Slate has an interesting article on Mohammed Atta, the ultimately enigmatic figure behind the 911 attacks, and a man we really haven’t started to understand yet.
One of the reasons there have been so few Islamist terrorist attacks on western targets post 911 is that most of the organisers of them are inept. Most attacks, trumpeted to the media on the arrest of their would-be perpetrators as fearsome plots to blow up twenty-nine blah blah, are discovered to be in the “pre-planning” stage, i.e. the dumb schmucks are just talking about them in coffee shops. The sort of people who are attracted to the rigid simplicities of Wahhabi Islamism, are the sort of people who generally lack the ability to think round corners.
Atta is the exception to this. Somehow over the course of several years, he kept together a conspiracy involving two dozen people, and the most meticulous planning, efficiency and resolve. Aside from Flight 93, taken over by the passengers and denied its target, Atta got everything he wanted from the attack.
Wounded Western triumphalists — Martin Amis and John Updike are two — console themselves over this body-blow, a hit which hastened America’s 21st century decline by decades, by constructing Atta as a super-fanatic, an ahuman sexually repressed Islamabot, i.e. exactly the sort of freak lacking the calm rationality necessary to achieving what he did.
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But we’ve always known that Atta wasn’t your typical Islamist. Though many of the leaders and operatives of the Al-Qaeda brand are professionals — engineers, doctors etc — Atta was an urban-planning architect, especially focussed on historical preservation. We always knew he had done his thesis on the ancient city of Aleppo, whose old quarter was being threatened by development.
Now, as the Slate article reveals, Atta’s antiquarianism went deeper, he was particularly exercised by an Egyptian government plan to turn an old quarter of Cairo into a historic theme park — razing the smaller buildings, turning the larger ones into tourist sites, and having the local populations dress from the period of the particular sub-areas of the quarter.
It’s the sort of dumb idea that occurs to governments everywhere, turning the whole life of a populace into an adjunct to a service economy, a way of life into a souvenir of its memory.
OK, now here’s what’s interesting. Most violent Islamists, whatever their origins, share the extreme position held by Wahhabists on idolatry and the false attachment to physical objects. There are no tombs for the vast Saudi royal family, for example — they are buried, unmarked, in the ground within 24 hours of their death. Mecca has been entirely demolished and rebuilt over the last half-century, with barely an original building remaining — not even the precincts surrounding the Hajj, the black-draped rock that forms the centre of devotions.
Nor are violent Islamists especially conservative in their economic philosophy — they want mega-development as much as anyone, if only the better to take a stand against the west.
We know that Atta was consumed by the familiar lurid conspiracy theories of the movement — though the last century of western domination of the Middle East provides more actual and demonstrable conspiracies as you could want — but the passionate attachment to built form and historical ways of life is something else, and quite distinct.
The possibility is that Islamism per se was not Atta’s main concern — that 911 was such a singular event because Al-Qaeda was used as much by Atta, as using of him. In this scenario, he employed the resources and ideology of that movement to strike a blow against what he saw as a more secular and material historical process by which a whole way of life and region of the world was under attack. Was Mohammed Atta simply the armed wing of the Arab National Trust?
And if so, how grievously have we misunderstood the last decade?