The death of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's operations in Yemen, is likely to impact American Arabs and Muslims in positive fashion, according to Dr. Hussein Ibish, former communications director for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Commitee.
Al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen on Friday, was one of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's influential English-speakers, and part of its propaganda machine. Al-Alwaki was also implicated in a number of attacks on American soil. Before September 11, he was a preacher in a mosque outside Washington D.C. — and some of the hijackers are said to have attended that same mosque in the days before the attacks.
According to Dr. Hussein Ibish, who is now a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), because he was American and because of his influence, al-Awlaki created "fodder" for Islamophobes in the U.S. who say that Arab Americans and American Muslims are more likely to become radicalized.
"I think he has been a very problematic figure for the Arab American and American Muslim communities," Ibish told TPM Friday, "that face this accusation from professional Islamophobes and Anti-Arab racists that they are Fifth Column, that they are potentially subject to radicalization by violent extremists."
"Having an American-born so-called cleric, who had a position in a noted mosque outside D.C. before he became radicalized was a difficult issue," Ibish said, adding that al-Alwaki became the principle example in "misleading arguments" about radicalization.
Indeed, it's pretty easy to find al-Alwaki's name linked to generalizations about Muslims by some leading anti-Islam voices on the internet, like the right-wing site World Net Daily. One article from January quotes several "authorities" on Islam who say that al-Alwaki is "interpreting correctly the teachings of Islam" and "imitating Muhammad" when he said that jihadists should steal from non-believers to finance jihad.
Blogger Pamela Geller used al-Alwaki and his mosque outside D.C. to defend her opposition to the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" in lower Manhattan. "These mega-mosques are making a supremacist statement," she wrote last September. "Most people assume they're just like synagogues or churches. They don't realize that Islam has political goals that are expressed through the mosques, and that the mosques often symbolize that Muslims are claiming a particular territory as their own."
Ibish, who also served as the Communications Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in the days after September 11, noted that though there may be concerns about potential civil liberties issues and due process in al-Alwaki's death, there's a "difficult balance between between upholding legal principles and Constitutional rights on the one hand," and leaving Arab Americans and Muslims "vulnerable to attacks" on the other.
"To the extent to which this is harmful or beneficial to Arab Americans and Muslims," Ibish said he believes that this going to be "almost entirely beneficial."