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Vineet Chander

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Ravana, al-Awlaki And The Hijacking Of Religion

Posted: 10/07/11 02:30 PM ET

I woke up last week to my radio alarm clock blaring the big news: terrorist mastermind Anwar al-Awlaki, who topped the U.S. government's controversial kill list, had been assassinated in Yemen. For me, the news hit home in a more specific, if not disturbing, way. I knew the man, and for a brief moment in history he was my colleague. We sat side by side; we broke bread together; in at least one instance that I can remember, we spoke in a united voice to condemn the brutal terror attacks of 9/11.

Anwar al-Awlaki lied to me.

We met in Washington DC, at George Washington University, where we were both pursuing graduate school and serving our religious communities. I was enrolled at the university's law school, but spend most of my extracurricular time working with a small but vibrant Hindu student group. Early in 2001, the interfaith board of chaplains invited me to become a volunteer Hindu chaplain.

It was around this time that I was introduced to Anwar al-Awlaki, who, like me, was a new chaplain. He too was a graduate student who was deeply involved with his community, and particularly interested in making his faith more relevant to the younger generation. I noticed that, although he was quiet and even seemed broody at times, he spoke articulately and persuasively, and seemed to be well-liked by students.

September 11, 2001 -- in one horrific morning, we were plunged into a darkness none of us had ever experienced before. The initial tidal wave of confusion and fear gave way to anger and despair, eventually finding form in grief and loss. On September 12, the board of chaplains convened an emergency meeting to pray and offer pastoral care to the shaken campus community. The following day, we held the first of several panel discussions and events aimed at healing.

At some point during those first few days after the attack, I recall Anwar being called on to offer a Muslim response to the attacks. He was articulate as usual, but for the first time I detected something disturbing in his tone. At the time I couldn't quite put it into words, and it made me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed to even feel it. I was painfully aware of the tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the South Asian context. Growing up, I had a number of Muslim family friends -- men and women who I was trained to look at as my uncles and aunties, children I was taught should be considered my cousins. We celebrated each other's festivals and attended one another's dinner parties. And yet, in the privacy of the home and behind closed doors, I heard the things my father and Hindu uncles whispered: "No matter how nice one might seem, you can never really trust a Muslim." I grew up with this divisive and sectarian mentality all around me, and promised myself that I would never give in to it. So when Anwar spoke, I didn't want to feel mistrust or question his motives. I didn't want to -- and still don't want to -- act out the prejudices and baggage I've inherited. Still, as I look back at it with the benefit of hindsight, I am able to express what I could not bring myself to say back then: his words rang hollow.

A few months later, Anwar was gone. I didn't think much of it at the time, and I don't remember any of the chaplains discussing it. It was common for volunteer chaplains to move on to new congregations of parishes, or to become busy with other obligations.

Years after I graduated, while lazily thumbing through a Time magazine in the waiting room of my dentist's office, I found myself face to face with Anwar again. The article accompanying the photo described him as "the Osama bin Laden of the internet," and detailed his success in recruiting Muslim youth for terrorism in the name of jihad. My first instinct was denial; this must be an unfortunate coincidence, someone who looks similar and shares a common Arabic surname. The Anwar I knew was a university chaplain; the man being written about was a criminal mastermind. And then, as I scanned a sidebar describing his educational and professional background, my eyes fell on a simple bullet-point -- stated casually, almost as a throwaway bit of ironic trivia -- that sent chills down my spine: ... was also a chaplain at George Washington University. I read and re-read that line until my eyes started to blur the text.

A common motif of urban legends involves a close brush with unspeakable horror. The innocent college co-ed who wonders about an eerie noise during the night wakes up to find her roommate murdered and a message scrawled in blood by the serial killer, sardonically congratulating her on not turning on the light. In such stories we always identify with the girl who survived. We share her terrifying realization that she came so close, and shudder that her fate rested in the arbitrary hands of a madman.

As I read the magazine article, I felt something similar. I knew rationally that it was silly. Al-Awlaki's modus operandi wasn't to go around slitting his non-Muslim co-workers' throats. And yet, I still felt that sense of terror at having been so close to a killer, at having unknowingly sat at the table with a monster.

As I continued to read -- and in the days, weeks, and months that followed -- the sense of terror began to transform into an anger and a feeling of betrayal. Anwar may have led his misguided pupils to hijack planes and strap bombs to their bodies, but on a more fundamental level he hijacked the faith itself. He cloaked himself, literally and figuratively, in the garb of a religious teacher. He used his God-given talents of rhetoric and an uncanny ability to connect with young, impressionable students, but he used them to inject their hearts with poison and spew hatred. He exploited the sacred charge that chaplains are called to, and made a mockery of it. He sat next to me in the days before and after 9/11 and boldly and shamelessly lied to us all -- not just with his words, but with his whole being.

Most faiths, including my own Hindu tradition, warn us about religion and religious leadership falling into the hands of the hypocrite. The Bhagavad Gita condemns such a person, who maintains the external trappings of religion while harboring vices within the heart, as a mithyachara -- a pretender.

As I write this article, Hindus the world over just celebrated Duserra, a holiday that commemorates the victory of Lord Rama over the demon king Ravana. The story, recounted in the sacred narrative called Ramayana, seems especially appropriate right now, and the character of Ravana offers a fitting comparison for Anwar al-Awlaki and others like him. Like Anwar, Ravana was blessed with many gifts. He came from noble and religious parentage, was vastly learned, an expert in religious ritual, and even reputed to be a talented orator. He was a charismatic leader with a devoted following. But Ravana used these gifts to feed his insatiable greed, lust and rage. He exploited others and did not hesitate to terrorize the innocent to further his own selfish and destructive agenda.

In a key episode in the Ramayana, Ravana disguised himself as a sadhu, a holy man, in order to abduct the goddess Sita. Hindu scholars point out that this is significant. Ravana cloaked himself in the dress of dharma, righteousness, to gain Sita's trust, but his purpose was adharma, evil. In doing so, he sealed his own fate.

We need not look far to find the Ravanas of our time. They are the clerics who speak of Allah as the all-merciful, and yet council young Muslims to mercilessly take innocent lives. They are the saffron-clad Hindu Swamis who wax philosophical about seeing the Divine in all beings, and yet turn a blind eye to men, women, and children being burnt alive by angry extremist mobs. They are the priests who profess to follow the wounded Christ, and yet bow at the altar of money, power and exploitation. They are us -- at our weakest, basest, and grossest; people of faith, in our darkest moments of hypocrisy.

As political theorists and ethicists now wrestle with whether or not the killing of al-Awlaki was justified, the Ramayana offers an interesting post-script. Hindus celebrate Lord Rama's killing of Ravana as the victory of good over evil. At the same time, Rama officiated over Ravana's last rites and mourned his loss. Ravana's death relieved the world of an offensive and dangerous burden, but it was also a stark reminder of the tragedy of misused gifts and talents. Rama grieved for this tragedy. In that spirit, I mourn the death of my former colleague, Anwar al-Awlaki. I think of the round table that we chaplains at GWU sat around and envision the chair left empty when Anwar departed. I pray that the person who inherits that seat honors it, in both word and deed.