by Hugh Fitzgerald
On October 22, CBS’s Sixty Minutes devoted one of its segments to the stirring tale of Tamer El-Noury.
That is the alias of an Egyptian-American undercover agent, working for the FBI, who has for years been befriending terrorists linked to Al Qaeda, both in the United States and abroad. Heavily made up, with his voice disguised, El-Noury told a television audience of millions about some of the techniques he used for “accidentally bumping into” those suspects he needed to meet and befriend so that ultimately they would come to trust him enough to reveal to him, or even include him as a participant, in their terrorist plans. El-Noury described how he was endowed by the FBI with a “legend,” that is, a fictitious life-history, complete with supporting data and documents, that made him out to be a well-off Arab-American property investor. He reviewed this story endlessly, for it included details of how he got his start, of what investments he had made, of his family life, of how he conducted his (fictional) business. He had to become knowledgeable enough to be able to answer any questions that his new Al Qaeda friends might ask, about his family, life, or work. The FBI set up an “office” for him too, complete with files and a receptionist, in case any of his terrorist associates wanted to check up on his business and came a-calling.
El-Noury memorized his fictional life history, as supplied by the FBI, rehearsed answers to every possible question he might be asked, including what had supposedly caused him to want to harm Americans. That tale involved a made-up story about his mother, who died, El-Noury was told to claim, because — or so he was told to say he believed — she received sub-standard care from American doctors because she was a Muslim. Hence his professed desire to inflict damage on Americans. After the FBI managed to arrange his “chance encounter” on a plane with a Tunisian immigrant from Canada, an Al-Qaeda member named Chiheb Esseghaier, El-Noury befriended the Tunisian and, over many months, won his trust to such an extent that Esseghaier told him of his plans, at the direction of Al-Qaeda operatives abroad, first to attack and derail a New York-to-Toronto passenger train as it crossed a bridge, and after that, to conduct a much more complicated attack, involving a series of bombs going off at set intervals in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. El-Noury’s undercover work led to the arrest and conviction of both Esseghaier and an associate, Raed Jaser, who are now serving life sentences.
There is no doubt that El-Noury engaged in difficult and dangerous work for the FBI. He is still working for the FBI. So it may seem churlish to take issue with what he repeatedly insists about Islam, but being a hero does not mean that your understanding of the faith is not to be challenged.
For El-Noury considers himself a good Muslim. And he hates these Al-Qaeda jihadists because they “desecrate” his religion:
“The fact is that these jihadists – these radicals that are popping up – are lost souls. They latch on to hatred, and an evil that seems to give them purpose.”
“I am a Muslim and I am an American, and I am appalled at what these animals are doing to my country while desecrating my religion.”
One must ask how, in what way, are “these jihadists” to be considered “lost souls”? Are they behaving in a way that is contrary to the commands of the Qur’an to wage violent Jihad? Does El-Noury not know those 109 jihad verses that these “lost souls” rely on? Do Muslims “latch on to hatred” that is not to be found in the Islamic texts, in order to give their lives “purpose,” or is that hatred for the Infidels to be found all over the Qur’an and hadith, impossible to avoid?
Still more disturbing is El-Noury’s insistence that “these animals” are “desecrating my religion.” How are they desecrating it? Isn’t instilling terror in the hearts of the Unbelievers exactly what Muslims are instructed to do, as in Qur’an 3:151, 8:12, 8:60?
What about the behavior of Muhammad, that “Perfect Man,” who is held up for Muslims as an exemplar, and who said in a famous hadith that “I have been made victorious through terror”? (Al-Bukhari, 4.52.220)
When El-Noury insisted that these terrorist plotters were “desecrating” his religion, he was stating what is for him psychologically necessary. One suspects that for his own mental stability, he has had to convince himself that Islam does not in any way justify terrorism, that the only Muslims he (and we) need worry about are those who are not good Muslims but “lost souls,” people who are not honoring but “desecrating” the inoffensive faith of Islam. He is hardly the only Muslim who chooses to overlook, who doesn’t want to know about, the actual contents of the Qur’an and Hadith. But because he is also someone who has helped in the capture and conviction of would-be terrorists, he has a claim on our sympathies that might lead us, wrongly, not to question his view of Islam.
No doubt his FBI handlers were happy to accept his view of the “true” Islam as benign, for they have no desire to contradict him, given all that he has done and may still be doing, as an undercover agent. Far better to let him believe, if he must, that the true Islam is peaceful, tolerant, inoffensive. And it would have been unseemly, no doubt, for the Sixty Minutes interviewer to take issue with Tamer El- Noury in a segment clearly designed to celebrate him, to contradict him by suggesting that Islam is not being “desecrated” by the terrorists, but that those terrorists are simply taking to heart the many Qur’anic verses commanding violence, and acting on them. Such a line of questioning would only anger Mr. El-Noury, and given how he has risked his life as an undercover agent, the audience is likely to take his side if he is challenged, as he yet again repeats that the terrorists are “lost souls” who “desecrate” Islam.
