He sits, fidgeting impatiently at the agonizing crawl of the primitive modem, the glare of his mother’s computer burnishing his cheeks. He’s too small for the chair he swivels in, and is thin and awkward after the classic model of the thin and awkward fourteen-year-old boy. He is mostly, but not completely, friendless, and will transfer to a new school in the fall, where a classmate will later remember him as “invisible.” His parents have begun to clash more intensely than ever, casting a weary pall over the household. Obsessed with hip-hop, he feels spectacularly out of place amid the affluence and cultural homogeneity of San Anselmo, a breezy little Marin County suburb. He dials online and quickly finds the rec.music.hip-hop newsgroup, an Internet message board popular in the early ’90s when the Net moved sluggishly and its space was still largely undeveloped. It is June 30, 1995.
He clicks the “Post New Topic” bar and, when the blank form finally loads, he cuts and pastes an epic, 228-line rap that he’s written. This, his first locatable post on this message board, is an excoriating lyrical tirade against rappers of every variety, from Too $hort to Sista Souljah to Marley Marl. “John Doe,” he writes, using his first online pseudonym, “flows like the wind blows,” and adds in unforeseeable irony, “Bladders burst when I wreck shop like Patty Hearst.” He’s especially cruel to rappers he believes have gone pop and thereby compromised their blackness, referring to Dr. Dre as a “sellout house nigga living honkey dory.”
He himself, of course, is white.
By the time he enters public awareness, he is in the custody of the US military, snared in the opening strains of the war on terrorism while helping the Taliban secure a starkly medieval regime in Afghanistan. He is emaciated, spattered with sewage, and handcuffed to the cold metal gurney on which he lay. A CNN reporter gains access to the prisoner and conducts a bedside interview with the noticeably frail and disoriented young man. It is December 1, 2001.
The reporter remarks that he has “known very few Americans that have fought jihad,” and wonders “Was this what you thought it would be? Was this the right cause or the right place?” As it airs on television, an extended commercial break is inserted into the space between the question and its answer. When the segment returns, the camera lingers on the young man as he replies, “It is exactly what I thought it would be.” The reporter fumbles, “And did you enjoy the jihad? I mean, was it a good cause for you?”
“Definitely,” the captive concludes.
And it is this image of John Walker Lindh that reverberates throughout the world media: fragile, ragged, and unapologetic — his skin colored by accumulated muck in an incidental blackface.
How did a quiet, bright young boy from suburban America, asks the customary question on John Walker Lindh’s unlikely journey, end up alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan? The published accounts that have streamed through the media in the year and a half since Lindh was captured in US-occupied Kunduz have shown only how elusive a satisfying response to that question actually is.
After Lindh was captured, conservative commentators such as Shelby Steele reflexively portrayed him as a predictable product of “a certain cultural liberalism” native to Northern California. Former President George Bush derided him as a “poor misguided Marin County hot-tubber.” Rags such as The National Enquirer blared sensationalistic headlines decrying Lindh as an “American traitor,” an assessment even echoed by the likes of Senator Hillary Clinton. Elsewhere, the National Review led the lynch mob in demanding that Lindh be brought up on charges of treason, which carries the death penalty. And according to one Newsweek poll, 40 percent of the country agreed.
Even the Justice Department wielded Lindh’s star appeal as a political tool, setting his first court appearance, which nearly monopolized the attention of the mainstream media, on the very morning that Congress began its hearings into the embarrassing Enron scandal. John Ashcroft and his Justice Department further contributed to the upwelling of public condemnation by inaccurately portraying Lindh as a member of al-Qaeda, a disciple of Osama bin Laden, and a holy warrior who had engaged in battle with United States forces. These mischaracterizations were later disavowed when the federal government dropped nine of the ten charges they’d filed against Lindh in a plea bargain. In the end, he was convicted only of violating a Clinton-era executive order forbidding American citizens from providing “services” to the Taliban. But by then, the public’s impression of Lindh was already firmly established.
In the media’s rush to explain Lindh’s motivation, a few disreputable psychological analyses of the young man’s behavior appeared, including two or three now-forgotten “instant books” with titles such as John Walker Lindh: American Taliban, A Psychological Study. Meanwhile, a military strategy magazine — The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International published a blundering attempt to explain away Lindh as a victim of Islam’s “cult-like aspects.” “If John Walker had been personally inspired by a book expressing the beauty of living as a circus clown, identity theory might suggest that he would have wanted to run off and join the circus,” its author reasons. “However, he was not inspired by circus clowns, he was inspired by the beauty of Islam.”
