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Anwar al-Awlaki: a missed opportunity

Written by Asim Qureshi Thursday, 29 September 2011
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The current US administration should reflect on the opportunity that it missed in Anwar al-Awlaki to understand the needs of the Muslim community and engage with it in order to reach a wider audience.

Over the last year, Anwar al-Awlaki has been a figure of interest to the world due to various incidents that he is alleged to have been involved in. The media has attempted to portray al-Awlaki as everything from a radical preacher to Al-Qaeda’s spiritual guide in Yemen. The reality is that for the first time, the media is facing a Muslim figure who, at one point, had extremely wide appeal particularly with Muslims who have grown up with English as their first language. This of course provides a conundrum for all those who engage with his message/s – for there is a clear disparity between the Anwar al-Awlaki pre-detention in Yemen to the one that we see today. The issue is even more confusing for those who still listen to his lectures of the past and find them to be of great value in their lives.
 
 
Anwar Al-Awlaki pre-detention
 
His invitation to have lunch at the Pentagon and also his condemnation of the 9/11 attacks set al-Awlaki up as the perfect individual to help provide some balance and understanding at the time that it was needed most. This was further evidenced by the clearing he received by to preach the Friday sermon at the mosque on Capitol Hill after 9/11 at the invitation of Jameel Johnson, the Chief of Staff to Congressman Gregory Meeks. At the time security was so tight, that both the FBI and the secret service vetted him for clearance to conduct the sermon – they had no problem with him proceeding despite the thorough checks.
 
This is not to say that al-Awlaki was a pacifist, rather part of his message was to aid those who were being oppressed, but at that time, it was not to take the lives of civilians. Rather, he specifically condemned the actions of those who chose to carry out the 9/11 attacks and this fact was recognised in the widespread popularity he had with Muslims from all the various communities and sects.
 
Even after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Anwar al-Awlaki continued to preach in the US and was invited by the Washington Post to speak about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by answering any questions that were posed to him by the American public – the Q&A was extremely telling of his views at the time. Through the questions he was asked in his capacity as an Imam, the opportunity to speak to a major news outlet was used by him in order to preach a message of peace,
 
“There are inter-faith services held in our mosque and around the greater DC area and in all over the country. The best thing our non-Muslim friends could do is to do some reading of the Quran. The Quran is the center of the religion and by reading it one would be able to get the best explanation of what Islam is about. We definitely need more mutual understanding.”
 
When specifically questioned about his criticism of the war against Afghanistan, his reply was,
 
“The Taliban said: show us the evidence and we will turn over whoever is guilty with the crime. The US should have given them the benefit of the doubt. Also our government could have dealt with the terrorist attacks as a crime against America rather than as a war against America. So the guilty would be tried and only them would be punished rather than bombing an already destroyed country. I do not restrict myself to US media. I check out Aljazeerah and European media such as the BBC. I am seeing something that you are not seeing because of the one-sidedness of the US media. I see the carnage of Afghanistan. I see the innocent civilian deaths. That is why my opinion is different.
 
Keep in mind that I have no sympathy for whoever committed the crimes of Sep 11th. But that doesn’t mean that I would approve the killing of my Muslim brothers and sisters in Afghanistan. Even though this is a dissenting view nowadays but as an American I do have the right to have a contrary opinion.”
 
The final question of interest in relation to his views on the burqa and its imposition and the education of women. Again his response is one that has much sympathy within the Muslim world,
 
“The imposing of the Burqa on women by a government never happened in the 1400 year history of the Muslim world. The Taliban have no precedence in this. The Prophet along with his companions who ruled over the Muslims after him never did that.
 
According to Prophet Muhammad: “Education is mandatory on every Muslim male and female.” That is the teaching of Islam and if anyone does otherwise they have disobeyed the Prophet of Islam himself. About killing, the greatest sin in Islam after associating other gods besides Allah is killing an innocent soul.”
 
