Awlaki and the Arab autumn

By David Rohde
September 30, 2011

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

The death of Anwar al-Awlaki this morning is welcome news, but Washington policymakers should not delude themselves into thinking the drone that killed him is a supernatural antidote to militancy. Yes, drone strikes should continue, but the real playing field continues to be the aftermath of the Arab spring; namely vital elections scheduled for October in Tunisia and November in Egypt.

A series of outstanding stories by reporters from Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, have aptly laid out the stakes. Islamists are on the rise in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but an extraordinary battle is unfolding over the nature of Islam itself.

“At the center of the debates is a new breed of politician who has risen from an Islamist milieu but accepts an essentially secular state,” Anthony Shadid and David Kirkpatrick wrote in today’s New York Times. Common values, in other words, are emerging between the West and the Islamic world. These “post-Islamist” politicians argue that individual rights, democracy and economic prosperity are elements of an “Islamic state.”

Whether these politicians represent the most potent weapon ever fielded against militant Islam or a Trojan horse will emerge in the months and years ahead. More than any other figure, the new breed’s standard-bearer is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Pledging that conservative Islam is compatible with individual liberties, Erdogan holds the rise of his culturally conservative but economically liberal political party as a beacon for a new Middle East. Turkish critics, though, accuse Erdogan of a creeping authoritarianism masked by rapid economic growth.

For now, the “post-Islamists” should be taken at their word. The false Pax Americana of dictatorial regimes that once dominated the region is no longer viable. And the “post-Islamists” are a vast improvement over Awlaki and his ilk. For Awlaki and hard line Salafists, the only true “Islamic state” is one led by self-appointed clerics who rule by force and brutally regulate the minutia of everyday life.

At an astonishing rate across the Middle East, an internet-fueled communications revolution has implanted the ideals that the United States publicly espoused for decades, but privately failed to back. Washington is reaping a cultural amalgam that its rhetoric has slowly sown.

Recent opinion polls in Egypt show a desire for individual liberties while maintaining conservative Islamic culture, the electoral recipe that brought Erdogan to power in Turkey. A Gallup poll of Egyptians found that 96 percent of those polled supported freedom of speech and 75 percent favored freedom of religion. At the same time, more than 90 percent believed “Sharia” – or Islamic law – promotes justice for women, human rights, economic equality and a fair judicial system.

“Put simply, Egyptians seem to see no contradiction between the faith to which they adhere and the democratic ideals to which they aspire,” Dalia Mogahed, the director of the Abu Dhabi Gallup center wrote in an analysis of the polling. “Egypt tops the region in two things: Egyptians are the most likely to say Muslim progress requires democracy, and the most likely to say Muslim progress requires attachment to spiritual and moral values.”

“Working out the proper relationship between these two priorities,” Mogahed concludes, “will be the next phase of the revolution.”

The stakes in “the next phase of the revolution,” in fact, are enormous. If the “post-Islamists” are true to their word and respect electoral politics, their rise will represent a devastating blow to militant Islam. They will deliver the popular ideals of justice and accountability that hard line Islamists insist can only be emerge from clerical rule.

The West must not dismiss the “post-Islamists” as closet terrorists, nor blindly accept their saccharine speeches.  Instead, it should highlight, defend and promote the ideals that Americans and Egyptians share: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and justice for women. Culturally conservative Muslims should not be confused with terrorists.

That effort, of course, is a long, complicated and arduous one involving diplomacy, effective economic development and a new way of viewing Islam. The missile strike that killed Awlaki was instant and seemingly satisfying: American technology felled one of militant Islam’s most articulate spokesmen. But only electoral politics, economic growth and consistently applied American standards will render his words irrelevant.

