It’s the plot of countless Hollywood movies: A sexually repressed totalitarian attempts to gain power over others through violence and intimidation. Footloose, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Goodnight and Good Luck, The Handmaid’s Tale — all these films, and many more, feature a killjoy bad guy trying to button up the rest of the liberal world.
This Elmer Gantry type is mostly offstage in The Looming Tower, the captivating miniseries about the events leading to September 11, 2001. The series, currently streaming on Hulu, focuses on the mistakes in the US intelligence community that allowed a handful of hijackers to fly planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing 3,000 people. The main focus of The Looming Tower is the petty turf wars that prevented the CIA from sharing information with the FBI about Islamic terrorism. It didn’t help that in 1998, when a large part of the series takes place, President Clinton was focused on a sexual scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern.
Adapted by screenwriter Dan Futterman from the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Lawrence Wright, and directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief), The Looming Tower does not delve into the backstory of how Islamic radicalism came into being. Part political drama and part the-clock-is-ticking thriller, the series leaves out the main thing that set Islamic radicalism in action: Paranoia about sex and Western freedom. While several things can go into making a jihadist – factors such as resentment of Israel, a culture that leaves young men with too much money and too little to do, and a religion that depicts God as punishing, capricious and unbound by reason — the main driver is an obsession with sex.
Jeff Daniels stars as FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill and Peter Sarsgaard as Martin Schmidt, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit. O’Neill is a swearing, drinking and overspending womanizer whose passion and abrasiveness makes him an effective anti-terrorism fighter. He’s the gritty cop who hates bureaucracy. His foil is Schmidt, who is petty and childish, literally shutting down his CIA unit when FBI agents show up so he doesn’t have to share information. Schmidt cannot stand O’Neill, who opts for going into terrorist cells with force and arresting people while Schmidt prefers to pinpoint the enemy with air strikes. Tahar Rahim is outstanding as rookie FBI agent Ali Soufan, one of the only agents familiar with the languages and customs of the Middle East. He works for and is won over by O’Neill.
The Looming Tower shifts from O’Neill, Schmidt and Soufan to terrorist cells in Africa and the Middle East, and then to scenes from a 2004 congressional hearing on 9/11 reveal just how bad the dysfunction in the agencies was. The series is expertly acted, edited and directed. It moves at a good pace, takes time for character development, and is shot crisply.
Still, The Looming Tower begins about 300 pages into Lawrence Wright’s book, skipping the earliest part of the path to 9/11. That story involves a small handful of devout Muslim men whose pathological paranoia about sex led them to radical Islam. The most fascinating of them was Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian author, educator, Islamic theorist, poet, and the leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1940s Qutb was heavily influenced by the work of Nobel Prize-winner French eugenicist Alexis Carrel, who believed that Western modernity fostered selfishness and killed spirituality. In 1966, Qutb was convicted of plotting the assassination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and was executed by hanging.
The book The Looming Tower opens with a long examination of Qutb’s life, giving particular focus to his hatred of the United States. Qutb came to America in 1948 to study at a teacher’s college in Greeley, Colorado. He was appalled by what he saw. “The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity,” he wrote. “She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.” The boys had “wide, strapping chest[s]” and “ox muscles.” As for the music: “The American’s enjoyment of jazz does not fully begin until he couples it with singing like crude screaming,” Qutb wrote when he returned to Egypt. “It is this music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires.” Note: This was not Las Vegas in 2018. It was Greeley, Colorado, a dry town filled with churches, in 1948.
A religious fanatic, Qutb reasoned that the only possible explanation for the dominance of America after World War II was because Muslims were not devout enough. To defeat the West and bring in a caliphate with universal sharia law, they needed to pray harder, become even more unyieldingly orthodox, endlessly memorize the Koran. This mania is an echo of scientology, which Wright also investigated brilliantly in his book Going Clear. In that weird cult, any sign of personal failure must be met with increasing rounds of “auditing,” a pseudoscientific method of treatment that just makes things worse. In radical Islam, the failure of a person or a culture can be cured by becoming more and more radically committed to God. It’s a terrible cycle.
Qutb was enraged by the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. But then, he was enraged by most things. He complained that Americans put salt on watermelon. We didn’t know how to give a good haircut, and suffered from “a drought of sentimental sympathy.” On top of that, “Americans intentionally deride what people in the Old World hold sacred.” America and the West are dangerous because they blind people to true values and the real zenith of civilization, which for Qutb began with Muhammad in the seventh century and reached its height in the Middle Ages. Writing for Smithsonian magazine in 2006, David von Drehle connects the dots:
Such grumbling by an unhappy crank would be almost comical but for one fact: a direct line of influence runs from Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden, and to bin Laden’s Egyptian partner in terror, Ayman al-Zawahiri. From them, the line continues to another quietly seething Egyptian sojourning in the United States—the 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. Qutb’s gripes about America require serious attention because they cast light on a question that has been nagging since the fall of the World Trade Center: Why do they hate us?
It’s puzzling why the film The Looming Tower ignores Qutb – after all, if a historical figure who was a devout Christian shared the same attitudes and became a bomber, he would be the focal point of any drama purporting to tell the story of domestic terrorism. Qutb is a prime mover, the engine that set radical Islam in motion. Even without a historical reenactment, the creators of The Looming Tower could have included a scene where O’Neil or the CIA’s Schmidt are briefing their agents on Qutb. To not do so is like the classic mafia film The Godfather being shot without any scenes taking place in in Italy.
The closest The Looming Tower gets to Qutb is when Scotland Yard Chief Inspector (unnamed and played by Tony Curran) takes O’Neil and Agent Soufan to a pub in Manchester, where the FBI has tracked a terrorist. When Soufan asks why the terrorists aren’t doing more, the Chief Inspector just sips his pint. Al-Qaeda he explains, are losers. “These guys are outsiders and misfits,” he says. “They can’t get girlfriends.”
Finally, an accurate assessment of jihadi motivation. The terrorists who started it all were educated, rich, and often from upper-class and respected families who lived in upper-class neighborhoods. It wasn’t poverty or stupidity that set them on the path of destruction. It was fear of freedom, a desire to explain their failures in light of their confidence that God is on their side, and most powerfully, a fear of the feminine. As good as it is, and it is very good, The Looming Tower should have taken the time to explain the core issues that make radical Islam so pathetic.