Countering Violent Islamism), not CVE.
This doesn’t mean that Muslim citizens should have their civil rights compromised. We should focus on Islamist public messaging and adherents. The monitoring of the readily available public footprint of non-violent Islamists should be a matter of routine surveillance. Authorities do not need warrants for this type of surveillance, and our agents should be using the Islamist nature of those posts to narrow down their threat risk.
Q: On your Twitter feed dated July 6, you remarked that Linda Sarsour, in a speech to ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) delivered over Independence Day weekend, called for a “jihad” against President Trump and praised Siraj Wahhaj, who in a conversation with you highlighted in your book called for the overthrow of the U.S. Constitution by the Qur’an. In that same speech, Sarsour also called for Muslims to refuse to assimilate into the United States. How should Muslim reformers and their non-Muslims allies best respond to her speech?
A: Sarsour’s jihadi comments and the flurry of public outrage may be the beginning of thought leaders in the West seeking out Muslim reformers as a response to the jihadism of Islamists like Sarsour. There will always be droves of useful idiots like Abigail Abrams at Time who hysterically try to apologize for the likes of Sarsour, who lead the radicalization of Muslims against America and secular liberal democracies.
But the jihadi Sarsours of the world will remain as “the” voice of Islam and Muslims if Muslim reformers are not given equal time on all forms of media to counter and marginalize her radicalization. As you point out, I have been exposing her mentor’s radicalism since I reported Siraj Wahhaj’s 1995 call for the overthrow of our U.S. Constitution at the same annual ISNA convention.
It’s time for Americans to connect the dots between ISIS operatives, Middle Eastern sharia states, and these American Islamist thought leaders. Only we reformers at the Muslim Reform Movement can begin the process of putting violent jihad and its global Islamist movement into the dustbin of history.
Sadly, Sarsour’s speech is one among thousands of speeches and sermons delivered every day by leading Islamists in the West. Only bigger platforms by Muslim reformers can counter that very real jihad. As I’ve said many times, the only jihad we need is a “jihad against jihad.”
Q: What is your opinion on the Trump administration’s travel ban against six Muslim-majority nations? Would you advise President Trump any differently on this in the wake of the recent terrorist in the United Kingdom?
A: The travel pause, not an actual ban, is a necessary initial tool for the commander-in-chief to reset the vetting mechanism of those seeking the privilege of entering our country. Yes, it’s true that most attacks on the homeland have been homegrown Islamist threats and not refugees. Yes, the nations with the greatest ideological threats like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and Pakistan were not included in the ban.
But that doesn’t invalidate the legitimacy of a pause on refugee immigration. The pause is simply the beginning of a shift toward a more rigorous form of vetting that I hope will include screening of Islamist ideologies.
Some studies report around 23 percent of those seeking refuge here have sympathies for ISIS. Those individuals have no right to come to the United States. Those who come to the United States should not do so solely out of humanitarian need, but also to share our values. Those with sympathies for Islamists (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood or ISIS) as well as those with sympathies for fascist dictatorships (e.g., Assadists or those with allegiances to the Russian government) should never be given the freedom to come to the U.S.
The nations included in the travel pause are at best not even allies and at worst our enemies and virtual anarchies on the verge of collapse. It makes perfect sense to identify anyone coming from those nations as needing extra vetting. There is nothing discriminatory against vetting people who happen to come from these specific countries, even if they are predominantly Muslim.
My advice to President Trump is that he assemble his campaign-promised “Commission on Radical Islamism” and have that commission become the focal point of our domestic and foreign policy shift away from CVE toward Countering Violent Islamism. It needs to have a heavy presence of reformist American Muslims in order to deflect commonplace attacks from Islamist identity groups that the commission would be “anti-Muslim.” There is nothing more pro-Muslim and pro-Islam than engaging Muslims and non-Muslims in a campaign to marginalize and defeat the Islamist theocrats in our communities.
Q: In our previous interview, you discussed the differences between Muslim reformers and Muslim Islamists. You recently called Daily Beast author Dean Obeidallah a “non-violent Islamist.” What do you mean by this?
A: Dean has been raising money for and defending Islamist groups like CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) and ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) for over a decade. Contrary to his useful idiots, he doesn’t have an excuse of being unaware of the realities of sharia supremacism taught and indoctrinated from the books and teachings of many if not most American and Western mosques.
He is a Muslim attorney who under the false and obnoxious cloak of comedy provides cover for droves of Islamists, and actively leads fundraisers for their movements in the West every month. He is particularly dangerous in that his comedic shtick and focus on grievances mainstreams his apologetics for Islamism and in fact starts many on the path of anti-American radicalization.