Photo: Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, gives a religious lecture in an unknown location in this still image taken from video released by on September 30, 2011. REUTERS/


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

What I don’t understand is that the US is always mentioned as the saviour and the guardian and promoters of human rights.
I agree that social networks are American born. But is the message of freedom only generated from there, if even primarily? I wonder.
Another thing is that unfortunately, America (The US), does not bring only freedom in their package, they also bring addictions and abuse: Alcoholism, homosexuality, abortion, freedom of sex (i.e. prostitution) and free market and free enterprise.
I mean from the novice’s point of view, yes, the US looks like it has a great deal of achievement, but from the inside, divisions exist to know whether or not the way America has moved the last century is really and morally the right thing for humanity.
And I am not sure about that.
Unless I come from another planet, lost of people have already noticed that “White men” (it means Western, Occidental, nothing to do with the colour of the skin) have already damaged the world by physically, morally, spiritually, economically and politically abusing those countries and their people who trusted them. Those came, saw and conquered… and left the poor country even poorer, with less faith, with no religion but with hatred and fear.
“The mother was not dead yet that the neighbours were already sharing her clothes, her house and her bed between themselves.”

Posted by Phylka | Report as abusive

You can’t worship coins and God both. Even Jesus is said to have flipped over the tables of the money changers. Christians long ago turned their backs on the path of their very own prophet in favour of ‘economic wealth’.

If the muslims trade their beliefs for silver coins as the ‘west’ has then yes they can crawl forward with, er, ‘democracy’. However, if the Laws of God are to be followed there can be no ‘western’ type democracy. Muslims now have a choice…follow the beliefs of their prophet OR join the decadence of the ‘western democratic’ world. The choice is theirs.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

A “godless society” is not by necessity “decadent”. It is only considered so when viewed through the filter of religious zealotry.

Posted by gregbrew56 | Report as abusive

“At the same time, more than 90 percent believed “Sharia” – or Islamic law – promotes justice for women, human rights, economic equality and a fair judicial system [...] The West must not dismiss the “post-Islamists” as closet terrorists, nor blindly accept their saccharine speeches. Instead, it should highlight, defend and promote the ideals that Americans and Egyptians share: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and justice for women. Culturally conservative Muslims should not be confused with terrorists.”

This is satire, right?

Sharia is inherently biased against women, non-Muslims, homosexuals, etc. to whom it denies equal rights and in many lands, openly persecutes. Freedom of speech? Try criticizing Mohammed in Iran. Freedom of religion? Try practicing Christianity in Saudi Arabia.

93,000 Copts have fled Egypt since March fearing further discrimination and violence at the hands of those “post-Islamists”.

There is your “Arab Autumn”, Mr. Rohde.

Posted by StevenFeldman | Report as abusive


We had a time when the world was ruled by religion…it was called “the dark ages”….

All….I said “ALL” religions were born in a “time” and a “place”…they had historical significance for their time.

Most of you don’t want to hear it, but those who could read and write were few (kinda like today), and a few “radicals” who wanted to protest oppression of the time and communicate that to the few that could read, had to write in “code”, so to speak.

Most of the stories of all the holy books have one thing in common. They draw a black and white distinction between “right” and “wrong”…from their oppressed perspective of the historical time.

The only way to get people to listen (just like these days) is with sensationalism…and what better sensation to “motivate” than a deity?????

“He is watching…all seeing…watching you”.

If we were all “adult” enough to simply follow our conscience and not want to control others or negatively “affect” others, then we simply would not need a “shepard”…would we.

Posted by Opener | Report as abusive

The drones see all and here all. Pray to Allah but predators will here you first. God is all God is Good, America is great. Peace be with you. Peace from the middle east
regards NG

Posted by Proxyshow | Report as abusive

Killing these guys one at a time is not going to cut it. Letting them hid behind boarders is a mistake that was made years ago in Cambodia.
Politicians are not generals, unfortunately.

Posted by 324e34 | Report as abusive

Is it now “open season” on people who question pro-Israeli policy by the USA? Why not? Isn’t questioning policy “propaganda”?

For those who doubt that high officials in the USA are not completely above the law, just think about what was just done (a Government killing) and the “due process” followed (we don’t like him) and just how many of the people who did this premeditated, illegal killing will ever face a jury with a competent prosecutor. We have crossed a line.

Why not save money spent on courts and trials? Are they as much a sham as our “Constitution”?

Give us back our Liberty. Give us back our honest, open, and fair elections. And gut the military / intelligence offensive capability. Our threats are almost entirely “domestic” rather than foreign, and many of them are paid with FICA tax money.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

See our recent post regarding the broader context of this alleged assassination:

Posted by essential_intel | Report as abusive