Cliff May

It is a paradox of modern times: We are committed to diversity yet have enormous difficulty imagining people who actually are different. Americans and Europeans prize peace and, on that basis, assume peace has become a universal value. The West has lost the will for power and thirst for glory – the very phrases sound archaic – so most of us assume no other nations seek to conquer and dominate. And because we are willing to compromise, we are confident others would settle for a half loaf rather than killing and being killed in pursuit of the whole.

Lack of imagination leads to the conclusion that all conflicts can be resolved -- if only we’d explain ourselves better, show others respect, address grievances, and offer more generous concessions. But this conclusion is erroneous. Anwar al-Awlaki – the al-Qaeda cleric and commander killed by a Hellfire missile last week -- provides a vivid example.

Awlaki was as American as spinach pie, a poster-child, or so it seemed, for multiculturalism. He was born in New Mexico, the son of a Fulbright scholar who went on to earn his doctorate and serve as Yemen’s minister of agriculture and chancellor of two universities.

When Awlaki was 7, his father took him back to Yemen, a place where, for countless centuries, tribe has fought tribe, a place where the national pastime is chewing khat, a plant with amphetamine-like qualities. The poorest country in the Arab world, it borders on Saudi Arabia, among the richest. One can argue that Americans have enriched Saudis; one cannot argue that Americans have impoverished Yemenis.

At 18, Awlaki returned to America. He studied engineering at Colorado State University and became president of the Muslim Student Association. Later, he earned a master’s in Education Leadership – a quintessentially modern American discipline -- from San Diego University. In 1993 he spent a summer abroad – training in Afghanistan with the mujahideen who broke free of Soviet shackles thanks to assistance from the United States.

By 1996, Awlaki was leading a small mosque in San Diego. Five years later, he had moved to suburban Washington, D.C., where he was named imam of the Dar al-Hijra mosque, one of America’s largest centers of Islamic worship. He also became the Muslim chaplain at George Washington University. A few weeks prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, he was invited to preach in the U.S. Capitol. One month after the attacks, The New York Times described him as representing “a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.”

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.