Age of the Facebook Fatwah

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U.S. law enforcement connects Awlaki to several violent attacks on Americans, including the Ft. Hood shootings, the attempted bombing of a Northwest flight approaching Detroit, and the Times Square bomber. Awlaki’s terrorist record earned him a unique distinction: in April, for the first time in the nearly 250-year history of the United States, the government placed him on a “kill list,” making him the only U.S. citizen to be condemned to death by his own government without benefit of a legal process. Both the military and the intelligence services are targeting him; as one unnamed official puts it, “he’s in everybody’s sights.”

This extraordinary trading of fatwas prompts several observations. In response, his father initiated in August, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, a lawsuit against the U.S. government that challenges the targeting of Awlaki as illegal.

First, Norris and all Americans currently live under the “Rushdie Rules,” which punish whoever disrespects Islam, Muhammad, or the Koran. Make fun of Muhammad and you’re on your own. Local and national politicians had nothing to say about her plight. Journalists, usually keen to protect one of their own, went silent. No organization sprung up to raise money for her protection.

Second, the internet stands at the heart of this entire episode. It turned Norris’ jokey idea into an international incident, brought news of it to Awlaki in remote Yemen, and allowed him to direct his American operatives. A mere twenty years ago, none of this could have taken place.

Third, the internet and Islamism have together privatized war. At will, an American living in Yemen can disrupt the life of an American in Washington State. The U.S. government has declared war on a citizen.

Fourth, Awlaki is a plain terrorist, sowing death and disruption, whereas the U.S. government’s “kill list” is defensive. One is evil, the other is moral.

Fifth, why the inconsistency, whereby the U.S. government permits itself “targeted killings” but denies this tool to Israel?

Finally, Awlaki stands at an unprecedented crossroads of death declarations, with his targeting Norris even as the U.S. government targets him. This is as startling in an Islamic context as it is in an American one. The boundaries of warfare are being stretched in novel, strange, and frightening ways.

Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2010 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.

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  • watchful

    Every state needs to pass the law that protects against these fatwas and lawsuits so that the person being sued can counter-sue and take some of their money and give them something to think about before they decide to sue. Also, to sue against the emotional distress caused by a death fatwa.

    These people who do these threats and lawsuits are so arrogant they really make me sick.

    • John Beatty

      How, exactly, would this fantasy statue work? This guy is hiding in a place where no one can get at him, supported by people with nuclear weapons. How would a mere court affect him?

      Why do you want to create more laws that you can't enforce? To "send a message" to those who want you dead or converted to their ideology and don't care which?

      The Internet and "islamism" didn't "privatize war." War has always been a very private matter between combatants, ideologues and those who just get in the way. Survival, the root of warfare, is a very private, and a very public matter, both at the same time.

      • den

        The Israelies could find him. We could put a bounty on these folks and bring them in. Doubt it would make much difference. They are blinded by hate.

  • BS77

    Will men in dirty pajamas ever conquer the west? The people want to know.

    • bdouglasaf1980

      As long as good men continue to do nothing the answer is yes. They could conquer or at the least cause major damage just like a private and painter brought Europe to it's knees.

  • philgee

    I don't buy this "We can't find him." stuff. We can spot a goat, . . . didn't one of our presidents drop a missile on Gaddafi's digs, and didn't Gaddafi pipe down, . . .

  • USMCSniper

    Should some deranged Iman ever issue a Fatwa against me to be hunted down and killed, it will be a signal to me to become the hunter not the hunted. And I would be justified as they have chosen the rules of the game.

  • Rock Nelson

    Obama is a coward. I defecate on islam. Come get me.

  • Lalla

    WATCHFUL – what kind of a proposition is that? Are you in your 5 senses? You can't "outlaw" a death threat! To attempt to do so is like telling criminals it's unlawful to get a gun. A "fatwa" is not a "formal" death threat with a contract full of rules, deadlines, schedules, etc. If someone wants your head, they're not going to make you sign that you agree!!

    ROCK – Right on. I'm actually repositioning everything in y bathroom so that when I "go" I'm facing Mecca.