A Battle for the Soul of Islam

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser's new book tells the story of one patriot's quest to change the face of Islam.

The American medical doctor-turned-political activist Zuhdi Jasser has recently published A Battle for the Soul of Islam:  An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save his Faith.  This autobiographical account describes how a first-generation Syrian-American living and loving the American Dream felt called after September 11, 2001, to contend with aggressive and authoritarian elements seeking primacy among his Muslim co-religionists worldwide.  Jasser offers a sympathetic tale of a Muslim seeking acceptance among his co-religionists of his dual devotion to faith and freedom.  Jasser discusses that a rational understanding of religion allows the possibility of strengthening peace and prosperity for all in the face of often nihilistic Muslim groups demanding submission to specifically sectarian sharia norms.  While freedom’s friends should welcome Muslims like Jasser as valued allies in their fight against militant jihad, the extent of Jasser’s future success remains as yet uncertain.

Jasser begins his narrative with his family background in his ancestral Syria.  Jasser’s grandfather, Zuhdi Al-Jasser, led a prominent vegetable oil company and was a strong public proponent of a free society in Syria following French colonial rule’s end in 1946.  Analogous to his grandson, Al-Jasser as a “devout Muslim” combined with his faith an admiration of the West’s freedom.  This admiration rubbed off on his son, Mohamed Kais Jasser, Zuhdi’s father, who completed his bachelors’ degree at London University in the early 1960s before studying medicine in Syria.  Intermittent repression from successive “thugs of the month” dictators, though, ultimately made life in Syria intolerable for Al-Jasser with his regular newspaper columns. Beginning in 1963, he and his family began a migration via Beirut, Lebanon, to the United States.

Born in 1967 in Dayton, Ohio, Jasser grew up with his family and grandparents in Appleton, Wisconsin.  Like “many midwestern kids in small towns,” Jasser spent childhood “laughing a lot and generally just having a very good time.”  Jasser’s boyhood friendships, many of them still ongoing, with Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists showed him “how cultural and religious differences are so often accepted in America.”  In this environment Jasser’s grandfather found ironic the greater freedom of religion to practice Islam in the United States than in Muslim-majority Syria.  This “reality of personal faith” made the Jasser family’s worship “more purely Islamic and closer to God in Wisconsin” than in Syria.

Along with a “spirit of liberty and of Islam,” Jasser’s family imbued in him “at a very early age an intense love for the American military.”  Accordingly, Jasser sought to emulate his father’s medical career via a scholarship from the United States Navy.  After medical school, Jasser completed his naval training and deployed in July 1993 for ten months aboard the amphibious cargo ship U.S.S. El Paso.  Jasser’s Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, and Jewish “best friends in the Navy” recall the diversity of the infantry squad in Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan or the proverbial World War II American “bomber crew.”  The Navy gave Jasser a “sense of unity that transcended where one was from, one’s politics, or one’s religion.”

After the El Paso tour, Jasser completed various training and service assignments at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, DC, until retiring from the Navy in 1999. Jasser’s final two service years placed him in the sensitive Office of the Attending Physician (OAP).  This office provides care for Congress and Supreme Court members as well as emergency response for the Capitol Hill police jurisdiction.

During these years around the turn of the 20th to the 21st century a “dream American life” came together for Jasser.  After a long, involved personal search, Jasser finally found an intelligent, independent-minded Muslim Syrian-American woman capable of sharing Jasser’s life as a full partner.  Jasser celebrated a traditional Islamic wedding with his wife Gada on Valentine’s Day 1998, a day decried by many orthodox Muslim as a “corrupt Western tradition” but nonetheless the “favorite holiday” of the romantics Jasser and Gada.  Among others attending the nuptials were Jasser’s commanding officer, Admiral John Eisold, and Representative J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ).  Subsequent to the Navy, Jasser joined his father’s established practice in Phoenix, Arizona, and Gada became pregnant with the couple’s first child in 2001.

The 9/11 attacks disrupted this idyll, evoking in the Navy veteran Jasser thoughts of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier.  Jasser felt “pure rage” and sought “to get even with the bastards” who invoked Islamic faith in the name of terror.  Jasser discerned a “second calling” to show the world that such “madmen” did not represent “true Islam, our Islam” and that there was a “difference between Islam and Islamism.”

