Kamran Pasha.Hollywood filmmaker, author of "Shadow of the Swords" and "Mother of the Believers"
Anwar Al-Awlaki: The Jim Jones of Islam
As a Muslim and an American, let me say this loudly and clearly --
Anwar al-Awlaki is a servant of evil and a traitor both to Islam and
to America. He is intent on misleading the world by spreading the lie
that Islam permits the killing of civilians. It does not.
Prophet Muhammad forbade the killing of non-combatants and reacted
with horror when he heard of civilian deaths on the battlefield. In
order to expound his own political agenda, Al-Awlaki is defaming the
Prophet and the global Muslim community, which rejects terrorism. And
in the process, he is revealing himself to be a modern Jim Jones -- a
narcissist creating a death cult.
In 1978, Jim Jones led 900 of his devoted followers to mass suicide by
forcing them to drink cyanide mixed in a fruit beverage. The term
"drinking the Kool-Aid" has since become synonymous with people who
blindly follow their leaders to their doom. And it is clear that
al-Awlaki's followers are very much drinking his brand of Kool-Aid.
Indeed, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, was
apparently a follower of al-Awlaki before he turned on his fellow
soldiers in an orgy of murder. Like Jim Jones, al-Awlaki has
remarkable charisma and uses it to lead his followers down a very dark
I say all of this with great grief. Al-Awlaki was once a highly
regarded Muslim scholar who taught a message of peace and brotherhood.
But his story is like that of the archetypal villain of the movie Star
Wars -- Anakin Skywalker, a defender of justice, who devolves into
Darth Vader, a monster who cares only for his own twisted quest for
I have never met al-Awlaki, but those who have tell me that in his
early days as a preacher, he espoused a moderate Islam based on
scholarship and appreciation for Muslim history. Yet after the
terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq, al-Alwaki began to change. He began to see the
world in a binary "us versus them" outlook -- the hallmark of
fundamentalism. After being detained by the Yemeni government in 2006
(apparently under American pressure), he appears to have left his
moderate past behind him and embraced a dark vision of Islam at
perpetual war with America -- and became its most passionate scholarly
Al-Awlaki's story could be dismissed as the sad tale of a good man who
became lost. And yet his personal moral decline has greater
consequences. For he built up a widespread and devoted following among
Muslims in his heyday and is now in a position to brainwash many of
his followers into following his own descent into darkness.
When I have publicly criticized al-Awlaki, I have received emails from
his devotees saying that he is being "set up" by the US government.
And yet when I ask them what they mean by this, there is always
pin-drop silence. His followers seem to want to believe that the good,
charismatic man that they adore is somehow being falsely portrayed in
the media as a villain as part of some PSY/OPS manipulation game. And
yet when I ask if someone else is posting his increasingly radical and
extremist sermons through his website (a CIA agent posing as
al-Awlaki, let's say), there is more silence. It is as if his
followers want to keep clinging to the man he once was and selectively
ignore his recent calls for the murder of civilians in the name of
Like Jim Jones, a personality cult has formed around al-Awlaki. It is
a personality cult that is blinding his followers into a series of
non-sequiturs and conspiracy theories that allow them to overcome the
cognitive dissonance of reconciling the good scholar they once knew
with the deranged and hateful man he has become.
There is a word for that kind of personality cult in Islam: idolatry.
If there are any Muslims out there who believe that a man should be
followed unquestioningly, even when his words violate basic Islamic
teachings, then they have committed shirk, the worst sin in Islam:
ascribing a partner to God. They have given their devotion to a false
god, a fallible human being rather than the infallible Creator, the
Merciful and Compassionate, the Lord of the Worlds, whose moral
commandments cannot be rationalized away by men.
I was sickened and outraged by al-Awlaki's recent video, where he
rationalized terrorist plots to blow up airplanes, saying that the
deaths of civilians are just "a drop of water in the sea." Similar
rationalizations were used by pre-Islamic Arabs who practiced female
infanticide, burying their newborn baby daughters alive. Such innocent
lives were also simply "drops in the sea" for a pagan culture obsessed
with male progeny. But when the Holy Qur'an put an end to this
barbarism, it said that on the Day of Judgment, the innocent girls
will rise from their graves and confront their murderers, and God will
ask: "For what crime was she killed?" (Surah 81:8-9). And then the
murderers' excuses will vanish and they will be flung into Hell.
The God of the Qur'an is the God of life, of mercy, of justice, a God
that says "no soul shall bear the burden of another" (53:38) when
confronted with moral relativists who believe in "guilt by
association" and collective punishment.
If Muslims wish to find in their history a true example of a noble
warrior, they should turn away from this false teacher al-Awlaki and
look at the example of Saladin, the great Muslim leader who conquered
Jerusalem in 1187 C.E.
