Church & State
Former Naval officer rallies U.S. Muslims to defend democracy
Classes represented in this story: ’92
M. Zuhdi Jasser, MD ’92, speaks to a crowd of 400 at an American Islamic Forum for Democracy rally in Phoenix in 2004.
The union he observed time and again between church and politics struck him as vexing and dangerous even in his youth, especially since it departed so severely from his own interpretation of Islam. But it wasn’t until years later that M. Zuhdi Jasser, MD ’92, realized he needed to act, that he could no longer tolerate the perversion of his faith by those advocating hate, violence and the destruction of his nation’s values. A physician, a U.S. Navy veteran and a devout Muslim, Dr. Jasser has been building a movement to heal his religion from the inside out, and, hopefully, help defend America from the threat of radical Islamism.
“None of us, as physicians, could ever stand idly by as a patient coded in front of us,” he said. “Whether our own patient or someone else’s, it is that uncontainable desire to care for the sick and protect life, especially when it needs us the most, that drives us every day. I have been, almost against my will, diverted by a ‘coding patient.’ This diversion thrust me into a conflict to rescue my faith.”
BEHIND THE CV
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, select activities in medicine
- Private practice: Phoenix, Ariz.; board certified: internal medicine & nuclear cardiology
- Staff privileges at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center (GSRMC)
- Chairman, Bioethics Committee for GSRMC
- Arizona Medical Association Board of Directors since 2003
- Arizona Medical Association President, 2006-07
- Alternate Delegate for Arizona Medical Association to the American Medical Association
- Chairman and founder, Arizona Disaster Preparedness Task Force
- Maricopa County Board of Health since 2005
- Area Agency of Aging Board of Directors since 2007
Dr. Jasser is the founder, President, and Chairman of the Board of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), an organization based near his Phoenix Valley home that aims to promote an understanding of Islam that separates religion and state. He sees the forum as a vehicle for reformation that attempts to revoke the claim that Islamo-fascists have placed on the religion of Islam. He hopes it can serve as a voice for liberty-minded Muslims in the war on terror.
AIFD officially began in 2003 in Arizona, but its roots are planted in Wisconsin, where Dr. Jasser, the son of Syrian immigrants, was raised. During his formative years in Neenah, Dr. Jasser subscribed to a faith practice that kept personal his relationship with God, the laws he learned from his Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed. His sense of religion was free from outside influence. His personal beliefs, however, were clearly at odds with what was preached in many mosques and by the heads of Muslim organizations, he learned as he attempted to engage with the greater Muslim community.
He first started paying serious attention to the manner in which politicized Islam differed from his faith while an undergraduate student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After attending a number of services at one of the larger mosques in the area, he became disheartened by the tone and content of what was espoused to the congregants.
“The sermons from the imam (teacher) of the mosque were virulent political tirades, which left me spiritually empty and politically frustrated,” he said. “This opened my eyes to the infiltration of political Islam into the mosques and Muslim community around America.”
Dr. Jasser’s reaction to political Islam (Islamism) is a likely byproduct of his upbringing and subsequent education. He forged a moral compass and developed pragmatism that drew a line of demarcation between politics (based on reason) and spirituality (based on a personal relationship with God). The son of a cardiologist, his aspirations to medicine developed at a young age, and the tenets of his faith were perhaps the source of his attraction to the “uniquely sacrosanct covenant” between a doctor and patient.
“My faith has always taught me that while our time on earth is very limited, it is incumbent upon us to maximize our gifts from God in service to our societies,” he said. “In my mindset, the practice of medicine is attempting to repair the world, one patient at a time.”
His patriotism and respect for America’s opportunities led him to the military. On a full scholarship from the U.S. Navy, Dr. Jasser attended the Medical College of Wisconsin, then completed his internal medicine residency at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He served as Head of the Medical Department aboard the U.S.S. El Paso deployed to Somalia in Operation Restore Hope, was a Chief Resident, and then was selected as a staff internist to the Office of the Attending Physician to the U.S. Congress from 1997-99. Before his honorable discharge as a lieutenant commander, he received the Meritorious Service Medal.
In 1999, he joined his father in medical practice in Arizona, where he remains in private, solo practice as an internist with an additional emphasis on nuclear cardiac stress imaging. Since his college experience, Dr. Jasser had slowly, but closely, studied radical Islamism for a better understanding, but he considered it an issue that would resolve as future generations gained enlightenment. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, changed everything.
“I realized that the militant offshoots of political Islam – namely Al Qaeda in the case of 9-11 – were such a threat to our way of life in America and the West, that I had to spend as much time as humanly possible creating an ideology to counter political Islam from within the consciousness of a devotional, pious Islamic practice,” he said. “Make no mistake, only Muslims can win this war and take away the mantle of faith from the militant Islamists.”
AIFD became Dr. Jasser’s weapon for change. He and the local Muslim business leaders who helped create it, hope for the institution to evolve into a prominent think tank and activist organization advocating for an Islam that is spiritually strong and based in scholarship with equal footing at the table of world religions, but free from the corruptive forces of theocrats or Islamists.
“We felt that the only way to counter the local and global movement of political Islam, and especially its militant offshoots, was to create an alternative, apolitical vision for our faith that came out of the Jeffersonian ideas of liberty, which founded the United States of America,” Dr. Jasser said.
In addition to disseminating information online at www.aifdemocracy.org, AIFD has been engaged in a number of activities to enact reform. On behalf of the organization, Dr. Jasser has led briefings at the Joint Forces Staff College, met with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding the obstacles to change in the Muslim world, and led a program for Dutch Muslim youth and political leaders sponsored by the Ambassador to the Netherlands. He is a national radio and television commentator, often appearing on CNN, and a regular columnist for the Arizona Republic newspaper.
He has participated in numerous public debates around the country and in April 2004 in Phoenix, AIFD held its largest event – the first major rally in the U.S. by Muslims against Terrorism. As the organization grows, Dr. Jasser looks to hire imams and scholars in Islamic law to begin documenting re-interpretations of scripture that disregard politics entirely. He hopes to begin youth programs focused on American nationalism and Islam, teaching that American freedom and Islamic faith are not at odds. He seeks as well to build a growing network of Muslims and non-Muslims who understand the conflict and the ideologies at stake and are willing to mobilize to educate America at large and to contradict Muslims who exploit faith for political agenda.
False perceptions and misinformation remain strong obstacles to creating effective coalitions and achieving change, and eliminating these barriers through education and dialogue remain a priority in Dr. Jasser’s quest. It is a role he embraces despite his initial discomfort with speaking publicly about his faith and exposing himself and his family to radical commentary and derision. He is working to cure a cancer, he says, and that is no small task.
“This battle does not come to me naturally. My training as a physician seems to have prepared me unbelievably well for the intellectual and moral challenges of fighting radical Islamists and made it natural,” Dr. Jasser said. “At the end of the day, terrorism is a utilitarian ethic that believes the ends justify the means. Any means. Thus, a rigorous approach to their ideology leads one to undeniably state that not only is such an ethic profoundly immoral, barbaric and corrupt at its core, but treatment and prevention involves tapping into the sources of their mortality and ethics while also changing the ends they seek.”