Lawrence Wright is an author, journalist, playwright, and screenwriter based in Austin, U.S.A. His more recent books include Thirteen Days in September: The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace (2014), Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013), and The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
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Q: In Thirteen Days in September, you write that “part of the Israeli dilemma was that they had never really confronted what they themselves wanted.” What message are you trying to convey here? How does this truth manifest itself in the Middle East?
A: Well, first of all, there are no borders. Israel has never declared its borders because it’s never defined itself as an entity. This is, in part, because if you’re defining yourself by what God told the Jews in the Old Testament, well, He defined on several different occasions what the Promised Land was. For Begin and the Revisionist Zionists, the Promised Land includes the Kingdom of Jordan and Southern Lebanon; for them, there’s much to be reconquered, that’s actually the goal. Probably the most disturbing thing that’s going on in Israeli society is the increasing super-orthodox element, which is growing at a fantastic rate and is changing the character of the country. The treatment of women is really shocking, [and] Taliban-esque in some ways. This orthodox element attacks nonconforming Jews, disclaiming them as being Jews at all. Those are really dismaying trends. Israel is a much different country than it was even when I first started going there a long time ago. Israel is reeling into this religious fantasy, and it has pulled away from being a normal country and from establishing relations with its neighbors that would lead to peace. These trends are moving away from peace and are being driven by religious ideals.
Q: Is there any similarity or correspondence between Zionist or Israeli violence on the one hand and Arab or Islamic violence on the other? Do these two forms of violence feed each other and ultimately resemble each other?
A: Well, Menachem Begin was the progenitor of a lot of this. What has made him so important was that he was so successful. He had an idea about using terror theatrically, and he was the one who would launch multiple attacks on the same day. He would do things that would definitely catch the newspaper headlines, that was what he was after. These tactics are now the hallmarks of al-Qaeda. Because Begin succeeded in driving the British out of the British Mandate in Palestine, though their withdrawal was not entirely due to his actions, and because he was so significant after Deir Yassein and driving the Palestinians out of the West Bank, other terrorists, future terrorists, began to look at his work as a model. The Palestinians, of course, were directly affected by Begin’s terrorism. The imprint of Begin on the Palestine Liberation Organization and on other Palestinian terror organizations later was very profound. He certainly affected Nelson Mandela’s movement, and Mandela said that he studied Begin. Begin’s memoirs were found in bin Laden’s library in Kandahar. So, I think his influence is persistent. Terrorism normally doesn’t succeed, but when terrorists are in action they think they have a chance at it. So, they want to look at a successful model. If you want to find all the successful models in the world, there aren’t very many but one of them is Menachem Begin, and Irgun, and the State of Israel.
Q: What is your view of the Palestine Liberation Organization?
A: They have changed. In the early days, in the early Yasser Arafat days, they were terrorists and sponsors of terrorism. I wonder about the utility of even having a Palestinian political state right now. It is so handicapped. There has been talk of simply dissolving the Palestinian National Authority. I’m not sure if that would be a bad thing. We’ve been in this prolonged status quo that has crippled the aspirations of so many young Palestinians and that has retarded the development of any kind of state. I think the possibility of a two-state solution has markedly diminished. This may be because of the political structure in Palestine. Palestinians hate their government. I am not advocating that the Palestinian National Authority dissolve, but I’m not sure that it would be a bad idea.
Q: In your writings, you often mention how Israel is used as a scapegoat to prop up corrupt and repressive regimes. Would you mind describing how oppressive governments use Israel to sustain their power?
A: You hear constantly in the Arab world about how “Israel is our big problem,” but it’s not. Israel is not the reason that there is no democracy in the Arab world. Israel is not the reason why the Arab world is impoverished and has low educational standards and few opportunities for young people to find employment. Israel is not responsible for any of that, but Arab leaders are constantly railing against Israel. This is changing a little bit. Things are always shifting around in the Middle East. Lately, Israel and Egypt have a better relationship than they ever have had. Because of the Saudi and Iranian feud, Saudi Arabia is now closer to Israel. Turkey is now getting back into an arrangement with Israel. In some ways, the genie of hatred moves around. If you’re an Egyptian or a Saudi, you’re more likely to point at Iran these days than you are at Israel.
