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'They don't want you to criticize Islam': Controversial speaker Zuhdi Jasser talks about combating 'Islamism'

After days of controversy, a location change and a counter-protest event, Zuhdi Jasser visited Duke to give a talk about Islam. And despite fears of protest that necessitated five security guards at the event, the talk proceeded smoothly. 

Jasser, a medical doctor and the president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, is a Muslim American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Syria. The speech, originally entitled, “The American Muslim Identity: Patriot or Insurgent,” emphasized the need to reform Islam, curb Islamism and promote liberty and Americanism.  

"Ideas don't have rights, human beings do,” Jasser said. “They call it Islamophobia because they don't want you to criticize Islam.”

He discussed how Islam is over 1,400 years old, but that there have been over 500 years of stagnation of Islamic thought. This period has seen the rise of political Islam—the belief that Muslim-majority countries should be governed based on Sharia or Islamic law. Jasser spoke staunchly against Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism, as he believes it is the root of “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Jasser also discussed his other organization, the Muslim Reform Movement, which advocates for the "separation of mosque and state." 

"I'm a doctor; I don't treat coughs and pains, I treat disease," he said. And to him, the disease that leads to terrorism is theocracy. 

To combat the ills of Islamism, Jasser argued that Muslims across the globe need to embrace liberty and secular government. He believes America in particular has the obligation to go on the offensive and promote freedom like it did during the Cold War, instead of the “whack-a-mole” system of stopping potential terrorists that it currently follows. 

Jasser also blamed American imams and mosque culture for radicalizing Muslims in the U.S. He said there is a real civil rights movement within mosques right now, where non-violent Islamism teachings often lead to violent Islamism. He added that to stop anti-Islamic bigotry in the West,  the world needs to see Muslims that "[live] in the lab of freedom" working to reform their own faith.

Jasser was not only upset with Islamists around the world and in America. He also decried those at Duke, accusing the Muslim Student Association (MSA) of having an Islamist agenda. 

When an MSA member questioned Jasser about how he could criticize the group without ever having interacted with it, he said he has seen Facebook statement against his event. The statement said that MSA was “outraged, disappointed, but unsurprised” by the decision to bring Jasser to campus. 

Jasser argued that the statement had to come from Islamists since they never quoted him, and he accused MSA of never speaking out against theocrats and Islamists on social media.

Jasser was demonstrably upset about the backlash to his event, referencing criticisms repeatedly throughout the speech. He noted the “propaganda that you’ve seen in your newspaper the past few days,” referring to a recent editorial in the Chronicle. 

Ultimately, Jasser said Muslim Americans face a choice between the freedom of Americanism and the dangers of Islamism. He said that he did not want Muslims to stop practicing their faith, but that he wanted to start a movement against politicized Islam. To fortify his message, he quoted the Quran.

"Believers! Conduct yourselves with justice, and bear true witness before God; even if it be against yourselves, your parents or your kin," he said.

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