The views expressed above were not simply for the non-Muslim public as a public relations exercise, rather the content and themes of everything that he explained have been well recorded in the series of lectures that he is most well known for. Specifically, the sets that he produced on The Lives of the Prophets and the The Life of Prophet Muhammad have found their way into millions of Muslim homes around the world. Their message and appeal was one that was well recognised and taken on as Muslims sought to understand the life of their Prophet, particularly in relation to the world we live in today. It is specifically because of these series, that at times he would receive over 800 attendees to his lectures per day, even when they spanned over two weeks periods. 
 
 
Detention
 
It was during a teaching sabbatical to his home country of Yemen that Anwar al-Awlaki became cognisant of the suspicion that he was under. Despite his status as a US citizen, he was denied re-entry into the country of his nationality and was forced to remain in Yemen.
 
On 17 October 2006 eight foreigners were detained by the Yemeni security police who were claimed to be under surveillance of the CIA and British intelligence agencies. The Yemeni authorities claimed at the time that they had broken a Yemen Al-Qaeda network that was running guns into Somalia.
 
It was subsequently reported that the key to the raids was Anwar al-Awlaki (identified in the media as Abu Atiq) who was arrested six weeks before the 17 October arrests. Media reports allege that Abu Atiq was an associate of two of the 9/11 hijackers and a protégé of Abdul al-Majid al-Zindani – one of the most highly respected scholars in Yemen (and the Muslim world) – who was wanted by the US on terror related charges. At the time mention was also made of his alleged role in a foiled Al-Qaeda plot to bomb oil and gas facilities in Yemen.
 
He was held in the Central Security Prison in Sana’a – a prison with an appalling human rights record and well known for its abuse of detainees. He was detained in the prison for a period of nearly one and half years until his release on 12 December 2007.
 
It was on his release that Anwar al-Awlaki gave an exclusive interview with Cageprisoners about the circumstances of his detention and the conditions that he was forced to endure. What was clearly evident from the start of his detention, was the fact that it was not the Yemenis who wished to detain him, rather his detention was at the specific behest of the US, “...they began asking me questions about my local Islamic activities here, and later on it was becoming clear that I was being held due to the request of the US government. That was what they were telling me here, and that the Americans wanted to meet me.” It was during his detention that the FBI came to question al-Awlaki about various matters and that they tried to put pressure on him,
 
“There was some pressure, which I refused to accept and that led to a conflict that occurred between me and them, because I felt that it was improper behaviour from their behalf. That led to an issue between me and them during the interrogation. That was solved however, later on, and they apologised.”
 
What Cageprisoners did not include in the published interview, at the request of al-Awlaki, was the abuse that he suffered in the prison. Along with the solitary confinement that he was forced to endure for such a long period, he was also subjected to various forms of abuse. Despite all of this though, Anwar al-Awlaki was still released from prison a free man without any charges having been filed against him or any of the allegations by the US having been followed up. This in itself is important as by the end of the December 2007, al-Awlaki’s new perspective on the US and its War on Terror had not surfaced.
 
Over the next two years, Cageprisoners invited Anwar al-Awlaki to speak about being a detainee during the month of Ramadan at our annual fundraising dinners. Due to al-Awlaki never having been charged with any crime, we felt it appropriate that he speak about his experiences in prison due to the wide appeal he has always had with the wider Muslim public.
 
At the time of our 2009 Kensington Town Hall fundraising event, Cageprisoners became aware of a document that had been issued by al-Awlaki entitled, 44 ways to support the jihad. The document is a theological argument for the support of jihad as a generality rather than having any specific instructions in relation to specific conflicts. Although we did not agree with some of the language and sentiments expressed in the document, we also felt that there was nothing criminally wrong in what he had written and were happy to proceed with him on our platform, especially as he had not espoused any views relating to the killing of civilians. We read the document in the same vein as the theological arguments that were used during the Soviet-Afghan and Balkan conflicts which were backed by the US and UK governments – that resistance in conflicts was an inherent right of the people who were invaded or occupied.
 
