A few days ago, I received a bumper sticker in the mail that stated: “Resist Hate.” Although I agree with its mandate, I had some trepidation about displaying it for fear that it might engender in other drivers the very same emotion it suggests we rebuff. The whole experience got me thinking: Have our times gotten that bad?
Not unlike other periods in our history, the 21st century is witness to a competition among dramatically divergent ideologies for the hearts and minds of our citizenry. For the young, this has almost become a rite of passage. During my college years, I recall how friends flirted with, and sometimes succumbed to, various narratives such as Marxism, libertarianism and even Maoism. But there is something markedly darker and more troubling this time, and that is the power of the internet.
Millions of people, for example, follow Alex Jones. Mr. Jones has repeatedly stated that he believes the Sandy Hook, Orlando and Boston massacres were all hoaxes. He claimed that Hillary Clinton surrogates were molesting children out of a pizza shop, and that the government controls the weather. Ironically, he recently called his ex-wife “unstable” in court papers filed in the midst of their custody battle. If she’s “unstable,” can you imagine his mental state?
The internet is not the playground of the extreme right alone; it’s also a tool for militants who misrepresent an entire religion to fit their perverse narrative. These people are homegrown Americans, not foreign invaders.
One such person is Anwar Al-Aulaqi. Like so many people who have been radicalized during this century, he was born in 1971 and raised in America. His is an especially important case since it was his ability to communicate in a convincing and seemingly earnest style that produced the propaganda videos blamed for the creation of hundreds of homegrown radicals. Peter Bergen’s fascinating book, “The United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists,” makes a compelling argument that our main threat is not from a foreign entity but from our own inability to understand what is going on in the minds of our youth.
Anwar Al-Aulaqi, a New Mexico native, attended school at Colorado State University. He was a talented preacher as well as a self-absorbed narcissist. His ability to appeal to young listeners led to important positions at growing mosques in San Diego and Virginia.
The eventual radicalization of Anwar Al-Aulaqi began in earnest when he attended a conference in London and associated with extremists who held an anti-West worldview. However, the United States’ actions also dramatically accelerated the process. The needless invasion of Iraq by President George Bush was perhaps the most disastrous foreign policy blunder in our history and fed into the narrative that we are against all Muslims. It is estimated that this one act turned the number of self-proclaimed anti-west radicals from a few hundred to many thousands.
Later, the events at the Abu Ghraib prison, the establishment of Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and the killing of innocent people by drone strikes provided further evidence supporting the narrative that we are anti-Muslim.
Anwar Al-Aulaqi was a master at viciously distorting the principles of Islam for his own purposes. Jihad, for example, had originally signified a legitimate act of self-defense. Now, it has become synonymous with an act of terrorism. Like the most skilled attorney weaving a compelling summation, he laid out the choices facing all Muslims—you either accept defeat and flee, or you wage a jihad, which, in his mind, justified any insane act of violence.
Anwar Al-Aulaqi was eventually killed in a President Obama-ordered drone strike. Yet, his internet videos continued to convert hundreds of our impressionable youth to his hateful cause. Since his death in 2011, thankfully, no one else has emerged with the same ability to effectively recruit as he did.
At the end of 2016, ISIS seemed to be losing the ground war and things were looking up. This was until our new president initiated a ban on immigration from Muslim countries. The ban was announced as he candidly admitted that he didn’t know “what the hell is going on?” As a result of his actions, the efforts of mainstream Muslim leaders to convince their young followers that the West really isn’t against them was dealt a severe blow. Perhaps Sen. John McCain put it best: “We fear the executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism…our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”
Perhaps it’s time to join Sen. McCain as he stands by the principles of tolerance and religious freedom that once made our country truly great.
As for me, the sticker is going on my car today!