Peter Bergen, consistently miscomprehending Islam — go back and check the record of rich embarrassment — is hardly alone. All sorts of writers on Bin Laden or on Al Qaeda purvey inside dopesterism and piquant details about Bin Laden’s wives (including the one who ordered lingerie and ran around in a track suit, no doubt trying to hold onto her man who jettisoned her for a 15-year-old Yemeni girl — a full six years older than little Aisha, the favorite wife of the man Bin Laden aims to emulate). They appear to think that these details about Bin Laden as son, Bin Laden as brother, Bin Laden as would-be leader of mujahedin in Afghanistan, Bin Laden as either the great leader and inspirer, or alternatively, as the great organizer of Al Qaeda, are illuminating of the “root causes” of the Jihad. So this is all breathlessly packaged and then appears, in tantalizing bits, in GQ or The New Yorker or Vanity Fair. But the reader learns nothing, absolutely nothing, about Islam, about the texts that have consumed Bin Laden, that animate him and his fellows. It is all Reader’s Digest-level stuff, though the income from being a “consultant” or an “expert” to this or that news channel certainly kicks one’s economic status up several rungs.
On NPR I listened to a voice that sounded as if it belonged to someone particularly naive. He was talking all about Bin Laden. I heard him, as I pulled out of the grocery store’s parking lot, discussing how before Al Qaeda the various terror groups were all “nationalistic” in their desires. Yes, how true. Not the desire to eliminate the Infidel state of Israel, but rather the desire by so many Arabs and Muslims to show their solicitousness for the “legitimate rights” of the “Palestinian people” (whose actual lives are a matter of complete indifference to other Arabs and Muslims, as one can see by how they are not permitted to integrate into or become citizens of any Arab country but Jordan). And how very “nationalistic” are the declared aims of Lashkar-e-Taiba, or a hundred other groups.
Yet this group is hellbent on killing Hindus not only in Kashmir but all over India — for the goal is not that of helping the “legitimate rights of the Kashmiri people” but of establishing, rather, rule by Islam over first Kashmir, and then over other parts of India as well. Over all of India. Nothing “nationalistic” about it. This is of course true of other conflicts also that are generally regarded as nationalistic: for example, the war of Muslim northerners against the Christian, predominately Ibo, people of what was to be the independent state of Biafra. The Muslims were conducting, as Col. Ojukwu said, a “Jihad” against the non-Muslims. The Abu Sayyaf terror group in the Philippines has not stated any “nationalistic” aims; its aim is to end Christian rule over Muslims, and eventually, to extend the area over which the Muslims dominate. And the same is true with the Muslim attacks on Christians in Sulawesi, in the Moluccas, in East Timor, and on Hindu interests in Bali.
But Lawrence Wright was convinced that it was only when Bin Laden came along that a “nationalist” impulse, found here and there, was given a unifying framework, the framework of Islam. Had Wright been more than a mere reporter, a reporter of what so-and-so did or said, he might have spent a summer reading widely in the doctrine and the history of Islam. If he had done so, the things that he cannot quite grasp would have become clear. Instead, he passes on his confusion to his readers.
Then the speaker said something about how Bin Laden was “rejecting modernity.” This “rejection of modernity” stuff is all over the place. It’s nonsense. Muslims do not reject any of the gewgaws produced by the modern West. Airplanes, television, the Internet, satellite television, Western medicine, the whole shebang. If by “modernity” the author means, instead, the universal civilization of the West, that is now to be found everywhere. This is reflected not in those gewgaws but in the belief in the emphasis placed on the individual and on rights guaranteed to individuals. And if by “modernity” one means the very idea that a government’s legitimacy is to be located in the expressed will of citizens, rather than in the revealed desires of Allah some 1350 years ago and his unalterable law of what is to be forbidden and what is to be commanded, then yes, you could call Bin Laden and all the other perfectly orthodox Muslims engaged in terrorism as “against modernity” — but it would distract and confuse those who need to know that what Bin Laden is against, and what he is for, is not different from what a Muslim warrior was against and for in 1804 in West Africa, in 1600 in Hindustan, in 1453 in Constantinople. He is for exactly what any of a long line of those engaged in violent Jihad have wanted: the rule of Allah upon earth.
Finally the interviewer (Terry Gross? Someone else? I can’t remember) gave the title of the speaker’s book — “The Looming Tower” — and his name, Lawrence Wright. I had heard the name, and I wondered what made Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, think he could write a book about Bin Laden without immersing himself in the texts that Bin Laden refers to constantly, that Bin Laden has taken as the source for his entire being, and to which he makes constant appeal in everything he says or does.
In today’s New Duranty Times, there is a story about Grisha Perelman and a possible proof of Poincare’s Conjecture. What, I wondered to myself, would one think of the author of that piece had he confused the mathematician Poincare with that other Poincare, the political figure. Not much. But every day “terrorism experts” and “Bin Laden experts” and “Al Qaeda experts” flogging their wares, or delivering themselves of some well-recompensed banality on some nightly news program (“Well, Al Qaeda could be behind this. It bears all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation. Then again, it could be some entirely different group. Hard to tell”) make a similarly glaring error. No one cares.
But these Bergens and Wrights, in getting the most obvious and most important things wrong, are akin to that writer about Perelman and Hamilton and the Poincare Conjecture, had he, that reporter, described for his audience “the very versatile Frenchman Poincare, not only a mathematician of the first rank but also the President of France just before and during the First World War, who later served as the Prime Minister as well. Amazing what politicians used to be like.” Or so I could so easily imagine — for what’s in a name, Henri or Raymond, they both end in Poincare, how much attention exaggerated to detail do you require, and what does it matter?
And what does it matter if Peter Bergen tells an interviewer that if he could ask Osama Bin Laden one, just one question, that question would be “Where in the Quran can you find justification for killing innocent civilians?” — with all the colossal ignorance that that question betrays? And what does it matter if Lawrence Wright, staff writer for The New Yorker, where once upon a time William Maxwell and Katherine White and E. B. White, and James Thurber, and Brendan Gill, and Philip Hamburger, and many others — grown-ups all, and supported by a cast of contributing grown-ups (Niccolo Tucci, I. B. Singer, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, John Cheever, John Updike, S. N. Behrman, Joseph Mitchell, J. D. Salinger, and many others, hundreds of others), proceeds to tell us, to tell the NPR audience and his readers, that Bin Laden was at war not with Infidels, but with “modernity,” and that before Bin Laden all Muslim terrorists were merely “nationalists”? What does Wright think the nation-state means in Islam? What can he conceivably think it means?
Henri, Raymond, what’s the difference. Bin Laden is bad, so what’s the difference if we don’t quite pinpoint what it is that makes him bad, and that makes him and so many uncountable others bad? What does it matter if we don’t care to discover what makes their ranks endlessly replenishable as long as people continue to believe, and to find their entire mental universe both created and limited by the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Sira? After all, now we know about his wife jogging in her track suit, and how he treated his kids, and how that stuff — “modernity” — managed to get his goat.
Oh God, I cried. Is there to truth no duty?
A George-Herbert moment.
Was I overreacting? Was I wrong? Should I simply acquiesce in having to be faced every day with evidence of shallowness, ignorance, and stupidity by those who presume to instruct us on matters that affect our physical and civilizational survival?
Or do I, just possibly, have a point?
What do you think?