God Help Us

God Help Us

2004-08-19
A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America
Malise Ruthven
Granta Books, 2002. 324pp. $16.95

A Review of Malise Ruthven’s A Fury for God: The Islamist
Attack on America, from Tim Keane, with links to a growing body of writing on terror in ebr.

Clocking in at five-hundred eight-five pages, the gosh-darn-it, point-no-fingers and name-no-names stance of The 9/11 Commission Report subverts its own purported mission. But if you want to know why 3,000 plus Americans were murdered on their way to work three summers ago - and why our government still doesn’t get it - a recent study by the prolific Islamic scholar Malise Ruthven asks us to try out some of the following random propositions:

Jesus Christ was the first-ever corporate body.

The machismo of the 9/11 hijackers was inspired in part by a cheesy American action-adventure film, starring Kurt Russell, called Executive Decision.

In his architectural thesis, 9/11 ringleader and urban studies scholar Mohammed Atta railed against the development of high-rise tenement complexes in Cairo as the nadir of its Westernized moral decay. [ link to William S. Wilson on The End of Exemptions for Beauty - ed. ]

By the most conservative estimates of the London Institute of Strategic Studies, terrorist groups stand a better than 70% chance of detonating a nuclear “dirty” bomb in a major American city in the next ten years.

The oil-rich royal family of Saud could soon be dethroned, giving way to the political ascendancy of Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia.

The collapse of the Mid-East peace process owes as much to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as is it does to Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon.

These are not postings from a conspiracy nut’s weblog. Malise Ruthven, a distinguished social scientist and a retired professor of comparative religion has written perhaps the most definitive “9/11 Report,” in A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America, republished and updated from Granta Books.

A Fury for God is reasoned and circumspect but never wishy-washy. And it is meticulously detailed without ever being ponderous. Though he tips his hat to numerous other breakthrough studies, like Benjamin Barber’s collection Jihad vs. McWorld, Ruthven fleshes out his narrative accounts of the forces that led to 9/11 by drawing on everything from obscure concepts such as Islamic orthopraxy and istishhad to global macroeconomics and FBI field reports.

Ruthven’s basic premise is this: the rampant anti-Western Islamic terrorist attacks and ongoing threats facing the U.S. and Europe today were inspired by an Egyptian anarchist and intellectual named Sayyid Qutb who was executed by the Nasser government in 1966. Inspired by his literal-minded readings of Nietzsche and The Koran, Qutb’s fascist writings advocate an aesthetic-existential approach to dealing with modern spiritual crisis: namely, go and kill the infidels through self-martyrdom. Qutb’s followers were behind the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and his true believers remain at large throughout the world. [ link to Rob Swigart on Satisfying Ambiguity - ed. ]

Given such seemingly irrational fanaticism, why is it, you might have asked, that Islamic terrorists tend to be middle-class men with scientific and technical backgrounds? Most terrorists, Ruthven points out, leave rural backwaters to join the professional and academic classes in cities like Cairo and Hamburg where their privileged, aimless mediocrity seeks its redemption through a born-again embrace of religious fundamentalism (sound familiar?). Aspiring jihadists work as electrical engineers and computer technicians and they consume the most violent, metaphorical passages in the Koran as if they are operational directives from military HQ. And so then it’s not surprising when Ruthven tells us, almost in passing, that Ramzi Yousef, who coordinated the 1993 World Trade Center attack reportedly met Oklahoma-city bomber Terry Nichols in the Philippines for a bizarre non-denominational bomb-makers’ tete-a-tete.

Adding a fascinating narrative of anthropology to all this psychopathology, Ruthven explains how the arcane Arabian economies of tribal ownership, plunder, and patronage combine with Wahhabi and Sunni fundamentalism (which has now far eclipsed the more inward, mystical Sufism) to foster a toxic atmosphere of “cultural schizophrenia.” According to Ruthven, the dangerous and seemingly permanent philosophical vacuum in most of the Arab world is the unwillingness or the inability to develop even a trace of what modernized global culture has long since absorbed, namely the “institutionalization of doubt” which distinguishes the private realm from the public and thereby fosters the use of reason and political solutions to deal with social issues.

Within this vacuum, the nascent religious extremists learned organizational techniques and operational discipline from the examples of the Marxist-oriented, Leftist Arab guerillas like the PLA, who were infamous for acts of airplane-based terrorism in Europe and North Africa in the 1970s. Citing Benito Mussolini and George Sorel, Ruthven explores the religious origins of fascism as it plays out in the Islamists’ atavistic appeals to racial supremacy.

From here, as we might know, it gets much worse. Ruthven turns his attention to how, starting in 1979, the most angry, anti-secular impulses in the Mid-East were united and then trained by U.S. Special Forces who armed to the teeth hundreds of thousands of fanatical mujahadin to kill the “atheistic Soviets” in Afghanistan. Ruthven stresses that this overt mission carried on long after the Soviets left in 1989, culminating when the Taliban finally captured Kabul. Emphasizing how thousands of AK-47s and Stinger missiles were handed out indiscriminately, Ruthven reminds us that these U.S. collaborations with religious extremists did not include even the slightest attempt to pass along the ideals of Mssrs. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, et al.

