In 1977, at the bar mitzvah of his son, Nick, journalist and author Milton Viorst squirmed as the rabbi delivered a stormy sermon about Arabs, castigating them as a people for killing young Jewish boys. Seated somewhere in the audience, Viorst was well aware, was his son’s close friend, Ali al-Timimi, the American-born son of Iraqi émigrés and the only Muslim in the room. Deeply embarrassed, Viorst found himself hoping that Ali, an adolescent after all, would be too bored or distracted to pay attention to the rabbi’s declamations.
Just after the boys entered high school, Ali moved to Saudi Arabia with his parents, who had each obtained lucrative positions there in government and academia. Nick Viorst’s relationship with Ali faded, as youthful friendships so often do, into a pleasant memory.
Until last year. One day, Nick telephoned his father with a startling message: he had read in the newspaper that Ali had been sentenced to life in prison, charged by the FBI with recruiting fellow Muslims to an anti-American jihad network in the wake of 9/11. He was, the prosecutor claimed, a “rock star” of Islamic fundamentalism, a “kingpin of hate” who had used his religious authority and charisma to lure his followers into clandestine military operations against the United States.
Viorst was shocked. How, he wondered, could Ali, a kid who grew up wearing McDonald’s T-shirts and baseball caps, who enjoyed beers and rock concerts, who seemed, in other words, so wholly American, have gone on, in the span of three decades, to become an enemy of the state?
It was more than a hypothetical question for Viorst. A prominent journalist who had written copiously about the Middle East and the Arab world (his most recent book is Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West), Viorst saw in Ali’s arrest a confluence of the personal and the professional, a story about radical Islam, centering on a man who had once been a welcome guest in his own house. It was, he realized, a story he had to write.
What ensued, Viorst admits in retrospect, was the most difficult reporting he had ever faced as a journalist. Secluded by the government in a maximum-security facility, Ali was unavailable for questioning. Most of Ali’s friends preferred to remain silent, fearing the repercussions that might come from criticizing the government. Working mainly with official records, then—from Ali’s past speeches to the government’s indictment—Viorst tried to recreate the path that had led Ali from his schooldays with Nick to the burning scarlet letter of a being convicted as a terrorist.
The more Viorst learned, however, the more troubling the questions that presented themselves. While Ali had almost certainly made some disturbing statements—advising a small group of his followers to leave America and become holy warriors in Kashmir, Chechnya, or Afghanistan—he never advocated or pursued action against the United States. Viorst was also troubled by some of the strategies pursued by Ali’s prosecutorial team, from disregarding testimony on the grounds that Islam allows its adherents to lie, to interpreting a penchant for paintball—a sport favored by some of Ali’s followers—as clear evidence of violent intentions.
In his June 2006 article in The Atlantic, Viorst addresses these questions by constructing an intricate mosaic of theology, politics, and grand human drama. He also raises a question of his own: are Muslims in post-9/11 America being treated fairly under the law?
I spoke to him by telephone on April 10.
So many Americans are familiar with the stereotype that Islam ends up drawing its followers into violent fanaticism and anti-Western thinking. How might Ali’s case speak to these sentiments? Is it a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy?
Well, I think Ali’s case is very much a demonstration of where we as a culture, we as a government, have gotten sucked in the vortex created by 9/11. Ali was not treated as an individual in our society. Every person who is accused of a crime, or every person who walks the streets, has the right to a presumption of innocence. But Ali was treated as a member of a suspect segment of society, and wound up, incomprehensibly, with a life sentence. We played very loosely with American process and American tradition.
Ali received some of his Islamic education in Medina, where Saudi-brand Wahabbism prevails. Do you believe that this exposure determined his life’s course?
We’d probably need a psychiatrist to answer such questions. Clearly, the Ali I knew when he was a kid, friendly with my son Nicholas, showed, in my judgment, no signs of extremism. I was certainly surprised by the course Ali’s life took—but then, I sometimes wonder about the course my own life ended up taking, and I have been acquainted with myself for a very long time. So I don’t know why his particular case unfolded that way. All you can do is look at the evidence and chart it, but you can’t say what was in his head.
That aside, I do have some serious problems with the course Saudi Arabia has taken. I think that during all those decades when we were preoccupied with the dangers of communism, we might have given some thought to the dangers presented by Islamic extremism, which we didn’t. We never paid very much attention while the Saudis were spending a very substantial proportion of the very large fortune they earned from oil on building schools and mosques throughout the Islamic world—and outside the Islamic world, even in the Western world. Wahabbism isn’t necessarily a violent doctrine, but because it is rather extreme, it can tip easily into violence. I think that’s what happened with Osama Bin Laden.
But Islam isn’t the only source of this problem. We’re talking about two cultures that have been in a posture of confrontation for many, many centuries. I’ve just finished writing a book about the 1,400-year rivalry between Islamic civilization and Western civilization. It’s not just about Islam; it’s about Islam and Christianity being two highly evangelistic religions, both seeking to promote the power of their civilization. Christianity and Islam are pretty much mirror images in that respect. What’s happening right now, in my judgment, is the latest chapter in a 1,400-year-old rivalry between two cultures, not just between two religions.
That intercultural struggle seemed to play out in Ali’s life. The most curious thing for me about him, as he’s portrayed in your piece, is that there almost seem to be two of him. For most of the story, he’s a man struggling to practice dispassionate, modern science and orthodox Islam at the same time. Then, a few days after 9/11, he gives a speech declaring that the attacks might augur the imminence of the end of days, and that his followers should consider leaving America and practicing jihad as holy war. What, in your opinion, happened?