Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A Marked Man in America

A Marked Man in America

Waiting in Montreal airport on Sunday I decided to read a wonderful article in the New York Times magazine (20 March 2011). It is called ‘A Marked Man in America’ by Andrea Elliott and tells the story of a Muslim cleric, Yasir Qadhi. Below the headline Elliott summarised the article thus:  ‘To prevent violent extremism in the US, the Muslim cleric Yasir Qadhi says he must talk openly to his young followers about Jihad. But can that word even be part of the conversation?’  I had just spent the last five days discussing public diplomacy almost non-stop, and so I think my pd adrenaline was in full flow, meaning my antenna were attuned to the public diplomacy significance of everything I read, saw or heard. Elliott’s article is available here and is well worth studying in detail.

The following are some quotations from the article with my own thoughts added for free.

First the report recounts how American policy – both at home and overseas – has damaged the trust of American Muslims and has thus had disastrous consequences for the presentational aspects; as we know policy and presentation go hand-in-hand, and it is important to deal with the first before you attempt to repair the second.   

The report describes the American Muslims ‘who have come of age after 9/11. They have watched as their own country wages war in Muslim lands, bearing witness – via satellite television and the internet – to the carnage in Iraq, the drone attacks in Pakistan and the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo. While the dozens of Al Maghrib students I interviewed condemned the tactics of militant groups, many share their basic grievances.’

This connects with another paragraph later on in the article: The American Muslims listening to Yasir Qadhi ‘had heard it before: vote, educate your neighbours, protest peacefully. But is that what Islam commands when your people are dying? … One of the deepest Islamic principles is that of the ummah – the global community that unites all Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad was said to have likened it to a human body. If one part hurts, the whole body aches.’

In addition to demonstrating the connection between policy and presentation, these passages reveal issues that resonate with Muslims (especially young, disillusioned Muslims) and which are developed in the communications strategies of the Islamic terrorist organisations. It also indicates why the treatment of Muslims abroad is such a powerful narrative among Muslims in the US. The question becomes: How to respond?

The issue becomes more urgent the more one reads of the so-called ‘trophy photos’ – photos of American soldiers allegedly ‘murdering’ Afghan civilians’ published in Der Spiegel - which could be ‘more damaging than Abu Ghraib’. Any response that centres on pd and/or strategic communications is undermined and irreparably damaged by the revelation of such atrocities.  

The article then describes divisions within the Islamic movement between militant and non-militant not only concerning responses to American policy in the Middle East and treatment of Muslims at home, but also nuanced theological questions such as the meaning and necessity of Jihad. Militant clerics, such as the American preacher Anwar Awlaki who is believed to be with Al-Qaeda in Yemen ‘has taken to the internet with stirring battle cries directed at young American Muslims. “Many of your scholars,’ Awlaki warned last year, are “standing between you and your duty of jihad.” … Who has the greater credibility: the cleric living comfortably in America or the militant “in the cave” who sacrificed everything for his beliefs? … Many of the students had grown up listening to him preach on CDs.

A little further in the article I found this significant passage:  ‘Law-enforcement officials say that there was no policy singling out Salafis.’ In the aftermath of 9/11 they were ‘rushing to root out a new enemy, with little time to grasp the theological differences separating nonviolent fundamentalists from the creed of the hijackers. … Anwar al-Awalki was still preaching in Virginia when federal agents raided 15 local Islamic offices and homes. “It’s a war against Muslims and Islam,” Awlaki bellowed in an audio address. “It’s happening right here in America.”

Needles to say, when American policy fails, such messages gain credibility.    

Elliott then turns her focus back to Qadhi and his popularity: ‘He has more than 10,000 fans on Facebook, hundreds of sermons on Youtube and a growing Twitter following. … it is his unapologetic comfort with America  - his assertion that Muslims belong here as much as anyone – that has also made him a point of pride for many young Salafis.’  

This is important for pd: not only does it demonstrate Qadhi’s ease with social media (thus making him accessible to the most vulnerable and impressionable sections of society), but he is also an opinion former – a crucial step in the ‘last three feet’ of public diplomacy. More importantly, he is an American Muslim proclaiming the protection of American values. He does not seek to overthrow the government, merely to safeguard the rights of all Muslims in America. Therefore his identity is an important link in the pd chain.

The article names a ‘young blogger from North Carolina,’ Sami Khan ‘who eventually moved to Yemen and now runs the Al Qaeda magazine, Inspire’. I found this particularly interesting and hunted down a story about the launch of the magazine in English:

Elliott’s conclusions to her article are prescient:

‘Qadhi’s ambiguous relationship with the government reflects a quandary facing the Obama administration: whether to engage with Muslims across the ideological spectrum.’
That seems like a no-brainer ….

‘As the administration confronts domestic radicalization, some government analysts say they have much to learn from clerics like Qadhi. “We’re trying to get our arms around how to engage with Yasir and people like him,” a senior counterterrorism official told me.’

Engagement with ‘Yasir and people like him’ is absolutely essential. Not only does he represent a generation of American Muslims who can speak to American Muslims on their own terms and as American Muslims, but he also demonstrates that the ‘one size fits all’ approach of US policy does not work. It is no longer enough to identify theological splits within Islam – Sunni and Shia etc. – but one must also learn to understand the issues that separate militant from non-militant Islam and learn how they radicalise young Muslims.  Most important of all, the US has to learn that its policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan and its treatment of Muslims at home damage the credibility of any US efforts at engagement. As my old friend and mentor Philip Taylor once remarked: ‘credibility is like virginity; once it has gone, you can never get it back.’ The worry is that the recent publication of the ‘trophy photos’ will again counteract the significant work started by Yasir Qadhi. If the US pd and anti-terrorism communities wish to make inroads, they must embrace Qadhi and others like him who can challenge the militant narratives and prevent the radicalisation of the disaffected youth.

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