The Trouble with Anwar al-Awlaki’s Death

I start with this: Innal illahi wa innal illayhi raji’un – to Allah we belong, and to Him is our eventual Return. I say this because Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki, who was reportedly killed today in Yemen, was a self-described Muslim.

The reported death of al-Awlaki has put American Muslims in some unchartered territory – whereas when Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was finally killed last spring, there was almost universal relief at his death, but with al-Awlaki, the feelings of American Muslims seem to be varied, which is natural given the legacy of al-Awlaki and how it has changed over the years.

These feelings run the gamut of those who believe his death should not be mourned to those who are alarmed that a fellow American Muslim, however radical he was, was targeted and killed without a trial, to those who are having trouble reconciling their experiences with a pre-9/11 al-Awlaki who gave inspiring internet lectures and lessons on Islamic history and the prophets with the “radical Al Qaeda celebrity” who since 9/11 has called for violence against Americans.

As always, it is dangerous to try and speak for an entire population, or be the voice of the “moderate majority” of American Muslims. I don’t profess to do that here. As evidenced in Patheos’ “Three Questions for American Muslims” project this month, the opinions of American Muslims are at times similar, and often varied, as many who took part in the project said that American Muslims are not a monolith, but rather a diverse population with dynamic and varying viewpoints.

The sobering situation we found ourselves in now stems from the trajectory al-Awlaki traveled in his belief system as well as the nature of how al Awlaki was killed. As CNN.com reported, “The transformation from an imam who originally condemned the 9/11 attacks to a key al Qaeda operative took place over a number of years, as the war on terror expanded and as he found himself caught up in it.”

Al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, lived in the U.S. until he was 7, when his family returned to Yemen. He came back to the U.S. in 1991 and completed two degrees. He was an imam in California and Virginia, and according to the 9/11 Commission Report, he “preached to and interacted with three of the 9/11 hijackers.” Following 9/11, he condemned the attacks, but as the war on terror became more complicated and expanded, his role in it grew. His father, Nasser al-Awlaki, told CNN last year that after his son spent 18 months in prison in Yemen on kidnapping charges, “I detected a change … he began to get away from the mainstream.”

During the past five years, al-Awlaki has been connected to several terrorist plots and acts, including:

  • Sharing emails with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan right before the Army psychiatrist went on a rampage and killed 13 soldiers and wounded numerous others at Fort Hood, Texas
  • The stabbing of a member of the British Parliament by a 21-year-old British student, who told police she had watched hundreds of hours of al-Awlaki video
  • The attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, awaiting trial in the U.S., to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it landed in Detroit on Christmas day in 2009.
  • Calling for the killing of Americans in a 2010 internet video, saying they were the “party of the devil”

It’s a damning list, and so one might think that there would be a general agreement that the death of Al-Awlaki, seen as an Al Qaeda recruiting and fundraising threat, is a good thing. But there are two things that making this an uneasy situation for many American Muslims – that before al-Awlaki turned towards extremist thinking, his lectures and lessons were indeed beautiful, educational, and explained various aspects of the Islamic faith and about the prophets in a truly (positive) inspiring way; and the nature in which he was killed – without due process.

On al-Maghrib Institute Director Yasir Qadri’s Facebook fan page (which is maintained by his fans and students, not by him), a status update about the killing has begat a litany of comments. One commenter said, “I was surprised to find this on the news this morning. The first EVER lecture I heard was given to me by my son and it was Awlaki’s about the creation of Adam, and I would play it EVERY morning driving the kids to school. We all learned so much from that beautiful CD.”

Another commenter on the thread wrote, “Only Allah knows if the allegations against him are true or not … but his killing is unjust. It’s a great loss. His lectures, especially the life of Muhammad and other sahabas, were phenomenal!”

Still another commenter on the thread had this to say: “Many people have something in common with Imam Awlaki and myself – we have all learned from his CD’s, the very first audio I listened to was Lives of the Prophets (AS), by IMAM ANWAR AWLAKI, and since then I have listened to all his CD’s. We have all learned a lot from this man, Insha’Allah, he continues to reap rewards for the good deeds that many of us perform because of his knowledge which he bestowed upon us.  … His lectures are available all over the internet, beautiful and well spoken.  … He influenced me in many ways, I have his listened to all his lectures, and I have no desire to ‘kill every American i come across.’”

