Zuhdi Jasser, president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AFID) and co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement (MRM) spoke to a September 30th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the best strategies Muslim reformers can use in their fight against political Islam and Islamists.
Jasser said that al Qaeda's attack on 9/11 – and ISIS "decades later" – exposed the "true agenda of Islamists" and the "Muslim Brotherhood types" in their mission to "destroy the influence of the West and get them out of their hemisphere." In light of the Arab Awakening in Muslim-majority countries, Jasser assessed the current status of Muslim reform successes abroad and in the West, as well as the remaining challenges ahead for the Muslim reform movement. Chief among those successes is the acceptance of the term "Islamism" and the "shift [of] the discourse to being about political Islam." The "prescient" leaders who identified early on the problem within Islam, among them Bernard Lewis and the Middle East Forum's president Daniel Pipes, made the distinction that a "reformed moderate Islam couched in modernity is part of the solution" to Islamism.
As AFID enters its fifteenth year, Jasser tallied "assumptions" that did not unfold as reformers expected: (1) "If you build it they will come" (Muslim reformist leaders emerged, but the Muslim community did not join them); (2) Westernized Muslims felt no "sense of urgency" to "marginalize" the well-organized Islamists; (3) The merger of the "Red-Green axis" of progressives with Islamists as identity politics spread in the West was unanticipated; and (4) It was assumed that Islamist failures would "translate" into successes for the Muslim reform movement. As Islamists fight among themselves, their failures have caused Muslims to leave the faith instead of rising up in a "populous movement against the Islamists."
In addition to the acceptance of the term "Islamism," Jasser listed other post-9/11 successes: (1) The emergence of Islamist losses in the Arab Awakening and the Muslim Brotherhood's defeat in Egypt; (2) ISIS and its barbarism in Syria and Iraq turned the Muslim masses against it; (3) Iran's ongoing revolt, with its roots in the 2009 Green Revolution, in which for the first time across the Middle East "you have men standing with women protesting the hijab and control of their bodily and physical autonomy;" and (4) The rejection of Erdoğan's AKP party by the millions of anti-Assad Syrians absorbed by Turkey as a result of their treatment as "fourth-class citizens."
Muslim reformist successes in the West also include a "hemorrhaging" of attendance and membership from American Islamist organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Jasser attributes these to the Muslim community's disillusionment with the financial corruption of leading Islamists and to their general "misogyny" within the Islamist community. Still, despite the decline of organized religious affiliation, Jasser said Muslims want their descendants to "identify as Muslims." He sees the need to educate them to understand that Islam is more than "a historical tradition" and that reformist Islam is a viable path.
Jasser said the lack of urgency among mainstream Muslims to join the Muslim reform movement results from their being "estranged" from organized activities and their view of the imams as an irrelevant minority who have no "control" in society at large. Disgraced Islamist figures include Tariq Ramadan, formally charged with raping five women; Hassan Shibley, Florida's CAIR leader accused of sexual harassment; and the "hundreds of affidavits" brought by Muslim women attorneys against imams accused of sexually abusing vulnerable women in mosques.
According to Jasser, the Islamist movement is "beginning to fall apart," as evidenced by the increase in court cases challenging Islamists who attempt to enforce "a separate non-American Quranic Sharia-based system" in Islamist tribunals. These tribunals pressure Muslims to surrender their rights, as was the case of a Muslim woman seeking a divorce after she was coerced into signing a document she did not understand. AFID filed an "amicus brief" on her behalf and the Supreme Court in Texas "ruled in her favor."
Although Jasser supports faith communities who want their own "arbitration system," when an Islamist tribunal "explicitly reject the laws of the land" and demands that the Quran take precedent over the Constitution, "that's the role for protection of rights." He sees a similar issue with the topic of school choice. Many Islamic schools in the U.S. are "often separatist and anti-American," but because of the issue of religious freedom, these "supremacist schools" are given a pass. He advocates the protection of school choice as well as the ability to be critical of the "separatist" ideology of Islamic schools.
Globally, Jasser said that, except in Qatar, "petro-Islam" royal families are distancing themselves from Islamism. The Arab News described the recently deceased Sunni Islamist Yusuf Qaradawi, the "spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood," as a "preacher of hate," which Jasser said would have been unlikely a decade ago. Wahhabist Islam that is responsible for exacerbating global jihadism did not undergo a reformation, Jasser said. Referring to a saying common in the Middle East, "Salafis use politics for religious control, but the Islamists use religion for political control," he said that while Islamists advance their political movement by using religion, Salafis and royal families used their control of the government and military to advance Wahabbism "to exert a specific flavor of that religion."
The political Islam linked to Hamas in Gaza, or what Jasser terms "Palestinianism," is another aspect of Islamism he sees weakening because of the strength of the Abraham Accords. As Bahrain, the Emirates, and "hopefully" the Saudis, begin to "de-link" Palestinianism from the global Muslim community, the "propaganda method" Hamas and their ilk use globally will "fall apart." Jasser also sees successes against Islamism in Europe. In Austria, President Sebastian Kurz asked Parliament to pass laws against imams preaching political Islam. In France, Prime Minister Macron has also targeted political Islam. And in Italy, soon-to-be prime minister Giorgia Meloni will be a "threat" to Islamists.
In finding a platform within the "Red-Green axis," Jasser believes the identity politics movement of the Left is "the last vestige" the Islamists have to exert any power in the West. For example, in the U.S., Ilhan Omar sought unsuccessfully to establish an office "to monitor and combat Islamophobia," which Jasser said would have installed "an anti-blasphemy seat in the State Department." Jasser prescribed an antidote to counter the Red-Green axis, namely by forming a "Red White and Blue axis" coalition that defends America and defends Israel. He said there are many Muslims who "recognize Israel," and he sees their support as a "litmus test" of who is and is not an Islamist.
Jasser is determined to advance the coalition against identity politics and antisemitism in the West. He sees a critical need to form a "farm team" to counter Islamists' centralized organization by establishing chairs in academia, filling positions in government, and dispatching interfaith workers to fight political Islam. Doing so advances the doctrine that "political Islam is the enemy, but liberal modern Islam is our friend."
He said that the "media groupthink" found on the Left and in traditional media can be bypassed through "alternative media" by podcast notables such as Bari Weiss and Joe Rogan. Reformist Muslims, including Asra Nomani, an activist for school-parent rights; Raheel Raza, active in the Toronto group Muslims Facing Tomorrow; Sri Lankan Soraya Deen, an activist for women's rights in Europe; and Imam Osama Hassan, who engages in "theological discourse" with MRM, are leaders who should be included "as part of that debate" in podcasts discussing issues against identity politics, cancel culture, and on behalf of free speech.
Non-Muslims can join with reformist Muslims and together engage with members of Congress to encourage a foreign policy that supports the Abraham Accords. This joint group can develop networks to ensure that universities include reformist Muslims on panels who can debate the Islamists who have inserted themselves into academia. An expanded list of reformists is available at muslimreformmovement.org. Jasser said that by joining the new anti-Islamist initiative Champions for Liberty Against the Reality of Islamist Terror (CLARITy Coalition), one can join a new coalition of ex-Muslims, Muslim reformers, activists, and writers dedicated to combating Islamic extremists worldwide.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.