Omar Hammami: The Terrorist On The Block 06/02/2010
He wanted to be a surgeon. He ended up a terrorist, a wanted man, a soldier fighting for Muslim extremist Shabab forces in Somalia.
Omar Hammami is the subject of an investigative article by Andrea Elliott of the New York Times. "The Terrorist Next Door" is at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/magazine/31Jihadist-t.html
Alabama is grits country, the Bible Belt buckle. The land of church steeples and stop signs. And small town speed traps. Alabama-born and raised; an avid reader of "Tom Sawyer"; deer hunter; Waffle House regular and football fan: Omar Hammami is a textbook example of a middle class rebel turned terrorist.
I will try not to repeat here points made in prior postings (see below) discussing other case studies of middle class terrorists.
First and foremost, Omar Hammami is (1) middle class in the literal sense of the term, viz., a socio-economic class. His father is a civil engineer, his mother, a schoolteacher. Omar is also (2) middle class in the larger sense of any intermediate, transitional, and/or marginal condition. His mother is a solid Southern Baptist; his father is a devout Muslim, a Syrian immigrant who, in searching for and finding "a quiet American town," nonetheless retained ties with his nation of birth.
Religiously, culturally, socio-economically, Omar grew up in a highly charged, ambiguous environment. Andrea Elliott:
"It was like two different schools of thought under one roof," [Omar's older sister] Dena says. "Thunder and lightning."
Result: ambivalent feelings -- the very thing the middle class rebel seeks to overcome. Omar was riddled with them from head to toe:
He would smoke a cigarette and then feel guilty. He was smitten with [his girlfriend] yet stopped holding her hand.
"The Terrorist Next Door" raises some highly revealing points:
1. Not long ago, the threat of American-bred terrorists seemed a distant one. Law-enforcement officials theorized that Muslims in the United States -- by comparison with many of their European counterparts -- were upwardly mobile, socially integrated and therefore less susceptible to radicalization.
If foreigners are well integrated -- official doctrine tells us -- terrorism will be reduced, if not eradicated. I ask: integrated into what? The middle class? If the thesis of "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion" is correct, middle class membership as a solution to terrorism is at best dubious. Hard facts, statistical and otherwise, present the counter position: the more "socially integrated" people are into the middle class, the MORE -- not less -- "susceptible to radicalization" they become.
2. In an answer to a December-2009 email, Omar responded:
"We espouse the same creed and methodology of Al Qaeda" ... Of Osama bin Laden he said, "All of us are ready and willing to obey his commands."
The willingness to obey unconditionally all commands of Al-Qaeda is the signpost of an Al-Qaeda member. It is also a signpost of the middle class man. He reads diligently and takes notes, attends classes, goes out of his way to go to lectures, studies hard and late, thinks, weighs, questions, argues, ponders, then ponders some more -- only to end up making an abject sacrificium intellectus in which he hands over his brain to someone else.
We have seen that sacrificium on a massive scale and with catastrophic results. It "explains how, during the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, to make the transition from Kant to Hitler, never did so many, do so little, for so much." ("The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion," p. 269.)
3. If anything has remained a constant in Hammami’s life, it is his striving for another place and purpose, which flickered in a poem he wrote when he was 12:
"My reality is a bore. I wish, I want, I need the wall to fall and the monster to let me pass, the leash to snap, the chains to break ….
I’ve got a taste of glory, the ticket, but where is my train?"
Here, an extraordinarily deep cord is touched. I find Omar's poetic phrasing to be advanced for a kid; it is tragic no one helped him develop it. Originality is another matter. Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), French poet and middle class rebel archetype, expressed exactly the same sentiments. To wit:
One of Rimbaud's most celebrated dictums is that true existence is elsewhere, that we are not of this world: "The I is another." (Ibid., p. 231.) Nostalgia for a world forever felt but out of reach, nurtures a will to depart. "Goodbye to here," Rimbaud waved, "no matter where." (Ibid., p. 186.) As for those who stay, Rimbaud heaped scorn on "persons sweetly unhappy. What boredom the hour of the 'dear body' and 'dear heart'!" (Ibid., p. 172.)
Take a good look at photos of Omar's face: do you detect the "trademark smirk" Andrea Elliott wrote about? You will be seeing that sneer more and more frequently. Maybe, even in your own household.
