Arab world indifferent about death of unknown American cleric

But the headline says: “As the West Celebrates a Cleric’s Death, the Mideast Shrugs.”

The New York Times, forever the trumpet of institutional power, apparently sees no need to draw a distinction between the White House and the West — even though most people in the West, like those in the Middle East, wouldn’t, until a few days ago, have been able name Anwar al-Awlaki, identify his photo or say anything about him.

The report itself is more clear-eyed:

Until about two years ago, few in Yemen or the Arab world had heard of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist for Islamic radicalism whose death President Obama celebrated as a major blow against Al Qaeda.

“A dime-a-dozen cleric” was one response, by Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton professor who studies Yemen. Another: “I don’t think your average Middle Easterner knows who Anwar al-Awlaki is,” said Emad Shahin, a scholar of political Islam at Notre Dame University.

While Western officials and commentators saw the end of Mr. Awlaki as another serious loss for Al Qaeda, a very different reception in the Middle East was the latest reminder of the disconnect between American aims and Arab perceptions. In a region transfixed by the drama of its revolts, Mr. Awlaki’s voice has had almost no resonance.

“I don’t think this will really get people’s interest, I can’t imagine why it would,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “It seems totally irrelevant to how Arabs view the world right now. They don’t care about Awlaki.”

It is a remarkable feature in the Arab world these days how little Al Qaeda actually comes up in conversations. Even before the eruption of revolts and revolutions, a group that bore some responsibility for two wars and deepening American involvement from North Africa to Iraq was losing its significance. When Osama bin Laden died, his killing seemed more an epitaph for another era. As is often remarked, the events of Sept. 11 seem a historical note to much of an Arab population where three in five are younger than 30.

In that atmosphere, many saw Mr. Awlaki’s death as an essentially American story: here was a man that American attention helped create, and its Hellfire missiles killed, in a campaign born out of American fears of homegrown militancy. What distinguished Mr. Awlaki was not his ideas or influence but his American upbringing, passport and perfectly idiomatic English.

“When the Obama administration and the U.S. media started focusing on him, that is when Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula pushed him to the fore,” Mr. Johnsen said, referring to the group’s Yemeni branch. “They were taking advantage of the free publicity, if you will. And any stature he has now in the Arab world is because of that.”

Another analyst, Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, echoed the idea that Mr. Awlaki’s fluency in English generated more interest about him. “The U.S. focus on Awlaki was a function of his language abilities and their understanding of his role as a recruiter and propagandist. If recent events can be said to further marginalize violent rejectionists such as Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, then there is very little room for a virtual unknown such as Awlaki to command any serious attention.”

Mr. Hanna said that was even more the case with the Arab world having plunged into what he described as “this transformational juncture.”

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