FRANK WORDS MARCH 10, 2011
On Thursday, Peter King, the Republican chair of the House Homeland Security committee, kicks off a series of hearings on domestic terrorism that are being heralded as the second coming of Joseph McCarthy, the Salem Witch Trials, and the Spanish Inquisition. Such comparisons may err (a little) on the side of exaggeration, but it’s certainly fair to say that King, a one-time IRA supporter, cares only about Islamic incidents of terror, and he has declined to invite representatives of mainstream American Muslim groups to defend their faith. Instead, one of his most important witnesses is an obscure Arizona doctor named Zuhdi Jasser, often called “Glenn Beck’s favorite Muslim.”
Jasser is president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), a basically one-man organization founded in 2003 “to provide an American Muslim voice advocating for the preservation of the founding principles of the United States Constitution.” In 2007, Jasser started to appear on Glenn Beck’s show (then on CNN), and he’s been a regular ever since, also adding Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly to his bookings. As a Fox talking head, Jasser frequently warns of Muslim radicalism. He has estimated that, worldwide, “three to five percent” of Muslims are militant, and another “30 to 40 percent” are like the Muslim Brotherhood, with little use for separation of mosque and state. One of his favorite targets is the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which Jasser accuses of failing to distance itself sufficiently from terrorist organizations. “Their entire mantra is about victimology,” Jasser has said. In 2006, the Muslim Voice newspaper in Phoenix printed a cartoon of Jasser as an attack dog going after other Muslims.
The most potent product of Jasser’s efforts is a documentary called The Third Jihad: Radical Islam's Vision for America, which features Jasser as the chief narrator and warns of a creeping Islamist threat at home and abroad. Ominous music plays throughout. The documentary was produced by the Clarion Fund, which describes itself as a “non-profit organization that produces and distributes documentaries on the threats of Radical Islam.” The Clarion Fund was founded by a former employee of Aish HaTorah, a group with close ties to the settlement movement in Israel, and the two entities share an address.
This February, I met with Jasser at his office in Phoenix in a low-slung industrial neighborhood. Jasser’s day job is as a doctor of internal medicine and nuclear cardiology, and, when he greeted me, he had a stethoscope hanging around his neck. Pinned to Jasser’s suit lapel were an American flag and a yellow ribbon signifying support for American troops.
Jasser told me that he’d grown up in Wisconsin, where his parents had settled after fleeing repression in Syria. His father was a cardiologist and his mother a pharmacist. Jasser earned a Naval scholarship to study internal medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and, after graduating, he traveled to the Somalian coast during Operation Restore in 1993. In the late 90s, Jasser worked in the U.S. Capitol in the Office of the Attending Physician, which is run by the Navy. He left the military in 1999 and took over a share of his father’s medical practice in Phoenix. He remains a devout Muslim.
During our conversation I was surprised by how often I found myself nodding at what Jasser had to say. He explained that he believed that liberty was essential to true faith: “I as a Muslim can believe that I shouldn’t drink alcohol, which I never have, but I don’t want a law against it. … Faith is abrogated when government coerces anything in the name of faith. It’s no longer faith.” He also emphasized the importance of speaking candidly about religion: “You have to have an environment where people feel comfortable to talk about religious issues without worrying about offending anybody. And they’re gonna make some mistakes.” And, despite his oft-stated fears about the Muslim Brotherhood, he was unequivocally supportive of the uprisings in Egypt. “What’s great about these demonstrations in Egypt is that Arabs and Muslims are taking responsibility for their own problems. … That’s really what my work has been about.”
