An Apostate's Guide to Freedom from Want and Fear

Tarek Mehanna went to Yemen in 2004 to study the “true meaning of the Jihad.” When he came back he started writing horrifying things online. He’s an Arabic translator, so his work is often esoteric. He was no Anwar Awlaki, communications master, but like Awlaki blogging put Tarek’s life on ice.

Mehanna is serving 17.5 years in jail in the U.S. for Material Aid to Terrorism. Around 2008 the FBI caught wind of his work online, through his blog, through message boards, and because he preached anti-American Dawa at local mosques. He became a target, and he claims his imprisonment contradicts the first amendment. He says he was practicing his religion, which is a fair point. If we’re prosecuting people for things they say they believe, why is Luis Beam free?

Mehanna translated the pamphlet, 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in the Jihad, distributed online as a PDF by “At-Tibyan Publications.” This devotional includes a particularly vile binary, promising “dominance over people of disbelief.” The text calls for “a clear and and intense war void of any rest or mercy - until the command of God arrives.”

The central fiction of this text, that eternal life might be gained by heroic efforts, holds historical resonance. Often conversations about how to attain eternal life get competitive, especially when possessors of actual wealth and natural resources dictate the capacity of different parts of the earth to experience heaven or hell.

The depths of our collective memory (pressed from ancient myths of Greek and Egyptian gods’ relations with men through Zoroastrian cults, Buddhist practices and transcendentalism) includes the attempt to escape warfare as the refining heat of morality. The quest to be moral is part of the Jihad.

Since times unknown, humans have decided what’s good and bad by killing evil doers. God cast out Satan because he would not serve the rest of creation. Islamic tradition places Satan (Ilbis) is a tempter. Ilbis is not an opponent of God, but the most devoted servant. His mission is to tempt the devoted away from the the path to heaven. He tests believers. Resisting Ilbis is part of The Jihad.

The religious tract in question, 39 Ways is hard to read. It’s mostly a collection of hadith defining Jihad, and it is arranged in a way that feels ancient. But it’s important to remember when reading any text, inspired or not, that it is written by a person. If God is involved at all, the inspiration is in the mind of the reader as much as the writer. The case of Tarek Mehanna illustrates how reading (especially old texts) well, with a level of critical detachment and in view of the historical forces involved, is essential to the Jihad.

Though 39 Ways is probably not actually written by Muhammad Bin Ahmad as-Salim, but someone who took that moniker online for dramatic effect, the pieces of writing that Mehanna translated takes up the Wahhabi tradition, which fights to set descendants of Muhammad in place for world domination and leadership. This imperial impulse to maintain bloodlines puts undue faith in the science of genetics.

The composition of 39 Ways may date back eight hundred years to when the Huns sacked The House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Chaotic times of war have consistently placed similar religious traditions at odds. Crusaders fight Mujahideen. God is on both sides. It is bloody and suicidal, because the Jihad to bring heaven to earth does not end through violence. The winners can only be apostates.

The whole story behind the modern conflict between the U.S. and Wahhabism is mired in ancient fictions that originated in the Fertile Crescent. They illustrate some of humanity’s most ancient laws. These fictions lay the groundwork for modern law and they define authority. Stories sometimes offer aha moments, or glimpses of the truth. But any narrative must include fictions. Life is too complex and strange to contain in words.