My initial thought, when I got to the last word of the book and closed its battered covers, was this: something doesn’t add up.
Lawrence Wright has done an excellent job with this book, combining the perfect mixture of journalistic and factual rigor with a knack for telling intriguing human stories. But this sinister little tale only goes to show that, no matter how much you research a subject of such human complexity, finding “the truth” will be a fool’s errand.
In the case of The Looming Tower, there are simply too many loose ends twisting in the wind, too many strange relationships that demand further explanation, too many empty years that need to be filled, too many destructive operations and too many shady operatives for the shoestring budget al-Qaeda allegedly worked with.
Getting caught up in these details (or, I should say, absence of said details) is to miss the forest for the trees. We don’t need to know how bin Laden left Sudan in the mid nineties with a hundred bucks to his name, but still managed to fund his nascent Islamist organization, in order to grasp the point Wright, and others, have made about the treacherous road to 9/11.
So let’s put the details aside for now. When we get to the substance of this history, we find that violent Islamism can be explained as an inevitable identity crisis of a Muslim world that is contending with the dominant, materialist, depraved culture of the hegemonic West.
When I say culture, I don’t simply mean the music, the drugs, the loose sexual mores, and dwindling commitment to faith. I mean all that, and more: systems of government, concepts of justice, means of salvation. The radical politicization of Islam is not only a unique feature of the religion itself, which has always tended toward strict implentation and concrete action, but is also perhaps the most potent weapon in the Muslim world’s arsenal. What the West has in economic capacity, resources, and stable institutions, the Muslim world makes up for with the word of the Holy Quran. It is an incredibly unifying and motivational force for a people who, rightly or wrongly, feel they’ve been subjugated for centuries.
The key takeaway here is that Islamists who resort to terror believe they are doing God’s work against a devilish force. Bonding into Islamist groups further allows them to generate the cognitive dissonance required to conduct mass murder and not feel incredibly bad about it. The guilt can be divided across the group, rather than harnessed by any one individual.
The last takeaway is that violent Islamism has ebbed and flowed since the inception of the Muslim faith. Yet, in our modern age, the movement required a force of personality like bin Laden’s to bring it out of the shadows of the Egyptian and Saudi undergrounds. Bin Laden, through his financial means and expansive vision, turned a scattered and inconsequential Egyptian political-religious sect into an international shock force of anti-Western troops. Without him, it might still be toiling in the shadows, vying for traction against the supremely repressive authoritarians of the Middle East and beyond.