In middle class rebellion, movement is a higher good in itself, sanctifying the drive to go, to pass, to snap the leash, to break the chains. Rimbaud advised, "Hop! till one knows not if it be a dance or battle!" (Ibid., p. 238.) He moved from job to job and country to country in much the same way as Omar, after dropping out of college, sold light bulbs, unloaded trucks, cleaned carpets. Today, Omar spends his time
shuttling between villages in southern Somalia, where many of the Shabab’s camps are based, according to Somali intelligence officials.
Another poet, Paul Verlaine, characterized Rimbaud as the man with "soles of wind." (Ibid., p. 238.) Reading those words, Omar Hammami can only nod and wink.
4. Omar and his older sister
attended Bible camp in the summers (Omar won $10 for rattling off the names of all the books of the Old Testament). When he was 6, he voluntarily walked to the front of the church to be baptized. "I believed it; I wanted it," …
A few years later, Omar rejected Christianity. Rimbaud, too, as a teenager came to denounce the very Christianity he had so fervently embraced as a child:
My heart and my flesh, embraced by your flesh,
Swarm from the putrid kiss of Jesus ....
Christ, oh Christ! Eternal thief of energies .... (Ibid., p. 152.)
Omar replaced Christianity with the Muslim religion. Rimbaud replaced Christianity with Christianity -- undergoing (according to his sister) a conversion on his deathbed.
5. In a journal he kept at school, Hammami wrote: "I don’t believe war should exist. It doesn't have a point." In a later entry, on April 13, 1996, he described the Oklahoma bombing as "stupid," adding, "I wish violence would vanish clear from the earth."
The path between total pacifism and total violence is well trodden. It is one of the traditional contradictions cultivated by middle class rebellion.
Many times, Rimbaud walked that walk -- or at least talked that talk. Yearning for peace, he cried out:
When shall we go beyond the shores and the mountains, to salute the birth of the new work, and the new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, and be the first to adore Christmas on earth? The song of heaven, the marching peoples! Slaves, let us not curse life.
Christmas on earth for Rimbaud, however, was no silent night. "Give over everything to war, to vengeance, to terrors," he urged elsewhere:
Europe, Asia, America -- disappear!
Our avenging march has occupied everywhere,
all cities, countrysides! We will be overcome!
Volcanoes will blow up; the ocean will be hit ... (Ibid., pp. 183-4.)
Omar: "I wish violence would vanish clear from the earth." Today, from his Somalia hideout, Omar wishes something else. He
speaks to the camera with a cool, almost eerie confidence. "We’re waiting for the enemy to come," Hammami whispers, a smile crossing his face. Later he vows, "We’re going to kill all of them."
Many, if not most, middle class rebels make that vow. Among the most ardent admirers of Rimbaud was Saloth Sar, a kindly petit professor of French literature during the 1950s.
Saloth Sar, alias Pol Pot. (David Chandler, "Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot," Westview Press, Inc., Boulder, Colorado, 1992, p. 54.)
6. As a Muslim, Omar was stricter than strict.
He came to believe that Muslims were suffering because they had lost their religion …. He insisted on eating with his bare right hand, as the prophet [Mohammed did] ….
His father kicked Omar out of the house when he refused, on religious grounds, to be in a family photo. Increasingly dogmatic, Omar came to denounce one Muslim group after another as secular, corrupt.
Only a "pure jihad" -- one that was carried out in defense of Muslim land with the purpose of creating an Islamic state -- met Hammami’s standard.
Rimbaud summarized the underlying quest in an almost audible wail: "Oh Purity! Purity!" ("The Source of Terrorism," p. 183.)
6. In Omar's junior year in high school, after converting to the Muslim religion, he
refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. In class, he swore at Hirsch, his longtime teacher, assailing her for being Jewish. That spring, in another class, Hammami tried to choke a student who interrupted him as he was reciting the Koran, students recalled. Hammami was promptly suspended.
Something was brewing. Omar The Conformist, the popular president of Daphne High School's sophomore class, the soccer and Nintendo-loving Omar, was becoming Omar The Rebel. Here, it is important not to confuse cause and effect: Omar had rebellious tendencies before he became a Muslim. He was
easily bored and short-tempered, once turning over his desk in second grade. His teachers tired of his endless questions. "He had a big mind in a small-minded place," Dena says ….
Shafik was always a strict father (he once washed out his son's mouth with detergent, causing him to throw up). But as the kids entered adolescence, Shafik became consumed with trying to keep his daughter on what he saw as a respectable path. He forbade her from talking on the phone unsupervised. He ruled out prom and even insisted that she wear leggings during soccer practice to avoid exposing her legs.
