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Attack on America: An Islamic Scholar's Perspective—Part 1

Brian Handwerk and Zain Habboo
for National Geographic News
September 28, 2001
 
In an interview with National Geographic, Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki shares
his perspective on the tragic events of September 11 and the impact they
have had on the United States and the world. He was born in New Mexico
and received his early Islamic education in Yemen, his parents' native
country. He is now the imam of Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls
Church, Virginia, and the Muslim chaplain at George Washington
University in Washington, D.C.


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.

But then, when the buildings started crumbling down and we realized that there were a lot of people dying, then the emotions really began taking over. For example, I didn't own a TV—I used to get my news through the Internet. But since this happened, I rushed to Best Buy and got a TV set. And we were glued to our TV sets.

For Muslims, I think it was a very complicated issue because we suffer twice. We're suffering as Muslims and as human beings because of the tragic loss for everyone. And then in addition, we suffer the consequences of what will happen to us as an American Muslim community since the perpetrators are, so far, identified as Arabs or Muslims.

I would also add that we have been pushed to the forefront because of these events. There has been huge media attention towards us, in addition to FBI scrutiny. In some places they have been going through some difficult times.

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.

We encourage people to participate in blood drives, we encourage them to donate, and then we encourage the community to reach out. Part of the blame is on us that we haven't been very active in reaching out to our fellow citizens, so that when these things happen we don't have to go through this unfortunate backlash. We had a neighbor come in, and she said, "I'm coming to show my solidarity with you, to let you know that we are with you in this and that we are sorry for the difficult times you're going through." And then she said, "I wish you had came and visited me earlier, to give me an understanding of your religion. Although we were neighbors, we didn't really hear from you." This really is a message for us Muslims, that we need to reach out.

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. And if there is an invading force from outside, then we would, too, struggle to defend ourselves, and that is where armed combat occurs. So actually, fighting is only a part of the jihad, and it's considered to be a defensive force in order to protect the religion. If somebody defends their life, their property or their family, this is considered to be a jihad.

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. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama Bin Laden—it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That's a very frightening thing, so the U.S. needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.

An Islamic Scholar's Perspective—Part 2
 

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