Archive for May, 2010

Anwar al-Awlaki: The Jim Jones of Islam

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

As a Muslim and as an American, let me say this loudly and clearly — Anwar al-Awlaki is a servant of evil and a traitor both to Islam and to America. He is intent on misleading the world by spreading the lie that Islam permits the killing of civilians. It does not.

Prophet Muhammad forbade the killing of non-combatants and reacted with horror when he heard of civilian deaths on the battlefield. In order to expound his own political agenda, Al-Awlaki is defaming the Prophet and the global Muslim community, which rejects terrorism. And in the process, he is revealing himself to be a modern Jim Jones – a narcissist creating a death cult.

In 1978, Jim Jones led 900 of his devoted followers to mass suicide by forcing them to drink cyanide mixed in a fruit beverage. The term “drinking the Kool-Aid” has since become synonymous with people who blindly follow their leaders to their doom. And it is clear that al-Awlaki’s followers are very much drinking his brand of Kool-Aid. Indeed, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, was apparently a follower of al-Awlaki before he turned on his fellow soldiers in an orgy of murder. Like Jim Jones, al-Awlaki has remarkable charisma and uses it to lead his followers down a very dark path.

I say all of this with great grief. Al-Awlaki was once a highly regarded Muslim scholar who taught a message of peace and brotherhood. But his story is like that of the archetypal villain of the movie Star Wars – Anakin Skywalker, a defender of justice, who devolves into Darth Vader, a monster who cares only for his own twisted quest for power.

I have never met al-Awlaki, but those who have tell me that in his early days as a preacher, he espoused a moderate Islam based on scholarship and appreciation for Muslim history. Yet after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, al-Alwaki began to change. He began to see the world in a binary “us versus them” outlook – the hallmark of fundamentalism. After being detained by the Yemeni government in 2006 (apparently under American pressure), he appears to have left his moderate past behind him and embraced a dark vision of Islam at perpetual war with America – and became its most passionate scholarly advocate.

Al-Awlaki’s story could be dismissed as the sad tale of a good man who became lost. And yet his personal moral decline has greater consequences. For he built up a widespread and devoted following among Muslims in his heyday – and is now in a position to brainwash many of his followers into following his own descent into darkness.

When I have publicly criticized al-Awlaki, I have received emails from his devotees saying that he is being “set up” by the US government. And yet when I ask them what they mean by this, there is always pin-drop silence. His followers seem to want to believe that the good, charismatic man that they adore is somehow being falsely portrayed in the media as a villain as part of some “Psy Ops” manipulation game. And yet when I ask if someone else is posting his increasingly radical and extremist sermons through his website (a CIA agent posing as al-Awlaki, let’s say), there is more silence. It is as if his followers want to keep clinging to the man he once was and selectively ignore his recent calls for the murder of civilians in the name of Islam.

Like Jim Jones, a personality cult has formed around al-Awlaki. It is a personality cult that is blinding his followers into a series of non-sequiturs and conspiracy theories that allow them to overcome the cognitive dissonance of reconciling the good scholar they once knew and the deranged and hateful man he has become.

There is a word for that kind of personality cult in Islam – idolatry. If there are any Muslims out there that believe that a man should be followed unquestioningly, even when his words violate basic Islamic teachings, then they have committed shirk, the worst sin in Islam – ascribing a partner to God. They have given their devotion to a false god, a fallible human being rather the infallible Creator, the Merciful and Compassionate, the Lord of the Worlds, whose moral commandments cannot be rationalized away by men.

I was sickened and outraged by al-Awlaki’s recent video, where he rationalized terrorist plots to blow up airplanes, saying that the deaths of civilians are just “a drop of water in the sea.” Similar rationalizations were used by pre-Islamic Arabs who practiced female infanticide, burying their newborn baby daughters alive. Such innocent lives were also simply “drops in the sea” for a pagan culture obsessed with male progeny. But when the Holy Qur’an put an end to this barbarism, it said that on the Day of Judgment, the innocent girls will rise from their graves and confront their murderers, and God will ask: “For what crime was she killed?” (Surah 81:8-9) And then the murderers’ excuses will vanish and they will be flung into Hell.

The God of the Qur’an is the God of life, of mercy, of justice. A God that says “no soul shall bear the burden of another” (53:38) when confronted with moral relativists that believe in “guilt by association” and collective punishment.

If Muslims wish to find a true example in their history of a noble warrior, they should turn away from this false teacher al-Awlaki and look at the example of Saladin, the great Muslim leader who conquered Jerusalem in 1187 C.E.

