Amer Ahmad, Rizwan Jaka and Robert Marro of Sterling’s ADAMS Center.
Second of two parts.
Last week the Tribune summarized our interview with Frank Gaffney and his views on Muslims, Sharia and Islamic leaders in the U.S. His is a controversial point of view, and one that has brought him and the Center for Security Policy much criticism. But Gaffney has his advocates too, and his concerns go to the heart of the question of who the U.S. government should trust and work with among U.S. Muslim leaders.
To hear another perspective, we interviewed leaders of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Islamic Center in Sterling, one of the largest and most influential mosques in the U.S.
ADAMS is led by a 13-member Board of Trustees chaired by Rizwan Jaka.
Last month we met with Jaka and fellow Board member Robert Marro, who is also president of TM Gemini, Inc., a firm that describes itself as business development specialists in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Amer Ahmad, ADAMS’ Director of Communications and Development, also participated in the meeting. Ahmad has been active in the local Muslim community since before ADAMS was founded, and has been an ADAMS volunteer like Jaka and Marro for many years. Specifically, he has worked in operations, fundraising and coordinating the various visitors to ADAMS.
Imam Mohammed Magid is a member of the ADAMS board and its religious advisor, but was not present to participate in the meeting. He reports to the board’s executive committee and is one of the most high profile Imams in the U.S., with frequent interactions with the White House, State Department and other agencies.
Rizwan Jaka, like Frank Gaffney, knows how to tell a compelling story. Born in the U.S. of Pakistani and Indian parents, Jaka is smart, affable, and punches out his words staccato-like, making the case for the positive vision of ADAMS and its leadership.
He has held leadership positions with ADAMS over the past 16 years, and is a Board member and former chairman of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, a former board member of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a former youth baseball and soccer coach, and heads ADAMS’ Boys Scouts of America program. Jaka graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a manager in the technology industry. He is married with six children, all involved in scouting, and has chaired ADAMS’ board since 2014.
“The true intent of Islamic law is protection of religious freedom, protection of life,” said Jaka. “Not imposing our faith on others.”
Jaka said that 25 years ago the mosque consisted of 200 people holding Friday prayers in Herndon. He said ADAMS is now the second largest mosque in the U.S., including its eleven branches and satellites. Two are co-hosted at synagogues, another at a church.
“We’re an interfaith community,” he said, noting too that the Imam Magid’s in-laws are Catholic and live with him. Jaka’s own in-laws are Catholic, his cousin is Jewish, and his aunt is Protestant.
Jaka said ADAMS enrolls 3,000 children in its youth programs and 400 in boy scouts and girl scouts. It has 9,000 participants in its Friday prayer services and 25,000 to 35,000 for its holiday services.
ADAMS’ primary focus is religious services and education for the community. “But we also work at a local, national and international level on issues of national security and religious freedom,” he said.
Muslims in the U.S
Jaka and Marro rarely mentioned Gaffney by name during the ninety minute conversation, but their comments often served to undercut his assertions.
“The misconceptions about American Muslims are vast, and we’re here to correct those misconceptions and to protect our nation,” Jaka said.
Jaka estimates there are 2,500 mosques in the U.S., and anywhere from 3.5 to 7 million Muslims. He estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the mosques are governed by democratically elected boards like with ADAMS. He said that about 25 percent of U.S. Muslims are African American, and that about 30 percent of enslaved African-Americans were Muslim.
“To those who say Muslims want to impose their faith on this country and take over, I say it’s demographically impossible, and there’s no intention to do so,” Jaka said. “Islamic law is very much like Jewish law or Catholic Canon law. The U.S. Constitution is supreme in the U.S., and no foreign law or religious law can supersede that.”
“The misconceptions about American Muslims are vast, and we’re here to correct those misconceptions and to protect our nation.” Rizwan Jaka
“The success of our model shows that we can be the big tent, we don’t have to be exclusive,” Marro said. He said ADAMS believes in respecting and working with all religious groups and not claiming one religion is superior to another. “We’ll leave that for a higher authority to sort out.”
“Imam Magid has been at the forefront of theologically deconstructing radicalization, not just in the U.S. but internationally too,” Jaka said. He cites as examples communications with Senegal, Sudan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and work that ADAMS has done in Pakistan and Iraq to protect religious freedom, and Christians in particular. “If we must advocate for our religious freedom, we must advocate for everyone’s.”