Aziz Poonawalla wrote on his blog, City of Brass, that “American muslims should at least not mourn his passing. The man was a clear and present danger to our muslim community in America, our “public enemy #1″ who labeled all of us “traitors to the Ummah” for our condemnation of violence and terrorism. The burden we have borne because of the actions of those like Hasan who acted on Awlaki’s urging has been a terrible one, and would have continued had Awlaki remained alive.”

I hear what he is saying, but I think many are having trouble with that. And before there is a rush to judgment by those who feel that nothing less than satisfaction over al-Awlaki’s death is un-American (or somehow implicitly supports terrorism), I want to appeal to humanity – when good and bad are mixed up a person, it’s hard not to have mixed feelings when that person passes.

Perhaps if al-Awlaki had faced a trial instead of being hunted down and killed, then there would be more solid closure on this. But as Glenn Greenwald wrote in his Salon.com column,

“What’s most striking about this is not that the U.S. Government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment was designed to bar (“No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law”), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law). What’s most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the U.S. Government’s new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government.  Many will celebrate the strong, decisive, Tough President’s ability to eradicate the life of Anwar al-Awlaki — including many who just so righteously condemned those Republican audience members as so terribly barbaric and crass for cheering Governor Perry’s execution of scores of serial murderers and rapists — criminals who were at least given a trial and appeals and the other trappings of due process before being killed.”

Going forward, as American Muslims sort out their feelings, I am reminded of how many this month after the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 said that a new Muslim narrative must be written, and that we are done condemning every attack committed by so-called “Muslims,” that such Muslims don’t speak for the majority, and we should not have to defend ourselves or our faith all the time. I give big thumbs up to that sentiment.

But the killing of American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam who had a lot of good things to say before he started saying bad things, is a tough one.

Poonawalla writes, “The inevitable debate will rage over his citizenship and whether the Obama Administration was justified in an “extrajudicial killing” without due process. I’m not comfortable with the State having the power to kill, but the argument here is far stronger than that for capital punishment, especially since Awlaki removed himself from the reach of the law by hightailing to Yemen’s backwaters, something no one on Death Row can do. As Awlaki renounced his citizenship, and called on other American muslims to wage war against America, there really should be no debate – the man was a literal traitor to his country, and on this point at least the Constitution is quite clear: Article 3, Section 3 and the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Haupt vs. the United States (1947). “

Poonawalla makes sense, Greenwald makes sense, and the feelings of all those commenters on Qadhi’s Facebook page make sense too. Like I said, it’s a tough one.

About Dilshad Ali
  • Jihadsucks

    Such self-proclaimed ‘Muslims’ will rot in hell! They do not deserve a trial and all of them should be killed. There is no place for extremism in Islam. Can someone explain to me how these ‘devout’ Muslims justify killing innocent people? And how is it that these slime bags engage in prostitution, pornography and alcohol while waging Jihad! He was a disgrace and I hope he had the most painful death!

  • Steven T Abell

    I am not Muslim, but I try to pay attention to views outside my own.

    Yes, there are some problems with this, but I think Greenwald’s are not reasonably among them. The standards of American constitutional civility have an inherent rightness about them that is hard to ignore or deny. It is still a mistake to apply them reflexively in situations where they are not appropriate. This man gave up his citizenship and made war on the US from outside the US. There is no rational expectation of First or Fifth Amendment rights in such a context.

    It is no doubt sad for your community to lose one of your own, particularly one who is otherwise so well-remembered. There is much to learn from many angles here. I hope it will be possible for all of us to do so.

  • Dali

    Steven T. Abell — good point you make about al-Awlaki giving up his citizenship.  As for losing “one of our own.” — I think that maybe a little too cozy for my comfort. I think what’s hard for some American Muslims is the idea that we shouldn’t mourn the death. Was al-Awlaki “one of our own” – in the sense that we shared adherence to same faith. But in the sense of what he had become now – -then I’d say no. But there’s a lot of good he did before the awfulness of the past decade — and I that that’s what some are remembering.

