On Guardian contributors’ egregious moral failure in the Al-Awlaki Debate

This is cross posted by Matthew Ackerman, a Middle East Analyst at The David Project

A characteristically inane argument in the Guardian yesterday by Victoria Brittain and Asim Qureshi  tried to take to task Karima Bennoune for opposing the Center for Constitutional Right’s defense of Anwar al-Awlaki.

For those not keeping score, al-Awlaki is a Muslim with American citizenship who in recent years began preaching an increasingly radical version of Islam and moved to Yemen. In the past year, he has been cited as the inspiration for one successful and two near-miss acts of terrorism in the United States: the murder of 13 unarmed American soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas; the “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up an airplane during its descent into Detroit; and the unexploded car bomb left in Times Square in New York last spring. As is the case with al-Awlaki himself, two of the perpetrators in these cases are American citizens and all are fluent in English with easier access to the United States than most. All of this led the Obama administration to conclude that al-Awlaki was a legitimate target to be killed if he could not be captured, much in the same way we think of Osama bin Laden.

The offending column in the Guardian complains that Bennoune – in opposing support for al-Awlaki and criticizing “human rights” organizations for their inability to put these kinds of cases into the context of the wider Islamist movement at the same time that she opposes extra-judicial killings as illegal – isn’t being consistent. That is, extrajudicial killing is illegal, therefore it must be opposed in all cases.

It is not worth the time to dissect their arguments, because they don’t make one. They just state again and again that the act is illegal, that the act can only be sanctioned by a court, that Seton Hall law school says the people in Guantanamo are all good guys… And on and on.

It’s easy to see why Brittain and Qureshi think they don’t have to prove that the order by an American president to kill an individual directly implicated in a spate of terror attacks in the United States is “illegal” because, well, everyone knows that. Just read the papers! All you need to do is put the war on terror inside scare quotes and the case is obviously settled. No need to, you know, have some kind of legislative process where this thing is settled. Best if all of us little people leave those difficult matters to the trained professionals.

The disgusting stuff, as opposed to the merely disturbing, doesn’t come until toward the end, when after proving to their own satisfaction that al-Awlaki’s “persecution” is the cause of all that wishing for the death of infidels, Brittain and Qureshi move on to what should be done. Because, really, since al-Awlaki’s murderous desires are no more than the natural frustrations of Muslims subjected to the horrors of the “war on terror,” he, and others like him, just need to be “enfranchised.” Problem solved.

From time to time I get upset over a turn in public debate in the United States, where the wish to believe that the Islamist aggression directed against us has some rational cause in our own behavior has been growing by tremendous bounds of late. But then I take a glance at how these things are discussed across the pond, and I can only feel relief that we haven’t yet fallen so low.

Does it really need to be said (again) that Muslims and Arabs can feel without everything they feel being the result of something a Westerner has done to them? Must we really say (again) that the problem of Islamism is a real and serious one, with no obvious solution and no clear “legal” remedy? It’s honestly quite tiring.

Let us all agree on a few things. Human beings feel and desire things for many different reasons, but they each should be held accountable for those beliefs, whether they are white or brown, atheist or Jewish or Muslim, French or Arab. The West is not responsible for every bad thing that happens in the world. And, perhaps most controversially, lawyers do not acquire a halo of moral superiority upon the acquisition of a JD.

Brittain and Qureshi are part of one of the more disturbing debates playing out in the West today: the chorus that dismisses the arguments of true Muslim liberals like Bennoune in favor of the moral turpitude of al-Awlaki and his ilk, who wrap themselves in the blanket of victimization in order to make genocidal claims. Any organization that claims to stand for human rights must stand firmly against the al-Awlakis of the world and for their many victims, beginning with the shameful list of people the Islamists have put special murderous attention on for their willingness to criticize Islam, a list Bennoune tries to spotlight. If what they really hope for is the creation of a just international order, they must begin with those who are its primary threats.

Otherwise, you are an enabler, not only of the Islamist wish to push the entire world under a blanket of fear, but of a new essentially racist discourse that denies Muslims and Arabs the legitimacy of their own stated beliefs.

There is a wonderful scene in Woody Allen’s extraordinary 1977 movie “Annie Hall” when his character, Alvy Singer, excuses his dismissal of a girl’s convictions by saying, “Right, I am a bigot, I know, but for the left.” It’s a great joke, that in just a few words manages to convey all the failings of a certain kind of leftist intellectual who sees himself above criticism for bigotry and so feels free to indulge in it.

But today it’s not funny. Because the bigotry has been extended to the worst kind of people in the world in order to excuse their murderous intentions. The silence of most on this, perhaps the most important of topics, is a great moral failing of our time.

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