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Muslim Leader Supports Radicalization Hearings


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, while the world's attention is on Libya, the protests continue in Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq. We'll get the latest analysis from Abdur-Rahim Fuqara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. We'll talk to him in just a few minutes.

But first, another in our series of conversations previewing this week's hearings by the House Homeland Security Committee, which is investigating, quote, "the extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community and that community's response."

Yesterday, we spoke with one the two Muslim members of Congress, Representative Andre Carson, a Democrat who represents Indiana's 7th District. He expressed reservations about the scope and tone of the hearings.

Now we turn to another Muslim man with a very different perspective. His testimony will be a centerpiece of the hearing. His name is Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser. He is a physician in the Phoenix area and he's also president and founder of a group called the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Dr. Jasser joins us now from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Dr. Jasser, welcome back, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Dr. M. ZUHDI JASSER (President, American Islamic Forum for Democracy): Thanks for having me, Michel. It's nice to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, Dr. Jasser, as you know, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding these hearings. Many people question the purpose of them. What is the benefit, do you think, of these hearings?

Dr. JASSER: Well, I'll tell you, as a Muslim, you know, we formed the organization because we realized that terrorism and radicalization is just the symptom and that this is a Muslim problem that needs a Muslim solution. But, you know, in fact, if the solution is going to come from within, we have to engage and realize that the vast majority of Muslims are not radicalized. But we do have a problem.

The amount of cells and radicalization that's been happening in the last 16 to 24 months has been exponentially increasing. And Secretary Napolitano testified to this committee that it's the highest it's ever been. So I think the best way to melt away any bigotry that may exist out there towards Muslim is for Americans to see that we are taking ownership, that we want to fix it. We recognize that violence is just a symptom. And we want to begin the hard work of reform.

MARTIN: What is your evidence that this philosophy has taken hold to enough of a segment of the population to warrant concern? What is your evidence about this phenomenon in the United States?

Dr. JASSER: Well, what I would consider radical ideas again is not necessarily violence. I see a bigger problem of imams who have held up pictures of American soldiers in Iraq and said that these soldiers at their Friday prayers are raping and killing our children in Iraq and saying that America is in a war against Islam. I've seen American-Muslim organizations tell Muslims to only talk to the FBI if they have an attorney.

I see groups like the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America. It's a consortium of many imams of mosques around the country that give Muslims fatwas or religious rulings on what to do. They've told fatwas to Muslims, don't do the Pledge of Allegiance. Don't work with Homeland Security because it's an infidel-type military that's not yours.

Is that a majority? Absolutely not. Most Muslims don't believe that. But, yet, these ideas are not just a psychiatric issue. It's a theo-political movement that still is in the 15th and 16th century. And they talk about reform, but yet the ideology still hasn't gone through that intellectual reformation.

MARTIN: You know, I'm interested in two things you cite as an example of a problem, not saying the Pledge of Allegiance and seeking legal representation before talking to the FBI. Those are legal rights that Americans have. Other religious groups, Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, don't say the Pledge of Allegiance. People have a right to have legal representation in speaking before law enforcement. How is exercising one's legal rights as Americans indicative of a lack of loyalty?

Dr. JASSER: It's not a lack of loyalty. It has to do with the amount of bandwidth that takes up and the dialogue going on in our communities and with our youth. It has to do with the fact that those groups you cited haven't had the number of homegrown incidents of terror that have come from Faisal Shahzad to Portland to Baltimore, all of these incidents, on and on and on, they've been exponentially increasing, but yet we want to say that it's no different than Jared Loughner who had psychiatric issues.

So, yes, our rights need to be preserved, but the predominant message needs to be, we recognize what the intoxicant is. The intoxicant is the supremacism(ph) of political Islam and we want to take that away and reform to a spiritual, beautiful faith that has the same values of Judaism and Christianity and believes in the same legal system.

MARTIN: There are both Muslim-Americans who take issue with these hearings and non-Muslims who take issue with the hearing. So let's take their objections each in turn. Earlier this week, we spoke with Representative Andre Carson of Indiana, one of two Muslim-Americans currently serving in the U.S. Congress. He voices concern that these hearings might be counterproductive.

I'll just play a short clip from the conversation just in case you were not able to hear it and get your reaction. Here it is.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Representative ANDRE CARSON (Democrat, Indiana): I don't think it helps. I think it discourages Muslim-Americans from participating with law enforcement and acting effectively as informants in many cases and really bridging the gap between law enforcement and our Muslim communities across this country.

MARTIN: What's your response to that?

Dr. JASSER: I couldn't disagree more. I mean, there are many Muslim heroes. This is not the issue of those informants. It's not that Muslims won't report that jihadist that's going to do that final violent step. I don't think that's where I have a concern. My concern is sort of the culture that when there is an informant, they sue the FBI like they're doing in California. And that sends a message that, no, don't be an informant, don't work on these things.

