This article originally appeared in Areo Magazine.
At this year’s Western Conservative Summit in Denver, John Andrews, former Colorado senator and founder of the Centennial Institute, reignited the discussion of Islamism in Muslim-American communities. Many local publications, local Muslim leaders and prominent Islamic organizations have condemned Andrews’ words as Islamophobic.
However, Andrews was careful to distinguish Islam, a belief system, from Muslims, followers of the Islamic faith—in other words, people. Most of his speech demonstrated a good understanding of the ideological and political realities of Islamism and its influence in the United States. He told the summit,
It’s true we all know Muslims who are likable neighbors or capable co-workers. Decent patriotic Americans who humbly love Allah. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about this absolutist totalitarian worldview and political doctrine that demands everyone, everyone, you and me included, ultimately submit or die.
Andrews is entirely correct in pointing out that the American Constitution and Islamic sharia law are wholly incompatible. And in pointing out the ideological motivations and tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood in America, and in identifying some of their offshoots and affiliates, which operate clandestinely in the US, disguised as benign NGOs and charities.
Though wrongly smeared as a bigot and an Islamophobe for expressing his genuine concerns, Andrews is wrong in thinking that one cannot be a faithful Muslim and a loyal American. Sure, many difficult debates and discussions must take place in the Muslim world about the inherent violence within the Quran and the problematic example set by the Prophet Muhammad, who is not exactly the quintessential image of a peaceful man. Yes, countering jihadist threats is a top priority in the US. And yes, the radicalization taking place behind the closed doors of some American mosques is an issue of the utmost concern. And there many other problems to be addressed in the Islamic world. It is perhaps even true to say that the problem with Islamic fundamentalism lies in the fundamentals of Islam.
But, in the meantime, Americans should celebrate and empower those Muslims who are vocal in their acknowledgement of American and western virtues, who do not view Islam as at odds with the ideals of the west and who consider themselves Muslim-American patriots. It is crucial that such Muslim-Americans be allowed the air time to facilitate discussion and slowly spread their reformist and modernized (though perhaps theologically compromised or dishonest) interpretations of Islam in their communities.
The last thing we should want to do as Americans is solidify the narrative espoused by ISIS that being a Muslim and being an American are mutually exclusive. Sadly, this was exactly what Krista Cole, the vice chair of CAIR’s Colorado chapter, implied when she decried both Andrews’ remarks and the fact that he was “comfortable enough with his Islamophobic speech, that he just spewed it out in public,” an accusation which implicitly suggests that Muslim-hating is part and parcel of the mainstream conservative movement in America, as represented by the guests of the WCS.
One of the other guest speakers at the conference was Dr Zuhdi Jasser, who provided the perfect rebuttal to John Andrews’ concerns. Jasser would be the first to disagree with Andrews’ claim that Islam and American patriotism are mutually exclusive. The child of Muslim Syrian refugees and the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, Jasser himself is a patriotic Muslim-American.
That Andrews’ hyperbolic comments about Muslims in America received so much more coverage than Jasser’s insights as a Muslim-American is regrettable. While Andrews is absolutely correct in naming the radical organizations that have hijacked the voice of Islam, Jasser has taken on the thankless task of showing the world that you can be both a Muslim in America and a freedom-loving patriot, that you can be grateful for the religious freedoms American offers, that you don’t have to buy into the idea that Muslims are a monolithic group, perpetually opposed to America, and that you can interpret scripture in a way that is compatible with the ideals of the American constitution.
As well as getting actual anti-Muslim bigots all riled up, Andrews’ ill-considered remarks provided ammunition for radical Islamist groups, who wish to indoctrinate Muslims in America with the false notion that America hates Muslims, and that, therefore, Muslims should hate America. Indeed, the Denver chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—one of the organizations that Andrews correctly identifies as a front for the Muslim Brotherhood—likened John Andrews to a Nazi, and drew hyperbolic and inappropriate parallels to 1930s Germany.
The WCS is willing to provide Jasser with a platform when he and many other Muslim-Americans like him are ignored by the media, and smeared and defamed by Islamists as untrustworthy bigots. Hardly a single publication in Denver thought that what Jasser had to say was worthy of publication, no matter how necessary it is for many Muslims and non-Muslims in Denver to be exposed to his words.
Islam must be allowed to undergo a modern reformation for the benefit of the world’s Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The consequences of neglecting to empower secular, moderate, liberal and patriotic voices from the Muslim community are all too apparent, even in places like Denver.
Colorado: An Unlikely Epicenter of Islamism
Historically, Denver has witnessed a lot of Islamist and jihadist activity.
In 1949, during his two semesters at what is now the University of Northern Colorado, a young Sayyid Qutb was so angered by the freedom and openness Americans enjoy that he later founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential Islamist extremist organization in the world.
In the early 1990s, in the remote, mountainous forests of Buena Vista, Colorado, an entire, fully operational, 101-acre jihadist training compound belonging to the Pakistani-based organization, Jamaat al-Fuqra was discovered by authorities. During the raid, they also found countless firearms, massive quantities of ammunition and stashes of hand grenades and improvised explosives. They also discovered training manuals and operational guides that implicated Jamaat al-Fuqra in the firebombing of a Hare Krishna temple in Denver in 1984. Many have also speculated that Jamaat al Fuqra is at least partly responsible for the kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind 9/11.
In the mid-1990s, behind the closed doors of Denver’s Masjid al-Noor on Evans Avenue (better known as the Denver Islamic Society), where he served as a board member, the radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki spent years publicly preaching the downfall of America, and subsequently inspired many to join Al Qaeda in their global jihad against the West. And, in 1991, the vice president of the mosque was Ziyad Khaleel, a senior al Qaeda member and the personal procurement agent for Osama Bin Laden.
