The Education of Ali Al-Timimi

Describing him as a “rock star” of Islamic fundamentalism in the United States, the government sent an American Muslim scientist to prison for life. But has justice been served?

Back in the late seventies Ali al-Timimi used to hang around our hou­se with my son Nick. They were twelve or thirteen, classmates at a very liberal, heavily Jewish, private day school that was founded by New Dealers when the public schools in Washington were still segregated. Small and slight for their age, both were outsiders. They went to rock concerts and drank beer together, and to this day Nick acknowledges the comfort the friendship brought him as they faced the burdens of intruding adolescence.

Soon after Nick entered high school, Ali went off with his parents to Saudi Arabia, and the two never met again. A year ago Nick called me to say he had learned from the newspapers that Ali had been sentenced to life in prison for what the FBI described as recruiting followers after 9/11 to prepare for an anti-American jihad. Characterized by the supervising U.S. attorney as a “kingpin of hate,” Ali was charged specifically with conspiring to induce eleven young Muslims in northern Virginia, most of them American, to fight with the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Over the next few months I tried to find out more about Ali, now forty-two years old. Piecing together the mosaic of his life was not easy. Not only was he himself in prison, beyond my reach, but the Muslim men who knew him, intimidated by the anti-Muslim atmosphere that has pervaded the country since 9/11, were all unwilling to talk. President Bush, during the recent fuss over allowing a Dubai company to run terminals at the nation’s major ports, argued that the United States must not convey to the world an impression that it is biased against Muslims. But among Muslims I encountered, not a single one would say that it is not.

The news of Ali’s case brought to mind the incident that my wife and I most vividly associated with him. It was at Nick’s bar mitzvah, in 1977. Ali was among the friends Nick had invited. It had not occurred to us that he was the only Muslim among them. But we were not prepared for the anti-Arab diatribe that the rabbi, a fervid Zionist, delivered as his sermon. I still recall squirming at the rabbi’s words, while hoping the teenagers sitting together in the front row would be too bored to pay attention. Nearly thirty years later, in my quest to understand Ali, I learned how futile that hope had been.

In American Muslims: A Community Under Siege, by Ahmed Yousef, a book published before Ali’s imprisonment, Ali described what the incident had meant to him: “We entered the synagogue and all the boys, Jewish and non-Jewish, placed yarmulkes on their heads in accordance with Jewish rituals. After the rituals, the rabbi began to address the audience. He began to attack the Arabs by saying they sought to kill young Jewish boys. I was offended that I would be associated with seeking to murder my Jewish classmate and one of my closest friends.”

Ali was also quoted in the book as saying that after the service I came to him and apologized for the rabbi’s statements; I do not remember that part of it. He told Yousef that the whole episode had made, in Yousef’s words, a “lasting impact” on him, forcing him to recognize that, whoever he was, “in the larger world, issues of his ethnicity and religion would be something by which people were going to make judgments about him.”

Paradoxically, the household in which Ali was raised was not particularly ethnic or religious. His parents moved to the United States from Baghdad for professional reasons, in 1962, and made up their minds never to go back. Mehdi, his father, was a lawyer who worked in Iraq’s embassy and, in his free time, obtained an M.A. in law at George Washington University. Sahera, his mother, was a university student when they arrived, and she took pride in telling me that she had acquired three master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in psychology. She then went on to a distinguished career in mental-health education. “We were very ambitious,” she told me. “We vowed to make something of ourselves. That’s the main thing we taught the children.”

Ali was born in 1963, and his brother, Zaid, three years later. Photos in the family album show them growing up, like other American children, with Halloween costumes and Christmas trees surrounded by toys. Ali wears a baseball cap in one snapshot, a McDonald’s T-shirt in another. At one of Ali’s birthday parties, Nick is in a picture with other classmates cheering as Ali blows out the candles on a cake. Ali’s mother told me that, though she and her husband were committed Muslims—she wore a veil until she was in high school, he recited daily prayers, neither of them drank alcohol—they spoke English, not Arabic, at home and did not push religious observance on the children. In photos in his late teens, Ali, already bearded, posed wearing an Islamic headdress. But in a biographical sketch written many years later, he recalled that even at age thirteen he did not know that Muslims everywhere face Mecca to pray.

