Friday 18 January 2008

On reading 'The Looming Tower'

I'm reading Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11. To judge by the quotations on the cover, the book has garnered praise both from implacable critics of Islamism, such as Martin Amis, and from root-causers such as William Dalrymple, John le Carre and Tariq Ali. 

It's hard to see why the latter like it, since from what I've read so far (I'm about half-way through) Wright's book represents a pretty devastating refutation of blowback theory. Certainly, having read Wright's account of the rise of al Qaeda, it's difficult to maintain the view (still common among many on the left) that radical Islam is 'really' an anti-colonial liberation movement that just happens to dress up its demands in religious language. Instead, al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Algerian GIA and all the rest come across in this book as having more in common with murderous/suicidal cults such as Jim Jones' People's Temple than with (say) the Sandinistas. 

It's abundantly clear from the book that the aims of al Qaeda have always been fundamentally theological rather than political: the imposition of a joyless and puritanical version of Islam on both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, rather than the advancement of democracy and self-determination. In fact, what emerges strongly is the implacable hostility of bin Laden and his associates to any movement towards democracy (since it threatens the rule of God), pluralism or equality.

It's salutary to be reminded that al Qaeda and similar movements began as deeply conservative religious reactions against socialism and communism, not western capitalism (so the analogy with fascism in Europe in the 1930s is not so far-fetched). It was bin Laden's horror at the communist takeover of 'Muslim' Afghanistan that turned him from an eccentric (and fabulously wealthy) religious fanatic into a funder and supporter of jihad (though why the Soviet invasion was seen as quite so shocking by the jihadists remains a mystery, given that 'Muslim' republics had been part of the Soviet Union for decades). At that stage, America was gratefully acknowledged as a powerful ally in the struggle to roll back atheistic communism.

It was only after the Russian flight from Afghanistan that America became an object of hate for the jihadists. In part, this can be attributed to the need for such fanatical cults to have an enemy they can blame for all the ills of the world. The ostensible reason for turning against America - the presence of US troops on Saudi soil following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait - is sometimes seen as justifiable opposition to foreign 'occupation'. But Wright's account makes clear that bin Laden's rage against this development was derived not from Saudi nationalism but from a fanatical religiously-motivated opposition to the presence of any Christians or Jews on 'sacred' Muslim soil, as well as from fundamentalist misognynist horror at the presence of female army personnel.

I wondered also, reading the book, whether bin Laden's rage against America might be the product of a repressed sense of humiliation at his own dependance on the secular US. Wright describes the indebtedness of the Saudis to American expertise and investment in both the discovery of Saudi oil and the development of the Saudi oil industry, which turned the country from a poor and unproductive backwater into one of the richest nations in the world, and the bin Laden family into billionaires. Wright informs us that the young Osama grew up loving Bonanza on TV. (I sometimes wonder if a milder version of this resenment against economic and cultural dependance on the US lies behind the routine anti-Americanism that infects many European liberals, even as they sip their Starbucks lattes and discuss the The Sopranos).

Wright is perceptive on the roots of Islamist terror, not in western misdeeds, but in the peculiar conditions pertaining in some Arab and majority-Muslim countries:

Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment - movies, theatre, music - is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remained the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment, and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies. Martyrdom promised such young men an ideal alternative to a life that was so sparing in its rewards.

In the face of this kind of evidence as to the real roots of Islamist terror, it's astonishing that the Guardian is still printing simplistic 'root cause' arguments, like the column by Khaled Diab that appeared on Wednesday. Writing about the murderous 7/7 attacks, Diab claims:

If Britain had not invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, then Khan - and the other attackers - would have found no clear channel for their disaffection and he would have continued to teach and be a conservative Wahhabi fundamentalist in private.

I suppose we should be grateful that Diab describes Mohammad Sidique Khan as a conservative fundamentalist rather than as some kind of freedom fighter, but his argument is still deeply flawed. The attempted massacre of London nightclub-goers last year confirmed that it is western secular culture in general - rather than particular expressions of western policy - that the jihadists despise. You might as well say that if the UK repealed its gay rights and gender equality legislation, or banned the sale of alcohol - all things that provide a 'clear channel of disaffection' for fundamentalists - then we'd be free from the threat of Islamist terrorism. In the words of Asim Siddqui, who I quoted here: 'It's not foreign policy that's the main driver in combating the terrorists; it's their mindset'. And here's former jihadist Hassan Butt:

When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network, a series of semi-autonomous British Muslim terrorist groups linked by a single ideology, I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.

By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.

It hurts to say this (yet again) about a once-great liberal newspaper, but by consistently giving voice to columnists such as Khaled Diab (and he's by no means the worst offender), the Guardian is, in effect, doing the terrorists' propaganda work for them.


Roland Dodds said...

This book should be required reading amongst all individuals who can still see. It damns the entire argument that Osama is just striking out because of some “root” economic cause. This is an ideology, and it inspires folks on an ideological level (although some may be attracted to it because they are poor, like we have seen in England, that is not often the case).

Nice review!

Anonymous said...

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