But neither the easy condemnation spewed by Lindh’s right-wing critics nor any of the various attempts at biography — not even the especially thorough ones published in Newsweek and Time — brought readers much closer to understanding the actual nature of Lindh’s spectacular trespass from well-off suburbanite to frontline Islamic guerrilla. The key to his transgression can be found elsewhere — specifically, in the store of writings he dispersed throughout a handful of Usenet newsgroups from the midsummer of 1995 to the late summer of 1997, just before his departure to the Middle East. Lindh’s trail of Internet writings is publicly available by entering his various e-mail addresses ([email protected] was the one he most frequently used) in the Groups.Google.com search engine. Yet these writings have been referred to only occasionally and have escaped close reading almost entirely.
The most fascinating of these texts feature Lindh identifying himself as an African American in an online hip-hop newsgroup in order to lecture and reproach African Americans for rap lyrics and discussions. Later, Lindh recast himself as “Mr. Mujahid” in an online group devoted to Islam, as he questioned, discovered, and sermonized on the tenets of strict fundamentalist Islam.
Taken by themselves, Lindh’s Internet writings amount to visible brushstrokes in a remarkable act of self-creation. Taken in context, they paint a compelling picture of the dramatic interplay between his formative online experiments with identity, his absorption with hip-hop and its diverse visions of blackness, and his eventual conversion to Islam.
Lindh is an exceptionally driven and uninhibited example of the deep-seated conflicts that lurk just beneath the surface of white participation in hip-hop. Unhappily introverted and generally unsettled in his own skin, he nevertheless understood two things implicitly: that to talk about hip-hop is to talk about race, and that race does not cease to matter at the borders of the Internet.
Critics who have portrayed his behavior as the inevitable result of being reared in tolerant Marin County seem to have missed the obvious: Lindh’s actions were themselves a rebuke of clichéd Marin liberalism. He not only implicated it explicitly, but determinedly chased its apparent opposites. In the end, Lindh himself is the most virulent critic of his permissive upbringing, and his critique is far more vehement than the stale arsenal of gibes about the ’60s wielded by his conservative commentators.
In an online bio for an old Internet chat room, Lindh, under the name Mustafa Naim Mujahid, wrote that he was “born in Chocolate City,” or Washington, DC, and “raised in its vanilla suburbs” of Takoma Park and Silver Spring, Maryland. His father, Frank, attended law school at Georgetown, and his mother, Marilyn, dropped out of college when John’s older brother was born. Frank did a stint at the Federal Regulatory Commission for two years, and eventually landed at the law firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Leiby & MacRae, to whose San Francisco offices he would transfer when John was ten. Frank forcefully and eloquently defended his son in the media in the time between his capture and his sentencing, and by all accounts he and Marilyn were gentle, astute parents.
Family life deteriorated, however, after the move to San Anselmo in 1991. A rift steadily widened between Frank and Marilyn, although it wouldn’t culminate in divorce until 1999. John shuffled back and forth between tutors, homeschooling, and public, private, and independent-study schools. He was a gifted student, but school inevitably presented a social minefield for the awkward, sensitive boy. The accumulated tensions of his parents’ separation, an embarrassing intestinal disorder, and the various disappointments of school drove the already introverted Lindh even further inward.
His personal conflicts culminated in many ways in his passion for the figure of Malcolm X. He first became enthralled with the civil rights leader when, as Time reports, “His mother took him, then twelve, to see Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X, and she says he was moved by a scene showing people of all nations bowing down to God.” One of Lindh’s lawyers, Tony West, told People in 2002, “When he talks about that last scene, his face still lights up. He says that seeing all those people in humbleness and equality all praying together really inspired him.”
The scene Lindh was stirred by at that early age is the film’s emotional climax, depicting Malcolm’s holy pilgrimage to Mecca just after he split with the Nation of Islam, a quasi-Islamic black nationalist sect, and just before he was assassinated by the same in Harlem. In a speech given in the days prior to his murder, Malcolm said of his hajj, or obligatory holy pilgrimage, “As a Muslim, when I left the Black Muslim movement, I realized that what we taught in there was not authentic Islam. My first journey was to Mecca to make myself an authentic Muslim. Elijah Muhammad had taught us that the white man could not enter into Mecca in Arabia, and … we believed it. And he said … he couldn’t enter because he’s white and inherently evil.” Malcolm, without becoming one of the “sellouts” or “Uncle Toms” that he (and later Lindh) so detested, came to embrace a nonracialized sense of humanity framed in submission to the Allah of “authentic Islam.”
Lindh’s admiration for Malcolm was channeled into an exploration of the black nationalism and quasi-Islam that saturated much of hip-hop of the late ’80s and early ’90s. His posts on the online message boards of the Usenet — particularly the newsgroups rec.music.hip-hop and alt.religion.Islam — are a strange and public window into a young man’s discontent. At school he may have been invisible, but the anonymity of the Web gave him the space to visibly and coherently remake himself as “an intelligent MC smashing empty-minded pimps.”
