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On NPR: Al-Awlaki Talked Of Muslims Being Hurt In Post-Sept. 11 World

Long before U.S. officials said he was one of the world's most-wanted terrorists, Anwar al-Awlaki was a Muslim cleric who U.S. media outlets would turn to during discussions about the post-Sept. 11 world.

Anwar al-Awlaki.
/ AP
Anwar al-Awlaki.

Today, with word that officials say the U.S.-born al-Awlaki has been killed in Yemen, let's look back at appearances he made in late 2001 and early 2002 on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

We'll put the complete transcripts of both shows below. But first, some excerpts from al-Awlaki's comments. As you'll see, in the first four months or so after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was downplaying reports of "hate speech" at American mosques — but he was also speaking about how he thought it was "Muslims who are being hurt" in the aftermath of the attacks.

Nov. 15, 2001 (complete audio here): Host Neal Conan asks "do you think that your message, your rhetoric has changed over the past couple of months?"

Al-Awlaki says "I don't think it has changed, but I can say that I think with most Muslim religious leaders--and I think around the nation, there's a feeling that we need to be more careful in how things are presented, more careful in the words that are used. In the past, there has been — Muslims have been raising concerns regarding the US foreign policy. I think now that not only should we be talking about these legitimate issues, but also how they should be acted upon."

On the same show, Neal also said: "Imam Al-Awlaki, I wanted to follow up with you. And that is one of the questions that we asked at the beginning of this broadcast. President Bush says this is not a war against Islam. Does religion play an element in this conflict, do you think?

Al-Awlaki's answer was:

"I think that to a certain extent for practical reasons there is an element of feeling among the Muslims that they are targeted, or at least they are the ones who are paying the highest price for what's going on. Number one, there has been a rise in negative reporting on Islam in the media since the events happened. There have been 1,100 Muslims detained in the US. There's a bombing going on over a Muslim country, Afghanistan. So there are some reasons that make the Muslims feel that, well, it is true that the statement was made that this is not a war against Islam, but for all practical reasons, it is the Muslims who are being hurt."

"Beyond those who, obviously, were hurt on September the 11th," Neal interjected.

"Yes," said al-Awlaki.

"And I know you did not mean to exclude them," Neal said.

Al-Awlaki: "Absolutely."

Neal: "And how do we address that? How should you address that to your community? And how, if there's a distinction, should you address that to the wider community?"

Al-Awlaki: "Well, let me start first by the wider community. I would say that the media plays a very, very important role in this conflict. I think if the administration is trying to show and express as best it can that this is not a war against Islam, I think that around the country there's a responsibility to make that distinction very clear and to prevent and stop any negative reporting that is happening against Islam. With the community itself, I would say that it is the responsibility--really it's the responsibility of the community to do the education. The American Muslim community, I think, has not done a good job in the past in educating the community at large about Islam. And I think that the September 11th tragedy is really compelling us to play a more important role in that direction."

Neal: "Islam--and correct me if I'm wrong--it seems, tried to keep a low profile, and now there seems to be no choice but to either enter the American mainstream or be marginalized."

Al-Awlaki: "Absolutely. And the reason is about, I would say, half of the American Muslim community is recent immigration. And it takes a while for immigrants to be rooted in the country and to establish themselves and integrate themselves into the rest of the society. That's one reason. So there was an element of seclusion going on. But I think that now everybody realizes that we can't afford to be hiding ourselves. We have to be out in the public fulfilling our roles."

Jan. 23, 2002 (complete audio here): Guest host Lynn Neary began by saying to al-Awlaki that "I know that you spoke with Neal Conan a couple of months ago about the effects of September 11th on the community at your mosque, and we're just wondering, first of all, if you can give us a sense of how have things been since then? How have things changed in the interim time?"

Al-Awlaki said that: "one of the areas where I think there's more of a change compared to prior to September 11th is that there's more dialogue, there's more interaction with the general community. Our congregation, the majority is immigrant Muslim. We also have a sizeable African-American Muslim congregation. But overall, in terms of the immigrant community, since they are recent immigration, there hasn't been a lot of interaction with the community at large, and I think that that has changed since September 11th. There's more of a dialogue going on with different religious groups, with different political groups, and I think that's a positive sign."

"So you're saying that you feel members of your community are more willing to speak openly about their differences or speak openly with other people in the community surrounding the mosque?" Lynn asked.

Al-Awlaki: "Yes. I mean, if one would look at the lives of some of the Muslim immigrants who immigrated recently — I mean, it's kind of comfortable to live in a cocoon and to live in a cultural setting that is similar to the one that I might have in my original country. And so it's more of a comfort zone. But now I think because of what has happened, first of all, there's a feeling that, as an American Muslim community, we have not fulfilled our role in educating the community around us about Islam, number one, and number two, participating in the general activities of the American public, and that is why I see a change happening."

Lynn asked if he was :aware of the efforts of this new reformed American Islamic Congress, some of what we've been talking to today with Ahmed Al-Rahim, some of the efforts they're making to tell American Muslims to be less hesitant to speak out against hate speech? And if so, what is your reaction to that?"

Al-Awlaki's response: "Well, I'm not aware of it. I just heard about the organization on the show. I would like to say that, in general, I think that maybe the guest has given an impression that there's a lot of this hate speech somehow going on in the mosques. I've been an imam for six years. I've been around mosques in the country, and I can attest to the fact that that's blown out of proportion. There is hate speech that could happen in any particular religious group and any particular religious congregation, but to give the impression that somehow, among the Muslim Americans, there's all of these slogans of 'Death to America,' that's simply blown out of proportion."

And at the end of the conversation, al-Awlaki made a point that in retrospect reads looks like a signal of where his attitude toward America was heading:

"If you go down the list, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan or some other countries — plus, a lot of the oppression that is happening in the Muslim world is from governments in the Muslim world that are allies of the United States. So it's quite natural to have a level of anti-American foreign policy among the Muslim community simply because the victims or the ones who are affected are Muslim countries."

The complete transcripts (click on the titles "Al-Awlaki on TOTN in 2001" and "Al-Awlaki on TOTN in 2002" to pop up larger versions):

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.