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U.S. rights appointee Zuhdi Jasser hits raw nerve for American Muslims

Zuhdi Jasser takes part a news conference in front of police headquarters in New York, on March 5. Jasser was there with dozens of activists to demonstrate support for the NYPD and its surveillance of Muslim groups across the Northeast.
Zuhdi Jasser takes part a news conference in front of police headquarters in New York, on March 5. Jasser was there with dozens of activists to demonstrate support for the NYPD and its surveillance of Muslim groups across the Northeast.Seth Wenig / AP file

One way to elicit a collective groan among established American Muslim leaders: Mention Zuhdi Jasser. The U.S. Senate did just that recently when it appointed the Arizona physician and activist to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

On Thursday, a coalition of 64 groups representing American Muslim lawyers, students, Arab Americans and mosques and an array of advocacy organizations called on the legislators to rescind the naming of Jasser – a controversial figure who many American Muslims see as a shill for anti-Muslim bigots.

The stated mission of the commission is "to promote the freedom of religion and belief, and it seeks to combat religious extremism, intolerance, and repression throughout the world."

In the letter of protest delivered Thursday, critics said Jasser’s "consistent support for measures that threaten and diminish religious freedoms within the United States demonstrates his deplorable lack of understanding of and commitment to religious freedom and undermines the USCIRF’s express purpose."  The letter was delivered to Senate leaders including Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who chose Jasser.

McConnell’s office did not respond to calls for comment on the appointment.

The commission has a backroom role in U.S. foreign policy by putting together reports for the president, the State Department and Congress on violations of religious freedom and designating "countries of concern." Appointments for the commission's 10 slots are divided among the president and the two parties in each chamber of the legislature. In this case, the appointment was made by Senate minority leader McConnell.

"There are a myriad of American Muslim scholars, lawyers and activists who have demonstrated clear commitments to the principles of religious freedom and tolerance and would easily qualify for this position," said Farhana Khera, executive director for the nonprofit civil rights group Muslim Advocates and former counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Since Jasser has no such commitment and is not qualified, Sen. McConnell should rescind his appointment," she said.

Jasser, a U.S.-born Muslim of Syrian descent and physician in Phoenix, takes the position that many of the groups and mosques considered "mainstream" Muslims in the United States are actually breeding a type of political Islam that aims to convert and control other Americans.

The American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a nonprofit Jasser founded in 2003, "advocates for the preservation of the founding principles of the U.S. Constitution, liberty and freedom, through the separation of mosque and state," according to the group's website.

Jasser has been sought by the media and others to represent moderate Muslims, and at times pitted against leaders of more-established Muslim groups in the United States.

He gained a national spotlight at the first of the controversial hearings chaired by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., on the threat from radicalization in the U.S. Muslim community.  While many civil rights and Muslim groups argued that the premise of the hearings was biased, Jasser testified that the threat of domestic extremists was real.

Jasser supported an Oklahoma referendum that would ban the consideration of "Shariah law" in courts, one of many such measures around the country that are being challenged for their constitutionality.

He recently applauded a surveillance program run by the New York Police Department that broadly targeted the Muslim population based on religion without evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing.

On March 5, Jasser led a small demonstration in New York aiming "to put an end to the one-sided international media coverage of attacks against the most successful and legal counter-terrorism programs of the NYPD."

"In fact, our anti-Islamist Muslims are often the primary targets of radical groups," said Jasser in a press release on the event. "As a silent majority of American Muslims, we thank God every day for the NYPD."

Jasser had not yet responded to requests from for an interview about the protest, but he commented to a publication in the nation's capital when the critics were still circulating their petition among American Muslim groups.

"They want to publicly tar and feather me so if our Commission has any interactions with foreign governments where they’ve been working with Islamists and other groups I’ve criticized … they can publicly say, 'He doesn’t represent us,'" Jasser told the Washington Free Beacon. "They’re trying to marginalize the relationships we could have with their allies abroad."

One of the Muslim groups that Jasser asserts has a concealed Islamist agenda is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a large nonprofit civil rights organization.

Corey Saylor, legislative director for CAIR, suggests the opposite is true.

"It is unfortunate that anti-Muslim forces are propping up Jasser because he says what they want to hear and gives them cover for their activities," said Saylor. "It’s troubling."

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