In my new novel, Shadow of the Swords, I show how, despite calls for collective punishment against the Christians of Jerusalem for the crimes of the Crusaders, Saladin showed mercy to the populace. He let the Christian population remain unmolested and gave them freedom of worship and pilgrimage to their holy sites. When Richard the Lion Heart led the Third Crusade to expel the Muslims, Saladin treated his enemy with stunning generosity. When Richard fell ill, Saladin sent his personal doctor to tend to the enemy king. When Richard’s horse was killed in battle, Saladin sent his personal horse to his adversary as a gift.

Saladin’s acts of honor and wisdom single-handedly shattered the negative image that many Christians held of Muslims. And for this, he is lauded by both Christian and Muslim historians as a true statesman and moral leader.

I ask any follower of al-Awlaki – which is the greater example you wish to be associated with? The example of your “teacher” who calls you to turn into monsters without empathy? Or Saladin, who reminded the world that Islam stood for justice and moral restraint, not barbarism and rationalization of murder? If you have any hesitation about the right answer here, then you have left your religion and become the very evil that anti-Muslim bigots have long claimed Islam represents.

The confusion al-Awlaki has created among Muslims is in many ways far more insidious than that of his fellow madman, Osama Bin Laden. For Bin Laden does not claim to be – and is not – an Islamic scholar. Bin Laden’s calls for attacking the West are not steeped in Islamic scholarship, but in a rather crude “eye for an eye” philosophy that says since Americans are killing Muslim civilians, Muslims have a right do the same in return to American civilians. Bin Laden has little understanding of, or interest in, Islamic jurisprudence, primarily because he finds its rules against murdering civilians to be inconvenient. Therefore Bin Laden’s appeal is really based on an emotional bait-and-switch. Get Muslims riled up about all the injustices they have experienced so that they follow him – and not ask too many questions about the justice of his own movement.

But al-Awlaki’s brand of evil is far more sinister. As a trained Muslim scholar, he is an expert in perverting traditional Islamic teachings with strange analogies that have no historical basis, such as his self-serving argument that Americans elected and pay taxes to a government that kills Muslims, so all Americans are complicit and are lawful targets of revenge. Aside from the fact that this is a nonsensical leap of logic, it ignores what Prophet Muhammad himself did when faced with the opportunity for collectively punishing a population for the crime of its leaders.

In my novel Mother of the Believers, I discuss how, when the Prophet defeated Mecca, he was in a position to unleash vengeance on the city that had driven him out and killed his family and friends. And yet the Prophet, to his enemies’ surprise, instituted a general amnesty and not only forgave the general populace, which under al-Awlaki’s argument was complicit in Mecca’s war against Islam, but also its leadership that organized the war. The lords of Mecca – including the villainous queen Hind, who had cannibalized the Prophet’s uncle as an act of terror – were forgiven and incorporated into the new Muslim state as leading citizens.

So I ask the followers of al-Awlaki again – what vision of Islam do you wish to follow? The false Islam of collective punishment claimed by your “teacher”? Or the magnanimous Islam of mercy and wisdom lived by Prophet Muhammad?

Al-Awlaki’s credentials as a former religious scholar are troubling and dangerous. But it should be noted clearly that al-Awlaki does not represent the face of mainstream Muslim scholarship. In fact, in his own country of Yemen, there is a remarkable Muslim scholar who has dedicated his life to defeating extremism – Hamoud al-Hitar, a Yemeni judge who deprograms terrorists by teaching them the truth about Islam.

Judge al-Hitar is living proof of the power of true Islam to defeat the false Islam of the extremists, of light to overpower darkness. Al-Hitar works with the Yemeni government to counsel Muslim extremists who have been brainwashed by men like al-Awlaki. He talks to them about the Holy Qur’an and traditional Islamic law, and demonstrates to them – line by line, point by point – why terrorism is a violation of Islam’s basic teachings. Remarkably, al-Hitar has deprogrammed over 300 extremists and is said to have even won over high-level Al-Qaeda agents, who have repented and turned on their leaders.

Al-Hitar served as the basis of a character I wrote for an episode of the Showtime television series Sleeper Cell. A clip from that episode has been uploaded onto You Tube and has become a global phenomenon, for it shows how a Muslim scholar like al-Hitar argues with – and proves wrong – an al-Qaeda extremist.

I ask the followers of al-Awlaki to look at the clip and let the truth of its arguments – coming straight from the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad – touch their hearts.

If you still prefer the false words of your “teacher” over the truth of Islam’s message of peace and beauty, then there is no hope for you, any more than there was for the many misguided souls who followed Jim Jones to their destruction.

With the forces of evil now cloaking themselves in the garb of righteousness, there are two paths before the Muslim community. One of light and one of darkness. And of this moment, the Holy Qur’an says:

“God is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. But of those who reject faith, their patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the Fire, to dwell therein.” (2:257)

My fellow Muslims, the choice between light and darkness is yours.

