In an exclusive interview with Neon Tommy, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a recognized expert on political Islam and American Islamist organizations, discusses the turmoil in Libya and the future of the poor but oil-rich North African country.
Jasser, a devout Muslim, founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy in 2003. He has briefed members of the House and Senate congressional anti-terrorism caucuses about radical Islam. Jasser's organization seeks to "provide an American Muslim voice" while arguing for the founding principles of freedom in the U.S. Constitution. Jasser is a former Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy and served 11 years as a medical officer.
What are the immediate challenges Libya faces as rebels continue to take over more of the country.
Zuhdi Jasser: The Islamists in many of these countries have a disproportionate influence in the immediate vacuum that will happen in the post-departure of dictators. This is why the first few weeks, the first few months, are very important to be involved. Not with boots on the ground but covertly, such as intelligence operations and NGOs.
Describe what Libyans can do to ensure that their country doesn't transition from a corrupt regime to an oppressive theocratic one?
ZJ: We need to put things in perspective. There is no way to improve and reform Muslim interpretations of Islam against dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood and their offshoots in the environment that was Gaddafi's Libya. That environment was nutritional support to Al Qaeda-type movements and radical Islamists. For those of us that are working not only against radical Islam but political Islam which feeds it, we can only work in an open environment. Many reformists have said that you need to defeat their ideas with ideas. The Gaddafi-type environment, the strongman, militant, oppressive regimes that prevent the Brotherhood-type groups from coming into power, in doing so, end up empowering them by pushing them underground and allowing them to spread through a victimization status.
Some reports have indicated that there is a danger Libyan rebels are tied to terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda. Are you concerned about the possible link between Al Qaeda and some of the rebels fighting against Gaddafi loyalists?
ZJ: This constant refrain of Gaddafi as he made crazy remarks in his last few days—typical to his standard—was, well, 'if I leave Al Qaeda will be running the government.' There may be some truth to that because he knows—he allows them to have weapons and then use them as an excuse continue oppression in his country. Ultimately, as we'll see in the next few months, it's going to be tough work. We may take a few steps back before we take any steps forward.
Can you explain the steps that need to be taken to defeat Islamism and make Libya more free?
ZJ: The first step in defeating Islamism is the democratization of states like Libya and the removal of individuals like Gaddafi. Having said that it's the first step in a very long journey. Once you remove secular dictator, like we saw in Iraq, you could take step backwards and end up with a theocratic dictator. The question is how do these governments and how do these societies end up moving toward types of societies that would be natural allies of the West— secular, liberal democracies.
Is there anything America can do to prevent theocracy from taking root?
ZJ: The response [in America] to our economic problems and the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts has been a flourishing of a sort of isolationism. You see individuals like Ron Paul and others who have these bizarrely isolationist ideas that are gaining more traction. I would say we're still going to be sending aid to these countries and all we need to do is transform that from throwing cash at these countries. For example, President Obama said that in a post-Gaddafi Libya he would provide aid. So ultimately, rather than that aid being cash it should be a partnership of building institutions and also be very transparent.
What should Americans know about Libya?
ZJ: Libyan people, like the Syrian and Egyptian people, are a vibrant community that have been waiting for that time in which they can begin to broaden their educational systems, their economic systems. This is not going to happen overnight. Calling this part of the 'Arab Spring' is such a misnomer. It makes Americans feel like, 'oh, okay, we're done, they're going to have a democracy now that Gaddafi is gone.' That's just absurd. After you've lived under the evil of Gaddafi for 42 years you are going to have two generations, almost, that have survived through corruption and survival of the fittest. This does not create a culture of morality necessary for a democracy.
What do you think prompted NATO involvement in Libya? Why not Syria? Or Iran, where protesters took the streets in 2009 in an attempt to democratize their country?
ZJ: The short answer is I have no idea. It doesn't make any sense. The biggest threat to American security right now is Iran because of its sophistication, verbiage and policies against the West, and nuclear possibilities. You look at Syria—you see that it's a conduit for the funneling of weapons, fuel and money to Hezbollah, and its threat upon Israel, our greatest ally in the Middle East. Right now, it looks like it was a first come first serve basis on foreign policy.