Ali’s transformation began in 1978, when the al-Timimis took their sons to Saudi Arabia for an extended stay, to open them to their Islamic heritage. Ali’s father obtained a legal post in the Saudi Ministry of Transport; his mother was named to set up a department of psychological counseling at the University of Riyadh. For their sons, they chose a school that promised to combine rigorous instruction in Western academic disciplines with an introduction to Sunni Islam, the sect to which the family belonged. Most of the students, Ali has written, were offspring of the families of Western Muslims who worked in the kingdom.

In Ali’s first year, students memorized segments of the Koran, studied some Islamic law, and learned the correct performance of Islamic rituals. In the second, Ali came under the influence of a young Canadian convert, a graduate of the Islamic university at Medina, who offered him an understanding of the faith within the framework of Western culture. The version of Islam that Ali absorbed was called Salafiya, derived from salaf, the term attached to the three generations that followed the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. These generations are said to be Islam’s model of purity. Salafis, in emulating practices that go back to the roots of the faith, are much like the fundamentalists of other religions. They are not a sect, like Sunnis and Shiites, but a school of religious devotion. Ali brought this devotion with him when he returned to Washington in 1981 to begin college.

Still, it is not clear why Ali became a Salafi. The scar left on his memory by the rabbi’s anti-Arab rhetoric at Nick’s bar mitzvah represents at most an insight into his thinking. Now, locked away, he is not able to provide a better explanation. In Yousef’s profile, written in 2004, he says, “I left the United States in 1978 when Islam was at best a passing curiosity; I came back for college in 1981 when Islam after the Iranian revolution was now at the center of the news.” Elsewhere he cited a series of traumatic episodes within the Islamic world that upset him: the violent seizure of the holy mosque in Mecca, in 1979, by Islamic fanatics; Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in the same year; the intra- Muslim carnage of the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980. In Washington, Ali stepped up his study of Arabic and turned to the examination of Islam’s original sources to strengthen his beliefs. At the same time, he resolved to pass his Islamic learning along to others.

Ali enrolled in a pre-med program at a local university, but he probably devoted more time to his readings in Islam than to his coursework. Though a good student, he did not become a doctor after earning his degree; his mother blames an asthmatic condition that kept him out of the labs. But whatever the reason, he spent much of his time mixing with the new and often rival communities of Muslims—Arabs, Iranians, African-Americans—that were growing up around mosques in the Washington area. The Yousef book quotes him as saying, “Of course, I got caught up in the politics … I flirted with each group, only quickly to become disinterested in their rhetoric and what I perceived as their being out of touch with the questions being raised in America—about Islam and the Muslims.” He was instrumental in forming a study group exploring Salafiya. “In the end,” he said, “I was hungry for answers to the larger philosophical questions.” This hunger propelled him back to Saudi Arabia, in 1987, to increase his understanding of Islam.

For a year Ali explored the doctrines of Salafiya at the elite Islamic university in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad founded his religious community fourteen centuries ago. Being in Islam’s second-holiest city, the university attracts thousands of students from around the world. The Saudi government covered Ali’s tuition, along with his room and board, as it did for all the students there. The curriculum at Medina was aligned with Wahhabism, the politicized form of Salafiya, named for Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eighteenth-century zealot who fused his own puritanical theology with the political ambitions of the Saud tribe to found the monarchy that lasts to this day. Ali’s focus, however, was more on the theology than on the politics.

By now Ali’s Arabic was strong enough to carry him in the classroom. Moreover, his obvious ardor for the religion, combined with his being one of the few Americans in Medina, made him special and gave him access to some of Saudi Arabia’s leading Islamic thinkers. Most notable among them was Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, the blind sheikh who later, as grand mufti, the kingdom’s highest legal authority, would become the official interpreter and defender of Saudi Salafiya. Ali developed a strong attachment to bin Baz, in which his parents took pride. But they envisioned him in a secular career and urged him to return home. Had they not, it seems likely he would have stayed on far longer to pursue his religious calling.

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Milton Viorst has written six books on the Middle East. His most recent book is Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West (2006).

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