U.K. Muslims Struggle With Cleric's Radicalization

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/121880241/121880216" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

British Muslims knew and admired U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki as a moderate and a role model for their children. But his messages were becoming angrier and more aggressive toward the West, culminating in a statement praising the Fort Hood shooter as a hero.


Whether he is dead or alive, the case of Anwar al-Awlaki is a difficult one for many Muslims, and it's especially the case in Britain. Awlaki has been one of the few English speaking imams with a popular following.

As NPR's Rob Gifford reports, many of his followers in Britain are having a hard time reconciling what they know about him with new revelations.


Anwar al-Awlaki's sermons against the West had, for years, been growing increasingly hostile. Even so, he continued to be a favorite preacher with moderate Muslim groups in Britain. He's been the man behind many popular CDs and DVDs on complex Islamic subjects, which is what has made it so difficult for so many Muslims in Britain to believe he has become radicalized, and that he described the shooter at Ford Hood as a hero.

TARIQ RAMADAN: It's, for me, impossible, unbelievable I've supported that. It's just impossible.

GIFFORD: Tariq Ramadan is not some Internet conspiracy theorist. He's the professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University.

RAMADAN: To tell you the truth, having heard him, having followed his work, I doubt, deeply doubt that he is supporting what happened there. If this is the case, something happened he changed his mind. It could be also a psychological problem. It's wrong. But we all have to check the facts.

GIFFORD: Swiss-born Ramadan says he knows something about the need to check the facts. He was banned wrongly, he says, from entering the United States in 2004 because the U.S. government believed he supported Islamist extremism. Despite that, Ramadan was appointed to a chair at Oxford. So, is he an extremist? Has Oxford University been duped? Or has Tariq Ramadan been wrongly accused of being a militant? Who decides who's an extremist? There's no Muslim Pope to enforce orthodoxy.

With Anwar al-Awlaki, however, it was a lot clearer. His messages became angrier and more aggressive towards the West, culminating in his statement praising the Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hasan, as a hero. But the head of the Islamic Society of Britain Ahtesham Ali - who, like many Muslim groups, had invited Awlaki to Britain to speak - that was the final straw.

AHTESHAM ALI: We found the statement to be totally against Islam, and we're horrified. As I said, doubly horrified bearing in mind that we had invited Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki way in the past about seven, eight years ago when we felt we had to, number one, issue a statement; number two, be quite transparent as to us having invited him in the past and why we felt we had to remove ourselves from him; and number three, also, to let our own members and the community that this priest represents danger.

GIFFORD: But Ali says not all British groups have listened despite a host of apparently irrefutable proof from al-Awlaki's own mouth and his own Web site. Ahtesham Ali says the danger is that British Muslims still tend to circle the wagons when a Muslim leader is attacked.

A think tank in London called the Quilliam Foundation has recently been set up by two former jihadists who've renounced their militant ways and are trying to get others to do the same. Senior researcher at the foundation, James Brandon, says the discussion about Anwar al-Awlaki is just one part of a bigger debate of a community in total ferment.

JAMES BRANDON: Looking at the British Muslim scene, you get a real sense of anarchy, I think, in the last few years particularly because of the failure of al-Qaida in places like Iraq as well. You see much more (unintelligible) view in the Muslim community much more arguing, debating, about which is the right course. I think this is reflective of a great ideological, theological confusion.

GIFFORD: But, says Brandon, in some ways, confusion is good if it brings about a more considered nuanced approach to the issues.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.