Peter Agoston, writer and owner of prominent independent hip-hop label Female Fun Records, started using the Internet at approximately the same time as Lindh, and recalls its appeal for a young music fan. “I blindly stumbled upon the newsgroup function on my mother’s computer, and all I cared about was rap music,” he recalls. “I skimmed around and found alt.rap and, soon after, rec.music.hip-hop, which felt all the more real and true and living to me than the blander ‘rap’ version.” In the latter newsgroup, Agoston remembers, he found “an ultimate forum, where opinions, both realistic and lofty, could be presented to a large group, debated, and conclusions could be drawn.”
Oliver Wang, a Berkeley graduate student, KALX DJ, and another longtime newsgroup user, has similar recollections. “None of my close friends were really into hip-hop, so rec.music.hip-hop became a forum in which I could dialogue with others about new releases, hip-hop philosophies in general, etc.,” says Wang, a freelance writer who has written for The Village Voice, Spin, and Vibe, and is an especially refined example of rec.music.hip-hop’s tendency to produce journalists. “It was an important place for me to develop my ideas around hip-hop and looking back, I now realize it was tremendously influential in my development as a journalist and writer.”
But the medium wasn’t without some troubling qualities. Underlying much of the interaction was an awareness that it was overwhelmingly composed of nonblack participants talking and passing judgment on black music. Agoston agrees: “It seemed as though racial themes and debate ran throughout much that was spoken about in the newsgroup.” The easy anonymity that forum contributors could operate within immeasurably complicated an already awkward situation. “For those of us who like to be in the shadows and be behind the scenes, rec.music.hip-hop was perfect,” observes John Book, a longtime newsgroup user who occasionally exchanged e-mails with Lindh.
Over the course of the two years that Lindh posted online, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, he used a dizzying array of names and personas. He was John Doe, the pro-black rapper. He was the “Disciple of the Englober,” the hip-hop critic. He was alternately Br. Mujahid and Mr. Mujahid, the Muslim “holy warrior.” In one instance, he signed off, “A Famous MC Who Shall Remain Anonymous Due to Dickriders.” And, finally, he was Prof. J., the Koranic scholar and anti-Zionist. The one identity he never used was his given name — although his mother’s name was visible in the e-mail address of some of his earliest posts. “John Doe” — a combination of his first name and the generic “Doe” — was as close to truth as Lindh ever got.
And it is his “John Doe” identity that illustrates most clearly the angst and ambivalence Lindh’s whiteness evoked for him. For three months, from June to September of 1995, his online identity was exclusively black. In that same autumn, the fourteen-year-old returned to public school after a two-year absence because of the intestinal ailment, during which he was homeschooled. After a single unsociable semester at public school, however, he transferred to an independent-study high school. The unhappiness of Lindh’s high school years likely amplified the intensity of his desire for expression and affirmation that he seemed to satisfy online.
His first locatable Internet post is the Odyssey-length rap of June ’95, all 228 lines of which were devoted to an astoundingly precocious and prematurely embittered critique of gangster rappers Too $hort, E-40, and N.W.A.; traditional rap icons Masta Ace, Queen Latifah, and Slick Rick; and popular newcomers such as Wu-Tang Clan in particular, but also House of Pain, Notorious B.I.G., and Keith Murray. It’s obvious throughout Lindh’s verse that he was intellectually in debt to the black nationalist strain of hip-hop whose influence peaked in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Referred to as “conscious rap,” it was elementally informed by the Nation of Islam, the 5 Percent Nation of Gods and Earths and, to a lesser and mostly symbolic extent, the Black Panther Party. (The 5 Percent Nation is a group that split from the Nation of Islam in 1964, keeping its critique of Christianity as the religion of the white oppressor, as well as its emphasis on African-American ascendancy and superiority, while losing its organizational structure altogether. It considers itself a “culture” rather than a faith, and its fluidity and role in self-affirmation — every black male is “God,” for instance — have given it tremendous currency within hip-hop since the late 1980s.)
On behalf of his assumed online blackness, Lindh denounced the racism of whites: “I abolish the stereotypes they’ve brought upon us/…Word is bond,” the last phrase a traditional 5 Percenter affirmative. The absurdities redoubled and Lindh indicted himself specifically: “Too $hort is wacker than Marin County Caucasians.” There are countless other examples, but this couplet can stand in for the rest: “Masta Ace … used to have skills … now he’s fake like plastic/His simple rhymes are crafted to make money for the grafted.” The term “grafted” was a reference to the Nation of Islam’s racial creation mythology, which positions Africans as “original” and whites as direct descendants of a mad scientist named Yakub, who was exiled from Africa for his deviousness and concocted the white race in a laboratory as revenge. “God has taught me that the white race was grafted unalike,” wrote Nation of Islam prophet Elijah Muhammad in The Fall of America.
