It is a paradox of modern times: We are committed to diversity yet have enormous difficulty imagining people who actually are different. Americans and Europeans prize peace and, on that basis, assume peace has become a universal value. The West has lost the will for power and thirst for glory – the very phrases sound archaic – so most of us assume no other nations seek to conquer and dominate. And because we are willing to compromise, we are confident others would settle for a half loaf rather than killing and being killed in pursuit of the whole.
Lack of imagination leads to the conclusion that all conflicts can be resolved — if only we’d explain ourselves better, show others respect, address grievances, and offer more generous concessions. But this conclusion is erroneous. Anwar al-Awlaki – the al-Qaeda cleric and commander killed by a Hellfire missile last week — provides a vivid example.
Awlaki was as American as spinach pie, a poster-child, or so it seemed, for multiculturalism. He was born in New Mexico, the son of a Fulbright scholar who went on to earn his doctorate and serve as Yemen’s minister of agriculture and chancellor of two universities.
When Awlaki was 7, his father took him back to Yemen, a place where, for countless centuries, tribe has fought tribe, a place where the national pastime is chewing khat, a plant with amphetamine-like qualities. The poorest country in the Arab world, it borders on Saudi Arabia, among the richest. One can argue that Americans have enriched Saudis; one cannot argue that Americans have impoverished Yemenis.
At 18, Awlaki returned to America. He studied engineering at Colorado State University and became president of the Muslim Student Association. Later, he earned a master’s in Education Leadership – a quintessentially modern American discipline — from San Diego University. In 1993 he spent a summer abroad – training in Afghanistan with the mujahideen who broke free of Soviet shackles thanks to assistance from the United States.
By 1996, Awlaki was leading a small mosque in San Diego. Five years later, he had moved to suburban Washington, D.C., where he was named imam of the Dar al-Hijra mosque, one of America’s largest centers of Islamic worship. He also became the Muslim chaplain at George Washington University. A few weeks prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, he was invited to preach in the U.S. Capitol. One month after the attacks, The New York Times described him as representing “a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.”
Educated, traveled, sophisticated and accomplished, his American experience was filled with freedom, tolerance and opportunity. He despised and rejected it.
According to law enforcement authorities, two of the al-Qaeda members who would hijack passenger planes on 9/11 regularly attended Awlaki’s mosque in San Diego and held long meetings with him there.
At Dar al Hijrah, he provided “spiritual guidance” to Nidal Malik Hasan, whose parents had immigrated to America and who had become, thanks to the generosity of American taxpayers, both a physician and a military officer. Like Awlaki, Hasan was not inspired by the Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. In his mind, and on the business cards he made for himself, he was a “Soldier of Allah” who on Nov. 5, 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, did what he saw as his duty: He slaughtered as many Americans as he could.
Awlaki, who by then had returned to Yemen, called Hasan a “hero.” He added: “The only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the U.S. army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.”
In mosques and on the Internet, Awlaki preached that “jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.” He added that jihad “is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea.” (Reminds me of a slogan from the 1930s: “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.”)
He helped prepare Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab to suicide-bomb an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-born American who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, cited Awlaki as his inspiration.
Last year, President Obama authorized Awlaki’s killing. Last week, that mission was accomplished.
It was a battle won in a war that is not over, not by a long shot — a war being waged by regimes (Iran primary among them), organizations (al-Qaeda is only the best known) and individuals (e.g. Hasan, Abdulmutallab and Shahzad) motivated by ideology and theology, determined to defeat “unbelievers” and restore glory to Islam and power to Muslims.
More than 30 years after Iran’s Islamic Revolution and more than a decade after the 9/11 atrocities, this is not just evident – it is patently obvious. It is what the self-proclaimed jihadis tell us over and over. Yet many Americans and Europeans still do not hear it or see it. They believe in the idea and ideal of diversity. They just can’t accept the possibility that there are people who, deep down, are not like them.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.