That Jasser is a hardliner on his pet topic was clear, however. In his view, even the Bush administration had been too weak on the problem of Islamism. I asked Jasser why he targets CAIR, since the organization has repeatedly condemned violence and terrorism. “I’ve never said that CAIR condones violence or is a violent organization, like al Qaeda,” Jasser answered. “But the issue is, will they condemn the goals of those organizations, the platforms of these organizations, which is to build an Islamic state and put into effect Islamic law?” (I later spoke to CAIR’s communications director Ibrahim Hooper about Jasser’s allegations. “With these people, nothing we would do would satisfy them, literally,” Hooper said. “We are the first to defend the Establishment Clause and every other amendment in the Constitution.”)
What about all his appearances on FOX with hosts like Beck and Hannity, who stoke hysteria? (Sample Beck comment: “In Pakistan, 90 percent of women—wives—are beaten. We see a culture here in our own country … up in the Minneapolis area.”) “I go wherever I’m—I was on MSNBC last week. I’ve never turned them down,” Jasser said. “Listen, I’m not going to defend the entire program. It’s like me being quoted in The New York Times and being expected to defend the entire newspaper. I defend what I say. So what I tell Muslims is, ‘If I’ve been on Beck’s program, what did I say during my four minutes that upset you?’”
After watching the The Third Jihad documentary online, I pointed out to Jasser that the film seemed a little out there. Jasser said he didn’t agree with everything in the film. “One part of it talked about Muslim population concerns, which I did not like,” Jasser said. “I disagreed with it. Obviously, I want the Muslim population to grow. My kids are Muslims. I want them to have Muslim kids. But you know, listen, you’re not going to agree with everything people write.” Still, overall he said he supported the film’s message. “I think if [viewers] hadn’t seen that there’s a Muslim that’s part of the solution, it would have been worse,” he said. He conceded, “My family saw the film. They didn’t disagree with anything I said, but they had the same feedback you had, which is, ‘Gosh, this is such a tough pill to swallow.’”
Surely, I suggested, it matters where you deliver your message. There’s a cost to going on Glenn Beck or Hannity or appearing in a fringe documentary that depicts a plurality of Muslims as stealth jihadists. “They [Beck and Hannity] may say things outside and in other places that I disagree with,” Jasser said. “But, on the other hand, those are millions and millions of Americans that I think are positively impacted by seeing a Muslim who loves his faith. That gives them a narrative that switches them away from thinking every Muslim is a problem and if they look into what I’m doing they’ll say, ‘Wow here’s a solution.’”
In the end, I got the sense that Jasser’s appearances on Fox aren’t really addressed to Muslims or even most Fox viewers. They’re aimed at red-state skeptics—perhaps Americans like those Jasser served with in the Navy. In interviews, Jasser’s standard technique is to reassure the questioner that his points are valid but then to push back slightly. For instance, when a Fox interviewer expressed concerns about Islamists benefitting from the overthrow of Mubarak, Jasser replied: “You know, listen, Eric, I know where you are coming from. I devoted my life to fighting political Islam and the ideology of theocracy. But this change has to happen.”
This is a tough game to play. To those on the left, Jasser wants to deliver a wake-up message that danger is afoot. To those on the right, Jasser wants to say that Islam is perfectly compatible with modernity and mainstream American life. In short, he wants to stress that Islamism is a more serious threat than we think and a less serious threat than we think. Not surprisingly, the nuances of such a message come through with less than perfect clarity on Glenn Beck.
The end result is that Jasser is unpopular with basically everyone. Many Muslims reject his message, and so do most Americans on the left. On the right, those on the extremes are equally unfriendly. The virulently anti-Muslim commentator Debbie Schlussel, for instance, accuses Jasser of “saying the usual bullcrap, i.e., that Islam is a peaceful religion.”
Amid such warring camps, it’s hard to say anything useful. Jasser, for his part, believes that both his country and his fellow Muslims are better off for his efforts. I doubt it. There’s a balance between reaching out to skeptics and allowing oneself to be coopted, and Jasser seems to have negotiated this balance unsuccessfully. Still, while the path he has chosen is lonely and perhaps all wrong, it takes undeniable courage to walk it.
T.A. Frank is a special correspondent for The New Republic.