The Lindh of these writings was clearly obsessed with race, and with setting his own obscurely-felt whiteness against his sense of a more stable and unapologetic blackness. His singular theme in these lyrics was the corruption of blackness and African-American identity through black avarice and white influence. He was most venomous on the topic of Dr. Dre, whom he called “a disgrace selling out to the talcum/He’ll be left dead and naked in the outcome/Word to brother Malcolm.” He also applied to Dre a favorite analogy of Nation of Islam-era Malcolm, that of the “field slave” as revolutionary, and the “house slave” as servile and bought-off. Elsewhere he assaulted the legitimacy of Dre’s then-record label, Death Row:
And his association with the white-owned label called Death Row,
Make a buck and making ten for Bubba Jimmy Jethrow.
Exploitation that’s been spread from the plantation
To the so-called “black radio stations” tests my patience.
Spreading stereotypes to give a chuckle to Caucasians,
So many follow that path, it’s just amazing
That you see their thuggish Bone asses on a Panther soundtrack.
The line “Spreading stereotypes to give a chuckle to Caucasians” was of a piece with Lindh’s broader, if not completely conscious, motivation: to condemn African Americans who stray from his sense of an uncompromised blackness. He again admonished black artists who “glorify gangbanging,” that they were simply “giving the white man a chuckle” and that they were thus facing “a real brother’s scolds.” And make no mistake: Lindh saw himself as the “real brother” here.
The solitary reply he received to the posting of his lyric was, unsurprisingly, from a 5 Percenter named Jah-Z Allah, webmaster of a site called the “5 Percent Web,” who wrote approvingly, “You bad, You bad! Go ‘head, Go ‘head!”
Lindh’s three other messages as John Doe are equally mystifying. In one, his e-mail signature inexplicably quoted John Shaft, the black private detective of the Shaft movies from the ’70s: “Stay away from black honkies with big flat feet.” In another post, he interrupted a discussion among two African Americans and lectures on the history of the term “nigger”: “It has, for hundreds of years been a label put on us by Caucasians — from overseers to politicians to Babe Ruth, and because of the weight it carries with it, I never use it myself.” He signed off with a quote from Malik Shabazz, Malcolm’s post- pilgrimage name, incriminating “the white man” who has “the blood of black people dripping off his fingers.”
His last substantial post in the persona of John Doe was on the occasion of another’s posted lyrics, entitled “Every Black Man Should Read This Rhyme” and apparently written by a young African American named “J-Dogg.” Lindh sermonized: “When I read those rhymes of yours I got the idea you were some thirteen-year-old white kid playing smart. That whole rhyme was saying essentially that all black people should just stop being black and that’d solve all our problems. Our blackness does not make white people hate us; it is THEIR racism that causes the hate.”
He condemned not just those African Americans who “fool and exploit black people” while working for whites who ridicule them, as he wrote of Dr. Dre, but also whites who pretend to knowing blackness, as he accuses J-Dogg of being white. He concluded of J-Dogg, “[I] believe you’re one of those white kids who thinks that if he eats enough collard greens, watermelon, and fried chicken, and sags his pants low enough, he’ll attain the right to call himself ‘nigga. ‘”
How common is it, even now, for a white kid to pose as if he were black online? “More common than most people think,” Book suggests. “It’s fairly easy to be anonymous on the Internet without your cover being blown.” Steve “Flash” Juon, the founder of rec.music.hip-hop and a webmaster and freelance writer, admits, “There was generally an uneasy feeling that at least some of the people who said they were African American probably weren’t.” Juon, who is white, even incriminates himself. “I was often thought to be African American myself; to which I would sometimes coyly answer that, considering Africa was the cradle of civilization, we were all African deep down, no matter what our skin color might be.”
Not long after the John Doe chapter, Lindh aspired to become a hip-hop musician himself. He began to discard the trappings of adolescence, putting up for sale his collection of comic books, comic cards, and video games. The day after offering up his juvenile collectibles, he surfaced on rec.music.makers.marketplace for the first time and attempted to buy an Alesis drum machine and a Roland MS-1 sampler, both common production tools for amateur rap musicians.
