Beware the Holy War | The Nation


Beware the Holy War

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

So far so good. Curtis has done some wonderful archival research to illustrate his film, finding rare footage, for instance, of Qutb in prison (and he wittily punctuates the narrative with passages of popular songs and old film clips). But in telling Qutb's story, Curtis argues that it is mirrored by that of the University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss, a forced analogy that is emblematic of Curtis's occasionally questionable polemical methods. Curtis says that around the same time Qutb was formulating his apocalyptic vision of waging offensive jihads against the enemies of Islam, Strauss, "who shared the same fears about the destructive influence of individualism in America," was telling his students, many of whom went on to influential careers in politics, that liberalism was fatally weakening the US body politic and sapping Americans' will to defend "freedom." Intellectuals, he believed, would have to spread an ideology of good and evil, whether they believed it or not, so that the American people could be mobilized against the enemies of freedom. For this reason Strauss, we learn in one of many telling asides, was a huge fan of the TV series Gunsmoke and its Manichean depiction of good and evil.

About the Author

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen, a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.

Also by the Author

Five years after the United States ousted the Taliban, optimism about Afghanistan's future is evaporating. Three new books shed light on what went wrong.

The parallel is provocative, to be sure, but Curtis takes it several steps too far when he argues that Strauss "would become the shaping force behind the neoconservative movement, which now dominates the American Administration." In fact, Qutb and Strauss are not of equal weight for the Islamists and the neocons. In al-Zawahiri's 2001 autobiography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, he repeatedly cites Qutb, while Qutb's brother taught bin Laden at university in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s. And Qutb's claim that Muslim rulers who preside over countries in a state of jahiliyyah are effectively non-Muslims was the intellectual underpinning of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Moreover, all Islamists are well versed in, and deeply influenced by, Qutb. By contrast, while it's true that former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz took a couple of courses from Strauss at the University of Chicago, and a number of Straussians have found jobs in the Bush Administration, Strauss's work as a political philosopher has had little impact on the world outside the academy. Indeed, the key drivers of American foreign policy--Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice--are in all likelihood more familiar with the works of Johann Strauss than with the dense, recondite works of Leo Strauss. (Curtis would have improved his case by focusing not on Strauss but on Albert Wohlstetter, a colleague of Strauss's at the University of Chicago who, during the 1970s and '80s, strongly advocated the view that Soviet military power was underrated, and who was an important mentor to both Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.)

The next pillar of Curtis's thesis is that the neocons and their allies exaggerated the Soviet threat, a precursor of their later inflation of the menace posed by Al Qaeda. It is positively eerie to watch then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld deliver a supremely self-assured speech in a 1976 press conference about the gathering strength of the Soviet war machine that just as easily could have been one of his gung-ho Pentagon briefings decades later. Curtis explains that the CIA found Rumsfeld's view of the Soviet military buildup to be a "fiction"; but that did not stop Rumsfeld from establishing a commission of inquiry into the putative buildup that was known as Team B and was run, in part, by Wolfowitz. In one of the strongest sections of the documentary, Curtis explains:

Team B made an assumption that the Soviets had developed systems that were so sophisticated they were undetectable. For example, they could find no evidence that the Soviet submarine fleet had an acoustic defense system. What this meant, Team B said, was that the Soviets had actually invented a new non-acoustic system, which was impossible to detect. And this meant that the whole of the American submarine fleet was at risk from an invisible threat that was there, even though there was no evidence for it.

This was an early formulation of the Rumsfeldian doctrine that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. To devastating effect Curtis deploys Dr. Anne Cahn, a government arms-control expert during the 1970s, who explains, "If you go through most of Team B's specific allegations about [Soviet] weapons systems, and you just examine them one by one, they were all wrong." Team B's exaggerations, according to Curtis, were all in the service of the neoconservative creation of "a simplistic fiction, a vision of the Soviet Union as the center of all evil in the world." Central to this fiction was the idea that the Kremlin was behind the violence of militant nationalist insurgencies from Belfast to Palestine (not to mention the attempt on Pope John Paul II's life). Claire Sterling expounded this theory, which has since been thoroughly debunked, in The Terror Network, a book that influenced the thinking of Reagan officials and neoconservative analysts like Michael Ledeen, who now argues that Tehran has replaced Moscow as the terror network's base of operations. Curtis can be faulted for overlooking the horror of the Soviet system, something the neoconservatives appreciated better than most leftists, but he is correct that the neoconservatives injected a theological fervor into American foreign policy and that they were willing to look past the flaws of anyone willing to confront America's enemy--such as the fanatical Islamist Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose party received at least $600 million in US aid to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, and who is now one of the most wanted terrorists in Afghanistan.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.