Anwar al-Awlaki is a radical islamist who today espouses violence against civilians in the name of Islam. But it is interesting to note that he was not always thus; during his tenure as one of the imams at the Dar al Hijrah center in Virginia he was actually a respected, mainstream and moderate imam. In fact, he was interviewed by National Geographic a couple of weeks after the 9-11 attacks and it makes for fascinating reading. Here are some excerpts, with my emphasis:
How have the events of September 11 affected the Arab-American community?
For us it has been a very dramatic change. First of all, many of us, as soon as we saw what happened, hoped that the ones doing this were not Muslim or Arab because we had already experienced a backlash in the Oklahoma City bombing and the earlier attack on the World Trade Center. There is still this guilt by association. We are viewed as guilty even though we might not have anything to do with [a bombing]. There is an expectation that Muslims should apologize for something that they never did. That was something I heard echoed by a few Muslims.
As a religious leader, what are you saying to the community about the climate created by these events?
First of all, we stated our position clearly, and I even feel that it’s unfortunate that we have to state this position because no religion would condone this, so it should be common knowledge. But we were in a position where we had to say that Islam does not approve of this. There is no way that the people who did this could be Muslim, and if they claim to be Muslim, then they have perverted their religion.
What is a “jihad” and what is its role in Islam?
The linguistic meaning of the word is “struggle.” The jihad of the individual would be to struggle against the evils of oneself. Therefore, it’s a continuous process of improvement. It is striving to become closer to God. That’s jihad for the individual.
Jihad for the community is to protect the religion from any inside or outside enemy. So the jihad of the community would mean that if there is any internal corruption, we would struggle to get rid of it.
So why the attacks on the United States?
I’ll tell you the way that [the perpetrators] justify them. That does not mean that scholars of the Muslim world approve, but this is where they are coming from. They say that Muslim land is now invaded by the U.S., there are U.S. soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf. And then, the state of Israel is an occupying force which is supported by the U.S. Fighting an invading force, they justify attacking the U.S. because the U.S. population are the taxpayers, and are the ones who are financing the war against them. Now the reason why this is not accepted at all by Muslim scholars, is, first of all, that civilian people most of the time have nothing to do with what their governments are doing. Second, many of the scholars don’t really see America as a direct enemy, but only as supporting enemies in the area. So why carry the struggle further than it needs to go? For a lot of people in the Muslim world, the first enemy is their governments. It’s not really Israel or the United States, it’s their own governments, and they see the U.S. as the strengthening power of these governments. Without the U.S., these repressive governments would topple.
My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world.
I have only excerpted part of his answers to these questions and there are other questions i have not included; the full interview is an absolute must-read. It’s chilling how Al Awlaki in essence describes his own future – and seeing how the Awlaki of today would be judged by the Awlaki of the past. It’s like a window into the corruption of something good by something evil, like watching Anakin Skywalker go from Jedi to Sith in small baby steps.
From all accounts, Major Hasan also underwent a similar journey from the center of faith to the extremist margins. For Awlaki, it seems the Iraq War was the psychological radicalizing event (much as 9-11 itself was a radicalizing event for many Americans about Islam). For Hasan, it was a mix of personal emotional issues and psychological trauma. In both cases, their “religious immune system” became weakened and the memetic virus of violent, radical jihad gained a foothold.