He also began selling off his hip-hop CDs, explaining that he wished to own only a turntable; this provides a revealing glimpse at the titles that filtered through the young Lindh’s attention. One post in particular contained a list illustrative of his taste for “conscious” hip-hop inspired by the Nation of Islam and the 5 Percent Nation. He cited Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Black, where Chuck D. plainly raps, “Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think to you ought to listen to/What he can say to you, what you ought to do.” He included Jeru’s The Sun Also Rises, which is full of serious-minded reproaches such as “The devil got brother killing brother” and “In the comfort of their caves/White kids press record.” (The idea that whites originate directly from caves is a common theme in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.) Also present were Ice Cube’s fierce, Khalid Muhammad- sampling and Nation of Islam-inflected AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Reel to Reel by Grand Puba, a 5 Percenter of the group Brand Nubian, one of whose albums featured a performance of the 5 Percenter hymn, “Peace and Justice.”
It’s fascinating that Lindh’s newsgroups texts, as deeply tinted as they were with black nationalist thought, did not once refer to the political or economic existence of African Americans outside of his obsession with the twin specters of the black “sellout” and the racist and empowered white. He was, despite it all, an upper-middle-class white kid from a suburban remove, and his imagination repeatedly failed him when it came to the concrete conditions that inspired the culture of resistance he so deeply identified with.
And not only was he oblivious to the exigencies of poverty, Lindh actually orchestrated a dizzying number of commercial transactions online. He was seemingly always in the process of buying or selling something new: a Sega Genesis and its games, Marvel comic books and cards, drum machines, samplers, bootleg cassettes of a rap battle between Oakland’s Hieroglyphics and Hobo Junction recorded from KMEL, and an enormous number of hip-hop records and CDs, among other things. His relative affluence existed uncomplicatedly alongside his insistent disdain for rappers he considered materialistic and whom he chided when he wrote, “Money, money, money, that’s [what] they go for, black.”
A few months after Lindh’s capture, his older cousin and fellow convert, Musa Abdum Nur, began a small-scale campaign to recast Lindh’s devotion to the Taliban as a bold stroke of conscience. Toward this end, he sent letters to Muslim Web sites describing how Lindh’s unswerving faith and uncommon thoughtfulness gave direct inspiration to his own conversion. In an interview with The New York Times Nur was outright worshipful, calling his cousin “a true hero” and “one of the greatest success stories in the modern propagation of Islam in the West.”
Lindh’s cousin, also known as Thomas Maguire, additionally offered tiny insights into the beginnings of both his and Lindh’s spiritual journeys. “We both nurtured a fledgling interest in Islam that chiefly centered on the pseudo-Muslim murmurs within hip-hop music,” he wrote. “While my interest in Islam stalled around issues of social freedom and self-gratification, John exhibited a glowing innocence that propelled him to openly investigate the truth of Islam.”
In the transitional period surrounding Lindh’s conversion and not long before his pilgrimage to the Middle East, the sixteen-year-old wrote a paper on The Autobiography of Malcolm X for an independent study class. He surely would have read the following passage with rapt attention, as it marks, in a letter to his wife written in Saudi Arabia just after his holy pilgrimage, Malcolm’s sudden and startling transcendence of the flawed race consciousness he had until then advocated: “We were truly all the same [brothers],” he wrote of his fellow hajji, “because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.” He added, “I could see from this that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man.” This passage conjures the very scene in Spike Lee’s film biopic of Malcolm that preoccupied Lindh at age 21, when he recounted it to his defense lawyer, no less than when he first saw it with his mother at age twelve.
Malcolm’s reaction to the relative universality within the pilgrims at Mecca was, it seems, a distinctly American one. In a volume of essays and interviews, published in 1993 and including conversations with a son and a grandson of Elijah Muhammad, and entitled American Jihad: After Malcolm X, there’s a short, striking testimonial by a recent American convert to Islam named Hoda Boyer. She was a white, middle-aged Midwesterner, and in her essay, “From Al Azhar to Oak Park,” she wrote of her willful transformation. “I told myself I had to … not be a woman’s libber anymore, because I want to have all these mystical experiences. I have to do this thing and be oppressed.” At the holiest Muslim shrine in Mecca, she experienced fully the nonracial “Oneness” of which Malcolm spoke. She continues, “At the Ka’aba, there was this sense of incredible peace and unity — nonduality. … It seemed to be a love and a peace that didn’t matter in the slightest whether you were American or Saudi or Persian or black or white.”
It was precisely this same shedding of whiteness that Lindh sought from his immersion in the Middle East. In the first interview after his capture, given to CNN while severely injured, Lindh volunteered of his Taliban counterparts, “We all have the same cause, which has nothing to do with ethnicity or anything like that.” As his cousin admiringly observed, “Having witnessed various intervals of his journey, it was clear that conversion brought him … a sense of completion.”
