Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower

We have an understandable but misguided fascination with people, with strong leaders we perceive to be imposing their wills on the world, but ideas, not human beings, direct the destinies of men. Hitler had his part to play, to be sure, but the anti-Semitism he tapped into had been metastasizing in Europe long before his ascent; he merely focused and channeled it. Accordingly, the ascent of Osama bin Laden to the throne of infamy was foregrounded in an idea, or rather an ideology, one that may be traced to 7th century Arabia – as he would surely like to believe – but that had been given a more recent interpretation by a diminutive and sexually dissatisfied Egyptian man, Sayyid Qutb, whose two years spent in a Colorado college town were enough to convince him of the decadence and depravity of the West, and whose damning judgments won him many friends upon his return to Egypt, a Muslim country still demoralized by its humiliating defeat at the hands of the world’s only Jewish nation in 1948. The man had found his moment, and Qutb’s ideas flourished in an Egypt torn between modernity and Islam, Western influence and Muslim roots. Lawrence Wright begins his history of Al-Qaeda and the events of 9/11 with this brief exposition, because though his book purports to be the history of an event – “the road to 9/11” – it is in fact the history of an idea, a particular interpretation of Islamic scripture, and the consequences of that interpretation for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Qutb’s great coup – whether he was aware of it or not – was the tempting explanation he offered for the ills of the Muslim world. Modernity had passed them by, had left them utterly behind the times, and the evidence of their defeat was everywhere: the presence of a Jewish state on Muslim land; the colonialism of Britain and other European powers; the ascendance of America on the world stage; the extreme poverty of Muslim territories. Qutb offered an all-purpose explanation for Muslim suffering, packaged in an attractive simplicity: the Muslim world had turned its back on the true faith, and was suffering the consequences of their blasphemy; only by returning to the original and pure Islam could they expect a revival. Jahiliyyah, a concept roughly translated to the “days of ignorance,” referring to the state of Arabia before Islam, came to be applied to the modern world once more, and not only those obviously non-Islamic countries in the Western world, but the insufficiently orthodox Muslim countries as well:

Qutb divides the world into two camps, Islam and jahiliyyah, the period of ignorance and barbarity that existed before the divine message of the Prophet Mohammed. Qutb uses the term to encompass all of modern life: manners, morals, art, literature, law, even much of what passed as Islamic culture. He was opposed not to modern technology but to the worship of science, which he believed had alienated humanity from natural harmony with creation. Only a complete rejection of rationalism and Western values offered the slim hope of the redemption of Islam. This was the choice: pure, primitive Islam or the doom of mankind.

Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was slow to realize the danger Qutb posed to his rule, and prompt to imprison him when he did. But as has happened so often throughout history, prison merely strengthened Qutb’s resolve and increased his prestige in the eyes of his followers. “Stories about Sayyid Qutb’s suffering in prison have formed a kind of Passion play for Islamic fundamentalists,” Wright tells us. From prison, he wrote both an eight-volume commentary on the Quran, In The Shade Of The Quran, and a manifesto, Milestones, which spoke of a “vanguard” of pious Muslims who would answer his call to renew the faith. Osama bin Laden was merely the moneyed, well-connected follower Qutb needed but never met.

One other concept merits a mention: takfir, the Islamic equivalent of excommunication by which one Muslim casts another Muslim from the fold, denies his piety, and thereby makes it lawful to murder him. Wright references a well-known saying of the Prophet Mohammad prohibiting the shedding of Muslim blood, except under three circumstances: “as punishment for murder, or for marital infidelity, or for turning away from Islam.” The concept of takfir militarized this last exception, making the murder contingent not on an expression of apostasy or impiety on the part of the believer, but on an accusation of unfaithfulness from a third party. Under the new fundamentalists, the concept of takfir was widened considerably, encompassing all those who denied or violated the Sharia. For example, it was used against all those Muslims registered to vote, because by the lights of the fundamentalists, democracy “was against Islam because it placed in the hands of people authority that properly belonged to God.” Wright, in my judgment, makes this concept out to be both more novel and more radical than it actually is, for though the new jihadis were indeed more far-ranging in their application of it, the centuries-old Sunni-Shia divide, responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of Muslims, proceeded under a similar logic. Nonetheless, armed with takfir and an orthodox reading of the Quran, the descendants of Sayyid Qutb could and did declare war on the world.

The Looming Tower charts not only the spread of these ideas, but their consequences, and it does so with meticulous attention to detail and narrative verve. When possible, Wright conducted interviews – hundreds of interviews – to supplement his reading of primary source material, from the writings of Qutb and his descendants to the memoirs of men like Osama bin Laden and his successor at the helm of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and whoever came into contact with them, from former allies to business associates. From these sources, he pieces together a convincing portrait of the perpetrators – at times even a sympathetic one – to help us better understand their motivations. The end result is a detailed and engrossing read, encompassing both the ideology behind Islamic terrorism and the men who acted upon it. No diligent reader could walk away from this book ignorant of the dangers of bad ideas, or naive to the rapidity with which they spread, but he might feel better acquainted with them, and therefore better equipped to combat them.