The New York Times ran a huge page one feature on Anwar al-Awlaki. He’s the American-born Muslim cleric now active with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He had ties to several of the 9/11 terrorists but his work with Fort Hood shooter and the Northwest Flight 253 underwear bomber have gotten renewed attention from the American government. President Obama recently authorized the use of a drones or other means to take him out — even though he’s an American citizen. And that was before we learned that last week’s Times Square bomb attempt was inspired — but apparently not coordinated — by al-Awlaki.
There is no way I can adequately excerpt everything from this article, but let’s just look at a few of the interesting questions raised. The article’s main task is to explore whether al-Awlaki was a convert to Islamic extremism or a long-time agent for al Qaeda:
There are two conventional narratives of Mr. Awlaki’s path to jihad. The first is his own: He was a nonviolent moderate until the United States attacked Muslims openly in Afghanistan and Iraq, covertly in Pakistan and Yemen, and even at home, by making targets of Muslims for raids and arrests. He merely followed the religious obligation to defend his faith, he said.
“What am I accused of?” he asks in a recent video bearing the imprint of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. “Of calling for the truth? Of calling for jihad for the sake of Allah? Of calling to defend the causes of the Islamic nation?”
A contrasting version of Mr. Awlaki’s story, explored though never confirmed by the national Sept. 11 commission, maintains that he was a secret agent of Al Qaeda starting well before the attacks, when three of the hijackers turned up at his mosques. By this account, all that has changed since then is that Mr. Awlaki has stopped hiding his true views.”
I don’t want to give short shrift to this article, which is well researched and very interesting and uses an impressive array of sources. But this sort of dualistic presentation of Islam has limitations. You get the feeling that there are two forms of Islam. There’s the good, peaceloving-at-all-times Islam. And there’s the bad, violent Islam.
The media tend to favor the one over the other, obviously, but neither in history nor in the present is Islam so easily divided simply into two mutually exclusive forms. Not only does Islam include a wide array of ideas and traditions and cultural touchpoints, but it has a radically different understanding of political engagement. This presentation of “good” and “bad” Islam rests in large part, I think, on a bias toward the separation of the religious and political spheres. It isn’t just inaccurate but gives short shrift to the complexity of views among peaceful Muslims.
I’m having a bit of difficulty explaining what I’m getting at but let me put it this way — what is the appropriate political expression for “good” Muslims? How does that differ from Muslim political engagement over time, if at all? Are there any religious ghosts in where such a discussion might lead? This, of course, would require much more knowledge of the religious foundations of many political spheres. But the point is that this dualistic presentation doesn’t help us understand Muslim terrorists’ motivation any more than it helps us understand other Muslims.
Another point, which is minor. A section of the story is subheadlined:
‘Never Trust a Kuffar’
The story translates by saying “a non-Muslim, or kuffar in Arabic.” I was looking up kuffar and noticed that kuffar is the plural of kafir. While a minor point, it does suggest something about how well the reporter is able to translate al-Awlaki’s words over time. It’s also probably better translated as “unbeliever” or “disbeliever.”
Back to the meat of the story. If I had to guess, I’d suspect the authors lean in favor of the idea that al-Awlaki was radicalized during his 18-month stint in a Yemeni jail. Having said that, they certainly provide a ton of evidence that suggests he was radicalized at least from the late 90s. They speak to neighbors who say he had made ominous comments prior to September 11, for instance. They talk about various FBI investigations. They don’t get into much of the substance of the September 11 Commission report (although I still remember the footnotes about al-Awlaki made for very interesting reading), but they reference it. Anyway, here’s another relevant portion:
Later, Mr. Awlaki seems to have tried out multiple personas: the representative of a tolerant Islam in a multicultural United States (starring in a WashingtonPost.com video explaining Ramadan); the fiery American activist talking about Muslims’ constitutional rights (and citing both Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown); the conspiracy theorist who publicly doubted the Muslim role in the Sept. 11 attacks. (The F.B.I., he wrote a few days afterward, simply blamed passengers with Muslim names.)
All along he remained a conservative, fundamentalist preacher who invariably started with a scriptural story from the seventh century and drew its personal or political lessons for today, a tradition called salafism, for the Salafs, or ancestors, the leaders of the earliest generations of Islam.
Finally, after the Yemeni authorities, under American pressure, imprisoned him in 2006 and 2007, Mr. Awlaki seems to have hardened into a fully committed ideologist of jihad, condemning non-Muslims and cheerleading for slaughter. His message has become indistinguishable from that of Osama bin Laden — except for his excellent English and his cultural familiarity with the United States and Britain. Those traits make him especially dangerous, counterterrorism officials fear, and he flaunts them.
I don’t know when the Malcolm X activism occurred, but it’s worth noting that the “tolerant” representative personal came after the “conspiracy theorist” one. Which gets to the overarching question that I had after reading this.
I’ve been following the media coverage of al-Awlaki and other clerics or members of the local Dar al-Hijrah mosque for years now. And at least insofar as the Washington Post goes, I really get the feeling that reporters are bending over backwards to present the members and clerics in as favorable a light as possible. You can see some examples here, here, here and here. But during the same period of time, you can read seemingly contradictory quotes or allegations about the extensive ties to terrorism that some of these organizations and individuals have. I certainly don’t think that reporters should be out to get anybody but I really don’t get the feeling that they work at getting at the complex truth. I don’t think the “gotcha” instinct is one of reporters’ more admirable traits. But neither is it good to be reflexively defensive about targets of federal charges.
All that to say, I think that at least part of the supposed evolution we read about in this important story about al-Awlaki is a transformation in the press. So the Washington Post goes from asking al-Awlaki to discuss Ramadan to reporting that President Obama has targeted him for a killing. Other media outlets have the same issue. This was a man they went to for their quotes on the “good” Islam they wanted to write about, even after the FBI was questioning him about his involvement with terrorists and even after he was defending violence or spouting conspiracy theories.
Does this narrative help us understand al-Awlaki better or does it just help us feel safer about what we don’t know about those strains of Islam engaged in violence?
Look again at the line that says “All along he remained a conservative, fundamentalist preacher.” I am not entirely sure what that means, but we’re told that his doctrinal views remained the same over time. If that’s the case, what does the whole story mean? What does it mean about his conspiratorial, tolerant and activist faces were all different presentations of that same “conservative fundamentalism”? Of the many angles to be explored here, I think at least one angle is how inadequately the media have explained the depth and complexity of Islam, explored its various strains, or understand its more radical elements.
In defense of the reporting, the article does key into the role Sayyid Qutb plays in al-Awlaki’s radicalism:
Notably, he was enraptured by the works of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian whose time in the United States helped make him the father of the modern anti-Western jihadist movement in Islam.
That excerpt refers to what he was reading in prison in the last couple of years. But Qutb’s influence can be found in many American Muslim institutions and mosques. We’ve looked at that — and the precious little reporting done on that — before.