The Jihadist Next Door

Today, I read a story from The Times Magazine titled “The Jihadist Next Door,” that chronicles the development and maturation of a Islamic American born and raised in Alabama now partnering with Al-Qaeda in Somalia. The depth and insight the article has into his background, life and current mission is fascinating.  I found myself captivated and consumed the entire story including some of the bonus features on-line.  In an odd way, I related to the themes and emotions of his adolescence.  It helps that we were born within a year of each other.  And, like me, he was active in student government, curious about religion, seemed to have a thirst for knowledge and an interest in life’s greater meaning and purpose. Anyone with an active imagination dreams a variety of realities for themselves beginning as a child- astronaut, President, movie star, or professional athlete and becoming somewhat more attainable but still “dreams” as an adult- write a book, join the Peace Corps, travel, and really make a difference in the world.  One of my many daydreams in high school was this notion of making a sacrifice, joining a cause larger than my life and fighting for something “that really matters.” As if the only criteria for these causes was danger in a third world countries. Yet, there was and is adventure and power in risk.

I can’t help but shake the parallels to someone like Christopher McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild. He seemed to have an equal disdain for the so-called “mundane and undisciplined” world of his adolescence. He choose to go it alone with nature and remove himself of our world.  Omar Hammami choose to embrace radical Islam, withdraw from his family and join the war against Western civilization, democracy and religious freedom. It seems to me that that his personality – idealistic and strong – is the tipping point, but it was hard to argue with his logic and resolve. I don’t consider myself an extremist in any category, but I do acknowledge that if you believe something deeply enough there’s really never an acceptable middle ground.  This is one of the many areas where Hammami and I part ways. My utopian government plays referee allowing the expression and worship of any religion so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of other people and his utopia consists of a world of one government and one religion.

For someone like me, life is one long research project where I’m always questioning (or testing) myself, my theories and my beliefs. My solution, at least right now, is to read as much as I can, learn as much as I can and try to understand as many different perspectives along the way. I think it’s all too easy to romanticize someone who makes no compromises when the truth is that life is a series of negotiations and compromises.  Otherwise, we’d all be zealots and extremists unwilling to live together or participate in a stable, organized society.

I’ve gone a bit off-track from my original intention, which was to say, that every now and then a story or article comes along and pulls you out of your life forcing one to address uncomfortable, complex issues.  This article was worthwhile in that it took me away from my Sunday morning coffee and toast (if just for a few minutes) and served up a reality that I rarely see or feel in my day-to-day life.  And for that, I was thankful.

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