His Islamist bona fides are evidenced by his pathological silence when it comes to the identifying or acknowledging that the Islamist platform of ideas is always the precursor of militant Islamism. If the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) movement were not covert in the West, they would likely proudly award him one of their leading awards for defense and advocacy.
Q: What is your opinion about the recent protests against Sharia law in the United States? Do you think these protests are a legitimate form of criticism against Islamism, or do they express bigotry against Muslims?
A: When Muslims protested the sharia state of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, that was not anti-Muslim bigotry. When the Green Revolution protested the Khomenist sharia state of Iran, that was not anti-Muslim, and when judges and lawyers in Pakistan protested the sharia state of Pakistan that was not anti-Muslim. Those are only a few examples. In fact, it is very pro-Muslim to reject theocratic Islamism and their instrument of their Islamist interpretations and institutionalization of sharia.
First, and foremost, every citizen should have a right to criticize any and all forms of sharia. That is part and parcel of genuine free speech. Anything short is the imposition of blasphemy laws. Many U.S. citizens are concerned when observing little to no condemnation from American Muslims as well as our anesthetized mainstream media of any of the draconian interpretations of sharia law which predominate the texts and teachings of most global Muslim institutions, including in the U.S.
My primary criticism of the rallies was simply that it just seemed a little odd that non-Muslims were rallying in cities across America, protesting to predominantly non-Muslim communities about the problems with the sharia law of Islamists. I would have rather seen their anti-sharia protests target the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and all of its attendant 56 Muslim majority nations who are the world’s primary cauldrons of Islamist sharia law. The protests should have begun in front of the Saudi, Turkish, Qatari, Egyptian, and Pakistani embassies in Washington, to name a few.
Without identifying the sharia institutions they were protesting, I could not see what the point of the rallies were. If it was simply to educate the American public that sharia is the primary instrument of Islamism, then what are the next steps? What is the cure to that diagnosis? Is their goal to engage reformist Muslims? These rallies didn’t even begin to accomplish that.
The Global Fight Against Islamism
Q: You recently criticized President Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia to Muslim nations in May, where he called on these Muslim nations to “drive out the terrorists.” In this critique, you stated that this call was a “[g]reat sound bite,” but that “the hall should have then almost emptied except for Tunisia, Indonesia and a few others,” as “these tyrants [are] living off [of]…theocratic Islamist ideology that creates…global Islamist militants and their viral movements.”
A recent article in the Boston Globe reported that Saudi Arabia is instrumental in spreading Wahhabism beyond the Arab world to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, and Indonesia. How would you advise the Trump administration to act differently towards Saudi Arabia and our other Muslim allies?
A: This question is so important. We desperately need to distinguish our short-term military and diplomatic goals from our long-term goals in the region. Our short-term goals are obvious. First, we need to decimate ISIS and maintain a semblance of stability in the Middle East and North Africa.
Our long-term goals and policies should be to advocate for those who share our values and respect universal human rights. President Trump continued the old and tired policies of the U.S. shoring up our Sunni Arab ally axis to balance the region against the Shia axis of Iran, Iraq, and Syria bolstered by Russia. While this strategy would be fitting during the Cold War when we had a bigger global threat in the Soviets, the post-Arab Awakening landscape is quite different.
We need to acknowledge that shoring up so-called allies who don’t share our values contributes to those governments’ oppression of their own citizens, which is against our core values as Americans, and contributes to radicalizing those Muslims rather than liberating them from theocracy. These policies run counter to our global responsibility as the leaders of the free world and the ambassadors for all those who want to be free.
In the end, as messy as the route may be, America’s interest is to help those who want to be free achieve that God-given right. This process may be fraught with steps backward. But history has shown that eventually freedom will prevail. Anything short is to betray our own values and treat Muslim majority nations with a bigotry of low expectations.
Q: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have recently cut ties to Qatar because Qatar allegedly paid $1 billion ransom to Iran and an al-Qaeda affiliate to release kidnapped members of Qatar’s royal family. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I am no fan of the Saudi, Egyptian, or Emirati dictatorships. But in the global war against Islamism, most roads lead to Qatar first as the primary cancer of global Islamist movements and the Muslim Brotherhood’s networks. Their propaganda vis-à-vis Al Jazeera and other associated global Islamist media outlets and Qatari-purchased think tanks and universities have further operationalized and weaponized the Islamist movement.
