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Charles Cameron reponds to Abu Walid al Masri

With permission, I’ve posted here a response by Charles Cameron to Abu  Walid al Masri, which was originally posted to Zenpundit.  Charles is a regular reader of my site, and I find his comments to be considered and insightful. By means of background here’s a brief bio from Charles, with his response following below.

Charles studied Theology at Oxford, and is a writer and independent scholar, presently based in California.  He is keenly interested in the way religions have shaped our past and may well shape our future, and was a Principal Researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University during the run up to the year 2000. He is a regular guest blogger at Mark Safranski’s Zenpundit (http://zenpundit.com).


Some time back, I posted here about the conversation between Leah Farrall, until recently a senior analyst with the Australian Federal Police and their subject specialist for al-Qaida, and Abu Walid al-Masri, long time mujahid, writer and strategist, friend and frequent critic of bin Laden, and the first foreigner to give bayat to Mullah Omar.  Leah is presently writing her doctoral dissertation on al-Qaida, Abu Walid is under house arrest in Iran.  Their online conversation continues, as Leah has described in an article for The Australian, and I believe this in itself is a significant event in online discourse, as I suggest in a post on Howard Rheingold’s SmartMobs blog.

Leah has been posting Abu Walid’s responses to her questions on her blog, first in Arabic and then as time permits in English, for some time now.  Most recently, she posted her own detailed responses alongside Abu Walid’s questions to her — and the topic of their conversation accordingly shifted from issues of the structure and history of Al-Qaida and the Taliban (Leah’s academic interests) to issues of the morality of warfare, and of the jihad and war on terror in particular (Abu Walid’s concerns).

Leah has graciously invited me to respond to this new phase of the discussion, which cuts very close to my own heart.


Abu Walid’s questions, as Adam Serwer has noted at The American Prospect, are largely focused on issues of due process:

Al Masri asks why the U.S. imprisons people based on secret evidence, why all detainees don’t get fair trials, and why the U.S. has tortured detainees. He brings up secret prisons and bounty hunters. He also alludes to America allowing “security departments in the underdeveloped world to do their dirty work, such as severe torture,” which I assume refers to extraordinary rendition.

Leah, who knows a great deal about these things, has responded to each of these points in detail.  And Abu Walid and Leah are not alone in reproving such things — they have many critics, not least in the United States, some of whom have tracked these issues with a far closer eye than I have.  Scott Horton, writing in Harper’s and elsewhere, knows far more about these practices, their justifications under recent Presidents, and their relation to US and international law than I do, and one of the reasons I find the western democratic tradition powerfully appealing is the fact that he can openly criticize his Presidents in the public media on such topics.

The topic of our behavior in time of war concerns me deeply, because it is fundamentally a topic about the gift of human life, how we should use it and how we should respect it.  Islam, and before it Judaism, both declare that to take one human life is to extinguish a world, and that somewhat poetic statement is a brilliant summary of why the means of peace should be preferred to those of war.

This view, that every human life is of extraordinary worth, applies not only to the killing of humans, in war or elsewhere, but also to their mistreatment — what the New York Times has described as “dark-of-night snatch-and-grabs, hidden prisons and interrogation tactics that critics condemned as torture”.

So let me say directly that I too am opposed to torture, to beheadings, to attacks that cause civilian casualties, to the capture or killing of humanitarian aid workers, to extraordinary renditions.

My own hope is that the United States will not allow the tragic consequences of terror attacks to diminish the kind of freedom that allows people like Scott Horton to do the research, and to publish their findings freely. I find myself agreeing here with Benjamin Franklin, who wrote, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

My prayers are for an end to war, and until that time, for moderation in its practice.


This post, then, is more a response to the fact of an emerging dialog between Abu Walid and Leah Farrall than it is to the specifics of their discussion. After reading Leah’s responses to Abu Walid, I find I have very little to add to what she has said.

What touches me most deeply, in fact, is neither the issue of the structure of Al-Qaida nor the rights and wrongs of the conflict, but the simple fact of dialog between these two persons. It is not a facing off between opposing sides, in which so often each side demonizes the other, that attracts me here but the reaching out from both sides to find early signs of a shared humanity, a shared possibility of peace.  And in order to clarify that response, I think I should say something more about my own history, and the way in which I arrived at my own views.

John Adams, the second President of the United States, wrote in a widely-quoted letter to his wife:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

I am the son and grandson of warriors, so it has been my privilege to study philosophy and poetry — bur neither poetry nor philosophy allows me to overlook war entirely.

I understand that there are injustices and brutalities in the world that cry out for redress, and that force of arms may at times be necessary. My own father was a naval officer, who fought Hitler’s navy in the grueling waters of the Arctic, and died young because of it.  I honor him for it. My first great mentor was a priest who worked to end the brutalities of the apartheid regime in South Africa, because he saw all people, regardless of skin color, as the children of God.  Explaining himself, he wrote:

My responsibility is always and everywhere the same: to see in my brother more even than the personality and manhood that are his. My task is always and everywhere the same: to see Christ himself.

My mentor was an extraordinary man who was known for his abhorrence of violence, and yet was willing to approve “defensive violence and armed struggle as a last resort against the oppressor“. So I was raised by a courageous warrior and an extraordinary man of peace, and the issue of human violence has been a topic of lifelong meditation for me, and I do not see it as simple in any way.

We all must choose where we shall expend our efforts, and my cause is that of religion: the astonishing generosity and compassion it can call forth in people, and the terrible consequences that follow when it is used to provide a sanction for killing.


To be honest, I detest war.

I detest earthquakes. As I say that, I do not intend to blame God, nature, or any human agency for them I understand that earthquakes happen, that we live in what might be described as a ‘violent” universe, that galaxies collide, stars explode, worlds and cultures come into existence and are snuffed out, people live and die.

