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The Education of Ali al-Timimi

Milton Viorst would like us to think that Salafism—one of the most rigid forms of Islam—isn’t all that extreme, and that Ali al-Timimi, the most devout and spiritual of young men, was able to separate the “religious” from the “political” (“The Education of Ali al-Timimi,” June Atlantic). No mean feat, since Islam itself recognizes no such division. He would also like us to know that, although affiliated with Wahabbism, the radical Islam of the Saudis, al-Timimi had absolutely no interest in waging violent jihad. In fact, insists Viorst, taking the word of al-Timimi’s friend, he was more intrigued by the concept of ijtihad—the desire to revise Islamic law.

But al-Timimi’s words, quoted at length in the article, point us in a completely different direction. Rather than wanting to “reform” Islam, he seemed eager to assert its primacy over all other religions, and to see sharia—Islamic law—take precedence over man-made law. How could he not, committed as he was to the tenets of Salafism?

Mindy G. Alter
Toronto, Ontario

I last sat with Ali al-Timimi shortly before the announcement of the verdict in his trial. He had shown up unexpectedly to attend the celebration of a newborn child in our community. We were joined by another Muslim, like myself an American professional converted to Islam in midlife. We shared lamb and rice, and al-Timimi spoke softly with us, shrugging off speculation regarding the impending outcome of his trial. Certainly, he wanted to return to his studies and to teaching, to his work and to his family, but he was pleased with whatever his Lord had chosen for him. He politely indulged our questions and concern, yet repeatedly turned the conversation from the trial to his worries over how America had changed and the great difficulties he saw for all Americans. The America of his youth, spent in part in the home of Milton Viorst, was, he feared, much threatened.

My first contact with al-Timimi had been ten years earlier. Though I had been Muslim for only two years then, I was familiar with the thinking and teaching of many in the Muslim world. As the voice of al-Timimi poured forth from a cassette of one of his lectures, I realized that here was something different. I could not find the posturing of the mystic, the rant of the fanatic, the self-indulgent intellectual ramblings of the freethinker. Nor could I find politics, current events, or obsession with conflict. Rather, the impression was of a tongue struggling in vain to get the knowledge out—pure religious knowledge. It was an ecstatic experience, a treasured memory, and, as it turned out, one shared by many in the English-speaking Muslim community.

Abdullah Brown
Herndon, Va.

A fair and impartial jury found unanimously that the United States proved all the charges against Ali al-Timimi beyond a reasonable doubt. The verdict was based on relevant, reliable, and overwhelming evidence of his guilt. This evidence was presented in the course of a trial at which al-Timimi was represented by vigorous and skilled attorneys. The trial was presided over by a fair and impartial judge—who later upheld all the verdicts against all of al-Timimi’s challenges. If The Atlantics readers had seen and heard the evidence introduced at trial, they would have a very different view of this case and of al-Timimi than what Viorst depicted. That is precisely why these decisions are left to juries, guided by judges, rather than to journalists.

Chuck Rosenberg
U.S. Attorney, Eastern District of Virginia
Alexandria, Va.

Milton Viorst replies:

Mr. Rosenberg reminds me of when my friend Barbara told her family, forty years ago, that my colleague Steve had proposed marriage to her, and her mother’s comment was, “Just a journalist?” Since then Steve and I, along with our wives, have often laughed at the line. Mr. Rosenberg makes me laugh again. Among the responsibilities of journalists is watching out for the excesses of public officials, from which injustice can result, as I think it did in the al-Timimi case. Mr. Rosenberg has his duties; I have mine.

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