In response to the failed U.S. bombing raids of 2001 which, by Ruthven’s count (and the conclusions of many human rights groups) killed thousands of innocent Afghani citizens, most of the Islamists have since found refuge in unstable nations in Africa and East Asia where they are now busy setting up state-of-the-art, mostly invisible terror “franchises” modeled directly after the McDonald’s and 7-11 business models. From Kenya to Manhattan, from Madrid to Bali, and from Istanbul to Tunisia, we know the consequences these past four years.

It’s a dizzying and convincing web Ruthven spins. Black market arms dealers, Arabian-American oil juntas and Western military bases operating in cooperation with autocratic, wealthy Arab regimes on behalf of the gas-guzzling, super-size-me U.S. global economy. In turn, we export to the region only the trashiest, most vacuous products of our culture. As Ruthven astutely points out, this selective phenomenon played out conversely in the 19 hijackers experiences in the U.S. - instead of participating in relatively spiritual American pursuits like sporting events, pop concerts or the theatre, these “fundamentalists” chose to wallow in porn, Vegas, Pizza Hut and PlayStation.

But the problem is not merely an epidemic of self-loathing religious fanaticism. Ruthven uncovers disturbing evidence of years of realpolitik and state-sponsored assistance to the Islamist movement, namely Iraqi collusion in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Pakistani government’s hand in the 2002 abduction and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Did anyone really believe the Pakistani government of General Pervez Musharraf simply can’t find Bin Laden?

Indeed the most ground-breaking aspect of Fury comes as Ruthven distills how the differing economies and lifestyles of East and West are rooted in their respective Islamic and Christian belief systems which transcend and trump all the diplomatic happy-talk. We are reminded that the Western corporate and social “bodies” to which millions if not billions of the world’s population pledge their lives are simply the secular stand-ins for the “Body of Christ” as conceived by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, a body which was then transformed by Protestantism through the cult of individual salvation and the paradise promised through the work ethic. Our global marketplace is not as secular a force as we assume. In fact, as he points out, even the most athiestic of us participate in acts of faith every day, putting our trust and very lives in the hands of corporate priests and ministers every time we visit an HMO for physical, board a suburban rail line or buy a seat on for a particular transatlantic flight. It is these gestures of faith that the 9/11 hijackers tried, with some degree of success, to terrorize. [ link to Joseph McElroy on 9/11 Emerging - ed. ]

Drawing as he does on sources from Max Weber to The Economist magazine to leaked CIA interrogations of captured Al-Qaeda leaders, Ruthven can sometimes test the reader’s willingness to follow all his leads. Yet in the end the book is remarkably singular. The publisher, Granta Books, has wisely included a detailed, four-page glossary for the nearly untranslatable Arabic vocabulary that is central to following Ruthven’s explication of everything from traditional Muslim tax codes to the many competing, factional readings of the Koran.

The new edition contains an author’s afterword, written in the wake of the U.S. invasion and the failed occupation of Iraq. Here he quickly dispatches asinine conspiracy theories about 9/11 that have made dubious “experts” rich and famous in Europe. But he also calls finds compelling evidence that Cheney & Co. had drawn up intricate plans for military operations in the Persian Gulf long before American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower. And Ruthven raises even more sinister questions. For example, in the nine months prior to 9/11, on 64 different occasions the U.S. government had dispatched fighter planes in response to errant airliners. Got that? Sixty four times in nine months. Yet from the time of the initial hijacking at 8:20 AM, to the Pennsylvania crash at 10:06 AM, not a single fighter plane took to U.S. airspace. And why is this? One might reasonably conclude that the fury for God works in mysterious ways on both sides of this so-called axis.

It’s clear, as one finishes this exhastive and exhausting book, that our own leaders are also furious for God. Though Ruthven rather diplomatically avoids the question of U.S. fanaticism altogether, any American traveling lately in Rio de Janeiro or Sydney or Paris already knows that Iraq is part of the current administration’s religious crusade. And Ruthven makes it clear that the religious right’s jingoism and the “war psychosis” it have led us into the most dire of consequences. And we can read the headlines out of Iraq to know this too.

John Kerry somewhat reassuringly tells us in his acceptance speech that he won’t insist that God is on our side. But in a sense it’s too late. The political language which Kerry must answer already been well drawn by W. and the Book of Revelations: it’s the chatter one can hear on the TV every night - “the triumph of good” and “up-rooting evil-doers” “America’s mission” and “our faith” and “hope” and “destroy” and on and on.

In the end, Ruthven’s Fury reminded me of a provocative installation by artist Curtis Ellis, featuring a photograph of the hijacked Boeing 767 about to hit the south tower. Below, in somber black lettering, Ellis titled the image “Faith-Based Initiative.”