In his three-part BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis compares the philosophies of Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss and their followers, radical Islamists and the American neoconservatives, respectively. Curtis argues that these two factions are, in essence, two sides of the same coin. Both fight against liberal individualism, which they perceive as a threat to society with their conservative ideologies. Each faction is motivated by its own ideology to exert itself in a nostalgic effort to change the world. At the same time, Curtis argues that the threat of radical Islamists, while real, looks nothing like the Bush/Blair rhetoric. These politicians of fear, he argues, have exaggerated the radical Islamist threat, in much the same way their predecessors did the threat of Communism, in order to consolidate their political power. There is no global network of radical Islamists called Al Qaeda or otherwise, argues Curtis. There is certainly no radical Islamist existential threat to the West.
In Part I: Baby It’s Cold Outside, Curtis begins by introducing Sayyid Qutb, the so-called philosopher of Islamic terror. Qutb was born in small village in Egypt and moved to Cairo, where he was educated. He became a man of letters and a literary critic in the Western tradition. Employed by the Egyptian Ministry of Education, he was sent to America to study its education system. There he completed a master’s degree at the Colorado State College of Education. During his stay in America, he wrote a scathing critique of the West entitled The America that I Saw, condemning its racism, materialism, and lack of morality. He also published his first major religious social critique, Social Justice in Islam, while in America. Upon his return to Egypt, he became politically active and rose to prominence in the Muslim Brotherhood, becoming a publicist for the Brotherhood. Imprisoned by Nasser, Qutb developed and wrote in Milestones his theory of jahiliyyah, an accusation of apostasy against Nasser and his supporters, which extended in theory to all so-called Muslims who failed to reject secularism and rise up against Egypt’s Western-tinged secular governments. In Milestones, he issued a call to a vanguard to put his ideas into action. After his execution by Nasser, Ayman Zawahiri answered Qutb’s call. Zawahiri’s organization, Islamic Jihad, assassinated Sadat.
Next, Curtis introduces Leo Strauss. Like Qutb, Strauss, who taught at the University of Chicago from 1949 to 1968, considered liberal society doomed to nihilism. Idealists flocked to Strauss and, imbued with his philosophy, set out to change the world. Their project was the remaking of the myth of a unique America juxtaposed with evil. The embodiment of this evil would be the Communist Soviet Union and America’s destiny to overcome this evil. This would give new meaning to the lives of Americans and spread democracy around the world. In the seventies, the American neoconservatives persuaded Gerald Ford, against common sense and CIA intelligence, that the Soviet Union was a bigger threat than it actually was. The fact that there is no proof that they aren’t a huge threat, they argued, is not proof that they aren’t. In the eighties, the American neoconservatives mobilized the religious right and converted Reagan to their cause. They then managed to convince themselves and others that the Soviet Union was behind most of the terrorism in the world, despite the fact that the CIA could easily disprove this since they had created this notion out of thin air as anti-soviet propaganda.
In Part II: The Shadows in the Cave, Curtis begins by introducing the mujahideen movement in Afghanistan that arose after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The CIA supported the mujahideen as proxies in their war against the Soviet Union by sending them stinger missiles, one billion dollars and training them (including training in car bombing). Eventually, these mujahideen crossed the Pakistani border. Arabs, including al Qaeda movement organizer Abdullah Azzam and, eventually, his lieutenant Osama bin Laden joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Among the Arabs joining them were those released from prisons across the Arab world to join in the struggle, including future bin Laden mentor, Ayman Zawahiri. Eventually, Gorbachev withdrew his troops from Afghanistan and the Soviet Union subsequently collapsed, giving the mujahideen the illusion of victory. Following the jihad in Afghanistan, there was an Azzam-Zawahiri split amongst the Islamists. Bin Laden followed Zawahiri and Azzam was killed by a car bomb. Later, the mujahideen attempted jihad against corrupt regimes in their own countries. When they failed to mobilize the masses, they declared them apostates and began to attack them as well. When this strategy failed, Zawahiri and bin Laden determined to wage jihad on America, which they perceived as supporting the corrupt regimes they sought to overthrow at home.
