Meet Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, our third profile in resilience.
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Joan Harting Barham: In a way, you are a man of many identities: you're a proud, native-born American, a devout Muslim, a physician, the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), a husband and father. How do you prioritize all these roles?
Zuhdi Jasser: First is my relationship with God. I've been taught through my faith that our life is but a dot in the life-span of our soul and that I'm tested in my life on earth and that test is what I do with the gifts God gave me. So the first test is how I treat my family, my wife and my kids. And that I don't squander those gifts I was talking about.
Until 9/11, I always felt my challenge was treating patients, helping people who come in feeling poorly or feeling that there is no hope and giving them some hope with regard to treatments. That's been my dedication. And, early in my life, I was able to mix that dedication with service to country via the Health Professions Scholarship Program. What HPSP does is pay for medical students' tuition in exchange for military service. So, four years of medical school translates to owing four years of service as a physician. I'd always wanted to serve in the military and it allowed me to combine those dreams.
JHB: Is there a question of reconciling any of these roles?
ZJ: It's interesting, some Muslims have asked me: Zuhdi, are you Muslim first or American first? They challenge my patriotism by asking that. The problem, I think, in the Muslim community is that most Muslims still mix government with religion; there's still a feeling that government should be God. I feel that religion ceases to be personal and becomes coercion when government gets involved in the relationship.
As far as life balance, yes. I've chosen to do things – fighting global terrorism and fighting political Islam – that have in some ways been imposed upon my family. When my wife and I married in 1998, neither of us envisioned that I'd be taking on this national and global issue, and doing the traveling, writing, speaking and other things that take time from my family and from my work as a physician.
JHB: You founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) in 2003, two years after 9/11. What was the impetus for creating it?
ZJ: After 9/11, local media started interviewing the Muslim on the street, the Muslim at the Arizona State University, whoever they could get. I saw interviews with two imams running the Imam Council here in Phoenix who basically blamed America for 9/11. They also condoned the bombing of the USS Cole, saying that America deserved that for our foreign policy. So, a group of us were sitting around a dinner table, complaining, and we said: That's enough. We need to form an organization that truly, truly understands what this ideological conflict is all about. Especially Muslims who came to the U.S. for political reasons; the silent majority of Muslim Americans who escaped theocracy and secular dictatorship as my parents did when they came from Syria.
We met in the summer of '02 and agreed to form an organization stating where the ideological separations are; that we are loyal to our citizenship oath – which is a secular constitution we believe in – and stating that we will defend the separation of religion and state. We had other points about gender equality and about the right of any Muslim to define and interpret the Koran – that it's not just the domain of the imams or the so-called Islamic scholars.
Then we formed our Board of Directors and put together a foundation that would take years to fully establish because the mosques and Islamist organizations such as Muslim Care, ISNA [Islamic Society of North America] and the Muslim Public Affairs Council were not being very receptive.