Anwar al-Awlaki is not a victim

Any counter-intuitive article suggesting Osama bin Laden was actually a nice young man once – before an important portion of his family died in plane crashes, possibly at the hands of American pilots, and his urge to author destruction was brought to the fore by an almost psychopathic desire to right these wrongs – is completely without justification unless the article includes a few details criticising him to the highest degree.

If this sounds like a good rule to you, then take a glance at an article by Nussaibah Younis on Comment is free today. In it, she describes Anwar al-Awlaki as one who has been “deeply hurt by the US response to the 9/11 attacks”. Indeed, he is not the only one. She quotes from the Washington Post something al-Awlaki was reported to have said about bin Laden and the US invasion of Afghanistan:

Muslims still see Bin Laden as a person with extremely radical ideas. But he has been able to take advantage of the sentiment that is out there regarding US foreign policy. We’re totally against what the terrorists had done. We want to bring those who had done this to justice. But we’re also against the killing of civilians in Afghanistan.

After reading that I was still expecting to see something about how deeply vile al-Awlaki’s views were then – in the days when he apparently “impressed” Younis – and how dreadful they are now. I was left waiting. Instead she describes him as someone who “lost confidence in the west’s commitment to its self-professed values [of, wait for it, freedom] and became convinced that the west was bent on destroying Islam”. Furthermore, the Obama administration, “[b]y effectively signing his death warrant before trial … has done little to prove Awlaki wrong”.

She may have a point with regards to a trial – however, such an event will testify what is already known; al-Awlaki is in close contact to – and has previously informed – many who we, without hyperbole, can call extremist terrorists.

His reported links include US Army Major Nidal Hassan (“gunman suspected of carrying out the 5 November 2009 attack on Fort Hood, Texas”) who attended the same mosque in Virginia Falls that al-Awlaki formerly preached in, and two of the three 9/11 hijackers and Omar Abdul Rehman, “who was convicted for his role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.”

Al-Awlaki has also praised US designated Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab – the inspiration for the so-called Toronto 18 cell and supporters of armed jihad.

The real problem, however, with Younis’ article is that it excuses al-Awlaki’s views as simply a reaction of US foreign policy. He is not alone among people who do not favour US projects in the Middle East, though he is in the minority of those who believe the best response would be the killing of civilians – something the author of the Cif piece prefers to brush aside.

Indeed many have difficulty trying to justify the views of al-Awlaki since he was released from incarceration in Yemen between 2006-07. But before then – the period Younis describes – some felt he was just an informed scholar.

According to Shiraz Maher, Muhammad Amin, author of the “between the lines” blog – said “This new [post-incarceration] Anwar al-Awlaki is unrecognisable to every British Muslim organisation which invited him to give lectures in the past.”

It is taken as standard by some that al-Awlaki was good then, bad now. But Maher’s blog entry for Standpoint notes that three years before his arrest, al-Awlaki toured the UK (including a talk at the East London Mosque) urging Muslims not to report fellow Muslims, “under any circumstances”.

Al-Awlaki is in fact quoted as saying: “A Muslim is a brother of a Muslim, he does not oppress him, he does not betray him and he does not hand him over…You don’t hand over a Muslim to the enemies…” (a video transcript can be found here).

His promotion of the violent jihad against enemies – even in the early 2000’s – begs the question, posed by Maher, whether al-Awlaki was ever moderate at all?

And so the question remains; but whatever the answer, if one will insist on writing an article describing al-Awlaki as a victim of US foreign policy, and not an extremist who failed to qualify sensible criticism to the West’s Middle Eastern adventures, do make sure it concludes on a critical note.

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