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.