In the fall of ’96, Lindh’s first post on alt.religion.islam materialized, and he posed an important doctrinal question related to the prohibitions of Koranic law: “I’ve heard recently that certain musical instruments are forbidden by Islam. … Are in fact certain musical instruments haram, and if so, which instruments or types of instruments are they?” A couple of months later he tried to sell his Alesis drum machine and attempted to find Malcolm X speeches on vinyl.
It was throughout this period that Lindh’s enchantment with rap declined dramatically, as made clear in his final post on rec.music.hip-hop — an acidic derision of a 5 Percenter who answered the question, “Is Nas Muslim?” Nas is a well-known rapper whose own spiritual metamorphosis has been quietly playing out in his music over the past decade.
The 5 Percenter, a female who went by the name of Earth Divine Wisdom, wrote, “Nas ac-knowledges himself as a true and living God, the only God there is, and doesn’t fall prey to spookisms.” Lindh, in the same snide tone that distinguished his earlier texts, assailed what he considered the pseudo-Muslim qualities of Nas and the 5 Percent Nation: “Is Nas indeed a ‘god’? If this is so, then why is he susceptible to sin and wrongdoing? Why does he smoke blunts, drink Moët, fornicate, and make dukey music? Why is it if he is a ‘god’ that one day he will die? That’s a rather pathetic ‘god’ if you ask me.” His concluding remark — also his final posting to rec.music.hip-hop — is one that ended his relationship with hip-hop in plain, racially charged terms: “Perhaps one day the members of the 5 Percent will wake up and see who is in fact the slave and who is indeed the Master.”
This remark laid bare his transformation: the 5 Percent Nation, once for Lindh a site of unyielding blackness, whose slang he loosed in adolescent keystrokes, had been restaged as subject to a greater, more inclusive, and totalizing faith: Islam as it is practiced in the East.
Lindh’s last messages in general appeared to occur in the mid-to-late summer of ’97, as he sold off his entire rap collection — CDs, vinyl, and cassettes — and posed broad theological questions such as “Is it alright to have clothing with pictures resembling living things? What about books, records, magazines, etc.? Is it alright to watch cartoons on TV or in movies?” and responded authoritatively to questions such as “Are Shi’a Muslims?”
In one rancorous jeremiad, posted under the nom de guerre “Prof. J.,” Lindh began to exhibit for the first time the severe religious intolerance that marks fundamentalism. He wrote, “it’s … a shame that so many Muslims are confused when they see devils marching under the banners of Jews and Christians; people of the book. They’re wolves in sheep’s clothing.” He seemed to glory in use of the term “devil” to describe Christians and Jews, a piece of acrimony once quite familiar to Lindh in the context of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm’s long Nation of Islam phase, and Nation of Islam-influenced hip-hop as applicable only to whites.
This period of subsiding interest in hip-hop and renewed admiration for Malcolm X coincided, in mid-1997, with attempts to find a mosque at which he might pray. Time wrote that Lindh visited the Redwood Mosque, a nearby prayer hall, but dismissed it, characteristically, “as insufficiently orthodox.” His father, a Roman Catholic, and his mother, a Buddhist who’d dabbled in Native American rites, were guardedly supportive.
A couple of months later, in late ’97, he took shahada, his confession of faith, at the local Mill Valley Mosque; adopted the name Sulayman al Faris; and discovered a local missionary Islamic group, Tablighi Jama’at, that put forward an austere interpretation of the Koran — the only brand of Islam that would ever again appeal to Lindh.
At seventeen, in early 1998, Lindh moved to Yemen unaccompanied to attend the Yemeni Language Center, a secular institution that taught the “pure” dialect of Arabic in which the Koran is written. Time wrote that he dropped out after five weeks, deeply let down by the Western liberalism of many of his fellow students. He wore the head-to-toe white robe and kufi favored by fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan, complained about coed classes as well as his dorm-mates’ behavior, and, in return, was sneeringly nicknamed “Yusuf Islam,” the name taken by pop singer Cat Stevens following his conversion to Islam. He stayed in Yemen for the rest of the year, studying at Al-Iman University, steadily learning Arabic, and acquiring his second Arabic name, Abdul Hamid. He came home to the Bay Area for some months in 1999 before returning to Yemen, moving on from there into Pakistan, and finally, by 2001, into Afghanistan.
His spiritual development was restless and riven with starts and stops. Relentlessly and unquenchably orthodox, Lindh actively sought a life rendered exactly by the dictums of the Koran (which he has since reportedly finished memorizing, in its entirety, while in prison). One Yemeni journalist theorized in Time that Lindh, while in Pakistan, “was told that what he was looking for could only be found in Afghanistan.” In his own words, Lindh told a Newsweek reporter that “the ideas of the Taliban occupied my mind a lot,” and that he went to Afghanistan “to help the Islamic government … because the Taliban are the only government that actually provides Islamic law” and a “pure Islamic state.”
