Love and Healing for Muslim 20-Somethings: Anwar al-Awlaki's Moment

Four hours after Roshonara Chaudhry, a 21 year-old English and communications student at Kings College in London, tried to murder her MP, she was sitting in a police station explaining herself to two detectives. In the morning, she had stabbed The Right Honorable Stephen Timms twice in the stomach. She was then briefly examined by a doctor. The date was May 14, 2010.

"When a Muslim land is attacked," she told the police, "it becomes obligatory on every man, woman, and child and even slave to go out and fight and defend the land." Iraq had been attacked. For this reason, and because the times demanded bold Islamic fighters, and because the world of this life wasn't so great anyway, religious duty required her to kill Timms. But why Timms? the police wondered.

Q: Lots of people voted for the war in Iraq, lots of MPs.
A: Yeah, erm, it's because ... well, even the doctor asked me that: 'so like are you ...were you gonna kill everyone?' And I told him that I'm just one person and I did what I could.

These words reproduce more or less perfectly the logic that Anwar Awlaki, whose lectures Chaudhry had been mainlining in the months before her crime, teaches to his fans. Muslims have a collective responsibility to defend their own, he says. Moreover, they have a duty to God, and God would like them to attack those who are attacking Islam. In the interview, the police weren't quite sure about this last point, but Chaudhry, who knew her stuff well, set them straight.

Q: So where in the Quran does it say that you should go and kill someone?
A: Erm, the main chapters about it are chapter ... chapter eight and chapter nine, I think.
Q: What does that say, can you remember?
A: Erm, it says to ... it says to fight until there is no more oppression in the land. Because it's better to fight than to be persecuted.

Perhaps Choudhry was referring here to the Surat al Anfal (8:44: O Prophet! urge the believers to war; if there are twenty patient ones of you they shall overcome two hundred.") Certainly she also had in mind the famous Surat at Tawba, or Forgiveness, which instructs "the believers" and "oh yee who believe" ... just as she says it does. In any case, there are many sacred sources, besides Chapters 8 and 9, for these teachings. There are also many sacred sources which say the opposite, but never mind.

The police accepted her logic as far as motivation was concerned. What didn't make sense to them, the inexplicable part of the crime over which they persisted in hovering, was her I-did-this-all-by-myself explanation. Had she really been so alone?

She had been a top student at Kings but had dropped out several weeks before the crime. Why? the police asked. Because the school did things that "went against Muslims," she replied.

Q: Do you pray in a regular mosque?
A: No I just pray at home.

What else did she do at home?

A: I've been learning more about Islam.
Q: Where have you been learning that?
A: Internet.

Clear enough. Still, to the police, something wasn't adding up.

Q: OK. Forgive me, I find it, I just find it a little bit strange that you're doing all this on your own and not speaking to anyone else about or ...
A: Because nobody would understand....

During her studies of Islam, the officers prompt, she would have needed guidance along the way.

Q: If you've got a question that you want to ask or you want answered, who do you ask?
A: I don't ask anyone I just listen to his [Anwar al-Awlaki's] lectures. There's no one to ask.

This remark -- there's no one to ask -- is surely the saddest thing the police turned up during their interrogation. It's also the most revealing.

In the police station Chaudhry didn't say anything else about her aloneness, but anyone who's lived on the path of god for a while knows that the isolation happens to everyone, that it usually gets worse rather than better inside the religious schools and that however bad it is for young men, it's worse for the women.

When I was studying the Quran in Yemen -- the source it seems for some (though surely not all) of what Chaudhry was learning about Islam -- the speakers in my mosque often referred to a hadeeth, or sacred statement, which told of a dark era in the Islamic future. Some day, Mohammed prophesied, the entirety of Islamic tradition would drain from the world, and only a tiny community of scholars would preserve the faith -- by imitating the prophet in the minutest particulars of his life and by memorizing the words he uttered. In this dark era, he said, even these scholars would come under attack: "Verily," he declared, "Allah will not snatch away Knowledge from the chests of the scholars but rather he will take away the Knowledge by taking away the scholars."

This prophecy struck a chord with my fellow western religious students in Yemen. We were instructed to memorize it and we did. It validated the students' sense of persecution, accounted for the arrests of their friends and teachers and gave their new lives as memorizers of the Quran a sense of high, heroic purpose. Yes, they would withdraw from the world. By doing so, they would save it.