The Mosque by Ground Zero: A Lesson from the Crusades

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Nine years after September 11, 2001, we are still facing one fundamental question. Who is our enemy? There are two answers. One based in the truth. One based in a lie.

One answer is that Islam itself is the enemy of America and Western civilization. That all Muslims are terrorists, or at least sympathetic to the use of terrorism to advance their political agendas. After years of hearing news stories about Muslim terrorists from the shoe bomber to the underwear bomber to the Times Square bomber, it is completely understandable that many Americans find that answer to be a simple statement of obvious fact.

It is an understandable perspective. And it is a complete lie.

The truth is that our enemy is actually a small group of radical, sociopathic and extremely dangerous individuals who happen to call themselves Muslims. The vast, vast majority of 1.5 billion Muslims have nothing to do with this extremist death cult that makes a mockery of their faith. This global Muslim community is in fact our most effectively ally against these monsters that seek to destroy both America and mainstream Islam – it was a Muslim vendor that tipped off the police about the suspicious SUV in Times Square, a fact that remains unknown to most Americans.

Of course, the lie is easier to believe and requires one only to sit back and look at the surface of events, rather than take the time and effort to dive beneath the stormy waters of the news to learn what is really going on in this world. Truth is a treasure that is often buried in a minefield of complex facts that is just too much trouble to explore for most people. And so the lie continues that Islam itself is the enemy, that Muslims are collectively responsible for the handful of terrorist serial killers that claim to be one of them.

The conflict between the truth and the lie is now reaching its apex in the public sphere of the media, which profits from the Manichean worldview of “us versus them.” The announcement by the Cordoba Initiative, a progressive, peaceful Muslim group, that it plans to build an Islamic Center two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York has finally brought this conflict out into the open.

Predictably, politicians and media blowhards are seizing on this development to cry out that “the terrorists have won.” Congressman Peter King (R-NY) calls the plans for the mosque “offensive and wrong.” Brian Kilmeade on Fox & Friends asked whether it was “almost taunting to put a community center right by the attack perpetrated by a group of extremist Muslims.” And Steve Doocy (also on Fox) questioned whether the mosque’s presence was “a great insult.”

These are also the same individuals in the media who have perpetuated the lie that Muslims are not speaking out or fighting against terrorism. So when a progressive Muslim group like the Cordoba Initiative arises, its existence is problematic for the black-and-white worldview of the Islamophobes. When a Muslim group stands tall and says it rejects terrorism and wants to create an Islamic Center dedicated to building bridges of love and community between people of faiths, its existence provokes outrage. For the very presence of a progressive, peaceful mosque near Ground Zero invalidates the claim by both the Muslim fanatics and their mirror images among the anti-Muslim bigots that America and Islam are enemies.

I promise you, Al Qaeda and its supporters have no love for the Cordoba Initiative, which they view as a bunch of weak, liberal Muslims who are putting out the fire of their twisted vision of jihad and replacing it with calls for brotherhood with “infidels.” I know this from personal experience. After I published my first novel on the birth of Islam, Mother of the Believers, I received death threats from Muslim extremists, who see me as a traitor and apostate, using my position in the media to promote peace rather than a war of civilizations. And at the same time, I have been flooded by emails from Islamophobes who like to believe that I am some kind of sleeper agent infiltrating Hollywood to promote a false vision of a peaceful Islam while hiding my true “Islamist agenda.”

So I understand the pain of the organizers of the mosque, who are now forced to defend their integrity from all sides. Good people like Daisy Khan, whom I know and admire, and progressive Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who must endure insults from extremists in all camps that do not wish to see a mosque dedicated to supporting peace and fighting fundamentalism.

But let me make one thing clear — as an American, I really do understand why there is outrage over the building of this mosque near Ground Zero. I remember walking around in a daze that terrible day in 2001 when fire rained from the sky, trying desperately to get in touch with family and friends in New York to see if they were alive. I know that most of those who express revulsion to the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero are coming from an authentic place of sincere emotion. They naturally equate the terror of September 11th with Islam, because the murderers themselves that day did that.

But I also know that these monsters had no more to do with my faith than the Crusaders did with true Christianity.

And it is instructive to look back to the Crusades, another time Muslims and Christians were trapped in a “holy war” whose legacy would poison relations between these two religions of Abraham for centuries. When we examine the history of the Crusades, we find remarkable parallels with events in the news today. A civilization that was the global leader in art, science, education and culture was forced to repel vicious attacks from impoverished and backwards countries, led by fanatics targeting innocent civilians in the name of God. But in those days, the advanced civilization was Muslim and the terrorists were Christian.

