THE LOOMING TOWER by Lawrence Wright ( Allen Lane 480 pp. £25)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
Certain things are possibly true even if George W. Bush believes them. Lawrence Wright's well- documented book on how Osama bin Laden put together the loose coalition of Islamist forces he called Al Qu'aida takes for granted that sooner or later attacks on the West were inevitable. The USA's support for Israel was an important factor in this, and so was the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. But these were, in the eyes of Bin Laden and his colleague Zawahiri, not only objectionable in themselves, but the sorts of thing that Christians and secularists do; they were the confirmation of worst suspicions.
Hatred for the loose morals of the West, at least as much as for American racism and imperialism, formed a significant part of the indictment of the modern world by the Egyptian thinker Qutb. Appalled by mixed sex church dances, he went back to Cairo, and started to organize conspiracies, and was duely hanged by the authorities. Like all martyrs, he recruited more people dead than he did when alive. One of the reasons why one of those recruits, Zawahiri, has always been more effective as thinker than as leader is that he broke under torture and named his colleagues.
Self-doubt is always an important part of fanaticism. Bin Laden was the least favoured of his many brothers and O' Neil, the American intelligence operative Wright sets up as their opponent and secret sharer had personal issues of his own, right up to his self-immolation in the South Building of the World Trade Centre. Men of faith know that the lives of the righteous are in god's hand, so screw the rest of us.
Wright does not like any of these people very much, yet is even-handed in his sense of the pity of what they all do to the world. We end up as sad for Zawahiri's young wife, killed by American bombs, as for a Kenyan woman blown up by Al Quaida in Nairobi; sometimes there is no right side, just several wrong ones.
It seems to me that the best case that can be made for Gordon Brown is that Charles Clarke and David Blunkett hate him like poison, and Tony Blair does not like him very much. He was, after all, one of the architects of New Labour and his obsession with PFI means that many important parts of the nation's infrastructure will be in hock to private companies for decades to come. In particular, a combination of this and his personal dislike of Ken Livingstone - which I don't regard as a fault, BTWm, merely as something which should not be allowed to get in the way - meant that he opposed the idea of sorting out the Underground by bond issue, which might actually have worked. Either he supported Iraq or he failed to make a fuss over it - this is not a good sign; criticising over-investment in the American alliance on financial grounds alone is not good enough.
On the other hand, he is surrounded by real people and not grinning plastic suits - I met his wife at parties many years ago and she always seemed sane. And, as I say, his enemies are people I detest so much that perhaps I can reconcile myself to him purely on the basis that it will annoy them deeply.
Which is more of a principled position than it appears. You always have to choose the bad against the worse in these matters, and Blunkett and Clarke are both representatives of a brutal philistinism which tries to outflank the Tories by being even viler on social issues. There are things Brown has not ever done, like sign the papers that send asylum seekers back to persecution, torture and worse for the sake of a positive headline in the Sun.
I am so glad not to be a member of the Labour Party any more, because it means that I can opt out of making the decision.
Gordon it is then, but only because Robin Cook is dead.