Sunday, August 20, 2006

More Al-Qaeda

The Looming Tower is sort of alike a prequel to The One Percent Doctrine, and like that book, Looming has a hard time deciding what to focus on. So most of it is a history of Al Qaeda and its predecessors, with a bit also about the FBI’s anti-terrorism efforts prior to 9-11. Obviously these two histories overlap to a certain extent. The FBI not only investigated Al-Qaeda, it successful prosecuted a number of Islamist terrorists.

But what is really interesting in The Looming Tower is the intellectual history of Al-Qaeda and other Islamists movements. This always starts with Sayyid Qutb’s visit to the U.S.A. in the 40s, and how this encounter with modernity turned him toward a profoundly anti-modern concept of Islamic revolution. This was simultaneous with Nasser’s Arab Nationalist movement, and Arab Nationalists used Islamists when it suited them and suppressed them otherwise. Pan-Arabism and Arab Nationalism were, for so long, the key movements. They had success in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and the P.L.O. was, of course, nationalist instead of Islamist. The Left in the West could have sympathy for the Nationalists because they claimed to be socialists and were certainly anti-imperialists. But they were (and still are) quite brutal. The descriptions of Egyptian tortures of Islamists are bloodcurdling. The description of Zawahiri’s trial and his carefully planned denunciations of torture (including a simultaneous disrobing of the defendants to show their scars) is gripping. And almost beyond comprehension was the raping of little boys to turn them against their Islamists fathers.

While some on the Left supported Arab Nationalists, Western governments were more wary. Egypt only got the OK after the peace treaty with Israel (which led to Zawahiri’s pre-Al-Qaeda group, Al-Jihad, assassinating Sadat). Iraq got a tentative nod of approval only because they were anti-Iran. But we supported all kinds of Islamists—that included alliance with the Saudis and the arming and financing of the Afghani freedom fighters. (If you include Israel as part of the West, which I certainly do, their early support of Hamas as a counterweight to the secular Nationalist P.L.O. also counts as Western support of Islamism.)

The Left always seemed to oppose Islamism, when they knew it for what it was. Certainly some of the few people to forcefully speak out against the Taliban prior to 9-11 were feminists, appalled by the grotesque diminution of the status of women in Afghanistan.

The book also details the chilling intellectual path of Zawahiri (a true intellectual) and Bin Laden (who is influenced by Zawahiri). They find ways to justify killing Muslims (and recall that Al-Qaeda and Al-Jihad have killed many more Muslims than “infidels”). They devise a means for excommunicating Muslims, and in their reductionist world, most Muslims deserve death for their many deficiencies. And they find a bizarre justification for suicide, which is normally one of the gravest sins in Islam.

Their main strength is their patience. They were never quite as powerful as they are popularly portrayed; their willingness to spend years on an action is what makes them dangerous, along with their increasingly insane ideology.

This was a gripping book—far better than the similar Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman, who unconvincingly tries to make a grand unified theory of totalitarian ideology. Looming really gets into the meat of what is unique about this ideology, and why the struggle against it is different from struggles against fascism and communism.

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