Three days after Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an army psychiatrist, murdered 13 of his colleagues at the Soldier Readiness Center in Fort Hood last November, Anwar Awlaki, an imam with whom he had been in email contact, posted a notice on his website. ‘Nidal is a hero,’ Awlaki wrote:

He opened fire on soldiers who were on their way to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan … How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done? … May Allah grant our brother Nidal patience, perseverance and steadfastness, and we ask Allah to accept from him his great heroic act.

Awlaki was writing from Yemen, where to commend an attack on American soldiers as they prepare for deployment in Muslim countries is such a commonplace that it is unlikely to attract much attention. But the US anti-terrorism authorities were already familiar with Awlaki from his career (1996-2002) as a preacher in San Diego, Fort Collins, and Falls Church, Virginia, and will have taken note.

On 17 December, the government of Yemen, acting, as the New York Times put it, with ‘firepower, intelligence and other support’ from the US government, launched air strikes against the Yemeni village of al-Majalah, where militants were thought to be gathering. An undetermined number of people – maybe 30 – were killed. A week later, Yemeni and American officials launched an air strike on Awlaki’s house. The Yemeni government reported that another 30 people were killed. Awlaki was unhurt, and has since spoken to Yemeni reporters.

Awlaki’s website was taken offline in mid-November, soon after the Fort Hood shootings, presumably at the instigation of the US authorities. Its liveliest part was its comments section. ‘I make dua [prayer] that i meet you in person, pray behind you and learn under you,’ one admirer wrote, signing himself: ‘Your brother on the other side of the earth, Mohammed Hassan’. ‘Every person that I have come across,’ another follower said, ‘who has already listened to the talk of Imam Anwar, would like to be close to him and ask more questions or learn more about Islam. Is this not a spirit of Muslim brotherhood?’ ‘Please come out with another lecture,’ Abul Qasim wrote. ‘The muslims of the west need a push.’

Awlaki’s admirers are spread across the English-speaking world. Those who posted comments on his website live in Australia, Virginia, Nottingham, Birmingham, and other small and not so small cities in the West. They are, in other words, more or less everywhere, but many don’t seem especially attached to their homes: ‘Assalamu alaykum. Dear shaykh,’ Abdallah Maktum wrote, ‘I have a very short question and that is: Do you accept students in Jemen? Please answer it dear shaykh, as it is very important for me.’ Another wrote: ‘May Allah have mercy on you. I would love to study with you one day as well as join you on any front.’ Later, a debate got going in the comments: is it proper in Islam to praise someone so effusively to his face? The commenters decided that it was, if done for the right reason. ‘I love you and all the other righteous Muslims for the sake of Allah … Let us know what we can do.’

Awlaki himself is not a firebrand, his sermonising is not especially original and slightly stuffy – not ‘silver-tongued’, or seductive. Yet he inspires passionate responses from a band of devout, very ready-to-be-deployed young men (they are men) from all over the world. Many of them say they can’t speak Arabic. Many others are still having trouble with English grammar. But it seems they’re ready to pick up sticks, to move to Yemen, to join Awlaki ‘on any front’, and to plunge into the study of the early medieval Arabic in which the Quran was written.

To understand the origins of the fans’ enthusiasm, one has to begin with the hero’s life: it’s the life – not the writing – that resonates. Awlaki’s story is a familiar one to many in his audience: it begins in suburban tranquillity in the West (New Mexico), with middle-class parents recently arrived from the believing part of the world. Unexceptional schooling is followed by a standard university degree (BS Civil Engineering, Colorado State, 1994). Later, there is an abandoned attempt at an advanced degree (Human Resource Development, George Washington University, 2001) and a period of drifting between his parents’ homeland and American Muslim communities in San Diego and Falls Church.

The story picks up momentum after 2001, when ‘a climate of fear and oppression’ (the phrase belongs to a fellow imam in Falls Church) caused him to flee, first to London, and from there to Yemen. In Yemen, Awlaki returned to his parents’ native village, an ancient incense capital now called Shabwa. He established a household here with a local wife, and had a string of children. Women, if they are mentioned at all on Awlaki’s blog, are treated with slightly unbelievable piety: a spirit of paternal protectiveness hovers over the writing. Women are grateful, dignified and much too modest to speak. In America, Awlaki was arrested twice for soliciting. Many of the young Westerners who’ve been turning up in Yemen over the past ten years have also left behind a history of troubled – in some cases anguished – relations with women. Many of them arrive in Yemen with visions of a local bride – the deep, submissive eyes, the black clothing – dancing in their heads. Some of these young men marry once. Many marry several women.

Since women scarcely speak in public in Yemen and rarely reveal details of their domestic lives to anyone under any circumstances, it would be difficult to prove that the decorum Awlaki makes so much of doesn’t exist. I have spent three years here and still couldn’t say it doesn’t. In any case, to the young men reading Awlaki’s blog in the West, where most men, however Muslim, have little control over the sex lives of their female friends and relatives, such a fantasy might well seem tantalising. Relations between the sexes may be out of control in the West, Awlaki’s blog hints, but out here in Yemen, things are different.