In my new novel, Shadow of the Swords, I show how, despite calls for
collective punishment against the Christians of Jerusalem for the
crimes of the Crusaders, Saladin showed mercy to the populace. He let
the Christian population remain unmolested and gave them freedom of
worship and pilgrimage to their holy sites. When Richard the Lionheart
led the Third Crusade to expel the Muslims, Saladin treated his enemy
with stunning generosity. When Richard fell ill, Saladin sent his
personal doctor to tend to the enemy king. When Richard's horse was
killed in battle, Saladin sent his personal horse to his adversary as
Saladin's acts of honor and wisdom single-handedly shattered the
negative image that many Christians held of Muslims. And for this, he
is lauded by both Christian and Muslim historians as a true statesman
and moral leader.
I ask any follower of al-Awlaki: which is the greater example you wish
to be associated with? The example of your "teacher" who calls you to
turn into monsters without empathy? Or Saladin, who reminded the world
that Islam stood for justice and moral restraint, not barbarism and
rationalization of murder? If you have any hesitation about the right
answer here, then you have left your religion and become the very evil
that anti-Muslim bigots have long claimed Islam represents.
The confusion al-Awlaki has created among Muslims is in many ways far
more insidious than that of his fellow madman, Osama Bin Laden. For
Bin Laden does not claim to be -- and is not -- an Islamic scholar.
Bin Laden's calls for attacking the West are steeped not in Islamic
scholarship but in a rather crude "eye for an eye" philosophy that
says that because Americans are killing Muslim civilians, Muslims have
a right do the same in return to American civilians. Bin Laden has
little understanding of, or interest in, Islamic jurisprudence,
primarily because he finds its rules against murdering civilians to be
inconvenient. Therefore Bin Laden's appeal is really based on an
emotional bait-and-switch. Get Muslims riled up about all the
injustices they have experienced so that they follow him and don't ask
too many questions about the justice of his own movement.
But al-Awlaki's brand of evil is far more sinister. As a trained
Muslim scholar, he is an expert in perverting traditional Islamic
teachings with strange analogies that have no historical basis, such
as his self-serving argument that Americans elected and pay taxes to a
government that kills Muslims, so all Americans are complicit and are
lawful targets of revenge. Aside from the fact that this is a
nonsensical leap of logic, it ignores what Prophet Muhammad himself
did when faced with the opportunity for collectively punishing a
population for the crime of its leaders.
In my novel Mother of the Believers, I discuss how, when the Prophet
defeated Mecca, he was in a position to unleash vengeance on the city
that had driven him out and killed his family and friends. And yet the
Prophet, to his enemies' surprise, instituted a general amnesty and
not only forgave the general populace, which under al-Awlaki's
argument was complicit in Mecca's war against Islam, but also its
leadership that organized the war. The lords of Mecca -- including the
villainous queen Hind, who had cannibalized the Prophet's uncle as an
act of terror -- were forgiven and incorporated into the new Muslim
state as leading citizens.
So I ask the followers of al-Awlaki again: what vision of Islam do you
wish to follow? The false Islam of collective punishment claimed by
your "teacher"? Or the magnanimous Islam of mercy and wisdom lived by
Al-Awlaki's credentials as a former religious scholar are troubling
and dangerous. But it should be noted clearly that al-Awlaki does not
represent the face of mainstream Muslim scholarship. In fact, in his
own country of Yemen, there is a remarkable Muslim scholar who has
dedicated his life to defeating extremism: Hamoud al-Hitar, a Yemeni
judge who deprograms terrorists by teaching them the truth about
Judge al-Hitar is living proof of the power of true Islam to defeat
the false Islam of the extremists, of light to overpower darkness.
Al-Hitar works with the Yemeni government to counsel Muslim extremists
who have been brainwashed by men like al-Awlaki. He talks to them
about the Holy Qur'an and traditional Islamic law, and demonstrates to
them -- line by line, point by point -- why terrorism is a violation
of Islam's basic teachings. Remarkably, al-Hitar has deprogrammed over
300 extremists and is said to have even won over high-level Al-Qaeda
agents, who have repented and turned on their leaders.
Al-Hitar served as the basis of a character I wrote for an episode of
the Showtime television series Sleeper Cell. A clip from that episode
has been uploaded onto YouTube and has become a global phenomenon, for
it shows how a Muslim scholar like al-Hitar argues with -- and proves
wrong -- an al-Qaeda extremist.
I ask the followers of al-Awlaki to look at the clip and let the truth
of its arguments -- coming straight from the Holy Qur'an and the
teachings of Prophet Muhammad -- touch their hearts.
If you still prefer the false words of your "teacher" over the truth
of Islam's message of peace and beauty, then there is no more hope for
you than there was for the many misguided souls who followed Jim Jones
to their destruction.
With the forces of evil now cloaking themselves in the garb of
righteousness, there are two paths before the Muslim community. One of
light and one of darkness. And of this moment, the Holy Qur'an says:
"God is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of
darkness He will lead them forth into light. But of those who reject
faith, their patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them
forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the
Fire, to dwell therein." (2:257)
My fellow Muslims, the choice between light and darkness is yours.