Recently, Islamists in Denver have taken a different approach to delivering their message to American Muslim communities. Aware of the social and political dynamics engulfing American life today, Islamists have figured out that the best way to avoid any trouble is to accuse any critics of being racists, xenophobes, Nazis, Islamophobes or Zionist shills. When honest critics of Islamism, like Andrews and Jasser, are indiscriminately grouped together with actual bigots and xenophobes, it plays into the Islamists’ narrative. As a result, the public ends up believing that there are no moderate Muslims, ready to challenge the radical status quo, and that all Muslims must therefore be sympathetic towards Islamism. This only creates more anti-Muslim bigots and xenophobes, with a distorted image of American Muslims.
I witnessed this up close in 2017, following a controversy over a very prominent local imam called Karim Abuzaid. Abuzaid’s YouTube channel has a very large international following and, until recently, he served as the imam of the Colorado Muslim Society, the largest and most prominent mosque in the Denver metro area.
His channel contains countless videos of Abuzaid openly and vociferously preaching homophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-American sentiment and advocating the implementation of Sharia law, especially stoning and other brutal medieval punishments for adulterers and homosexuals.
R. K. Kaiser, a Pakistani-American Muslim running for Aurora City Council, penned a letter to the editor, disavowing Abuzaid as an extremist. Faced with backlash from commentators, who accused Kaiser of racism and Islamophobia, the Sentinel subsequently removed his article from their website.
I wrote an article about the controversy for the Daily Caller. I sought to vindicate Kaiser and show that Abuzaid is, indeed, a radical and does not represent the majority of Denver’s mainstream Muslims. I hoped that, once this fanatical Islamist was dethroned, the narrative could be taken back by somebody who actually represents the vast majority of the Muslims in our community.
In response to my Daily Caller article, the local Aurora Sentinel published a front page story about Abuzaid titled “The Face of Aurora,” in which they portray the homophobic and anti-Semitic imam as a beacon of decency and tolerance. The Sentinel suggests that Imam Abuzaid is the constant victim of Islamophobic abuse. As evidence, they cite Kaiser’s letter to the Sentinel and my article. I am a Bangladeshi-American ex-Muslim, who grew up listening to Abuzaid’s lectures behind the closed doors of the local mosque.
But the Sentinel’s puff piece on Abuzaid was not the last time Denver kowtowed to radical Islamists. The litmus test for Islamist extremism in Denver is now simply to assume that, because a Muslim leader claims to be a moderate, all of Denver’s Muslims must also be moderate. This characterization of Muslims as a moderate monolith, whose individual members lack agency, is just as dangerous as grouping all Muslims together as extremists and future jihadists.
The consequences of this tendency to view Muslims as a collective are evident in Denver’s Obama-era Countering Violent Extremism program, an initiative sponsored by the US Department of Homeland Security. The Denver CVE program designated Nadeen Ibrahim as its community outreach director. Ibrahim has ties to several radical Islamist organizations domestically and globally, and regularly spouts Islamist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. In 2014, she organized anti-Israel demonstrations in Denver, in conjunction with the local Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) chapter. At those events, demonstrators chanted pro-Hamas slogans like From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!
Nevertheless, the Denver Police Department, under the auspices of the governor’s office, thought her the ideal moderate Muslim for this position simply because she claims to be a moderate—and the public takes her at her word.
Reclaiming Islam from the Islamists
The idea now prevalent in Denver that no Muslim can be an extremist, (and, indeed, that anybody who says otherwise—including a fellow Muslim—must be a racist, Zionist or Islamophobe) has had consequences.
As Jasser rightly remarked at the WCS, Islam’s civil reform will have to come from within American mosques. Moderate Muslim Americans who can read and interpret Islamic scripture are numerous, and there are even more Muslims who consider themselves American patriots. The problem, as Jasser points out, is that they do not control the mainstream narrative. Instead, he notes, “the leading voices in Islam do not see the United States as a force for good,” citing anti-American and pro-Islamist remarks by Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
“The only antidote to people willing to kill and die for Islamism are people willing to fight and die to defend the ideals of liberty and religious freedom,” Jasser stressed.
Regrettably, Jasser’s remarks went unregarded by the media. This was unfortunate because the insights of a liberal Muslim on the threats posed by Islamist extremism would surely have resonated across American Muslim communities, as would his message that one can be a faithful Muslim and still uphold American ideals of liberty. But these were not the remarks that made the headlines and front pages.
Instead of highlighting patriotic American Muslims like Dr Jasser, the media insists that the Islamists are the true moderates. Both the media and the Islamists encourage American Muslims to believe that every single white, male, conservative American is a xenophobic, anti-Muslim bigot. Neither of these stereotypes are accurate.
If Denver (and the rest of the country) is interested in curtailing anti-Muslim sentiment and rhetoric, we must first recognise that the people we are presenting to American citizens as moderate Muslims are actually Islamists, who espouse anti-American views, while posing as benign progressives.
Given this masquerade, it should come as no surprise if much of American society develops a skepticism of all Muslims. If the American Muslims presented as moderates are actually radicals, it is easy to see why people are beginning to agree with Andrew that a truly moderate interpretation of Islam does not exist.
The Zuhdi Jassers of the world must be allowed the same platform and outreach among Muslims as the Ilhan Omars and Rashida Tlaibs—and the Karim Abuzaids and the Nadeen Ibrahims. Only by presenting Islam in America as it actually is—not a monolith but a spectrum, featuring both patriotic moderates and anti-American radicals—can we come together to reject extremism.
Ahnaf Kalam is the Denver Associate of the Counter-Islamist Grid (CIG).