 
The change: Anwar Al-Awlaki post-detention
 
The Cageprisoners interview did not reveal any insights into the direction that al-Awlaki would take after his release, but he soon began to speak openly about his new feelings regarding the conflict and the way in which it should be conducted. Over the last three years, and in particular the last two, al-Awlaki’s opinions regarding jihad become increasingly at odds with the positions that he took prior to his detention, although initially they were justified by him through the discourse of the rules of armed conflicts. The first major interview of significance was conducted with Al Jazeera after the November 2009 shooting of US soldiers by Major Nidal Hassan, where he stated, “Because Nidal’s target was a military target inside America and there is no dispute over it. Also, these soldiers weren’t normal ones, but they were prepared and getting ready to take off to fight and kill weakened Muslims and commit crimes in Afghanistan. So, how could I, or other advocates, be silent, after some of those claiming Sharia knowledge criminalised Nidal’s operation.”
 
This sentiment was taken further in the interview conducted with Al Jazeera in February 2010 after the Christmas Day bomb attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalib. The Al Jazeera journalist posed the question directly that al-Awlaki had sought to justify Nidal Hasan’s operation by claiming it was against a military target, however with Umar Farouk, the airline flight was clearly civilian. The response is indicative of the changing opinion held by him,
 
“It would have been better if the plane was a military one or if it was a US military target. Al-Qaeda organisation has its options, and the American people live [in] a democratic system and that is why they are held responsible for their policies.

The American people are the ones who have voted twice for Bush the criminal and elected Obama who is not different from Bush as his first remarks stated that he would not abandon Israel, despite the fact that there were other anti-war candidates in the US elections, but they won very few votes. The American people take part in all its government's crimes.

If they oppose that, let them change their government. They pay the taxes which are spent on the army and they send their sons to the military, and that is why they bear responsibility.”
 
This feeling is well known in certain circles in the Muslim world, it is the same logic that allowed other bombings to take place such as in London and Madrid. It is the logic that finds its roots in grievance, and this is best characterised by al-Awlaki again in the 2010 interview,
 
“Yes, I support what Umar Farouk has done after I have been seeing my brothers being killed in Palestine for more than 60 years, and others being killed in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And in my tribe too, US missiles have killed 17 women and 23 children, so do not ask me if al-Qaeda has killed or blown up a US civil jet after all this. The 300 Americans are nothing comparing to the thousands of Muslims who have been killed.”
 
 
A missed opportunity
 
The current US administration should reflect on the opportunity that it missed in Anwar al-Awlaki to understand the needs of the Muslim community and engage with it in order to reach a wider audience. Instead, the toxic legacy of torture and arbitrary detention instituted by the US has resulted in the marginalisation of those who may have served another purpose.
 
It is the politics of grievance that have set the agenda for the way that some individuals have chosen to react to the conflicts they see around the world. The stabbing of the British MP Stephen Timms by Roshonara Choudhry has become another example of this. Choudhry’s criminal act will forever be juxtaposed against the words of the sentencing judge in her case, “You intended to kill in a political cause and to strike at those in government by doing so”, a tragic message of Choudhry fell victim to her own anger.
 
The suggestion that YouTube should remove all links to al-Awlaki lectures however fundamentally misses the point. It essentially puts forward the position that had Choudhry not accessed al-Awlaki’s material, she would never have committed that crime – a position that is disingenuous, particularly due to the vast amount of material available on the internet which makes the points al-Awlaki makes in even stronger terms.
 
Muslims are not supposed to regard their religious scholars as infallible saints. When they err in their judgements, they should be corrected by other scholars and be ignored for those opinions which are contrary to the religion. When Muslims listen to the series of lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, they will always remember him as the Imam who brought so much good into their lives, but that will always exist against the backdrop of knowing that the abuse carried out against him, led him to another path and a door closed on bringing some semblance of peace between two worlds which seem to be moving further apart.
 
Cageprisoners campaigned for Anwar al-Awlaki when he was detained without charge in line with the remit of our work. Since his release we have been opposed to a number of positions he has taken, particularly in relation to the killing of civilians, however we cannot agree with the order by President Obama to have him targeted for assassination. We will always work towards due process, and as long as we do so, we will defend his right not to be extra-judicially killed.
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