Caveat emptor. A tidal wave of tomes related to the Sept. 11 anniversary is washing up at your local bookstore as you read this. Some of these are data dumps from the police blotter, others the sad tales of victims and their families. Still others weave conspiracy theories purporting to show that energy interests in Central Asia shaped American policy toward Osama bin Laden or that "state sponsors" such as Iran or Iraq play important roles in his organization. However, few of these efforts shed much light on the Islamist fury that spawned al Qaeda. In that category Malise Ruthven, a scholar of Islam, and Anonymous, a senior U.S. intelligence official, have written books that are essential reading: They both treat seriously the religious beliefs that underpin the actions of bin Laden's organization. In different ways, both authors make clear the absurdity of the talk of war on Iraq while al Qaeda continues to remain an implacable and formidable enemy. It is, after all, bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein, who has been waging war on the United States for the past decade, and it is al Qaeda, not Hussein's Mukhabarat, that has killed thousands of Americans in the past year.
On almost every page of Ruthven's scholarly analysis there is an apposite quotation, a nice aperc[cedil]u or a well-calibrated judgment. This should not be surprising: Ruthven's earlier Islam in the World is the best single volume in English on the subject, and so Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America (Granta; paperback, $ 16.95) emerges out of a deep understanding of the Muslim world. However, in areas where Ruthven has little expertise, his judgments are sometimes a little off. At one point he writes: "The attacks on September 11th . . . were a direct consequence of the CIA's policies during the Reagan years and afterwards." This is a stretch, but when Ruthven turns his attention to the pivotal role of the Saudis in financing and fomenting Islamist movements around the world, we are in expert hands.
Ruthven rightly spends time exploring the writings of Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, a name that will be unfamiliar to most Americans, but as the leading modern exponent of the Wahabbist strain of militant Islam, he is as significant in that world as Lenin was to communism. Qutb visited the United States during the 1940s, a visit that Ruthven characterizes as "the defining moment or watershed from which 'the Islamist war against America' would flow." Qutb, a fastidious man, was appalled by the overt sexuality of American women, the crowds of New York and even jazz. Returning to Egypt with an intense animus against the West, he joined the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and was eventually imprisoned in Nasser's hellish jails. While in prison he wrote Signposts on the Road, a tract that Ruthven describes as "an operational manual" for later militant Islamists. Qutb argued that jihad was more than a defensive war against the enemies of Islam -- and, by implication, that jihad had to be conducted offensively. Qutb's disciples have since acted on that message with devastating results.
Those disciples have an ambivalent relationship to Western civilization, seeing in it only the bad, while taking from it only what they need. They know nothing of Dostoyevsky, Einstein or Monet; instead they master "only the instrumentalities of Western culture. . . how to operate machinery, mix chemicals, program computers, fly planes. . . . The philosophical presuppositions behind the technicalities, the condition of epistemological doubt, is spurned, because it threatens the structure of an identity rooted in the received certainties of faith." Ruthven notes that this tendency gets reinforced by the strong backgrounds that many Islamists have in scientific or technical education; this, he argues, makes them "more susceptible to monodimensional or literalist readings of scripture than their counterparts in the arts and humanities." For Ruthven, the lead hijacker, Mohammad Atta, a student of architecture and town planning, is perhaps the apotheosis of that narrow world view.
In Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America (Brassey's, $ 29.95), Anonymous also takes the measure of the Attas of this world. The epigraph of his book quotes Sun Tzu's observation "Know thy enemy and know thyself, and in a hundred battles you shall not be imperiled." The author has clearly done his homework, mining a vast array of printed sources, particularly material from often-overlooked Pakistani and Arab journalists who have done some of the best work on al Qaeda. The occasional limits of that approach can sometimes be seen when Anonymous seemingly takes the fulminations of bin Laden wannabes at face value, such as the heated pronouncements of London-based Omar Bakri Muhammad, a bin Laden advocate. Firsthand observation of "Sheikh" Bakri would reveal that he is simply a blowhard.
That said, Anonymous has a very clear-headed understanding of the threat posed by al Qaeda. The heart of his argument is that when "Western leaders describe bin Laden as a terrorist problem, not a religious issue, they mislead their publics. By doing so they fail to teach their listeners that bin Laden is far more than a run-of-the-mill terrorist, that he is, rather, a multitalented Muslim leader." That makes him an infinitely tougher adversary than terrorists such as the late, unlamented Abu Nidal, who was motivated by greed, self-aggrandizement and a nebulous revolutionary zeal. In a comparison that is sure to raise the hackles of some of his intelligence colleagues, Anonymous says "the decision of al Qaeda's members to invoke God's name and take up arms deserves no less thoughtful consideration than that of the American revolutionaries we revere as heroes. . . . This is not to say that bin Laden or his al Qaeda colleagues were correct. . . . It is to say, however, that bin Laden has been a worthy enemy."
Anonymous has little time for "the incorrect boilerplate analysis of yesterday's experts." He drives several well-honed stakes through the tired mantras that al Qaeda needed state sponsorship for its actions, that bin Laden only recently embraced the Palestinian cause, that closing down al Qaeda's money supply will put it out of business, that al Qaeda is simply a terrorist group when in fact it is also supporting insurgencies around the world, and that al Qaeda's war on the United States is somehow about our "freedoms" rather than American policies in the Middle East.
Anonymous's examination of al Qaeda is a bracing corrective to much that has passed as analysis about the group -- and that is why one of his principal themes is particularly to be noted: "A simple unalterable fact is that bin Laden and his compatriots are patient and Americans are not."
Copyright 2002, The Washington Post