Over the weekend, ISIS released a video depicting the immediate aftermath of the murder of American aid worker Peter Edward Kassig, who adopted the Muslim name Abdul-Rahman Kassig while in captivity following his apparent conversion. The White House has confirmed the authenticity, and Kassig’s death, and in a statement released on Sunday, President Obama called the murder “an act of pure evil.”
In that statement, the president referred to Kassig as “Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known to us as Peter,” and referred to him as “Abdul-Rahman” throughout the rest of the statement. That decision has some conservative bloggers criticizing the president for “proselytizing for Islam,” while still other Muslim-bashing conservatives are using Kassig’s apparent conversion to suggest he got what was coming to him.
There are legitimate questions about the authenticity and/or sincerity of Kassig’s conversion, occurring as it did under the duress of captivity. Other hostages have reported such conversions as attempts to gain more favorable treatment from captors, but a fellow hostage of Kassig’s told a BBC reporter that as a prisoner, Kassig was “a very dedicated Muslim.” Kassig’s parents publicly recognized the conversion, and said, after the fact, that their son was gravitating toward Islam before his capture:
In a statement they said their son’s “journey toward Islam” had begun before he was taken captive but they understood he had converted voluntarily late last year while sharing a cell with a devout Muslim.
However, that was while they still hoped their son might be shown mercy. How would they feel after the revelation of their son’d murder?
On Monday, a White House official explained to me that the administration has been in ongoing contact with Kassig’s family, and that the parents had requested the use of “Abdul-Rahman” prior to their son’s murder, but also that the administration checked with them prior to releasing Sunday’s statement, and their feelings on the matter had not changed. It was at their request that Obama referred to Peter Kassig as “Abdul-Rahman Kassig” in the official statement regarding his death.
The issue of a conversion in captivity is a complicated one, and tragically, Mr. Kassig is not available to clear it up. There is also no one on Earth who is in a position to stand in judgment about it. Obama respected the family’s wishes, but as journalists, we should deliver as full a measure of that complexity as possible.
Here’s the full text of President Obama’s statement on Kasig’s death (via email from The White House):
Statement by the President on the Death of Abdul-Rahman Kassig
Today we offer our prayers and condolences to the parents and family of Abdul-Rahman Kassig, also known to us as Peter. We cannot begin to imagine their anguish at this painful time.
Abdul-Rahman was taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity. Like Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff before him, his life and deeds stand in stark contrast to everything that ISIL represents. While ISIL revels in the slaughter of innocents, including Muslims, and is bent only on sowing death and destruction, Abdul-Rahman was a humanitarian who worked to save the lives of Syrians injured and dispossessed by the Syrian conflict. While ISIL exploits the tragedy in Syria to advance their own selfish aims, Abdul-Rahman was so moved by the anguish and suffering of Syrian civilians that he traveled to Lebanon to work in a hospital treating refugees. Later, he established an aid group, SERA, to provide assistance to Syrian refugees and displaced persons in Lebanon and Syria. These were the selfless acts of an individual who cared deeply about the plight of the Syrian people.
ISIL’s actions represent no faith, least of all the Muslim faith which Abdul-Rahman adopted as his own. Today we grieve together, yet we also recall that the indomitable spirit of goodness and perseverance that burned so brightly in Abdul-Rahman Kassig, and which binds humanity together, ultimately is the light that will prevail over the darkness of ISIL.