In many ways, the Sunday New York Times‘ long article on Anwar al-Awlaki — the American Muslim cleric who they say inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the underpants bomber and Faisal Shahzad — is excellent journalism. It tells the complicated story of a man who was once considered a model, moderate Muslim after 9/11, decamped to Yemen as GWOT amped up, and is now said to be abetting Al Qaeda. The story is thorough and nuanced, and the breadth of sources is impressive.
But there’s something that concerns me about the whole premise of our collective inquiry into what drove Shahzad to try to bomb Times Square, and it’s encapsulated in this front-page story. There is an assumption that the driving force behind Shahzad and others’ turn to violence is powerful and poisonous rhetoric. This ignores the many other factors — many of them material, not ideological — that likely contribute to radicalization. We thus miss the full explanation for why so many angry men are attracted to the idea of waging random violence on Americans.
The Times story focuses on Awlaki as a man with a power of persuasion rooted in his total comfort with American culture (he was born in New Mexico) and his “beautiful tongue,” as one person described it. I have not watched the man’s sermons, but it seems probable this is an accurate assessment.
The interesting thing, though, is that law enforcement — and to some degree the newspaper — draw the conclusion that Awlaki’s charm and power as a speaker make him exceptionally dangerous, and a prime cause of individuals’ radicalization. His sermons alone are said to have the power to “brainwash.” The article suggests that there is a break — sometimes fuzzy, but very real — between Awlaki’s “benign” early sermons and his (malignant, I guess) later material.
The analysis of Awlaki’s character and influence is flawed for two reasons. One, it implicitly describes two versions of Islam in a special way that Western commentators reserve only for that religion. Two, it mostly ignores all the material and social pressures that are creating terrorists, and thus deceptively and erroneously elevates Awlaki’s power. Let me treat these two main flaws in turn.
Flaw 1: Good Muslim vs. bad Muslim
Implicit in the story about Awlaki — and pervasive in GWOT-era news coverage — is that there is a good, personal, harmless Islam and a bad, violent, political Islam. Mahmood Mamdani has written about this narrative:
[W]e are now told to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims. Mind you, not between good and bad persons, nor between criminals and civic citizens, who both happen to be Muslims, but between good Muslims and bad Muslims.
We are told that there is a fault line running through Islam, a line that divides moderate Islam, called genuine Islam, and extremist political Islam. The terrorists of September 11, we are told, did not just hijack planes; it is said that they also hijacked Islam, meaning genuine Islam!
Awlaki, in the portrayal we have, straddles this supposed fault-line. In the story, it seems there is something bigger than him — something that might be called the dark side of Islam — that is battling with the force of apolitical good Islam for control of his formidable gift of gab.
But Islam is not, in reality, neatly divided into these two Lord-of-the-Rings-like forces. It is an ocean of diverse, mutable ideas and traditions — like any religion — that shapes and is shaped by temporal and material conditions.
Such oversimplifying, unacknowledged metanarratives in the news are very hazardous to our understanding of the truth: the facts can be accurate while the overall story is wrong. This narrative reinforces a conception of Islam as something with the capacity for evil, an idea we do not have for other religions. Violent acts by Christian, Jewish or other extremists are usually considered the acts of fringe groups or loonies (even when they represent large movements), not examples of people who have succumbed to those religion’s existing dark sides.
There are a couple of consequences to the spurious Good Muslim-Bad Muslim narrative. One is that there is absolutely no space left for Islamic political action, because activism is an implicit quality of the bad side. It makes assertively, publicly Muslim Muslims inherently worthy of suspicion. That’s not healthy or right, and has bad implications for American civic culture. The other consequence, more relevant to efforts to stop terrorism, is that the narrative facilitates an analysis of violence that can conveniently exclude its political and social causes. In other words, it facilitates the second flaw in the analysis of Awlaki.
