Anwar al-Awlaki’s Death and the Park51 Controversy

I was not  at all sympathetic to the recent messages coming from Anwar al-Awlaki. Neither when he questioned how my conscience could be at rest by being both American and Muslim nor when appeared to encourage young Muslims to take up arms against innocent people.

Yet, I can’t help feeling that in the rush to kill him without any sort of due process or trial, we as Americans have lost something important by sacrificing yet another principle preserved in the Constitution.

And being a part of this post-9/11 generation, I can’t help but feel as another election year approaches, with the president’s approval ratings in the tank, that the administration might be looking for another Osama-style notch in the belt and fleeting bump in the polls.

Learning about the sources of Islamic law, the Quran and hadith, reminds me of my love for the United States Constitution with its corresponding rights and responsibilities. One can be a strict or loose constructionist in both religion and politics.

It’s a strange thing, these multiple facets of one’s identity. I am both Muslim and American, the child of immigrants and so was Awlaki. It’s human nature to feel a sort of kinship with those who share part of your identities no matter how loosely. I’m from New York and I feel a special happiness when I encounter other people from my home state.

As a human being, part of the worldwide human family, I am saddened by injustice and the loss of innocent life. Unfairly, perhaps, even more so when the aggrieved parties have something in common with me like national, ethnic, or religious identity.

I was more deeply affected by the AbdulMuttalib affair because he was a young Nigerian Muslim trying to come closer to his faith and trying however misguidedly to put his faith into action. He, like me, is a child of the West, both part of it and in other ways distinct from it.

His story reminded me of my own story or that of my cousins in the UK. I started a post last year called The Road Not Taken but left it unfinished as these sentiments are easily misunderstood.

I watched the insightful PBS Frontline documentary The Man Behind the Mosque about Sharif El-Gamal and the Park51 project in lower Manhattan and the controversy it attracted last year.

It’s very unfortunate that only now after more than a year has passed that we finally get to hear from one of the project’s main backers in a nuanced portrait that humanizes El-Gamal. The film even manages to make him seem likeable and recognizable as the average American real estate developer next door. He could easily be your neighbor or your colleague at work.

I supported the community center project then and even more so now. While recognizing the pain of the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, I cannot accept the wrong argument that in a post-9/11 America we should sacrifice even more of the Constitution.

I don’t find the arguments about proximity to be credible rather they seem to mask a much deeper bias. How far is far enough? And if the issue is truly about nearness to Ground Zero what about the mosque protests around the country, is Murfreesboro, Tennessee far enough?

As odious as that traveling protest circus otherwise known as the Westboro Baptist Church is by protesting outside of the funerals of military service members, I couldn’t help but grudgingly agree with the Supreme Court decision that they had the right to do so.

And in a flash of brillance last summer, President Obama reminded me of one reason why I love this country when he said:

But let me be clear.  As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.  (Applause.)  And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.  This is America.  And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.  The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.  The writ of the Founders must endure.

For a moment I felt this was hope we could really believe in, but of course, the moment like so many before soon passed. But after watching the film, I think I might just make my first donation toward the realization of the Park 51 project and I would encourage you to do the same.


  1. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I read that the Park51 centre had opened last week – what form did it open in? Given how ambitious the project was, how could it open so soon? Have they abandoned all the funky building and swimming pool plans?

  2. Wa alaykum salaam Yusuf,

    I’m not aware that the building has opened as intended. The Frontline documentary which aired this past Tuesday indicated how desperate their fundraising situation is. Perhaps, you might have heard that the World Trade Center Memorial opened in the last couple of weeks?

    However, Muslims are and have been praying in the building there for quite some time. But the larger fully renovated community center project has not moved beyond the initial planning phases. And honestly, I’m not sure it will in the near future as there is little broad based support for the project.

    Many are feeling miffed that they were not consulted prior to the project launch or want to distance themselves from the poisonous debate, which ensued last summer.

    Both the newly opened Ground Zero memorial and Park51 are on my to-do list for my next trip to New York so I’ll let you know what I find out, insha’Allah.

  3. Should our Constitution be used to measure our actions against hostile citizens of other countries? (I know, this begs other questions, and there are caveats, too. I’m just making it as black and white as I can.) My take is, if we can, sure – do unto others, etc – , but we shouldn’t lose sleep over it. Do you think that’s harsh of me?

  4. Bill, ideally, I think the Constitution should be used as measure in all of our public actions, otherwise, we set a dangerous precedent of inconsistency if not downright hypocrisy regarding our values. Wars, of course, are a tricky matter.

    I don’t think Al-Awlaki should have been targeted for assassination when there were legal means also available. I don’t feel as though the Obama administration has made the legal rationale for its position clear.

    However, I can’t say I lost sleep over the targeting of former Nazi war criminals or those involved in the Munich Olympics attack by Israeli agents. That being said, I’m not in favor of extrajudicial killings as a matter of policy because there doesn’t seem to be any checks or balances to reign in the potential for abuse.

  5. > But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right
    > to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.

    but do you really have the same right? Can you really pray salah in an airport lounge without freaking out the people around you and getting Homeland Security to subject you to all sorts of searches and checks? Compare this to a Christian kneeling down in the airport lounge, holding the cross in his hands and clasping his hands together.

  6. Aly,

    Yes, you really can and I do frequently pray by the gate area when I travel as well as everyday when I worked at the airport. If people get freaked out that’s their business. The best way to alleviate fears is by knowing your rights and simply interacting normally with your fellow travelers.

    In talking to many Muslims, the fear factor is highly overblown for most. Yes, inconvenient non-random screenings do happen but it’s not that bad overall.

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