There is little doubt that when it comes to the radicalization of Muslims globally through Brotherhood networks across the planet, Qatar is a leading antagonist and enemy of the free world. This began all the way back in 1961, when Qatar welcomed the leading radical Islamist icon and spiritual inspiration of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, who escaped from Egypt. Qatar has never looked back since in their fealty for the Ikhwan.
The U.S. has facilitated this for generations thanks to Qatar’s domestic lobby influence and the U.S. military base in Qatar that has long been that lobby’s insurance policy. But the House of al-Thani overreached by seeking financial ties with and facilitation of Iran’s global Khomeinist networks. The Qatari royal family has even formed relationships with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. So we need to call this out, and isolate Qatar for its duplicity.
That being said, the Saudis are not innocent. Nor are their hands clean with regards to the cancer known as the Muslim Brotherhood. For over 50 years the Saudis have also financed and helped spread the establishment of Muslim Brotherhood legacy thinkers and groups in the West. The Wahhabis and the Ikhwan share both a hate of Western liberal democracies and a dream of wanting to establish Islamic states and the caliphate. Their essential difference lies in that Wahhabis are simply corporate, top-down, “elitist” Islamists, while the Brotherhood are grassroots, populist Islamists. Both their interpretations of Islam are supremacist and theocratic.
In the past few years things appear to be changing somewhat. The century-old Islamist Sunni battle between the Saudi Wahhabis and the Ikhwan is now becoming more globalized likely due to Saudi Arabia’s realized need to contain Qatar. At least in the short-term, the U.S. can leverage this to its advantage.
But in the long-term, we need to eventually stop policies of balancing tyrannies to establish an illusion of stability. We must isolate these entrenched tyrannies and cut off their lifelines to the world. There is no better place to start than Qatar and the Brotherhood network that it funds. However, I hope that this is the first phase of a longer process which will eventually lead to the isolation of Saudi Arabia and its global propagation of draconian Wahhabism.
Q: Recent reports have stated that days after the Trump administration criticized Qatar for funding terrorism, it authorized the sale of $12 billion in 36 F-15QA fighter jets to Qatar. What is your opinion on this?
A: This is hardly a way to “isolate” Qatar. It is time to end instances where the military (through bases, attachés, and congressionally approved arms sales), intelligence agents (CIA), State Department (diplomats), and the executive branch (president and U.N. ambassador) are all sending contradictory messages. Such contradictions give tyrants like the Al-Thani family of Qatar little motivation to ultimately change their behavior.
We should remember that the weapons which we sell them, with the intention of helping them maintain regional stability, are also used to shore up the government’s domestic iron fist against their own citizens. In the end, we need to follow this recalibration of messaging and policies towards Qatar with a similar one with other “allies” like Saudi Arabia and other tyrannies to whom we supply arms, and from whom we buy oil.
Q: The Islamic State recently claimed responsibility for two attacks on Iran. Is this a significant development to you?
A: This is a very significant development for a number of reasons. First, any operation inside Iran, let alone Tehran, is obviously not easy to execute for Arabic-speaking Sunni Islamists: so few if any have ever been reported despite ISIS’ deep animus with Shia Iran. Yet it appears that ISIS operatives were able to penetrate deep into the center of Farsi-speaking Tehran and target the symbolic sites of the parliament and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, the symbol of the 1979 ascendancy of the Shia Khomeinist regime.
The primary nexus between Iran and ISIS are Iran’s Arab allies in Syria and Iraq. So it is very likely that this operation was planned long in advance and involved a deep infiltration of the Iranian forces with covert ISIS operatives. It is very likely that ISIS operatives exploited Iran’s alliances with Arab-speaking Shia Islamist Iraqis and Alawite Syrians.
While ISIS may be on the run militarily in their strongholds of northern Iraq and Raqqa, Syria, this operation should illustrate their ability to continue to launch sophisticated global operations. This sophistication is great marketing for ISIS as the primary brand of radical Sunni Islamism, which will in turn yield many more jihadis against Iran, Assad, Hezbollah, and the West.
Particularly telling is that Amaq (the ISIS news agency) immediately released a video of their operatives yelling in Arabic “We are not leaving; we will remain, God willing.” This was uploaded within minutes following the attacks in Tehran, and then released globally by ISIS. The phrase intentionally mimicked what ISIS spokesperson Mohammed Adnani said prior to his assassination in Syria.
The timing of this attack was likely in response to ISIS fearing a more unified West-Sunni front against them. ISIS likely wanted to deflect attention away from synergy between the West and Sunnis towards triggering a greater Sunni-Shia war. Exactly to this effect, Tehran immediately publicly blamed the attack on Riyadh, not ISIS.
The author would like to thank Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser for participating in this interview.