But once again Lindh remained utterly blind to the political realities of his quest, as he would experience in Pakistan, where he gave up his studies to train at a paramilitary camp operated by the militant Islamic organization Harakat-ul-Mujahideen — from which a splinter group infamously kidnapped and executed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in the winter of 2002. There Lindh was instructed by Pakistani intelligence officers and prepared to contribute to the long-running, low-grade war between India and Pakistan and independence-minded Kashmiris over the fate of India-administered Kashmir. He joined, The New Yorker reported, in order to fight for “poor Muslims being oppressed.” But when, after a couple of weeks, he chanced upon a doctored map that showed Kashmir incorporated into Pakistan, he became disheartened and immediately dropped out. “It was not an Islamic struggle, it was a political struggle,” he later complained in The New Yorker article. “HUM had no clear goal, no clear answer about whether Kashmir was to become independent. My preoccupation was that Kashmir become independent. I didn’t want it to join Pakistan, because Pakistan is a secular state.” It was mere days after this frustration that Lindh apparently decided to take up jihad on the front lines of the Taliban’s then-raging conflict with an armed secular opposition group, the Northern Alliance.
As further testimony to Lindh’s impressive blend of precocious intelligence and scandalous naïveté, a scholarly terrorism expert invited by Lindh’s defense team to interview him at length told The New Yorker, “His knowledge of Arabic and the Koran is comparable to that of a Ph.D candidate.” And yet, another expert hired by his defense remarked that when she referred to the Taliban’s denunciation of Shiite Muslims and the regime’s notorious repression of women, he expressed blank surprise and responded, “I’ll have to study that,” admitting that he wasn’t really familiar with those aspects of the Taliban. The expert said she believed him, but added, “I wondered, ‘How could he not know?’ He was mystical, almost.”
Finally, although Lindh told a Newsweek reporter when pressed that he “supported” the September 11 attacks on the United States, he immediately qualified his support with, “I don’t know much about bin Laden. I know he’s written a couple of books.”
Along with much of a generation of white suburbanites, Lindh found hip-hop in the first half of the 1990s and became fixated. What set him apart was the way in which his keen intelligence was “concentrated,” as Marlowe says of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, “upon himself with horrible intensity.” But what can it mean that Lindh’s blackface Internet writings were both blueprint and prelude to his conversion to Islam, and then the fearless dash into jihad that landed him in Taliban-gripped Afghanistan and finally left him sentenced to fifteen to twenty years in a federal prison in the Mojave Desert?
“John Walker was on his own level, and no matter what he said, nothing was going to stop him,” John Book reflects. “He had a mission that he believed in, and he did it. Most of us talk the talk and end up being keyboard warriors.” After Book made the connection between the John Walker Lindh he had corresponded with and the “Marin Taliban,” he was struck by a revelation: “When I did see his face on the news, I saw … the beard and thought ‘Damn, that could have been any one of us.'”
Kari Orr, one of the newsgroup’s few long-term African-American participants as well as one of Lindh’s many online targets, takes issue with Book’s use of the common pronoun “us.” The black American experience and the white American experience, Orr delicately suggests, are not readily interchangeable. “If you come from a certain experience, you will notice things that others, not from that experience, do not. Your senses are tuned differently. There’s a lot of that in … hip-hop. People assume that because they are smart, because they can read, they can ultimately understand everything going on and being said in the music and culture. I don’t think so. … Looking back on it, those things are to be expected. In reference to John Walker Lindh — white folks are always gonna do that.”
Like many white hip-hoppers of his generation, Lindh heard in rap music and in the words of Malcolm X a clarion call to abandon his entitlement, to shed the protective layer of his white upper-middle-class status. But unlike others in his generation, Lindh actually heeded this call. He applied his solid coat of online blackface not to mock or satirize with distorted caricature, as is conventional for the white minstrel, but so that he might more thoroughly wash away the privileged identity that existed beneath his pseudonyms. Likewise, when Lindh thrust himself on the front lines against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, he accepted in advance the price of death for the “removal of whiteness” and subsequent “Oneness of Man” that Malcolm promised him he’d find in Islam. His cousin, Musa Abdum Nur, insists that this quality of Lindh’s is his genuine legacy, that he be venerated as “someone who abandoned privilege and comfort to seek knowledge and strive in the cause of Allah.”
