Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

Know Thy Enemy

'Looming Tower' searches for bin Laden's motives.

By Crawford Kilian 30 Oct 2007 |

Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

image atom
Sayyid Qutb, father of Islamist revolt.
  • The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
  • Lawrence Wright
  • (2006)
  • Knopf

Osama bin Laden first came to the attention of the New York Times on December 24, 1994. By then he was already of interest to various intelligence and counter-terror organizations, but Islamic fringe groups were of little concern to the West.

This is strange, because such groups had been active and dangerous in the Middle East for many years, and they had played a role in driving the Soviets from Afghanistan. Yet for some reason, they didn't fit into the Middle East narrative that the West (especially the U.S.) was comfortable with.

Even after 9-11, when everything supposedly changed, little changed. The U.S. charged into a war because Americans are comfortable with a particular war narrative: They suffer an unprovoked attack or threat, they rally, they go on the offensive, and they triumph.

And as in previous narratives, like Pearl Harbor and the invasion of South Korea, the U.S. public is profoundly incurious about the enemy and the enemy's culture -- even about the enemy's motivation to attack. Most Americans today have no idea why Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, or why Kim Il-Sung invaded South Korea. The reasons for 9-11, as explained by George W. Bush, boiled down to "evildoers" who "hate our freedoms."

Terrorism as melodrama

But motivation is critical to understanding such disasters. Drama is people doing amazing things for very good reasons. Melodrama is people doing amazing things for no good reason at all. Melodrama seems to be the preferred American narrative.

And judging from what we learn in The Looming Tower, melodrama is also a popular narrative among fundamentalist Muslims. Osama bin Laden and his supporters emerge in this book as hard-working dopes; they don't deserve the title "Islamofascists" because their political thought is rudimentary even by fascist standards.

This conclusion is easy to reach because Lawrence Wright is himself a master storyteller who understands both narratives. He fills the book with vivid characters who often speak for themselves. No melodramatist, he does find motivations for at least some of those characters.

Sayyid Qutb, in particular, is a fascinating personality: seemingly a faceless Egyptian bureaucrat, he was an intense thinker about Islam and the disarray of the Arab states. When he went to study in the U.S. Midwest in 1949, he suffered arguably the worst case of culture shock in modern history.

Nauseated by American values, and especially by the sexual freedom of American women, Qutb returned to Egypt to write the books that gave Islamic fundamentalism its philosophy. As a prominent member of the Islamic Brotherhood, he was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed. But even his adversaries respected him.

Wright gives us remarkable details about Qutb and his ideas, and we begin to understand the man's impact on later generations. In our narrative, it's easy to see him as a sexually repressed neurotic who projected his problems onto his innocent American hosts. But in the Arab narrative, he is a man striving to return to the ideal purity of early Islam. He endures illness, torture, and even execution for the sake of his religion.

Horatio Alger in Saudi Arabia

Mohammed bin Laden, Osama's father, also offers a familiar Western narrative, the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches saga of a poor boy who makes good. A Yemeni, he became the most trusted builder for the House of Saud while working side by side with his labourers.

With Osama, the narrative turns into rich boy makes bad. The bin Ladens were a religious family in harmony with the Wahhabism of the Saudi princes, but as a teenager Osama seemed to go off the deep end.

"His intransigent piety was unusual in his elevated social circle," Wright says, "but many young Saudis found refuge in intense expressions of religiosity. Exposed to so few alternative ways of thinking even about Islam, they were trapped in a two-dimensional spiritual world; they could only become more extreme or less so."

A talent for self-mythologizing

This is more descriptive than analytical, but it's about as close as we get to understanding Osama bin Laden's motives. Wright also describes Osama's early success as a fundraiser for the Afghans fighting the Soviet invasion, his own combat experience, and his later successes as a farmer and contractor in Sudan. Clearly he considered himself a kind of exile prince, but it's hard to see what motivated a workingman's son to see himself that way.

His battles in Afghanistan are analogous to our own narrative of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, when earnest young leftists fought the fascists. Like the International Brigades in Spain, the "Afghan Arabs" enjoyed more victories in the media (and in their own minds) than on the battlefield.

The mujahideen seem to have tolerated them as providers of money and weapons, but the Arabs rarely succeeded in combat. In one battle, bin Laden and his whole unit would have been wiped out if not for the heroic rear-guard defense that covered his retreat.

Still, they could shape their experience into another significant narrative: the true believers who defeated one empire of the godless West, and who could defeat the other as well.

Wright does explain something of the Arab narrative that made bin Laden a hero in Islam. The image of the cave is an old and important one in the Arab narrative, and bin Laden's reliance on caves for security resonated with Muslims. So did his image as an ascetic, eating little, abstaining from alcohol, and extolling a pure version of Islam.

Is sharia an agenda?

But it's clear that bin Laden and his followers had (and have) no clear political agenda beyond establishing the Sunni version of sharia law. Sharia already rules in Saudi Arabia, though bin Laden considers the House of Saud as apostates for allowing American troops on holy soil. So here the motivations of bin Laden and al-Qaeda become obscure. Do they simply want to impose sharia on all Muslim states? What would happen to the Shias in Iraq, Iran, and other states? How would people make a living if Taliban-style governments ruled from Indonesia to Morocco?

If our narrative is one of motivated drama, we can't understand extreme Islam. Perhaps al-Qaeda is just a loose network of fanatics who got lucky on 9-11. Perhaps the U.S. and U.K., equally melodramatic, have chosen to be al-Qaeda's enablers.

Twining the plot strands

Wright's portraits of the American counter-terror experts are far briefer, but we recognize the names and events and need only reminders to be back in a familiar narrative: the political thriller, complete with hard-drinking, womanizing agents.

But the dominant narrative here is the Arab one. Wright's interpretation of it is plausible, but we need to understand that narrative better before we can understand Osama bin Laden on any level beyond that of comic-book villain.

The Looming Tower certainly reminds me of my own ignorance of Islam and its cultures. But it also reminds me of a pre-Islamic Arab poem I read in college long ago. It dealt with a kind of trickster figure, a charming scoundrel who was always stirring up trouble. Rebuked for his evil ways, the scoundrel shrugs and says: "Set aflow the rills of guile, that the mill of life may swiftly run."

Perhaps that is all the motivation that Osama bin Laden needs.