Jasser distinguishes thereby between Islam as a “spiritual and personal way of life, not a political belief system” and Islamism as a “theo-political separatist ideology” seeking “to dominate the world.” Jasser rejects the Islamist wish “for laws to be based not on secular agreement but purely on shariah” with its “fourteen-hundred-year-old religious laws” such that, for example, “women are second-class citizens” and “punishments tend to be extremely brutal.” In support of this agenda, “terrorism is merely a tactic” alongside a “propaganda war worthy of the Nazis or the Soviets.”  Indeed, Jasser analogizes the 21st struggle against Islamism with the 20th century struggles against secular totalitarianisms, for, regardless of source, “fascism is fascism.”

Jasser admits to being “very much unaware of political Islam” during his “own protected life in Wisconsin and then the Navy” where Jassser was “able to maintain an idyllic perception of my own faith and culture and its compatibility with the West.” Jasser first encountered this phenomenon before 9/11 as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There Jasser gravitated towards Muslims of Malaysian and Indonesian origin generally interested in the “spiritual aspects of Islam” as opposed to the “obsession with political movements, anti-Semitism, and foreign policy” present among “Muslims of Arab origin dominated by Palestinians.”

Jasser similarly avoided the “Islamists” of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and left the Islamic Society of Milwaukee mosque.  Listening to the imam’s anti-American “vitriol”, “theo-political drivel”, and “deep-seated anti-Semitism” made Jasser “ill.” All such views alienated Jasser as a “conservative Republican” and “passionate supporter of President Reagan” who engaged in conservative journalism in both high school and college.

Later in 1995 an incident with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) exposed Jasser to the “organized threat” of “Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups” in the United States.  A fellow Navy doctor invited Jasser to present a research paper at a convention of the Islamic Medical Association (IMA).  There Jasser discovered that the IMA was intimately linked to ISNA, whose convention followed the IMA convention and was open to its attendees.  Jasser’s only previous contact with ISNA had been a 1991 letter calling for conscientious objection from active-duty American military personnel to the Gulf War, provoking a “visceral response” from Jasser.

Staying for the ISNA convention’s opening day, Jasser heard the keynote speaker Imam Siraj Wahhaj advocate the long-term goal of replacing the Constitution with Islamic law. During the subsequent audience participation, Jasser in his Navy whites dress uniform expressed before a microphone his offense at Wahhaj’s apparent advocacy of sedition.  Jasser then indicated to all other military members in the audience that they should follow Jasser in disassociating themselves from ISNA and any other affiliated groups like IMA, as military personnel swear to uphold the Constitution.  Although the ISNA convention made a deep impression upon Jasser, “as in Milwaukee” he “held out the hope” that “Muslims in a generation or so” would resolve such Islamist controversies (Jasser confesses to being an “eternal optimist.”).

The manifest continuing relevance of Islamism after 9/11 led to Jasser to found the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) in his living room with eight Phoenix area Muslim families on March 3, 2003.  With the “primary mission” of advocating “separation of mosque and state”, AIFD applies the “true meaning of jihad” to wage, in the words cited by Jasser of Tarek Fatah from the Muslim Canadian Congress, a “jihad against jihad” conducted by Islamists. Not without logic, Jasser argues that Islamism is a “Muslim problem that needs a Muslim solution” in a formulation of Islam compatible with freedom appealing to Muslims.

Yet Jasser notes the scorn of Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) that AIFD’s “supporters could all fit in one phone booth.” Jasser in turn dismisses Ellison as an “apologist” for Islamists and writes of AIFD growth in the face of various social pressures on American Muslims against public opposition to Islamism.  Yet fellow Islamism opponent Robert Spencer similarly critically comments at his website Jihadwatch that “Jasser has long held to his own private Islam that has nothing to do with traditional, mainstream Islam.”  Ironically indicative of Spencer’s doubts, readers seeking to explore further the inherently extensive themes of Islamic reform broached by various passages of Jasser’s book under the eponymous link at the AIFD website currently receive merely the advisory “Section still under construction.”

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