What I mean to say is that I am saddened by the needless brutality that befalls humans and other creatures trapped in earthquakes, those who lose their limbs or sight, or who live for days in hope of rescue, buried under fallen masonry, and those others who survive, and are now widows, orphans, childless because those they loved were in some other room, or some other part of town, or some other land when the quake hit.

I can acknowledge such things happen, but I cannot take joy in them, and I would not wish them on anyone.

In the course of war, many of the same effects are found — people die, lose their limbs, are buried under fallen masonry, blinded, orphaned, widowed — but on these occasions they are brought about by the hands of other humans, by human decision and choice.

If, as I say, I detest earthquakes, how shall I not also detest war?


And yet I feel kinship. I have a clan background: my father, and his father, and his father’s father were Scotsmen, all of them military men. I understand the honor that is due to one’s forebears, and I salute them.

I was born and raised in England. I love and honor the country of my birth, its sweet hills and trees and rivers, and there is a quality to those gently rolling hills that I will never forget, which is home to me.  I studied in Oxford, in one of the great halls of learning, and it allows me to feel kinship with all those who have studied in the great universities and monasteries, from Oxford to Kyoto. I have lived for much of my life in America, and love, too, my adopted country.

And thus I understand what it is to be on one side of a dispute, not because that side is perfectly right and just in all matters, but because one belongs with that land or those people: they are one’s own.

My father, when I was a boy, told me the story of how another clan became in 1692 the enemy of our clan. It seems they accepted the hospitality of our clan allies, then rose in the night to slaughter their hosts.  They thereby defiled their own honor by abusing the principle of hospitality for, as a Scottish historian put it, “the Highlander, like the Arab, attached an almost sacred importance to the guest participating in his bread and salt”.

I have passed down to my own son the same story, but I have also made it clear to him that I hold no continuing grudge nor enmity against that other clan, and that I do not believe my father did either.


Here, then, is the crux of the matter as I understand it, in Leah’s words:

Regardless of whether someone is our enemy or not, they are still, at the end of the day, human. They still have families, and in their milieu are probably viewed as good and decent people. Much the same way that we view ourselves. Somehow, in conflict this gets lost. That may be okay for fighting, but it isn’t when it comes to trying to bring an end to conflict.

We seem, thank God, to have arrived at the point where the idea of resolving the terrible conflict in Afghanistan is at last recognizably on the horizon. Secretary Gates said recently that “political reconciliation ultimately has to be a part of settling the conflict” — which seems to me to bode well for a dialog of this sort, preliminary though it is.

But I do not see the possibility of fruitful dialog just as a means to some form of political solution — to me it is more than that.

When the people of Israel escaped by night from captivity in Egypt, they were at first pursued by the army of Pharaoh. When they arrived at the Red Sea, God parted it so that they could make their escape.  The sea then closed on Pharaoh’s army and drowned them, and the Israelites rejoiced, singing a song of thanks.  In the Jewish lore of the Talmud, it is recorded that on that night the angels too wished to sing, and that God refused to hear their song of praise, rebuking them with the words, “my creations are drowning in the sea, and you will sing songs?”


Vengeance dies hard, though, doesn’t it?

If I kill your soldier I have killed an enemy — but you have lost a father, a brother, a son, and left a widow, an orphan: your grief is then greater than my satisfaction, your thirst for revenge keener than my fear of it, and so you strike down one of mine, thinking you have killed an enemy — but losing me a father, a brother, a son, leaving me a widow, an orphan — and so the plague rolls on.  You have visited anguish on me, I shall visit anguish on you.

Gandhi said it: An eye for eye, and soon the whole world is blind.

I choose, personally, to follow the principle of forgetting in such matters.  Injustices are legion, and the roots of today’s struggles can in many cases be traced back across centuries, even millennia. Both perpetrators and victims are human.


There will be some who ask if this does not make a “moral equivalence” between one side and the other, and is not one side — “ours” — righteous, and the other evil?

I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s magnificent Second Inaugural here. He notes that in the American Civil War, both sides “pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other” and although it is clear where his own allegiance lies, he continues, “let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

I too have my preferences: what saddens me most of all, perhaps — for I am before all else a “lover of the lovers of God” — is the way in which religious feeling is used to provide sanction for killing.

But I think the issue cuts deeper even than that, and as I contemplate friend and foe alike — and indeed this dialog between, as Abu Walid puts it, “the (terrorist) and (counter-terrorist) I find the need to remember first my own humanity.  In the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered enormous wrongs in the Soviet Archipelago:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an uprooted small corner of evil.

I too am human: the line runs through my heart, too — and in the final analysis, my response to this dialogue, like the dialogue itself, reaches beyond the issues that divide us, toward our common humanity, and toward peace.

Categories: Abu Walid al Masri
  1. Steveo
    02/07/2010 at 5:54 am

    Very inspiring !!!

  2. hipbone
    02/07/2010 at 9:58 am

    Thanks, Steveo. I am very grateful to Leah for posting this piece.

  3. Chris Yount
    02/11/2010 at 5:14 am

    Leah, thank you for posting this. Charles, thank you for allowing it to be re-posted.

    The word that keeps coming to my mind after reading this is “breath-taking”, perhaps “wordless”. My heart resonates with this idea, that reconciliation is possible, if we recognize the humanity in our foe. Gandhi’s quote is exactly correct: vengeance gets us nowhere except closer to our own destruction.

    Thanks for such a well-written, spot-on piece.

  4. 06/18/2010 at 8:23 am

    Thank you both Leah and Chris. This is one of the most articulate, poetic and thoughtful pieces I have read on the topic and I am indebted to you both for this, not insignificant, contribution towards building a space within which the conditions for peace can be established.

  1. 07/08/2010 at 6:28 pm

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