Dear Tarek Mehanna,

Your brother described a book you translated, 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, as a benign religious devotional. Published by Al Qaeda in 2003, promising “dominance over people of disbelief” in its first full sentence, this book does not seem especially benign to me, especially in light of the current apocalyptic rampage in Iraq and the Lavant. Reading al Qaeda’s propaganda, I can understand the appeal of Jihad, but I’m not sure that I understand the word.

You went to Yemen to study Jihad in 2004, the same year I joined the U.S. Navy. We both grappled with war rhetoric and experienced indoctrination. You produced war propaganda for al Qaeda, maybe unintentionally. I worked on an aircraft carrier, intending to participate in American bombing campaigns in Iraq. Now you are in prison, and I am free.

Shocked and chagrined to hear that the American government holds citizens in jail for speech crimes, I read your work. The more I read your poetry, prose and translation efforts, the more questions I have, and I do not know how to present them to you, sitting freely on my desk chair.

I compiled thoughts to tell you for four years in Word documents, since I failed to write an article about you after interviewing your brother. You were convicted. Everything that needed to be written about that injustice and your martyrdom was written. After writing pages of notes with no coherent structure, I’m turning my thoughts to you into a blog. I am breaking down my objections into a point by point response to your translation of 39 Ways to Jihad.

I am a collaborator in your effort to define Jihad, but I think the word means more than warfare. I am not your supporter, per se, but an advocate for your freedom. I want speech to be a sacred right, granted by the American government.

The fact that America keeps political prisoners is shameful. Nobody deserves jail for expressing an opinion. Every vote of mine in America since 2008 has been against rhetoric of violence and division, because apparently violence does not work on humans the same way it works on rocks.

In the 21st century we can move mountains. We have profound technology, but the mountains still move us. In a distant future all we know will be gone, probably crusted over in grey slime or something dreadful, but that eventuality is a long way off. In a few billion years humans will not exist as we do now. Generations to come will be vastly different from this one in ways we cannot prophesy or imagine.

It is a disturbing thought that we will die regardless of faith in idols, like Yaweh, the Jewish god I was raised under. I abandoned my faith several years ago because for all the communion, hope, and ardency I felt in worship, in prayer and during sermons, belief in miracles seems pointless. It seems unethical to damn someone eternally for their state of mind.

You say there is one god. I say there are many, and every single one is dead or will die. Gods can only live in their believers. A Jewish fable says Abraham smashed his father’s idols and put the club in the hand of the largest idol. He would not worship fire, water, stone, or air.

Our scriptures were written from a position of ignorance—appealing to the authority of a most high omnipotence—building faith in abstractions that helped societies accomplish business. We have the fortitude to ship millions of tons of cargo across vast oceans, and that takes faith in human knowledge, but it’s also a gamble on the weather. These continents where we live are not tame. The Titans still battle beneath the earth’s crust, like the Greek Myths, and people still die every day from the dumbest things.

There are videos on YouTube now about selfies people took minutes before death, and it’s horrifying to think how evil the world around us can become in instants. We can be enveloped in a typhoon or die in one ferocious night time. We know evil exists, but to define it is foolish. Evil is an idol.

There’s a sonnet, Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, that you probably read or heard read in high school. Published in the 11 January 1818 issue of The Examiner in London, Shelley wrote in competition with his friend Horace Smith, whose responding poem appeared in the next issue of the same magazine. Shelley’s version of Ozymandias has eerie energy:

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Kingdoms and gods pass away. Humans remain. Apocalyptic prophesies and promises of consciousness after death appear in some of our oldest known documents from Egypt and Babylon. These are our existential fears and hopes expressed in verse, and our fears and hopes now, thousands of years later, are similar. We can relate to our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean their every jot and tittle was right, even if it was written 4,000 years ago. These are just texts, human writings.

I’m writing this letter to let you know that I have hijacked the text of Al Qaeda’s religious devotional, 39 Ways to Jihad, to turn the eyes of a few English readers online. This open letter is the fourth post in my guide for apostates like me who seek freedom from want and fear.

I bought the domain 39WaystoJihad.com, and am posting chapter by chapter responses to the book. If you translated 39 Ways, as court documents claim, you sought knowledge. I admire your effort and intellectual struggle to discover the truth. We’re all trying to figure out who we are and why, but our questions sometimes get screwed up. I am doing what Americans do best, cultural appropriation. I am writing for a better understanding of Islam.

Since you’re a poet, I want to share a piece I started writing in January of 2008, when I was working on the flight deck of the Truman, an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. I wrote a lot of terrible poetry in the navy, embarrassing stuff. This particular poem is not profound, but it gives you an idea of some things I (a lowly AE3) saw and thought about while working on one of the floating airports Bush II used to bomb Iraq:

Orange

Sunsets fool with waves in the Gulf.
Dark in divots, cresting orange,
like aluminum foil wrinkling,
reflecting a broiling sunset,
under smoke and clouds, glowing bright
with oil stains, ripples the water.

Colorful flashes of water
light a straight path across the Gulf
from this carrier to the bright
horizon, splitting an orange
porthole, or another reset
button, its bottom half wrinkling

into a trail westward, wrinkling
with time, a battle line in water
for the fly in from the left. Set
a course up wind across the Gulf
as they approach in the orange,
just back from bombing Iraq. Bright

night lit deck, I climb up bright
faced, glancing beneath me. Wrinkling
in waves of brown and dim orange
under the catwalk that water
churns and froths at the hull. The Gulf
disappears after the sunset.