In my upcoming novel, Shadow of the Swords, I examine the Crusades from a Muslim point of view. I begin with a terrifying memory of the First Crusade in 1099 C.E., which remains very much imprinted on Muslim cultural history. A time when Christian warriors descended on Jerusalem and slaughtered its 70,000 inhabitants – men, women and children. Muslim civilians were butchered in the name of Christ, along with Arab Christians who had the misfortune of being dark skinned and looking like “the enemy.” The Jews of Jerusalem were herded by the Crusaders into the city’s main synagogue and burned alive. According to the Crusader’s own chroniclers, the streets of Jerusalem ran with blood in rivers.

But the annihilation of the civilian population of Jerusalem was not the worst crime of the Crusaders. In the village of Ma’arra, Crusaders cannibalized the local population – eating men, women and children in an orgy of horror that has never been forgotten by the Islamic world. To this day, the Crusaders are referred to in the Middle East as “the cannibals.”

I think any Christian who reads this will be revolted by the sordid story, and will automatically denounce these monsters as having nothing to do with Christianity — even though the Crusaders would have disagreed. To these medieval terrorists, their brand of horror was true Christianity, of which they were proud. Incredible as it sounds, these barbarians sincerely believed they were doing the will of Christ.

The Crusaders were, of course, wrong. And despite the scars these terrorist acts left on the Muslim psyche, Muslims have never blamed the entire Christian community for the actions of these monsters, nor do Muslims today believe that mainstream Christians are of the same character as the Crusaders.

And the proof that Muslims always understood the difference between these vile “Christian” terrorists and true Christianity can be seen in how the Muslims chose to treat the Christians of the Holy Land after the Crusader kingdom was defeated in 1187 C.E. Saladin, the Muslim leader who retook Jerusalem after the pivotal battle of Hattin, was in a position to avenge the horror perpetrated by the Crusaders, not just a century before, but in his contemporary times. For the Crusader kingdom was still led by vicious killers, men like Reginald of Kerak, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. Reginald was a French nobleman consumed with such hatred of Muslims that he launched regular terrorist attacks on caravans passing near the kingdom, massacring civilians without remorse or pity. Reginald even organized a raid into the Muslim holy city of Mecca and was set upon invading Medina and desecrating the grave of Prophet Muhammad until Saladin’s forces routed him.

Reginald’s fanaticism was viewed with dismay by more moderate leaders in the Christian camp, who feared that these extremists tactics would create such outrage that the divided Muslim forces would find common cause and march upon Jerusalem. Their fears proved correct, and Reginald’s savagery gave Saladin the rallying cry he needed to mount a unified military response, which toppled the century-old Crusader kingdom.

When the Muslim army bore down upon the gates of Jerusalem, the Christian population prepared itself for what they expected would be terrifying retribution. And yet, at the moment of his greatest victory, Saladin remembered the rules of war established by Prophet Muhammad over five hundred years before. Instead of doing to the Christians what they had done to the Muslims, he gave the Christian population a general amnesty. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, they had turned the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s holiest sites in the city, into a church, and banned Muslim entry into the city. But when Saladin took Jerusalem back, he chose not to do the same to his Christian adversaries. He guaranteed protection for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the right for Christian pilgrims to visit the Holy Land. Saladin further allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem after Christians had expelled them.

Saladin’s magnanimity was renowned by medieval historians, even among Christians, who were perplexed that an “infidel” would show mercy while the “true believers” had chosen barbarity. Saladin’s example single-handedly shattered many Christians’ negative perception of Islam and made them question whether the cruel and backwards version of Christianity that they was being sold by the Church of the time actually reflected the teachings of Christ.

Saladin’s willingness to overcome the emotional need for revenge and the foolish simplicity of judging an entire community by the action of an evil few marked him as one of the greatest men of history. Saladin was tested by God and history, and he was found worthy.

So now, eight hundred years later, we in America are being similarly tested. We are under attack by a small group of deadly Muslim fanatics. We can choose to use that as an excuse to brand the entire Muslim community as our enemy Or we can follow the best that is in our historical tradition and differentiate truth from falsehood. We can scapegoat a billion innocents, or we can work with those people to unite against a few extremely dangerous and destructive individuals.

How we as Americans choose to react to the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero will reveal who we are as a people. And the judgment of history will place us either in the company of villains like the Crusaders, who cared not for the difference between the innocent and the guilty, or in the company of noble heroes like Saladin, who are honored even by their adversaries.

I have lived in America long enough to know that despite the Crusader rhetoric in the media, we are a nation of Saladins at heart.