    • pam

      Dali said…
      But there’s a lot of good he did before the awfulness of the past decade — and I that that’s what some are remembering.

      Sort of like how Hitler made the trains run on time.

  • Anakkk

    Allah may forgive his sins & may Give great rewards for his good deeds …….He was a big scholar &  a beautiful  speaker.  His assassination will be a big loss for students who studied good lessons from his  series of lecture about Islamic history….No doubt 

  • kenneth

    He was not a criminal who was owed the due process of a trial. He was an active combatant in a war. 

  • Anon

    When an American citizen takes up arms in war against America, that person forfeits their citizenship, including all rights and privileges therein. 

    al-Awlaki was no longer an American citizen, and thus he was did not deserve an American trial in an American court of law. He was an enemy combatant, plain and simple, and therefore a legitimate target.Muslims in America need to know that if you want to live in America, this is not Dar al Islam. This is America – a nation founded and sustained by Judeo-Christian principles – not Islamic ones. We were founded as One Nation, Under God (the God of the Bible, not the god of Islam).When Muslims in America to take sides with, or profess sympathy for, Muslims who take up arms against America, these sentiments only reinforce the beliefs of non-Muslims that the Muslims in our midst will always be “Muslims first” and Americans second or third. Because Americans are becoming more aware of Islamic ideas like Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb, as well as the stated global aspirations of Muslim leaders around the world, it makes us all the more suspicious of the Muslims in our midst.

    America will never be an Islamic state. Never. Ever.

    • Steven T Abell

      You are correct about combatant status its consequences. Then you go off on this tangent, the same one so many Christians trot out to try to warp the world in their image. The founders didn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance, especially the version amended by Congress. We were not founded as “one nation”, but as several in cooperation; the “one nation” part came much later and at great cost. And we certainly are not a Christian nation, which would be no less ugly a place than an Islamic state. This is a country where you can be who you are, as long as what you believe “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” If you are Christian, that’s just fine with me, until you tell me that I have to subsidize your god, whether through politics or any other form. When you do that, you label yourself as no less the enemy than the Islamist militant: someone who just didn’t get what it means to be an American and then demands that I go along with a grievous misunderstanding.

    • kenneth

      He was a combatant, but we have our share of domestic terrorists too. I’d like to see a few predator drones re-tasked for some of the Judeo-Christian loons we have as well.  I think the principals of equal treatment of religions in our country demands no less!

      • pam

        Which Judeo-Christians loons are you talking about that deserve “a few predator drones re-tasked for.”

  • kafir

    i like how everyone failed to mentioned he was imprisoned in yemen at the behest of the US for  3.5 years without charge? which ultimately lead to his radicalization? what did they THINK was going to happen. 

    • pam

      Kafir you sound like a child saying to his parents “they made me do it (behave in an evil way.)”  Grow up.

      I like how you failed to mention this… From the NY Post via weasel Zippers.

      The 9/11 imam Anwar al-Awlaki may be dead, but his old mosque is still open for business and remains a dangerous breeding ground for terrorists — and it’s right in the president’s back yard.
      Nothing much has changed since 2002, when Awlaki voluntarily left the pulpit of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in the Washington suburbs of Falls Church, Va.
      It maintains the same radical leaders who hired him, and the same owners — even the same fax number that investigators believe 9/11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh used to send instructions to Awlaki and key hijackers he aided there. An unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, moreover, still leads prayers there.
      In 2001, while Awlaki was preparing the hijackers for their martyrdom operation, Abdul-Malik raised the banner of Palestinian jihad, saying it’s within Islamic law to “blow up bridges” and other infrastructure. “You can do all forms of sabotage,” he said at a US conference held by a Hamas front group, while cautioning against killing “innocent” people.
      Three years later, a founding mosque member was arrested for allegedly casing the Chesapeake Bay bridge for possible attack. Ismail Elbarasse was released on $1 million bond after Dar Al-Hijrah leaders put up their homes as collateral.
      After Awlaki fled the country, Abdul-Malik told me in an interview he saw nothing wrong with Awlaki’s sermons encouraging Muslims to become martyrs.


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