“We want to be looked at as partners, not suspects when it comes to national security.” Rizwan Jaka
There are violent extremists that are political in nature, and others that are religious,” Jaka said, adding that most extremists are pursuing political views. “These people are contradicting the faith.”
Jaka cited a Duke University study showing that 38 to 40 percent of the tips about suspected terrorists in the U.S. came from the Muslim community. “We want to be looked at as partners, not suspects when it comes to national security,” he said. “But we are not naïve. There are real problems of radicalization.”
“One of things the extremists try to do is explain themselves as defenders of the faith. Having a purist view, not tolerating anyone who deviates from their methods and teachings,” said Marro. He wants people to “see radicals for what they are: People who only care about their own specific needs and trying to impose their views on everyone else.”
“We believe there is a problem of Muslim radicalization, but you have to put it in the spectrum,” Jaka said. He said there about 1,000 people the FBI is tracking who are ISIS sympathizers “and they must be stopped.” He wants the public to appreciate that the violent spectrum in America is exponentially larger than Muslim youth. “Statistically speaking, [U.S.] Muslims at more peaceful than all other demographics,” Jaka said. “Let’s not stigmatize the Muslim community, or Muslim youth, because that feeds the ISIS narrative.”
Marro was asked to compare what he believes ADAMs and others are doing right with what’s not going so well in parts of western Europe, where radicalization is more prevalent and acts of violence more widespread. He pointed to fewer Muslims in the U.S., and that those here are more integrated into their communities.
“Over there, it’s often very incestuous, and there has been a lot of alienation of young people,” he said, adding his own observations from having lived in Paris for five years.
“It’s wasn’t just Muslims, it was the Portuguese, Moroccans, Algerians and others who came to France,” Marro said. “I think that sort of thing gives rise to radicalization, when people feel they aren’t accepted and others play on their resentments.” He believes that would be a harder case to make in the U.S., where the standard of living is good and there should be little reason to feel resentment. He believes that’s why so many people from Belgium, France and Germany have gone off to join ISIS, but so few from the U.S.
“ISIS is Al-Qaeda 2.0 or 3.0. They’re a cult and their marketing is slick. They are traitors to Islam.” Rizwan Jaka
“Ninety-five percent of radicalization of youth and adults in the U.S. is happening on the internet, especially on the dark net,” Jaka said, noting that ADAMS and others continue to study this and seek ways to address it. “They say idle minds are the devil’s playground, and it’s true.”
Jaka cited the attraction of gangs, David Koresh and Jim Jones as examples of the path to radicalization, especially for young, disaffected men and women.
“ISIS is Al-Qaeda 2.0 or 3.0. They’re a cult and their marketing is slick,” he said. “They are traitors to Islam.”
Jaka said every metro area in the U.S. has a coordinating council of local mosques, some better organized than others, and that in all cases they have an interfaith component and work with law enforcement and local government.
“More and more, the American-born Muslim community is getting elected into the leadership of mosques, and women are getting elected into the leadership of national Muslim organizations,” Jaka said. “There is a progression in the Muslim community, and we’re taking lessons from the African-American Muslim community to help the immigrant Muslim community.”
Marro said there is no structured hierarchy among U.S. mosques, but instead a form of peer pressure.
“Not just peers within the community, but by Muslim scholars,” Marro said. “It’s hard for me to foresee someone in the U.S. like the radical cleric in England going out and preaching absolute violence in his sermons, and being tolerated here.” He believes the ADAMS congregation and others would speak out against this. Jaka said the national jurisprudence council and other national Muslim groups can be helpful too.
Asked about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S., Jaka called it a mythology.
“As the American Muslim leadership, we have no connection, no interaction with the Muslim Brotherhood. We reject any foreign political groups,” he said, and considers the Muslim Brotherhood such a group. “We reject terrorism and violent extremism hands down.”
Marro said the Brotherhood had “an existential cover” in Egypt that allowed it to thrive by asserting that it was a religious rather than a political group. He suggested that it was the only way there could’ve been an organized opposition in Egypt and in other countries ruled by totalitarian oppression.
“The line is violence,” Jaka said. “If someone is committing violence, that’s wrong.”
But he allowed that political activity is fair game and compared the Christian Coalition under Ralph Reed, then cited ISNA as a prime example of a democratically functioning Muslim leadership group. Jaka served on its board for eight years, and Imam Magid served as its president. He called ISNA a transparent, dues-paying organization whose leadership is democratically elected and rotates with term limits.