Women students I've met have been particularly talented, zealous withdrawers. If they're not, they do not stick around long, since seclusion for them is a matter of law.

In mosques where the law is taken seriously, women are taught that when they venture out of doors, they are to cover themselves -- certainly the head, preferably the face and hands. Why? The prophet valued modesty. In the street, they are not to speak, and if they happen to make eye contact with men to whom they are not related, they are to cut it off looking into the pavement. The eyes are the window to the soul, say the imams -- and not only in Yemen. To hold a strange man's gaze, it is thought, is like being pierced by a poison arrow. All women who pursue their studies learn, sooner or later, that their fathers and their husbands are to be their protectors in the world of this life -- the dunia. Women who want to explore the earthly plane on their own, say the imams, mustn't. If they leave the family home without a protector, they will be cursed by the angels of god for each minute of their absence.

It shouldn't be surprising, under the circumstances, that Roshonara Chaudhry ended up at home and alone as her knowledge of Islam deepened. Nor should it be assumed that aloneness for her meant unhappiness. She was certainly busy -- she had downloaded, she told police, "over a hundred hours" of Awlaki lectures. There would have been satisfactions for her in this course of self-study. By cutting myself off, the thinking goes, by touching no one, by making no eye contact, by adhering to the letter of Islamic law, I will transcend the lowness of this world (and the mean people who control it). I will earn respect. Many female students think: I will respect and love.

When Awlaki's blog was at the height of its popularity, the keynote of the place was love -- not hate, as the English tabloid writers seem to think. This love could be found day in and day out, flourishing in the commentary section and sprinkled generously through the posts of the blogger himself.

Whenever Awlaki was feeling sentimental about the distance that separated him (in Yemen) from his former mates (in America) he used to send them greetings which read more or less like love letters. In May of 2008, he wrote:

I would like to tell all of the brothers out there whom I personally know and whom I spent memorable time with: Assalamu alaykum and insha'Allah I will never forget you.

As for the other brothers and sisters whom he hadn't met:

I still feel a bond with them and I love them for the sake of Allah because they have chosen to follow Islam: Assalamu alaykum, and if we don't meet in this world then we ask Allah to make us of those who would meet while reclining on the thrones of Paradise.

The fans responded frankly:

I love u for da sake of Allah ya Akhii [brother], wrote Ismail.
Dear imam: my beloved brother and teacher in Islaam, it is always pleasing to hear from you to know you are well, wrote al-Afghanee.
I love this blog so much, for so many reasons, wrote Usman Akhtar.

Of course, this love for the sake of Allah was, when it came down to it, a kind of internet love. In over four years of study, in Islamic schools in Yemen, in other Middle Eastern countries, and in informal Koran groups in Europe, I have not met a single Muslim who imagines that this is what love should be. Nor for that matter have I met students who hope to wait for the thrones of paradise. These are young people with almost zero access to the opposite sex. The people I was praying and fasting with wanted love -- physical, platonic, anything -- now.

When I was a student in an Islamic school, the thing that most discouraged me about the system to which my fellow students were entrusting themselves was that it gave them terrible advice. How should an unmarried man express his sexual feelings? He shouldn't. Instead he should fast. How should young people vent their outrage at politicians? They shouldn't. Outrage is an unseemly emotion. What if a man wishes to take a second wife? The first wife must acquiesce. The prophet allowed polygamy. To struggle against that which the prophet condoned is to struggle against Islam itself. This is forbidden.

Around and around the logic goes.

If Awlaki really wants to help the ummah, the global body of believers, as he says he does, there is a single change in mosque traditions on which he could insist. The change would make a world of difference for his fans -- and possibly for everyone else, too.
The collective prayer, which men are required to attend, is, in addition to a five minute meeting with god, an occasion to reflect on the evanescent nature of life's problems, and to relax a bit in the warm embrace of the community. Too many women (certainly all the women of Yemen) are discouraged from observing this tradition.

Anwar, ya akhi, if you're listening: insist that women be required to attend the collective prayers -- in the same halls, in the same rows, using the same ablution water as the men. Look, it won't kill anyone. Mahsa'allah, allow the intermingling to go further. This won't kill anyone either. It will, however, make your troubled fans -- of whom Roshonara Chaudhry is hardly the only one, as we both know -- a little less lonely. It might also make them a little less dependant on internet love. Try it, akhi. You will be promoting global affection. Surely this is a good and proper Islamic thing?