But his heroism does not mean we need to accept El-Noury’s benign view of Islam. Hero he certainly is, but that has not made him a reliable guide when it comes to what Islam inculcates. There are other venues than Sixty Minutes where he might and should be questioned — including right here, right now, at Jihad Watch.
What does El-Noury make of the following examples — there are so many — of Qur’anic verses about killing the Unbelievers:
“Fight against those who do not obey Allah and do not believe in Allah or the Last Day and do not forbid what has been forbidden by Allah and His messenger even if they are of the People of the Book until they pay the Jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” 9:29
“When the sacred months have passed, then kill the Mushrikin wherever you find them. Capture them. Besiege them. Lie in wait for them in each and every ambush but if they repent, and perform the prayers, and give zakat, then leave their way free.” 9:5
“Kill them wherever you find them and drive them out from where they drove you out. Persecution is worse than slaughter.” 2:191
“When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks.” 47:4
Or those that command acts of terror:
“We will cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers, for that they have associated with Allah that for which He sent down never authority; their lodging shall be the Fire; evil is the lodging of the evildoers.” 3:151
“Make ready for them whatever force and strings of horses you can, to strike terror into the enemy of Allah and your enemy, and others besides them that you know not; Allah knows them. And whatsoever you expend in the way of Allah shall be repaid you in full; you will not be wronged.” 8:60
Should Mr. El-Noury, as someone who has risked his life to help catch Muslim terrorists at the planning stage, be exempt from cross-questioning about his understanding of Islam? Some might think so. Many will want to believe that he is right about Islam, because the notion that the terrorists are only following the Qur’an and Hadith is simply too disturbing. We hear him say again and again “I am a Muslim and I am an American, and I am appalled at what these animals are doing to my country while desecrating my religion,” and it’s tempting to believe him.
But a different, and a better view, is that when El-Noury misleads himself, and us, about Islam, we should not let his impressive work as an undercover agent cause us to silently accept his view of Islam. Our duty is to correct his misrepresentation of the faith. Islam is not a hieratic mystery which non-Muslims cannot possibly comprehend. We can read the Qur’an, the Hadith, the Sira. We can study the Jihad verses, including the verses that call not just for warfare, but for terrorism against the Unbelievers. We can learn about the life of Muhammad and how he treated Unbelievers. We can read the Qur’anic commentators, from the first century of Islam to the present day.
On Sixty Minutes, El-Noury might have said something other than to express his fury at those he apparently believes are misinterpreting, twisting, distorting, desecrating Islam. He might have said that “Muslim terrorists attacked America that day, on 9/11, and as a Muslim and American I felt a special duty to help prevent any more such attacks.” And he might have stopped there, instead of describing those Al Qaeda terrorists as “desecrating” Islam. Or he might have said, truthfully, that “these terrorists don’t know how else to understand the Qur’an except literally — they not only take the Qur’anic commandments to heart but attempt to act on them,” and thus they “set themselves against those they call Unbelievers, that is the rest of humanity.” He could have said that “I do what I can, about the most dangerous ones, but I can only hope that another understanding of Islam, one that will permit real coexistence between Muslims and all others, will come into being. It means, to begin with, for Muslims not to deny but to recognize what the ideology of Islam now inculcates. It requires us to fight for another interpretation. It won’t be easy to achieve. But we must try.”
And then, even better, Tamer El-Noury could have quoted a handful of verses, say 9:5, 9:29, 2:191, 3:151, 8:60, 47:4, the very ones that Defenders of the Faith most try to hide from Infidels, and said “see, that’s what we are facing, that’s what we must deal with.”
Could he bring himself to say that? If he could, that would be another heroic service rendered by El-Noury. And if he can’t? If he clings to the belief that terrorists “desecrate” the good, peaceful, tolerant faith with which he says he he grew up, and that he has convinced himself is the “real” Islam? Then be grateful for what he has done and continues to do, as an undercover agent, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that his heroism entitles him to a pass on the subject of Islam. Clearly, for now, he can’t allow himself to abandon his filiopietistic misunderstanding of the faith. But we who are not Muslims can’t afford to let palpable untruths about Islam go unchallenged. Not even if they come from a hero like Tamer El Noury.
First published in Jihad Watch.
Here are some categories of responses to this guy: Wow, what a wonderful man to stand up for his peaceful and tolerant faith against those terrorists hijackers; Wow, what a wonderful man to stand up against the terrorists despite his own misconceptions about Islam being peaceful and tolerant; Well, it's good that he's helping us against terrorists but he's making an honest understanding of Islam much more difficult - which is where I think we are.