“Some people think there are puppet masters overseas controlling these [U.S. Muslim] organizations and I can say that’s absolutely false,” Jaka said.
As for violent acts by American Muslims, such as the shootings at the Pulse Club in Orlando, Marro sees them as committed by fringe, dysfunctional individuals.
“There will always be someone who goes off the rails,” he said. He urged more education, parental involvement with children, and monitoring of their internet activities.
“That’s where Frank [Gaffney] and his associates go off the track,” Marro said. He admitted that there are likely Muslims in the U.S. who believe that an Islamic world would be better, and that the end justifies the means.
“But they are a tiny minority, and they’re never going to be the mainstream as long as you can make sure those who are in the mainstream have an opportunity to have a stake in this society,” he said.
Asked directly what he would want to say if sitting across from Gaffney, Jaka said first he would invite him for kabobs, then ask him to meet with the Muslim community and perhaps observe a Friday prayer.
“American Muslims are invested in this country, so come with some respect,” he said. “Let’s come and talk about facts and realities. We have different perspectives, but all stand against terrorism and that is clear.”
“Frank and his associates make a very good living by presenting their side of the story,” Marro said. “If they tried to be objective and present both sides, people aren’t going to buy their books.”
Marro wished the Loudoun Crime Commission had not only provided the opportunity to hear from Gaffney, but also from other views, especially since it was mainly a law enforcement audience. Gaffney spoke to that group on Sept. 9, with representatives of ADAMS in attendance.
“I can assure you no national leadership of the [U.S.] Muslim community has the viewpoint of trying to take over this country,” Jaka said.
The Middle East
Jaka called the growth of ISIS horrific, and sees its particular strength as access to oil.
“The Middle East is a disaster, absolutely,” he said, then asked that Americans not judge the Muslim world just by looking at the Middle East. He sees the rest of the Muslim world as progressing. “Not to say there isn’t a lot more work to do.”
Jaka called for a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, established from within, but sees the U.S. as contributing what he called its soft power. Marro agreed, and is skeptical that a home grown approach would be trusted by its originators and participants. He suggested a U.S. role of “neutral umpire”, to administer the effort and ensure that its benefits don’t only go to the elites.
Jaka pointed to Saudi Arabia as an example of how things should not be done, noting the extreme wealth of the few “while the majority there are living terrible lives, with no freedom whatsoever.” He considers the existence of a viable private sector economy as key, and noted that most Saudis and others in the Middle East work for the government in some way. Marro praised the Marshall Plan for supporting a private sector where participants and beneficiaries have a stake in the outcome.
“You’ve got to change the entire culture to give everyone an equal stake,” Marro said, referring to economic development in the Middle East. He expressed concern about a history whereby one’s status decides what one can do insofar as employment “and that two percent of the population not be telling the other 98 percent what to do. There is too much of a sense of entitlement.”
“You’ve got to change the entire culture to give everyone an equal stake.” Robert Marro
“You’ve got to have a way of harnessing the wealth and the talent, and it’s not yet happening in the Middle East,” Marro said. He sees groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as thriving where people feel a sense of hopelessness, or where they can only expect to spend their lives in a refugee camp.
“If your whole future is going to be consigned to that refugee camp, you’re going to give up. You’re going to look for some other way to break out,” Marro said. “If you’re able to go out and become the Horatio Alger of Jordan as an example, as you can do in the West, societies can be transformed.”
Marro believes it will take many years if those changes ever happen. He worries in particular about leadership succession in Saudi Arabia potentially destabilizing the region even further. “In the Arab world, [succession] is tyranny temporized by assassination,” he said.
“What gives me hope is that there are enough people who have been exposed to democratic institutions in the Unites States who might be willing to help transfer some of this to the Middle East,” Marro said.
He called the Arab Spring an initial awakening, and acknowledged that it had not gone so well — yet. “Maybe 50 years down the road you will see the fruits of that seed,” he said.
Jaka pointed to Tunisia as an example of a nation on what he considers a hopeful trajectory, and potentially a successful model that could be replicated.
“Our role is to help prevent radicalization in this area, the United States of America,” Jaka said, “but it’s connected to what’s going on over there.” He sees stopping ISIS and stabilizing Syria and Iraq as paramount.
Marro extended an offer for Gaffney to visit ADAMS and talk with its leaders. “If you come away thinking we’re a bunch of liars, so be it.”