Q: Anti-imperialism has often played a part in fueling the explosions of radical Islam. How does something as progressive as anti-imperialism get channeled into something as reactionary and as conservative as radical Islam?
A: To start with, the irony is that Islam was an imperial force. Islam conquered, through war, half of Europe and stretched all the way to the borders of China. The concept that the West is the only imperial power is historically inaccurate. A lot of Islamists believe that Islam should be the supreme power in the world, and they resent the fact that the West stands in their way, blocking them. Of course, the United States is the main problem, as far as they’re concerned. Their dream is to cause the disintegration of the United States into disparate states, thus allowing Islam to regain its place as the divinely inspired ruling power in the world. On the other hand, there was a lot of damage done during the colonial era. However, during the colonial era, institutions were built up that still exist and that greatly enriched Arab culture. Western ideals about the place of women in society, the concept of workers’ rights and fairness to workers, certain kinds of legal structures: all of those things have been great gifts given by Europe. The humiliation factor of having been a colonized people, though, persists. To some extent, anti-imperialism is used as an excuse for the failures of those societies to advance and to contribute, in ways that they would like to, to the modern world. The United States was a colony, but we’ve gotten over it. There are countries that have never been colonized by the West but manifest the same anti-imperialist expression, like Saudi Arabia. The West never took over Saudi Arabia. So, anti-imperialism is another one of the pillars that people hide behind oftentimes. I think a fair assessment of the colonial experience in the Arab world is that it did contribute many good things, and yet the psychological damage is still very enduring.
Q: Speaking of Saudi Arabia and anti-Western sentiment, you often write about Wahhabism, the radical ultraconservative Sunni ideology. Would you describe the evolution of this movement, particularly its controversial relationship with the Saudi royal family?
A: In the first iteration of the Saudi kingdom, there was a deal made between Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of the first Saudi state, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a Sunni religious leader. The deal was that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab would give his blessing to the Saud family as rulers, but his family and his ideals would be enshrined. Wahhabism is essentially fundamentalism. The concept of going back to life as it was lived during the time of the Prophet and his immediate successors, who are known as the “rightly guided” caliphs, was plausible during the 19th century in Saudi Arabia, when no oil had been discovered and when it was still a desert kingdom, which already resembled the time when the Prophet lived. In modern Saudi Arabia, the relationship between Wahhabism and the royal family still exists. They justify each other’s existence. The Wahhabi faction became much more powerful after 1979, with the attack on the Grand Mosque, which scared the crap out of the royal family because they were being attacked in the holiest place in Islam for being heretics, essentially. They wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again, so they gave additional power and authority to the Wahhabi clerics. By now, by that time, Wahhabism had been infected by political ideals, largely coming from Egyptian Muslim Brothers who had fled into Saudi Arabia like Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Muhammad Qutb, who I interviewed in Saudi Arabia. He was a part of a tremendous diaspora of Muslim Brothers who fertilized the concept of Wahhabism with the idea of political action. That’s where this modern expression of Wahhabism has come from. The Wahhabis are much more politically engaged than they were in the past. There are echoes of ISIS in Saudi history. There were groups, essentially terrorists, that were fighting with Abdulaziz, the founder and first king of Saudi Arabia, who had to eliminate them because he couldn’t keep them under control. There was a time when Saudi Arabia honored other forms of Islam. Wahhabism was its province, but they taught all four schools of Islamic law in Mecca and other sects were tolerated. Now, some Islamic sects are not allowed to go on Hajj, and recently the Saudis are keeping the Iranians out. Islam can be a much more tolerant religion than is being manifested right now in Saudi Arabia.
Q: I have one last, big question for you just because religion plays such a key role in your work. What is God to you?
A: I think if there is a God, and I’m perfectly willing to believe that there is, then He is a manifestation of all things, and that is a really common concept across religions. In Islam, there is a basic concept that God is the unity of all things. I think you find that idea in Christianity, too. There may not be an afterlife. There may not be an explanation for all of Creation. The experience of having life and learning and enjoying and appreciating and even suffering: these are all forms that we can think of as being spiritual experiences, not just daily experiences. It could be that whatever is religious and whatever is spiritual and whatever is God is right here, right in front of us. We tend to think of spirituality as being somewhere else, but it may be that it has been in front of our eyes all this time.