Monday, August 11, 2008

The Looming Tower by Lawerence Wright

I don't know why I avoided this book for as long as I did. I vaguely remember reading a very negative review at one point, and I think the fact that Wright is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine may have turned me off.

Well, I freely admit I was stupid.

Reading this book I realized that my understanding of events leading to 9/11 has been colored by both some unintentional ignorance, and my American world view. That isn't to say that I excuse the attacks or condone the philosophy of Islamic fundamentalism, I don't. But I now have a little better understanding of how these terrorists came to their warped views.

The main missing piece, that I found in this book, was the idea of takfir and it's use by al-Qaeda and other Islamic groups to justify suicide bombings, killing of women and children etc. Once you understand that by declaring a group takfir they are no longer human in the eyes of the extremists then any sort of action becomes possible.

The rest of the book is an examination of people and events and frankly i was surprised by how willing Wright was to portray the flaws of the main actors. That was a refreshing change.

Read the book you will enjoy it. If I was doing my list of books for Presidents again I would definitely add this one.

As I was adding the link I came across a review on Amazon where the reviewer had just been to a talk by the author - some of the points that Wright made in his talk:

Some of the main points of what he said:

- The Arabic world is incredibly insular. He said, if you take away oil, the entire Arab world, from Morocco to Pakistan, produces less economically than the Finnish company Nokia (Nokia has less than 8,000 employees). He said, there have been 10,000 books ever translated into Arabic. If you think about that in terms of how many rows of book stacks that would be at a bookstore, it is shocking (I calculate that to be a few stacks of books !). One single Borders in the U.S. thus contains far more books than have ever been translated by Arabic translators (Spain alone translates about 10,000 books a year). Thus, most Arabs are, for our standards, incredibly lacking in resources, to understand our world. Not only that, but their countries censor books and all media. Freedom to assemble basically does not exist in the Arab world, and thus, basic freedoms are lacking. This problem will hopefully be partially addressed by such efforts as Project Kalima.

- There is "gender apartheid" in [most of] the Arab world (particularly Saudi Arabia). Women are mostly not seen in public in Saudi Arabia. Men know very little about women as a result (how to meet them ?). It is pathetic, how little young men know about women. (he said, in Saudi Arabia, the women secretaries at his reporting agency worked in a room below a stairwell, and were basically never seen. he said, you would see Saudi women so covered by a burka, that you could not tell which direction their face was pointing !). The internet porn industry should be put into play to rectify this issue. OK not really, but the US has an arab language TV station what if we started producing and broadcasting a soap opera in which Arab women were not treated as second class citizens or property. Let the women see what life can be like and effect a little grass roots social change

- The author said, in discussion with Arab men, the opinions he expressed, they had never considered, and never heard of. He said, it was like if a martian came down and said things that no one had ever said before and that were new and shocking. And those are normal conversations in the West.

- The Islamists (Al Quida, Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) have no plan. They simply want to destroy things and "take over". But when asked what their economic plan is, they have none. The only real goal of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is the hijab for women (headcovering). Other than that, the muslim brotherhood has no plan or goal for society. "It is like an empty vessle". Bin Ladin has no plan other than wanting the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia, and blind destruction of things western. How do you deal with unemployment (no answer). Hamas is now in power in "Palestine", and has found that ruling is very hard. It shows them that they now must have a program, but they don't have one.

- Pakistan was "the most mysterious country" the author visited. Far from being unstable, it is "very, very stable", "too stable" ("eerily stable"). He said, the military "owns" Pakistan, and it is run by military families. If you are not in the military, you are basically locked out of Pakistani society. He said, they play a game with the U.S. called "find Bin Ladin". They constantly get paid by the U.S., and they pretend to look for Bin Ladin. It is all a game to get money from the U.S. He said, there is now a "permanent Al Quida zone" along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is very worrying.

- Our U.S. intelligence is basically incapable of dealing with Al Quida. The FBI is staffed by Irish and Italian men, who know those cultures. The Arab applicants are shut out as a "security risk". Result: no one who really speaks Arabic. The FBI recently graduated 50 new recruits. Only one of them speaks any foreign language. Since the 1970s, U.S. intelligence has been hamstrung and hollowed out. There is no "human intelligence" anymore. There is basically zero hope that the CIA and FBI can deal with Al Quida. Everyone in government realizes that the Dept. of Homeland Security is a joke. This is an ongoing problem and why I think the intelligence community needs a national academy similar to West Point, but I am alone in this belief as far as I know

- Clinton really tried to kill Bin Ladin, and should have fired his CIA director after he gave the CIA the order to kill Bin Ladin, and two years later, he was still alive. 'duh and Bush should have fired him when he took office

- One thing that motivated Wolfowitz and Cheney is that they really believed that Iraq had a hand in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

- Iraq is a mess. Either way, Al Quida wins. If the U.S. withdrew, it would get much worse. I disagree with this and I think recent events are proving me right

- Al Quida has very long-term plans, involving "drawing the U.S. in" to the Arab world. They would love it if we attacked Iran, because that would draw Iran in, and their "resources", into a world-wide fight.

- The author asked Islamic experts in the Arab world, "how will this conflict end". They mostly said that it is likely that the following will occur: a major western city were to be attacked by nuclear or biological weapon. Wright said, because we live in democracies, the public outcry would be so exterme and harsh, that a counterstrike, "attacking and destroying Mecca, Medina, and various targets in Iran" would be very, very likely, if not a foretold conclusion (!). (the CIA has even gone to Hollywood script writers to ask them for "scenarios", because they think that those scriptwriters "have more imagination" than bureaucrats at the CIA.

- The way to deal with Bin Ladin, if he were caught: try him before "Sharia courts". Take him to Kenya and Tanzania and make him confront the 150 Muslims who he blinded by the 1998 bomb blasts. Take him around and try him by sharia law. Take him to Saudi Arabia and ask for his execution. Make him look like he violated his own standards. Don't kill him, because then you make him a martyr. I agree with this in part, but the US also needs our crack at him. He needs to be convicted in a US court as well as a (or many) Sharia courts. Then let the execution be carried out by the Saudis.

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