JUST before Christmas 1948, a middle-aged Egyptian writer stepped off an ocean liner docked in New York Harbor and onto U.S. soil for the first time. He had come to escape the threat of persecution at home, but the next several months would bring a bitterness all their own. The country's unabashed materialism repelled him. Americans seemed "a reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money," and he longed, as he told a friend, for someone to talk to "about topics other than dollars, movie stars, brands of cars — a real conversation on the issues of man, philosophy, and soul." He found the food "weird," the barbers incompetent, the racism appallingly pervasive, the religion empty and hypocritical and the women aggressive and promiscuous. "A girl looks at you," he wrote, "appearing as if she were an enchanted nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh, truly, but flesh nonetheless."
These may have been little more than the observations of an embittered exile, but on Sept. 11, 2001, they would prove to have grand historic significance. The writer's name was Sayyid Qutb, and his "lonely genius," as Lawrence Wright puts it in "The Looming Tower," would "unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives." It was Qutb's U.S. sojourn that convinced him that the West and Islam were fundamentally opposed — a fundamental opposition that, half a century later, persuaded a generation of Muslim zealots to go to war against the West. "[T]o kill the Americans and their allies," proclaimed a then little-known terrorist group called Al Qaeda in 1998, "is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."
Wright's magisterial, beautifully crafted narrative of the path to Sept. 11 traces this notion of global jihad through Egyptian student movements, Saudi mosques and Afghan training camps, through the murderous fatwas of radical clerics and finally into the heads and hearts of a wealthy young Saudi named Osama bin Laden and the martyrdom-obsessed young men he recruited to Al Qaeda's ranks. But for Wright, a staff writer at the New Yorker, the story hinges less on ideas than it does on individuals — both those behind Al Qaeda and those in the United States working to stop them. "[T]he tectonic plates of history were shifting, promoting a period of conflict between the West and the Arab Muslim world," he writes, "however, the charisma and vision of a few individuals shaped the nature of this contest."
Be sure to read the whole thing. Understanding the ideological and religious origins to the current terror war remains a challenge for both experts and citizens alike, and Wright's book looks to add considerably to our knowledge of the motivating factors behind Al-Qaeda's war against the United States and the Western democracies.
Upon finishing the review, I was reminded of an article I assign in my World Politics class entitled, "Terror, Islam, and Democracy," by Iranian scholars Ladan and Roya Boroumand. The Boroumand's article is incisive, the best article-length academic treatment I've read on radical Islam's existential threat to Western civilization. Here's a snippet, but bookmark the article's page and read the whole thing later:
“Why?” That is the question that people in the West have been asking ever since the terrible events of September 11. What are the attitudes, beliefs, and motives of the terrorists and the movement from which they sprang? What makes young men from Muslim countries willing, even eager, to turn themselves into suicide bombers? How did these men come to harbor such violent hatred of the West, and especially of the United States? What are the roots—moral, intellectual, political, and spiritual—of the murderous fanaticism we witnessed that day?
As Western experts and commentators have wrestled with these questions, their intellectual disarray and bafflement in the face of radical Islamist (notice we do not say “Islamic”) terrorism have become painfully clear. This is worrisome, for however necessary an armed response might seem in the near term, it is undeniable that a successful long-term strategy for battling Islamism and its terrorists will require a clearer understanding of who these foes are, what they think, and how they understand their own motives. For terrorism is first and foremost an ideological and moral challenge to liberal democracy. The sooner the defenders of democracy realize this and grasp its implications, the sooner democracy can prepare itself to win the long-simmering war of ideas and values that exploded into full fury last September 11.
Check it out! And by the way, if you see comments here going unanswered this afternoon, that's probably because I'm at the bookstore perusing Wright's tome (Kurtz-Phelan's review, and especially that conclusion, is a real teaser).