In August 2006, the Yemeni government arrested Awlaki as he was trying to mediate a tribal dispute. It’s unlikely that he was doing anything criminal, and he wasn’t charged. Still, the local authorities don’t look kindly on self-styled clerics who turn up in the country, particularly when they meddle in local affairs, and Awlaki ended up in a dungeon in the political security prison in Sana’a. This prison spell was a gift from Allah, and bound Awlaki much more tightly to his fans.

I was in an underground solitary cell made up of four concrete walls, with an iron gate on one side and on the opposite side a small window – rather a hole – covered with iron mesh to allow for some fresh air to come in … Then there was the roof with a bulb hanging from it which was on continuously day and night. Then the floor with a mattress two-three inches thick, a blanket, a worn off pillow, a plastic plate, a bottle for water …

  And then there was a Quran. In this environment there is nothing to do and nothing to read but the Quran, and that is when the Quran reveals its secrets. When the hearts are clean; when there is nothing clouding the spirit, the Quran literally overwhelms the heart.

This is Awlaki at his best, expounding the oldest, most heroic Islamic themes – the striving towards virtue, transcendence over one’s oppressors, communion with the Quran, cleanliness of the heart – from a crappy Yemeni jail cell.

His fans in cyberspace responded predictably: ‘Subhanallah! – With tears i read the last few lines of your post,’ wrote Naeem from … he doesn’t say where. ‘Allahu akbar!’ exclaimed Mohammed Hassan from Australia. Zachir (from America?) was also impressed but drew a conclusion that Awlaki probably didn’t intend: ‘Maybe I should go Prison, coz whenever i read the Quran it dont hit me as it used to, my heart has gone too hard.’ This is the real source of Awlaki’s power and it has nothing to do with his theology or his fluency in Arabic (or in English for that matter), as some terrorism experts seem to believe. Awlaki has had a deeper experience of the Quran than most other young men, and he’s had it in Arabic, and he’s had it under extreme conditions. In short, he has taken a voyage of the spirit, as all heroes must.

His journey was a paradigm: when his conventional schooling ended, he left home. Finding himself on the far side of the earth, in a country both dangerous and magical, he married, then faced his enemies. The battle he now fought purified his soul, and opened up to him the mysteries of the sacred writings. His ordeal, as several of his fans pointed out on the website, never threatened his faith in God: it brought him inner strength. This is the experience of which these young Muslims in the West dream. To have had it is the truest Islamic credential in today’s world.

In Awlaki’s telling, the authorities at the prison in Sana’a were worried about spiritual excitement. Initially, the only Islamic book they allowed him was the Quran. So for a time he had to content himself with Dickens and Shakespeare. He liked Hard Times (‘Mr Josiah Bounderby of Coketown was similar to George W. Bush; Lucy’s father, Mr Gradgrind, was similar to some Muslim parents who are programmed to think that only Medicine and Engineering are worthy professions for their children’), but not Shakespeare: ‘Shakespeare was the worst thing I read during my entire stay in prison. I never liked him to start with. Probably the only reason he became so famous is because he was English.’ All of Awlaki’s fans have been put through some (presumably milder) version of the Shakespeare torture. Awlaki knows just how to deal with such icons. Western writers may have verbal dexterity, he says, but they were never wise enough to drag themselves from unbelief: ‘Didn’t Ibn Abbass say: ‘‘How can they guide you when they themselves are misguided?”’

Eventually, the prison authorities permitted Awlaki to read more widely. But why they let him move directly on to Sayyid Qutb, who is often credited with creating the basic philosophy of contemporary global jihad, is anyone’s guess. Soon he had company in his cell: Qutb’s masterworks, In the Shade of the Quran and Milestones, books that were (mostly) written in prison. Awlaki devoured them:

Because of the flowing style of Sayyid I would read between 100-150 pages a day. In fact I would read until my eyes got tired. My left eye would get exhausted before the right eye so I would close it with my hand and carry on reading with my right eye until it can handle it no more and would just shut down. My vision started deteriorating especially in my left eye. Was it because of too much reading, or was it because of poor lighting, Allah knows best.

One might have expected the replies to Awlaki’s Qutb posting to be as enthusiastic as those that followed his encounter-with-the-Quran posting, but on the whole the reaction was less effusive: ‘I was confused by the statements of some scholars as to whether his writings were correct,’ Abu Talah wrote, ‘but Alhamdulillah you have answered that. I have Milestones at home, but I stopped reading it after I was confused, but Inshallah will begin again.’ I have seen similar bemusement over Qutb among Western talibs in Yemen. In fact, during my two years in religious schools there, shoulder-shrugging was the usual response when Qutb was mentioned. Some students felt he might be interesting; some were too busy with the Quran to bother with him; and some believed he belonged to a heretical sect. Many had never heard of him.

