Thursday, August 24, 2006

“If Only They Knew Us”


The State Department has always been keen on exchange programs that bring foreign students and professionals to the U.S. to study at universities and interact with their peers, and never more so than since 9/11.

There are good reasons for this: a general feeling that “if only they knew us, they’d like us better” and, more trenchantly inside the Beltway, the fact that exchanges’ outcomes can be measured. State tends to poll those who visit the U.S. under its auspices when they arrive and when they leave; visitors’ views generally have improved during their stays, and this helps justify State’s requests for funding.

These programs undoubtedly create thousands of new friends for the United States and probably soften the negative views of those who were and remain U.S. opponents; but the “Fulbright mentality,” as a communications professor here at the University of Iowa called it recently, has its limits.

Which brings me to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Wright, a New Yorker writer of long standing and a former teacher at the American University of Cairo, traces Al-Qa’ida’s intellectual origins back to 1948, when the group’s intellectual godfather, Sayyid Qutb, arrived in New York City from Cairo.

Qutb, already middle-aged, had left Egypt at the urging of friends who feared persecution by a monarchy enraged at Qutb’s literary and social criticism. Even before he disembarks in New York, the already-conservative Egyptian educator gets a taste of loose morals of the New World:

[Qutb’s solitary] deliberations were interrupted by a knock on the door. Standing outside his stateroom was a young girl, whom he described as thin and tall and “half-naked.” She asked him in English, “Is it okay for me to be your guest tonight?”

Qutb responded that his room was equipped with only one bed.

“A single bed can hold two people,” she said.

Appalled, he closed the door in her face. “I heard her fall on the wooden floor outside and realized she was drunk,” he recalled. “I instantly thanked God for defeating my temptation and allowing me to stick to my morals.”

Wright takes us through some of Qutb’s other impressions of New York and Washington D.C., which despite their postwar prosperity could still be hard on visitors. Qutb sees Jews for the first time—New York City alone had two million—just as the Arab armies are trounced by the new state of Israel. He encounters the Kinsey Report’s description of “a country that was frantically lustful but also confused, ashamed, incompetent, and astoundingly ignorant” of sex. A nurse who cares for him at George Washington University after a tonsillectomy describes the qualities she wants in a lover.

Qutb spends more time teaching and studying in idyllic Greeley, Colorado and in California but the die has been cast, Wright tells us:

The America he perceived was vastly different from the way most Americans viewed their culture. In literature and movies, and especially the new medium of television, Americans portrayed themselves as sexually curious but inexperienced, whereas Qutb’s America was more like the one sketched by the Kinsey Report. Qutb saw a spiritual wasteland, and yet belief in God was nearly unanimous in the United States at the time. It was easy to be misled by the proliferation of churches, religious books, and religious festivals, Qutb maintained; the fact remained that materialism was the real American god. “The soul has no value to Americans,” he wrote to one friend. “There has been a Ph.D. dissertation about the best way to clean dishes, which seems more important to them than the Bible or religion.” ...

Certainly the trip had not accomplished what Qutb’s friends in Egypt had hoped. Instead of becoming liberalized by his experience in America, he returned even more radicalized. Moreover, his sour impressions, when published, would profoundly shape Arab and Muslim perceptions of the new world at a time when their esteem for America and its values had been high.

A direct ideological line reaches from Qutb through Ayman al-Zawahri to Osama bin Laden, the “Manson with an MBA” who was finally able to connect Qutb’s parochial paranoia with the tools and organizational abilities to pull off September 11. I wonder what might have happened if Qutb—or bin Laden, for that matter—had been able to visit the U.S. in their impressionable 20s instead of, as in Qutb’s case, at 46, when his ideas of what society should be were already set in stone.

I’ll look forward to finishing The Looming Tower but recommend it highly for anyone interested in Al-Qa’ida’s origins. (And thanks to Dick O’Neill for alerting me to the fact that Wright’s book is now in bookstores everywhere.)

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