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The Long War
Andy McCarthy has a n interesting review of Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower in NR also (subscription required):
...Until his “martyr’s” death by execution in 1966, Qutb — as successor to Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna — plotted relentlessly against Nasser’s regime and its animating idea of secular Arab nationalism. His competing antidote for the ills of the Muslim world was radical Islam, stressing a concept that serves as Wright’s leitmotif: takfir. Roughly equating to Islamic excommunication, it is the notion that the faithful may legitimately claim for themselves the power to declare their fellow Muslims traitorous apostates. Takfir comes to justify, in the radical mind, the murder of anyone who does not accept the “pure” version of Islam that courses through Sunni Wahhabism — the regnant theology of Saudi Arabia, where the royal family has long maintained a tenuous truce with religious authorities. Qutb profoundly influenced two of the book’s three central figures: bin Laden and his eventual Qaeda deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The evolution of the 20-year bond between these two men is Wright’s principal and most fascinating focus. Both are scions of families prominent in the modern history of the Middle East. Bin Laden’s legendary Yemeni father, Mohammed, is key to understanding the Saudi regime’s indulgence of its bête noire, Osama. Through talent and grit, Mohammed rose to become the kingdom’s chief builder, linking his clan inextricably to both the Saudi royal family (which he once bailed out financially) and Islam’s most revered sites. Zawahiri, a trained physician, was born into a family renowned in medicine, religion, and Egyptian politics. One uncle was a student and confidant of Qutb, while another was the rector of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, as close an analogue as there is to papal status in Islam.
Zawahiri, older and more intellectual but decidedly less charismatic than bin Laden, began when he was only 15 to form the cells that would become al-Jihad, the terror organization narrowly dedicated to supplanting Egypt’s secular government with a sharia state. Even then, he exhibited a penchant for alienating such natural allies as the Muslim Brotherhood (which he decried for its occasional willingness to work within the political system) and the infamous “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman (whose reckless bloodlust he believed undermined the cause, and whose U.S. followers bombed the World Trade Center in 1993).
Wright strongly suggests that the drift of both Zawahiri and bin Laden from regional jihadist goals to an epic clash of civilizations was driven by shame. Implicated tangentially in the conspiracy that resulted in Sadat’s 1981 murder, Zawahiri is beset by the infamy of having turned state’s evidence after being tortured in Egypt’s notorious prisons. (With a transparent nod to the mainstream canard that terrorists are created not by doctrine but by such state abuse, Wright confusingly intimates that the torture radicalized Zawahiri — even though he elsewhere recounts that Zawahiri was a “committed revolutionary” for many years before his incarceration, and later concludes that “torture did not so much change Zawahiri as purify his resolve.”)...
When it comes to Islamist doctrine, however, Wright does not merely bowdlerize its centrality to al-Qaeda’s savage campaign; he affirmatively contorts it. On display here is the all-purpose, politically correct Weltanschauung: The religion of peace has been wantonly hijacked by terrorists. When Wright returns repeatedly to takfir, he discusses it as a “heresy” within Islam — though, as Bernard Lewis has explained, heresy is itself a concept foreign to Islam. But if takfir is intramurally controversial, that is only because it provides a justification for killing Muslims. This glides past the elephant in the room: Islam regards non-Muslims as lesser beings. (Even Wright concedes, in passing and without analysis, that, for example, non-Muslims are deemed unfit to enter Mecca and Medina.) Justifying their killing requires no similar casuistry. To circumvent the inconvenience of injunctions in the Koran and other Islamic teachings that clearly support killing of infidels and apostates during jihad, Wright simply ignores them — reporting instead the more benign scriptures (which actually came earlier in time, and were thus superseded by the more bellicose suras of Mohammed’s Medina period). Again without irony, the author goes so far as to claim that prior to World War II “there was little precedent in Islam for . . . anti-Semitism,” right before recalling “the time when the Prophet Mohammed had subjugated the Jews of Medina.” Wright also resorts to psychobabble: Top 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta’s “turn to terror,” we are told, probably “had as much to do with his own conflicted sexuality as it did with the clash of civilizations.” This makes explicit the suggestion Wright made implicitly regarding Qutb: These guys are levying war not because they believe, with some justification, that their religion commands it; they simply can’t relate to women.
The Looming Tower is a good read for those seeking historical details about al-Qaeda and its prime movers. For explanations, better to look elsewhere.