Next, Curtis introduces the Reagan doctrine. Reagan supported the mujahideen as “freedom fighters.” Reagan dedicated the launch of the space shuttle Columbia to “the people of Afghanistan” in solidarity. The Reagan doctrine went beyond containment of Communism to an outright struggle to defeat it. Influenced by the philosophy of Leo Strauss, the neoconservatives believed that the people needed simple myths to inspire them and succeeded in creating the Manichean myth of a good America fighting against an evil empire. By now, they had succeeded in convincing themselves and others that this myth was in fact a reality. During George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the neoconservatives were frustrated in their plans to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. They then enlisted a Leninist-like vanguard of Trotskyites to wage “culture wars” with the support of the religious right. Eventually, they gained control of the Republican Party platform. Next, they were curtailed by the election of President Bill Clinton. Unfazed, they immediately determined to demonize Clinton as a symbol of what was wrong with America. When they failed to remove him from office over the Monica Lewinsky affair that Whitewater inquiry prosecutor Kenneth Star dredged up, or to incriminate him on the basis of Whitewater, Vince Foster’s suicide or Arkansas drug dealing, they blamed the corruption of the public.
In Part III: The Phantom Victory, Curtis first reminds us of Zawahiri and bin Laden’s jihad against the U.S. They began this jihad by bombing U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Tanzania. The bombers were recruited from terrorist training camps but had no connection to the main Islamist movement. According to Curtis, there was no organization called al Qaeda before the U.S. invented it to satisfy RICO Act requirements to prosecute the leader of al Qaeda when there was no link between him and the crimes committed in the name of the organization. The name of “al Qaeda” was based on the name of a computer file of bin Laden’s listing his contacts from Afghanistan and the only evidence of the existence of a formal organization was the dubious testimony (some of which was false, according to defense attorney Sam Smith) of a cohort of bin Laden’s named Jamal al-Fadl. According to Curtis, there is no evidence that bin Laden used the name “al Qaeda” before September 11. According to Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror and Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam author, Jason Burke, the idea that there was an organization one could join headed by bin Laden was a myth. September 11 was not the brainchild of Zawahiri or bin Laden, but of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He sought out bin Laden to ask for financing and for volunteers for the operation.
Next, Curtis reminds us of the American neoconservatives and their grand “vision of America’s unique destiny to fight an epic battle against the forces of evil” (Curtis). Largely ignored during the first half of George W. Bush’s presidency, the neoconservatives consolidated power after September 11. Using September 11 as validation for their vision, they took the failed Islamist movement, utterly lacking in support, and reconstructed it on the scale of the Soviet Union as a global network of terror centrally operated from a cave in Tora Bora by bin Laden. This fabricated global network of terror would take the place of the Soviet Union in the epic battle between good and evil the neoconservatives posited. This so-called War on Terror was first taken to Afghanistan to purportedly eliminate Al Qaeda. The Northern Alliance turned over Arab foreign fighters to the U.S., but the majority of them had no connection to bin Laden. The Northern Alliance told the U.S. bin Laden was hiding out in Tora Bora, but his supposed fortress was never found. Next, the neoconservatives began their search for Al Qaeda “sleeper cells” stateside. Arrests were made, but no real evidence of terrorist plots was found. Highly publicized trumped up charges were quietly dropped. They next claimed previously undetected evidence of links between Saddam Hussein and terrorism and used it to justify invading Iraq.
The theses Curtis puts forth may not be palatable to many, especially to those of radical Islamist or American neoconservative ilk or anyone at all who recoils at the thought that there are those who would string together facts with fiction to create their own reality and then foist it on others unawares. However, in laying out the history of radical Islamism and American neoconservativism and the philosophies behind them, Curtis makes a strong case for his argument. The radical Islamists didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere hell-bent on destroying America and the neoconservatives have a history of manipulating the truth. The argument Curtis makes is worthy of consideration and debate. Personally, I find it much easier to swallow, and innocuous, than the propaganda on Fox News, complete with multistoried underground fortresses straight out Goldfinger. I was inspired to do some research of my own. Given that the left is just as likely to scaremonger, all rhetoric should be suspect.