The Power of Nightmares, a three-hour BBC documentary directed by Adam Curtis, is arguably the most important film about the “war on terrorism” since the events of September 11. It is more intellectually engaging, more historically probing and more provocative than any of its rivals, including Fahrenheit 9/11. But although it has been shown at Cannes and at a few film festivals in the United States, it has yet to find an American distributor, and for understandable reasons. The documentary asserts that Al Qaeda is largely a phantom of the imagination of the US national security apparatus. Indeed, The Power of Nightmares seeks nothing less than to reframe the past several decades of American foreign policy, from the Soviet menace of the 1970s to the Al Qaeda threat of today, to argue that neoconservatives in the American foreign policy establishment have vastly exaggerated those threats in their quest to remake the world in the image of the United States.
The fact that the film has not been widely shown here is our loss, since it raises important questions about the political manipulation of fear. Yet The Power of Nightmares is also troubling for reasons other than the ones Curtis supposes. For the thesis he advances–that the war on terrorism is driven by nightmares rather than nightmarish potentialities–is one that merits considerable skepticism. It may be that Al Qaeda is less organized and monolithic than George W. Bush would have us believe, but it is a fierce and determined organization that has spawned a global ideological movement led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose influence and plans we have every reason to be deeply concerned about.
The kernel of Curtis’s argument is that Western politicians claim “the greatest danger of all is international terrorism, a powerful and sinister network, with sleeper cells in countries across the world, a threat that needs to be fought by a war on terror. But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It’s a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media.” Curtis says that this illusion was set in motion by two seemingly very different groups, American neoconservatives and radical Islamists, whose war with each other conceals a history of tacit alliance, and even some ideological resemblances. As Curtis reminds us, the neoconservatives and the Islamists came together in the 1980s in Afghanistan to expel the Soviets, and they share a hostility to the Middle East’s authoritarian dynastic regimes (although they seek to replace them with altogether different kinds of government). What is more, both groups view Western liberalism with distrust, fearing that it will erode traditional and especially martial values, thus weakening their societies from within.
Curtis begins his story in 1949 in the unlikely setting of Greeley, Colorado, where the Egyptian literary critic Sayyid Qutb attended graduate school. It was Qutb’s encounter with the United States that helped turn him into the Lenin of the radical Islamists. One summer night, the puritanical Qutb went to a dance at a local church hall, where the pastor was playing the big-band hit “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” (The tune provides the title of the documentary’s first hour, as well as a constant musical refrain.) The idea of a house of worship playing a secular love song crystallized Qutb’s sense that Americans were deeply corrupt and interested only in self-gratification. On his return to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested on Nasser’s orders in 1954 for supposedly plotting revolution and was then subjected to the most dreadful tortures. Curtis says, “Qutb survived, but the torture had a powerful, radicalizing effect on his ideas.” Writing from his prison cell, Qutb argued that Egypt’s secular nationalist government was presiding over a country mired in a state of pre-Islamic barbarity known as jahiliyyah and, by implication, that the government should be overthrown. Qutb was executed in 1966, but he would profoundly influence a teenager named Ayman al-Zawahiri, who set up a jihadist cell dedicated to the Qutbian theory that Egyptian government officials were apostates from Islam and therefore deserved death.