Anwar Al Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico but is now based in Yemen, has come under intense scrutiny since being linked to Major Nidal Hassan, a US army psychiatrist who killed 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas in November. Image Credit: AFP

I'm trying to figure out the difference between Ann Coulter and Anwar Al Awlaki. There doesn't seem to be much. Other than, of course, that one gets the biggest audience in America for hate-speech against American (Muslim) citizens and the other has just been placed on a CIA hit list with White House approval. No prizes for guessing which one is which.

Al Awlaki is an American and until recently, was regarded highly as a Muslim scholar, born in New Mexico of Yemeni parentage. He served as an Imam in California, Virginia and at George Washington University.

In September 2006, while studying fiqh, a Yemeni raid orchestrated by the CIA and MI6 abducted and imprisoned him under harsh conditions. He was released 18 months later, for lack of evidence, never having faced trial. But on his release, the remarkable happened:he was exiled to Yemen.

Originally much loved, his rapid descent into hate-speech was noted with dismay. "They put him in jail for 18 months and I detected a change after he got out of prison, he began to get away from the mainstream," Al Awlaki's father said.

Omar Ahmad Sulaiman, an Imam in New Orleans and a member of the Islamic Circle of North America's Sharia Council among others, firmly repudiated his call for jihad: "Most American Muslims simply dismissed his new lectures and writings as tainted by his frustration with what had happened to him in prison."

Now, however, they believe that his is "the same call of the kharijites that has been repeated so many times, that feasts on the frustration and uncontrolled emotions of vulnerable youth that do not have the foundation or knowledge to recognise its illegitimacy".

Yet, pause for a moment from the hysteria surrounding this man's life. He's clearly a hate-monger. But a terrorist? Al Awlaki denied that he encouraged the Nigerian bomber and called for the US to release correspondence between him and the Fort Hood shooter in the days prior to the attack.

Remarkably, Al Awlaki does not believe that Al Qaida exists, instead that 9/11 is the work of Mossad. Following 9/11, he wrote on IslamOnline.net that Mossad might have been responsible and that the FBI "went into the roster of the airplanes and whoever has a Muslim or Arab name became the hijacker by default".

Diabolical hyperbole

It's the diabolical self-referencing hyperbole which leads to his imminent demise. Consider that President Barack Obama's counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, calls him "clearly a part of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula". About the Nigerian airplane bomber, the Yemeni Defence Minister, Rashad Al Alimi, notes: "If he went to Shabwa, for sure he would have met Anwar Al Awlaki." Later, this was beefed up to: "There is no doubt that he met and had contacts with Al Qaida elements in Shabwa, ... perhaps with Al Awlaki". Witness the morph into official narrative. A man who believes Al Qaida does not exist is suddenly a part of Al Qaida. And the person responsible for defending Yemen invites pre-emptive drone attacks by alluding to Al Qaida operatives in his own country.

There's no doubt his hate speech is unconscionable. Just like Coulter's.

Yet, why not try the man, charge and fine him for hate speech? Arrest him for incitement to violence? Or would that in fact not lead us to the origins of his hatred; the abrogation of the social contract by the government, his immoral imprisonment without trial, his torture and his exile? Obama please answer me: Since when did the US exile and sanction the assassination of its own citizens?

I believe that the latter is our generation's Sayyed Qutb. Both were adored by ordinary Muslims simply for lectures on the Quran and certainly not for their reactionary and impolitic hate-speech which lacks theological rigour.

Both stand accused of actually masterminding terrorism. Yet, Qutb was hanged after torture at the hands of fellow Muslims, while Al Awlaki endured state terrorism.

Let him face trial, not the unmanned bullet of a drone hunting him down in a beleaguered country, alone and without the benefit of the rule of law. This is, after all, what distinguishes America from Yemen and what distinguishes Al Alwaki's rhetoric from that of a democracy's.

Habiba Hamid is an independent writer based in Dubai.