The assassination of Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki aroused widespread debate and controversy, and this is something that remains on-going.
It is not possible to know whether or not al-Qaeda will seek to respond to this strike, although it is highly unlikely that it will. In addition to this, the brave voices that loudly objected to his assassination and regarded it as an immoral act are insufficient – or at least will fail to have a notable affect – in preventing the recurrence of such acts, where the death penalty is carried out before the trial.
Yet, what is striking in the debate and controversy that is raging, particularly in the US and Western media, are the comments that have been made about some photographs of Anwar al-Awlaki taken in 2001. In one of these photos, al-Awlaki appears in a mosque in Virginia – where he worked as Imam – standing next to an American female activist [Patricia Morris], reportedly only three weeks after the 9/11 attacks occurred. The American activist was visiting the mosque within the framework of a campaign to express solidarity with American Muslims after some members of the American Muslim community were subject to attack in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
This photograph, which was published in a number of American newspapers and magazines, received significant attention, and it clearly reflects the American facet or aspect of one of AL Qaeda’s terrorist figures, not to mention his connection to the modern world. This was al-Awlaki, who left the US only a few weeks after this photograph was taken; transforming himself into one who incited and mobilized terrorist attacks against the US.
The Americans will not be able to ignore the fact that there is an American aspect to al-Awlaki’s background and character; he was American by birth, language, and culture, and was introduced to Islam in New York, not through the teachings of his Yemeni father. As for the “Inspire” online magazine that he founded, it was an English-langue publication, which means that he sought to address western Muslims like himself.
A controversy has and continues to rage in the US and Western media over the extent of the responsibility that western culture– namely American culture – bears for producing this third generation of terrorists, and Anwar al-Awlaki in particular. We must not forget that Pakistani Faisal Shahzad [who attempted the Times Square car bombing] and Palestinian [Fort Hood shooter] Nidal Hassan were both influenced by al-Awlaki’s charisma and rhetoric.
They both embody the concept of “individualism”, a major product of modernity and Westernization. The figures mentioned above all had strong links to the West, and their understanding of Islam and Islamic culture was coloured by Western culture. The West was unable to absorb them in the same manner that it managed to absorb other immigrants, however it did provide them with the tools that led to them going astray, namely technology.
This does not mean that the West is solely responsible for this, but it shows that the West has unofficially begun to view western Muslim as victims as well, in the same manner that they view Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, who committed a terrible massacre in Oslo a few months ago.
Today, the form of terrorism represented by Al Qaeda has suffered significant setbacks, but this does not mean that it has been exterminated. Anwar al-Awlaki was a terrorist whose weapon of choice was the internet, and he influenced people who needed a psychiatrist, rather than a political analyst.
It occurs to me that the West is more able of reviewing the situation than we are capable of reviewing our own culture and social structure, although I am hopeful that the Arab Spring will allow us to do this later on.