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?

Whatever his achievements in science, Ali was known to most Muslims as a preacher of the doctrines of Salafi Islam. His mission was dawa—that is, propagation of the faith. His reputation was as a teacher of theology, moreover, not as a political advocate. Dozens of his talks are available on the Internet in text and in audio format. They contain little about Arab concerns with the Arab-Israeli wars, the rivalries between the Arab states, the problems faced by Muslims living in the West, or even the war in Iraq. Rather, they reveal a man who reflects deeply on the Islamic vision of Judgment Day, prophecy, the nature of the divine, and fiqh —Islamic jurisprudence)—subjects with which he grappled in Medina and in his private reading.

Much as Ali regarded himself as religious, he also considered himself a rational man. He spoke of being influenced by Sheikh Jafar Idris, a Salafi scholar who had come to northern Virginia from Sudan and taught him to use “rational methods” to defend Islam. His rationality, however, did not interfere with his rejection of reform in traditional Islamic ideals and behavior. In these matters, Ali’s outlook was profoundly fundamentalist.

Ali never departed from his belief that Islam offered mankind more than Western values did, even in science. “By Allah’s grace, we possess something the West does not,” he declared in a lecture titled “Muslims and the Study of the Future,” given in London in 1996. “We have the true source of knowledge, the Koran and the Sunna, something which is inerrant. And therefore, because of that true source of knowledge, our ability to think and our ability to interpret is more correct than theirs.” Similarly, he envisaged Islam as the key to social progress. In a 1993 talk at Purdue University titled “Islam: The Cure for Societal Ills,” he declared that among the non-Muslim countries, “the United States is probably the best society known to humanity in terms of its justice… But [its] problems … are insurmountable in my opinion because of the lack of the application of the sharia.”

In 1995, upset that President Clinton had named secular Muslim women to represent the United States at the World Conference on Women, in Beijing, Ali persuaded the Islamic Assembly of North America, a Salafi society, to send him as head of a dissenting delegation. The Beijing meeting was designed to promote women’s rights worldwide; Ali argued that historically the West was more oppressive than Islam to women, and that sharia offered them more than did American-style feminism or the United Nations’ declarations. Ali’s delegation held press conferences, passed out tracts, and gave interviews to the international press. Both Ali and Ziyana delivered lectures; hers were circumspect, his were outspoken, particularly in denouncing lesbianism. Press reports indicate that, whatever their impact, Ali and his group created a buzz in Beijing.

Like orthodox thinkers of other faiths, Ali conveyed great certainty in his religious judgments. Not only did he reject the doctrines of Islamic modernism but, as a Sunni, he also showed no sympathy for Sufism and Shiism, alternate forms of Islam. Though personally at ease with Jews and Christians, he expressed great disdain for the belief systems of Judaism and Christianity. Like most Arabs, he perceived Islam and the West as historic adversaries. Still, he was not inflammatory. On the contrary, his words conveyed a sense that these rivalries, being spiritual in nature, would not be resolved in our time, and surely not by bloodshed.

In the late 1990s, with Muslims settling in northern Virginia in growing numbers, Ali began drawing a steady audience. Sheikh Jafar, his mentor, had opened his home to Friday-night prayer services, then founded a storefront mosque that he named Dar al-Arqam, after one of the first Islamic schools founded by the Prophet Muhammad. Ali, sometimes dressed in Islamic robes, lectured there in English, usually presenting lessons on Salafiya. Typically, a hundred or so worshippers heard him. Many were converts, black and white; some were migrants from Islamic lands; most were professionals or technicians. Ali came to know a few of them but was generally too busy with his scientific work and diverse studies to cultivate real friendships with any.

It is clear Ali did not know that a dozen or so of the Dar al-Arqam worshippers met on weekends to play paintball, a widely popular rough-and-tumble game resembling small-unit military exercises. Paintball Web sites make much of the ferocity of the game, often played in organized leagues; they advertise the sale of protective masks, goggles, and helmets, and a range of paintball guns. Players maneuver in teams through fields and woods, and shoot paint-filled pellets at one another until a winner is declared.

But paintball was more than a game for the Dar al-Arqam players. It was an opportunity to entertain the brave visions of jihad, to be waged on behalf of beleaguered Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya. Some of the players also owned firearms and on weeknights met to watch videos of combat between Muslims and infidels. A few went further, devising plans for military training in Pakistan, at camps founded with U.S. help in the 1980s by an organization called Lashkar-e-Taiba, meaning “army of the pure.” LET, whose founding aim was to promote anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan, later redirected its effort to Pakistan’s conflict with India over Kashmir. Ali, who knew nothing of the firearms or the videos, learned of the paintball fantasies only after 9/11, and once expressed some puzzlement to the players over why they did not get more easily into shape by playing soccer.

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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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