Dena did her best to flout the rules, with her brother as her ready accomplice. He helped her trade phone calls with boys and sneak out of the house. She and Omar shared the intimacy of twins; each was the other’s witness ... Finally, when she turned 16, Dena decided she could no longer bear her father's rules. She hugged her brother tightly as she left.
"Sorry I can't take you with me," she told him.
She moved in with a friend's family and returned only years later, to visit. The episode forced Hammami, he later wrote, "to think for myself and make my own way."
Did Omar learn to think for himself? To make his own way? The major point of this blog and of "The Source of Terrorism" is that exactly the opposite is true. Middle class rebellion follows a fixed trajectory. The autonomous, individual thoughts and actions the rebel swears by are in fact socially prefabricated, implanted, dictated. In toto, a very predictable, limited syndrome.
7. One day in 2000, Omar's class discussed bin Laden, then relatively unknown. A Christian student said he should be shot:
"Osama bin Laden is a terrorist."
"One man’s terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," Hammami replied.
Omar's remark -- universally repeated as an absolute truth -- is discussed and refuted in "The Source of Terrorism." For a simplified version, go to the second article (in a four-part series) "A New Definition of 'Terrorist' II: Why A Terrorist Is Not A Freedom Fighter." http://www.articlefriendly.net/Art/15005/129/A-New-Definition-Of-Terrorist-II-Why-A-Terrorist-Is-Not-A-Freedom-Fighter.html.
8. In his poem, Omar wrote of a "taste for glory" -- of having a ticket to ride on a train somewhere over the horizon. A decade later, the train left the station.
"Where is the desire to do something amazing?" Hammami wrote on Aug. 7, 2006. "Where is the urge to get up and change yourself -- not to mention the world and other issues further off?" "Stop sticking to the earth," he continued, "and let your soul fly."
Letting his soul take off had a political nuance. Omar declared of Somalia:
"'It's so wonderful. There's going to be an Islamic state.' … He was making it this utopia of happiness."The promise of an Islamic state, and by extension a caliphate, or Islamic world order, has long been the anthem of the global jihadist movement. It is central to the ideology of Al Qaeda ….
Idealism is the cornerstone of middle class rebellion. "Once laid, the rest of the structure follows." ("The Source of Terrorism," p. 144.) The reasons why a middle class position creates and maintains idealism are manifold; perhaps, it will suffice here to note that in "middle class rebellion, the separation of ideas from reality reflects the very real socio-economic isolation of those performing the separation." (Ibid.)
There is no more committed spokesman for such idealism than that advocate of a year-round Christmas on earth -- "the song of heaven" -- Arthur Rimbaud. He exclaimed as a teenager, "Just look at the sky! It is too small for us …!" (Ibid., p. 265.) That too-small-sky proved to be both a cause and result of a quest for the "discovery of divine light, -- far from those who die with seasons." (Ibid., p. 271.)
Omar's quest for divine light took him to Egypt and Somalia. Where else, only he knows.
9. In his December-2009 message, Omar declares of his outlaw life:
Sometimes I live in the bush with camels, sometimes I live the five-star life. Sometimes I walk for miles in the terrible heat with no water, sometimes I ride in extremely slick cars. Sometimes I'm chased by the enemy, sometimes I chase him!
"I have hatred, I have love," he went on. "It's the best life on earth!"
The energy making him feel so alive is the cult of contradiction, a central component of the ideology of middle class rebellion:
The middle class is caught between two extremes. Pushed and pulled between the upper and lower classes, it adapts by sanctifying its paradox -- indeed, paradoxes in general. One inevitable outcome is detectable in Rimbaud's observation that man performs: the rebel is relegated to being a student of his own catastrophe. (Ibid., p. 165.)
10. I conclude this post in the student vein. Omar told his sister that
he hoped his infamy would prompt people to ask, "How did this guy become that?""They can’t blame it on poverty or any of that stuff," he continued. "They will have to realize that it's an ideology and it's a way of life that makes people change."
Before Omar was born, I was prompted to ask how this guy became that. The answer that came forth over a 40-year period is partial, provisional.
What it comes down to is this: Omar is right about one thing. Behind it all, there is not "poverty or any of that stuff," but an ideology -- only, it is not the ideology Omar is thinking about. Rather, it is the ideology he is thinking with.
I hope somebody will slip Omar a copy of Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell," then "Illuminations." Omar has a poetic bent, so work with it. You will find nothing more subversive. He will come away knowing that other people have thought the same thoughts, felt the same feelings, had the same intuitions -- people who were middle class rebels.
He may even come to understand why he and Rimbaud literally and figuratively ended up in the same part of the world. The Horn of Africa. The desert.