Strap on cranial with headset
as flight schedule begins. In bright
flashes and sparks I cross a gulf
now dark, running with chains wrinkling
on my shoulders, sweating water,
wet eyes, ducking under orange

orbs, avoiding exhaust. Orange
beams bathe the deck, a smile set
around my teeth, with salt water
saliva dry in my cheeks. Bright
flashlights find tie downs. I’m wrinkling
chains under the jet, in the gulf

of a wheel well, setting bright
orange safety pins, an inkling
my pilot needs water in the Gulf.

My brief experience as a tool of warfare was exciting and rewarding for me. I got paid. I got a college education for free, and healthcare. What I didn’t realize until I was in college is that we’re all individuals, working together, against, or in ignorance of each other. I like the saying of Muhammad that begins the last post on your blog in 2009 when the case against you reached a climax and you got carted off to prison by the FBI:

“The believer who mixes with the people and is patient with the harm they inflict is better than the believer who doesn’t mix with the people and isn’t patient with the harm they inflict.”

I believe in free speech, and the power of ideas exchanged. We both know what 39 Ways says, and I don’t think the FBI misunderstood the text. It defends this idea that Jihad is violent warfare against the West, a ridiculous premise given that “the West” is a diverse crowd of individuals that includes you and your family.

39 Ways to Jihad reads quite explicitly as military recruitment material, written to quiet the existential questions of religious youth by stoking them into an unnecessary fight against an external enemy. If we do not discuss our differences, we must fight. If Jihad is not warfare, what is it?

After reading the Qur’an, I think Jihad is an ideology of action, the willingness to take up a gauntlet, fearless of death. We revere this impulse, but the reason is quite physical. It has to do with how our societies evolved at different times in tandem, in isolation, and in opposition. Warfare shapes our minds and languages in interesting ways.

The truth is we all evolved together on this planet, aware of it or not, and whatever third party you want to blame for that fact doesn’t matter. Gods are irrelevant. Nobody prays to exploding volcanos anymore. Let’s look at the justified Jihad (the struggle against oppressive leadership like Assad’s) going on in the Middle East, and try to temper our role in senseless violence. Every Arab life matters.

While I know you haven’t faced torture per se, confinement of any sort is torture to an extent. I lived out of a coffin rack for awhile, which was not so bad. Underway on an aircraft carrier you can get used to a regimented lifestyle, and the days kind of blend together. Jail is an entirely different experience, of course. Being locked away against your will must be maddening.

I wonder why the Twin Towers falling moved your perspective in the opposite direction of mine. Did you buy into al Qaeda’s propaganda about the vanity of Hollywood? Do you blame America for the Zionist movement in Palestine? Do you entertain conspiracy theories? Maybe 9/11 was faked. Maybe it didn’t really happen. Maybe the government did it. Those three hypotheses are each weak for different reasons, cannot all be true at once, and are as unfalsifiable as Jesus’s resurrection. When you stop believing stories about gods and aliens, recording what actually happens on earth is the most important and only thing that matters. The fact that people lost their lives as a tool of propaganda for al Qaeda matters. We cannot wave our hands and pretend al Qaeda didn’t provoke America.

I felt the same existential grief you felt about the rape of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi (al Jazeera), when I saw the towers fall in New York City. I remember thinking about the guys selling Dippin’ Dots to tourists on the top floor of the tower. Were they stuck on the roof until it collapsed?

I can imagine why you rejected the boundless sorrow emanating from 9/11, especially because that attack also caused a lot of anger and tension misdirected at Arab immigrants in America. That image of the plane crashing into the building seemed almost apocalyptic to me at the time. In retrospect, given how easy mass casualty events are to engineer, I’m glad that kind of thing doesn’t happen more often.

We make a mistake when we conflate whole cultures with their constituent individuals. Writing off a few casualties because of their identity (because they were Protestant or Catholic or Sunni or Shia) is wrong in any context. Religious nationalists like to damn everything and every one not of their correct culture. There’s one thing al Qaeda and the KKK have in common, bigotry. There’s a difference between individual humans, you and me, and our collective identities expressed by our philosophies and religions.

I think we agree about more than we disagree about. We all want to see life get better, easier, more fulfilling. We have technology and research that can make the earth physically more habitable, but this requires faith in the words of men, not gods. We have real physical languages, and we must discuss these things. People are flocking to their deaths out of anguish everywhere on earth for no purpose.

How is it possible to have the technology and resources to feed the whole planet thoroughly, to excess even, and not coordinate a way of using technology to end hunger and homelessness? How can there be such abundance and such ambivalence to poverty at the same time? Life is only a zero sum game in the context of warfare.

How much money has America already spent on destruction so far this century? $2 trillion? Double that for all the money promised to take care of people like me who participated in America’s warfare. Plus it costs more in taxes and court fees than I will probably contribute in my lifetime to keep you in prison, at $25,000 minimum a year (Solitary Watch) for 17 years. War is an expensive enterprise.

I’m curious what drew you to the text of 39 Ways to Jihad. I understand the appeal of recruiting material, and I do not regret joining the navy, even though we did bomb Iraq. You gravitated toward understanding the word Jihad, while I gravitated toward Bush II’s crusade. What’s crazy to me is how immoral we still get sometimes, when we think we’re being righteous.

If I read the Qur’an correctly, Jihad expresses something much more abstract than the lunacy going on in the ancient heart of Babylon at the moment. Or does it?

I wish I could warm your heart as you bear the injustice my government inflicts on you, but I also want to speak my mind and be honest. I hope you’re keeping your mind together, and bearing this injustice well.

Sincerely,

Caleb

 

Letter placed in a mailbox on Friday, November 27th to

Tarek Mehanna (# 05315-748)
Terre Haute CMU
P.O. Box 33
Terre Haute, IN 47808

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