Anwar al-Awlaki's many faces

Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone strike on Friday morning. He was as the New York Times describes him "the American-born cleric whose fiery sermons made him a larger-than-life figure in the shadowy world of jihad." But that is not how the New York Times always described him. It's interesting to review the coverage he received over the years and what, if anything, that can tell us about media coverage of Islam in America.

Shortly after al Qaeda launched it's attack on Americans using four hijacked airliners, media interest in Islam spiked considerably. This is understandable. One of the people that was sought after for interviews was none other than al-Awlaki. He was an American, spoke perfect English, used American idioms, and was well respected by many Muslims.

Here's a New York Times piece from October 19, 2001:

Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki, spiritual leader at the Dar al-Hijra mosque in Virginia, one of the nation's largest, which draws about 3,000 worshipers for communal prayers each Friday, said: "In the past we were oblivious. We didn't really care much because we never expected things to happen. Now I think things are different. What we might have tolerated in the past, we won't tolerate any more."

"There were some statements that were inflammatory, and were considered just talk, but now we realize that talk can be taken seriously and acted upon in a violent radical way," said Mr. Al-Awlaki, who at 30 is held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West: born in New Mexico to parents from Yemen, who studied Islam in Yemen and civil engineering at Colorado State University.

It is too early to say whether their message will be heeded, or whether it is mere posturing.

The Times wasn't alone. In those early days, you can see almost identical coverage from NPR, the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun:

The lanky, 30-year-old father of three and a doctoral candidate at George Washington University finds himself increasingly thrust into the role of spokesman for a younger, American-born generation of Muslims.

A native of New Mexico who received his Islamic education in Yemen, his parents' birthplace, Al-Awlaki bridges the two worlds as easily as he shifts from lecturing on the lives of the prophets to tapping phone numbers into his Palm Pilot.

National Public Radio posted the transcripts from a couple of times that al-Awlaki was on its programs. There were a couple of quotes that I found intriguing. In one exchange with host Neal Conan, al-Awlaki is asked whether religion plays an element in the conflict. He responds:

"I think that to a certain extent for practical reasons there is an element of feeling among the Muslims that they are targeted, or at least they are the ones who are paying the highest price for what's going on. Number one, there has been a rise in negative reporting on Islam in the media since the events happened. There have been 1,100 Muslims detained in the US. There's a bombing going on over a Muslim country, Afghanistan. So there are some reasons that make the Muslims feel that, well, it is true that the statement was made that this is not a war against Islam, but for all practical reasons, it is the Muslims who are being hurt."

"Beyond those who, obviously, were hurt on September the 11th," Neal interjected.

"Yes," said al-Awlaki.

"And I know you did not mean to exclude them," Neal said.

Neal knew that al-Awlaki did not mean to exclude them. Interesting. Then Neal asks how we address this issue. Al-Awlaki says:

"I think if the administration is trying to show and express as best it can that this is not a war against Islam, I think that around the country there's a responsibility to make that distinction very clear and to prevent and stop any negative reporting that is happening against Islam."

Some media outlets were up front about how their previous reporting didn't quite hit the mark on al-Awlaki. NPR was very open about it. The Washington Post mentioned that its web site had brought in al-Awlaki to lead a chat on Ramadan and had allowed a Post videographer to chronicle a day in the life of an American imam.

One more piece that might be helpful for review was the 2010 article by the Times on two competing theories about what happened with al-Awlaki. One is that al-Awlaki was as peaceful as could be until radicalized after the 2001 attacks. He happened to know a couple of the 9/11 hijackers but there's no reason to think that they were discussing al-Qaeda operations. The other theory is that he was a long-time agent of al-Qaeda, and his relationship with the hijackers both during his time in San Diego and in Northern Virginia was more than coincidence.

Whatever the case, I think the early coverage of al-Awlaki gives us some things to consider. For one, it's still difficult for many in the media to write about Islam's many layers, particularly the more dangerous layers. There are certainly exceptions but on the whole we still see Islam presented in a way we would never tolerate for reporting on Christianity and its denominations, strains and subsets. In some sense those early stories show us the distance we've traveled but also the distance we need to go.

The other issue is whether the trust between journalists and their readers, listeners and viewers is challenged by the reporting we've seen on Islamist terrorists. When a cleric such as al-Awlaki is highlighted by many major media institutions as a "moderate" who will bridge the divide in the global conflict, what happens the next time an imam is similarly presented?

Note the way, for instance, the Washington Post covered al-Awlaki's former mosque in Northern Virginia. Keep in mind that this is a very popular mosque in the area. And in addition to this being a place that gave al-Awlaki a leadership position, two of the 9/11 hijackers attended services there, a German planner of the 9/11 attacks had the number for the mosque in his apartment and Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan attended there years prior to his attack. Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President George W. Bush and of providing support to al Qaeda, worshiped and taught Islamic studies there. A former member of the executive committee was convicted of obstruction of justice for refusing to testify about Hamas. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that mosque leaders were political there for many years, (he quotes from one 1998 sermon: “Allah will give us the victory over our tyrannical enemies in our country. Allah, the infidel Americans and British are fighting against you. Allah, the curse of Allah will become true on the infidel Jews and on the tyrannical Americans.”). And the Post has reported that the mosque is affiliated with the Muslim American Society, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

There are many other things I could mention, although I have also pointed out that these ties need not be mentioned in each of the very many stories the Post writes about the mosque. This mosque has also been highlighted globally (and controversially) by the U.S. State Department and contracted with by other federal agencies.

Anyway, I thought of all this when I read the Post's "Anwar al-Aulaqi’s death reopens wounds for Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church."

It's a good article in parts but I wonder if the headline served it well. Obviously a mosque with 3,000 members is not defined by one imam who became President Obama's number one enemy. But neither is it a situation of one bad apple here. This mosque has a history of ties to terrorist groups. I'm not entirely sure how to handle it, but perhaps a more neutral headline and mention of some of this history would help balance the piece.

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