Yet something about Yemen – maybe it’s the national addiction to qat, or the illiteracy of the people (about 50 per cent), or the seediness and corruption of everything official, or the wealth of the oil oligarchs, or the fact that even some religious teachers talk of starting new lives in the West, or, more likely, a combination of all of these – eventually works its way into the minds of students. Within a few months, almost all of them are sounding the old Qutbian themes. Qutb believed that the Muslims of the world were conniving with unbelievers to make life sadder, more dishonest and more hopeless. He felt that Muslims were losing themselves in idiocy and drugs. Only Islam, he said, could bring order to the modern world – and yet every day Muslims were deserting their religion. If young men in Yemen don’t come round to the Qutbian way of thinking on their own, the speeches they hear in the mosques, though not necessarily derived from Qutb, will help them do so. Even though they’re probably not reading him, the kids start speaking like him. When I was living in Yemen, I felt that life there was not creating little admirers of Sayyid Qutb but rather little Sayyid Qutbs.

One of Awlaki’s best loved (downloadable) lectures is called ‘Allah Is Preparing Us for Victory’. It is standard Islamic fare but it could also, with the changing of a few names, do reasonable service in many Sunday Protestant pulpits. It urges the faithful to be strong, for today’s sufferings are portents of future glory. If I were looking into the reason young men from nice families in the West turn themselves into terrorists, I would hang around for a while in one of the mosques in Sana’a where foreigners pray. To do this is to undergo a speedy but effective education in the meaning of triumph to this particular class of young men. They are not life’s golden children. They don’t look like sports stars; they don’t know how to charm a room with their smile; many have the mousy air of people who were overlooked at school. But they too want success. Most of all, they want women, and the promise Islam makes all young male believers is that the ummah will smooth away problems concerning the female sex. We will bring you your helpmeet, it promises. She will have been raised on the Quran. She will love you for your Islamic learning, and for your dedication to the religion.

Young men in Yemen longing for wives believe this – and with good reason. Many of their older friends have asked the local imam for a wife, paid the bride price, gone through an Islamically proper engagement, and married. They really have arranged for themselves a triumph over the problem of women. Is Allah preparing a similar victory for their younger, loveless brothers? The Sura al-Nasr, or ‘chapter of victory’, which every student of Islam in Yemen memorises in his first days in the country, promises that he is.

It seems that the former UCL mechanical engineering student Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab experienced a particularly acute stage of self-doubt. He needed someone to help him. What else could he have meant when he posted this message in an Islamic chatroom in 2005? ‘I am in a situation where i do not have a friend, i have no one to speak to, no one to consult, no one to support me and i feel depressed and lonely. i do not know what to do.’

The beauty of life in Yemen for someone like that is that it really can make them happy. You wear the ancient robes. You memorise the ancient texts. The more you gain control over the Islamic mysteries, the stronger you feel. You don’t physically triumph over anything, but there are times when the studying, the fasting and the support of one’s brothers come together perfectly. At these moments you really do begin to feel the immanence of victory. Your loneliness and depression aren’t bothering you anymore. You’re on to bigger, more thrilling things.

It seems that Mutallab left his Sana’a language school, with its secular students and its lifeless secular curriculum, in September. Probably he left the city altogether. Probably he went off into the countryside, which is where all the most dedicated voyagers-of-the-spirit eventually go. Soon he was sending startling text messages back to his father in Nigeria. According to a cousin who saw them, they said that in Yemen Mutallab ‘had found a new religion, the real Islam’. Another text said: ‘Please forgive me. I will no longer be in touch with you.’ To me, these sound like the words of a young man in the throes of religious excitement. Religion has given him a new family. He can now tell his oldest adversaries (so often, it seems, this person is the young man’s father) to piss off. He has everything he needs – now and for ever.

The two December air strikes were meant to set back al-Qaida’s operations in Yemen. They may have had some effect, but they also supplied Awlaki’s many fans with the essential ingredients for the cycle of spiritual excitement to start anew: their hero has yet again been set upon by a merciless force. What exactly has he done wrong? He hasn’t been charged and no evidence against him has been brought forward. He has miraculously escaped harm. Still, the bombs are falling. Villagers are being killed. Within 24 hours of the air strike on Shabwa, Mutallab boarded his flight for Detroit.

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Vol. 32 No. 4 · 25 February 2010

Why would you provide space for such cut-rate Orientalist clichés as Theo Padnos’s claims that Islamists are Islamists because ‘they want women’ (LRB, 28 January). All that was missing was the brigade of barely-clad edenic houris, although the earthly version, with their ‘deep, submissive eyes’ and ‘black clothing’, appeared in the first column.

Laleh Khalili
School of Oriental and African Studies, London WC1

send letters to

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