So Mr. Carson, in some ways, should also then be speaking out against CAIR and their lawsuit in Southern California because, on the one hand, he's saying that informants are good. But on the other hand, they're looking for opportunities, many of these groups, that so far have dominated the platform and it hasn't allowed us the hard work of reform to help resolve these issues.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Dr. Zuhdi Jasser. He is the founder and president of a group called the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.

Later this week, he is expected to testify before the House Homeland Security Committee, which is investigating the question of whether American Muslims are being radicalized and whether that alleged radicalization poses a national security threat. Dr. Jasser supports these hearings and he does plan to testify.

As we said, also, other groups, non-Muslim groups have also expressed their concern about these hearings. There are two letters that were sent to Congressman Peter King who's the chair of the Committee on Homeland Security who's convening these hearings. One has been the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of civil rights group. The other is from a group of faith leaders across Long Island, which Congressman King represents.

They both say essentially the same thing, that they feel that these hearings has currently constituted - will stoke anti-Muslim sentiment, increase suspicion and fear of the American-Muslim community, that they will increase what they call racial profiling. And generally contribute to a caring of our civic fabric. That is their argument. What do you say to that?

Dr. JASSER: Again, I couldn't disagree more. I think again that's denial and it is hyperbole in order to avoid the hard work. Where are the position papers of these organizations to talk about, what is their solution? All we're doing and all Chairman King has done is to bring forth Muslims now in the beginning to say, how do we solve this and what is the coordinated strategy we need to have once we figure out what the problem is and how to solve it.

And I think that a lot of the hyperbole is stoking the flames more so. To say this is all about being Muslim and Islam and all this, rather than say, well, hold on a second, Islam is the solution. Spiritual compassionate faith is the solution. And all I think the hearings are doing is trying to build a platform for Muslim groups and individuals that want to find solutions and build a public/private strategy to figure out how to take it to that next level.

As Prime Minister Cameron said in England, he said, we need a muscular liberalism to give these youth an identity within British society, American society, so that they don't get radicalized.

Nidal Hasan, you asked me about evidence before, Nidal Hasan didn't become radical overnight. He didn't have a psychotic issue. He, over years, was being radicalized into an ideology that ultimately led to Imam Awlaki. Imam Awlaki went from a Denver mosque to a San Diego mosque to a Northern Virginia mosque and the Northern Virginia mosque said, oh, we didn't see anything when ultimately you could actually see his ideas as being sort of precursors towards that end step which is violence. And violence is just that final step.

MARTIN: Well, then what about those who point to Jared Loughner who is the accused assailant in the Tucson shooting? He was not a Muslim, didn't apparently belong to any religious group, but engaged in what many people consider to be an act of terrorism, certainly a vicious act of violence. People look at incidents like that and they say, why isn't that kind of thing the subject of congressional hearings?

Dr. JASSER: If people feel it should be, it should be. Separate hearings on, are we treating psychiatric patients well? Are they marginalized, et cetera? I mean, that's a whole other topic. You can't combine everything into one, you know, hearing for a few hours and figure out that we can get some solutions. You know, our country was founded on a comfortable discussion of diversity within religion.

Our documents were based on Christian diversity where we realized that an anti-theocratic movement developed a constitution and an establishment clause with an open discussion of religion. So, why can't we have that same discussion to say, you know what, one of the violent extremisms in America is - and the most significant one that led to the whole formation of our Department of Homeland Security was related to Islamist radicalism from al-Qaida and its continued threat.

So if we're going to address that threat, we need to focus on the root cause, which I believe is a theo-political movement that has hijacked a good number of Muslims. A minority, but it's a good number that we need to treat and it's increasing exponentially.

MARTIN: And, finally, I asked this question of Representative Carson and so I wanted to ask you the same question. What is a constructive way forward from here?

Dr. JASSER: I think a constructed way forward is to say, OK, do we recognize there's a problem? Is it increasing? And how do we then create a coordinated strategy to start to, as Prime Minister Cameron said, drain the pool of the fuel of - that the violent extremists swim in. And how do we begin to truly assimilate Muslims into an ideology that is American, that is British, that is Western, so that they aren't pulled into this jihadi coup, into this cyber jihad that is so much a threat and continues to be a threat.

MARTIN: How do these hearings advance that goal, given that they have, at least for some people, caused them to feel stigmatized and demeaned by their own government? How does it advance that cause of - encouraging people to feel more bonded and loyal to this country? Do you see my question?

Dr. JASSER: Yeah. I completely understand and I hope these things - what you just asked remains at the forefront of our conversation, is that we realize there's a problem, but we realize that the most important part of that deep solution is from the Muslim community.

So, yes, we can't marginalize Muslims. But on the other hand, we also can't avoid the tough discussions of theology that lends to radicalization if that is part of the problem. So I hope we have a climate on Capitol Hill that we can talk about these things and figure out how to counter and let Muslims have new platforms to take responsibility. And I think that would be the best treatment for any fear out there of Muslims or Islam.

MARTIN: Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser is a physician. He practices in the Phoenix area. He's also founder and president of a group called the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. And he joined us from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Dr. Jasser, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. JASSER: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.