But in truth, Lindh’s legacy will be far more ambivalent and obscure. For most, he’s already a half-forgotten footnote of the war on terrorism. His significance, if he is to possess any, lies in the spectacular way in which he was both a product of the American suburbs and a pilgrim of its apparent opposites. Which is why using the word “traitor” to describe Lindh — who never lifted his hand toward an American soldier — is not only incorrect but bitterly ironic. In his obsession with race, his longing to transcend it, and irrepressible will toward self-invention, John Walker Lindh could only have been American.
“I Wreck Shop Like Patty Hearst”
Excerpts from “JOHN DOE’s Almighty Bicoastal Armegaddon Starchild Flow, With Extra Sprinkles On Top & Sides,” 1995.
I represent the west don’t be mislead by that other shit
20 P-Funk samples and they think they’re from the mother ship
G-Funk? Come on y’all, I smother it
Don’t get me wrong P-Funk gets mad props and hollars
Their thought and hard work is what’s bringing suckers dollars
I abolish the stereotypes they’ve brought upon us
I’ve been schooled in the east and graduated with honors
Word is bond, it’s now the west where I reside
I maintain my stance while my peirs subside
When the white exec’s offered E-40 complied
He spits words fast with verses and styles dead like hurses
He can’t write for shit so he dribbles drabbles and babbles on
Off pace with the wack beats that he’s rapping on
The click is like a whole crew of whining Horshack’s
Money money money and that’s they go for, black
Contradicting like muslims with terret syndrome
40’s wack crew’s gonna be left smoking indo in limbo
His off beat styles sound so simple
He’s just a businessman when it comes down to the mental
Orientation lacing catchphrases in with his wack word placement
All these crew’s screaming “real” are faker than Master Ace Inc.
I’m replacing what I face because I’m tre bien
Too $hort is wacker than Marin county caucasians
Ambitions shrink when crews catch a glimps
Of an intellegent MC smashing empty minded pimps
$hort Dog does hip hop no glory
Wack like Dr Dre and his made-up gangster stories
Sellout house nigga living honkey dory
Saying he’s broke in his own pool doing laps
All these playground MC’s fall off like scabs
Skills disappear like alaka abracadab
Dr Dre’s a disgrace selling out to the talcolm
He’ll be left dead and naked in the outcome
Word to brother Malcolm
Dre shirts and hat’s when will we see his cereal?
Words of ignorance screaming claiming he’s imperial
Those wack metaphors aint even demo tape material
When NWA broke up I rejoiced
It must be all the Ide’s 6-packs sacks and joints
Cause in all his years of rhyming I’ve still never heard a point
All he know’s how to do is act the fool and exploit
Black people, he’s see-through
Glorifying evil, filthly like swine’s fecal
Matter my rhymes make ego’s splatter
Bladders burst when I wreck shop like Patty Hearst
Atomic Dog can only be sampled so many times
He does it no justice with those Grade Z petty rhymes
You got your money on like Ray Love now go the fuck away
He “got no love for girls” but I wont blast him cause he’s gay
I bust up his ego strictly due to his display
And his association with the white owned label called Death Row
Make a buck and making 10 for Bubba Jimmy Jethrow
Exploitation that’s been spread from the plantation
To the so called “black radio stations” test my patients
Spreading stereotypes to give a chuckle to caucasians
So many follow that path it’s just amazing
That you see their thuggish Bone asses on a Panther soundtrack
Bippity zibbety shit’s fast but their beats and voices sound wack
Kids got the nuts that a Mounds packs; none
Talking like they’re gangsters but they don’t pack guns
Glorifying gangbanging; making it look fun
Once again giving the white man a chuckle
When they learn to stop the suckle under pressure they’ll just buckle
My plight is to ignite a movement of tight shit
To raise subterranian standards into ‘hype shit’
Like back in the day when Last Poet’s got it going
They lit a bon-fire but without even knowing
These days the embers are barely even glowing
MC’s claim phat but only show molasses flowing
Marly’s downfall was graphic, now he’s fake like plastic
His simple rhymes are crafted to make money for the grafted
While he collects the table scraps and stays satisfied
Move’s like those he’s made can never be gratified
Remember “Battle In Brooklyn”? Now his shit is sanitized
Talking about blunts like Cypress Hill or Channel Live
Original kids will eat the man alive
Analized, his lyrics only go knee deep
He make’s-believe about the hood like Mr McPhealy
Putting me to sleep like a matress made by Sealy
I’m much more, than merely a master
In fact I’m faster than the last flash flood disaster
Bastards like House Of Pain are left with their rep’s wrecked
Insurance is collected before the mic is even checked
Inspect my deck and like Gza get your neck seperated
Depart for the same reason MC Bootie never made it
I run through gold artists like aqua regia I wreck like Ced Gee, a key competitor
Speaking without letting up from my third eye’s retina
John Doe the X the next; the etcetera