Flaw 2: Rhetoric creates violence (or “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It”)
Awlaki’s ideology is well developed, and he delivers it effectively, but is that enough to motivate people to violence? I do think ideas and rhetoric are powerful (more, actually, than Ice Cube acknowledges in the link above), and that charismatic leaders can get people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. But I also think that every leader — good or bad, peaceful or violent — requires enabling circumstances to be effective. The elephant in the room with all this talk of how decent, law-abiding Muslims got “radicalized” is that there are political, social and material reasons that people are angry, and many are not linked to religion.
There are things about the United States that make people really mad. In terms of driving factors behind radicalization, the Times might just have easily chosen some other subjects as the front page story about what created terrorists: The near-destruction of Iraq in a war that the World Health Organization has estimated killed 151,000 people (violently) by 2006. Drone attacks throughout the AfPak region that kill 50 civilians for every targeted militant. Immigrants (who may be friends or relatives) harassed, detained and deported by U.S. officials, sometimes dying in custody without record — all occurring under the broad umbrella of the GWOT-mandated Homeland Security revolution. The hypocrisy of the United States’ relationship with foreign governments. Guantanamo. Et cetera.
And what about non-GWOT factors? There’s the continuing massive global inequality. There’s the made-in-America global economic crisis that exposed the unabashed greed of Wall Street. The abuse of the earth’s resources. There are the economic woes of ordinary Americans — Shahzad was certainly not alone in that respect. There’s the commercialization of everything in the American-dominated global system.
Then, there’s something harder to quantify: the fundamental inadequacy of the American system, which — although it is more efficient and “productive” than any other system that has ever existed — has seemingly failed in delivering happiness. Sometimes it creates throw-it-on-the-ground types; other times the consequences are more grave.
Besides these things, there are any number of personal variables — from depression, to insanity, to personality flaws — that fail to be discussed because Islamic radicalization steals all the attention.
I’m not saying any of this to be P.C. or to somehow express sympathy for the nutjobs who decide that the answer to their unhappiness is mass killing. Nor am I somehow suggesting that the United States should apologize or make amends for any of the circumstances it has played a part in promoting. And I definitely am not suggesting that there is anything in the slightest bit excusable about these terrorists’ murderous intentions.
Rather, I am seeking an honest explanation of the rage that is the fuel for violent acts against our population. It seems utterly disingenuous not to highlight these non-religious factors prominently and preeminently in any analysis that seeks to answer the question, “What makes these people want to kill?” Sure, maybe Awlaki’s sermons or consultation brought them part of the way. But ideologues can give form and precision to a nebulous rage. Put another way, if rage born of material, social or political circumstance brings a person 90 percent of the way to a violent act, an ideologue like Awlaki can bring him the last 10 percent of the way.
That makes him a factor in, but not the cause of terrorism.
We actually have a control group with which we can test our hypothesis, in the form of homegrown terrorists who have no Islamic ideology. The obvious and recent comparison to Shahzad — whom, however, has been mentioned surprisingly infrequently in the news recently — is Joseph Stack III, the Texan man who flew a plane into an IRS building in February. Like Shahzad, he was a frustrated, unsuccessful man with debt problems and some kind of unformed rage. There is no qualitative difference between Shahzad’s attempt and Stack’s, except that Stack’s was slightly more effective. But Stack’s act was immediately designated a criminal investigation; Shahzad’s prompted the suggestion of an entirely new government process to deal with the vast conspiracy he represents.
Other qualitatively similar attacks are school and other random shootings, from Littleton to Virginia Tech. I don’t want to get into them here for fear of making this post too long.
The point is that, in trying to understand violence targeting American civilians, we are continuing to place an exaggerated emphasis on the ideology of this firebrand or that, and the role of Islam. We do so at the expense of understanding that violence’s true causes — probably because of the painful ambiguity of the U.S. role in creating an environment that facilitates terrorism. Two years out of the Bush administration, and nine years after September 11th, we’re still choosing to stay caged up in an ineffective GWOT narrative. I guess it’s a lot more comfy in here.