God Help Us

Malise Ruthven's A Fury for God:
The Islamist Attack on America

by Tim Keane

Book Review

August 16, 2004   


Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America, Granta Books, 2002, revised and updated edition February 2004; ISBN: 1-86207-573-5 (pbk): 346 pages, $16.95.

(Swans - August 16, 2004)   Clocking in at five hundred eight-five pages, the gosh-darn-it, name-no-names tone 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 thesis, 9/11 ringleader and urban planning scholar Mohammed Atta railed against the development of high-rise tenement complexes in Cairo as the nadir of its Westernized moral decay.

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 Roberston as is it does to Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon.

These are not postings from a conspiracy nut's web blog. 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 by Granta Books earlier this year.

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 went on to form militant Islamist groups which were the forbears of al Qaeda and whose "disciples" were behind the assassination of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Given this violent irrationality of Islamists, why is it, you might have asked, that such terrorists tend to be middle-class men with scientific and technical backgrounds? For one, Ruthven points out, despite all the ongoing scientific and philosophical impulses of Arab culture, the largely dominant Sunni tradition of Islam emphasizes "revelation over reason." And 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 trans-denominational bomb-makers' tête-à-tête.

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 slowly learned their 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 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 US Special Forces who armed to the teeth hundreds of thousands of fanatical mujahidin to wage war against 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 US 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 US bombing raids of 2001*, most of the Islamists 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 MacDonald's and 7-11 business models. From Kenya to Manhattan, from Madrid to Bali, and from Istanbul to Tunisia, we know the consequences of 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 US 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 porn, Vegas, Pizza Hut and Play-Station.

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. And how credible are the efforts of the Pakistani military, lead by General Pervez Musharraf, to find Osama bin Laden?

Indeed the most ground-breaking aspect of Fury comes as Ruthven distills how the differing economies and modern 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 corporate "body" to which millions if not billions of the world's population pledge their lives is simply a secular stand-in 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 secularized a force as we'd like to think. In fact, as he points out, we participate in tremendous acts of faith every day, putting our trust and lives in the hands of corporate priests and ministers every time we visit an HMO for a physical exam, accept a job promotion and relocation, board a suburban rail line or buy a seat for a particular transatlantic flight. It is these gestures of faith that the 9/11 hijackers tried, with some degree of success, to terrorize.

Ruthven describes well the gradual subjectivity regarding individual belief in God which began with Kant and accelerated with Luther and Kierkegaard, leading to an unbelieving society of people at liberty to find faith in "the realm of private consciousnesses" as opposed to the Islamist obsession with establishing a "religious" society and a believing pan-Arab empire. Yet Ruthven leaves unanswered the crucial question as to the degree that such an Islamist inclination moves the spirits of the hundreds of millions of people who make up mainstream Arab society.

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 US 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 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 US 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 US 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.

Are our own leaders furious for God? Though Ruthven rather diplomatically avoids the question directly, any American traveling lately in Rio de Janeiro or Sydney or Paris already knows that the world has decided that religious extremism has run amuck in the current administration. As Ruthven discusses the world view of political fundamentalists, one knows he isn't just discussing bin Laden's outlook when he describes leaders who pose as "the community of the saved, embattled but exclusively possessed of the truth," whose self-appointed mission is to "wage its ceaseless campaign against the 'enemies of God' in the certainty of ultimate salvation" (p. 25).

John Kerry somewhat reassuringly told us in his acceptance speech that he won't insist that God is on our side. But hasn't the political language which Kerry must engage already been well established by George W. and The Book of Revelation -- it's the language alive in the chatter on TV every night -- "the triumph of good" over "the evil-doers" and "faith and values" against "the powers of darkness." Is this political nightmare of endless war all that the Judeo-Christian and Islamic heritage has come to?

Also, Ruthven's book begs a bigger question: Is it God, ultimately, about which "religious fanatics" are furious? It's a terrorizing rage for simplicity in an age of unparalleled complexity, to be sure. But what about the tradition of believers -- from East to West -- from the discourses of Rumi to the Summa Theologica of Aquinas, emphatic about God's complexity and near immutability as the very basis for spiritual exaltation? And listen to the devotional awe for Allah which moves Pakistan's Qawwali musicians as they sing their way to ecstatic revelation. Or read Zionist philosopher Martin Buber's insistence on Arab rights, ideas emerging from his Hasidic perspectives on God alive within man.

The spirit of religiosity has lost out to the guns and butter of religion. Or, put another way, we are fallen subjects whom leaders from Washington D.C. to Fallujah must redeem, because -- as Ruthven writes, citing a fundamentalist credo -- "God knows and you know not." They've given God and belief a bad name. And they're armed.

In the end Ruthven's book reminded me of the provocative installation by artist Curtis Ellis, featuring a photograph of the hijacked Boeing 767 about to hit the south tower. Below, with tragic irony, in black letters, the picture is titled, "Faith-Based Initiative."

Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America, Granta Books, 2002, revised and updated edition February 2004; ISBN: 1-86207-573-5 (pbk): 346 pages, $16.95.

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*  By Ruthven's account, these 2001-2002 bombing raids killed hundreds of innocent Afghani citizens. Human Rights Watch estimates that the U.S. dropped 1,228 cluster bombs on Afghanistan. Though this number is startling, it is down considerably from the 61,000 bombs which HRW reports were dropped by the U.S. during the 1991 Gulf War.  (back)


Books Reviews on Swans

The 9/11 Saga on Swans


Tim Keane's poetry and fiction have appeared over the years in the U.S. in Golden Handcuffs Review, Big Bridge and XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics; in the U.K. in Aesthetica Magazine, Stride Magazine, and Chimera; and in Asia in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and Poetry New Zealand. He lives in Manhattan and teaches writing and literature at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. For more on Keanes's writing: timkeane.com

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Published August 16, 2004
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