Holy War Inc Book Review

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In Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc, the reader is ushered through a head-spinning trip around the globe that serves to highlight the far-reaching effects of Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization that Bergen likens to a Multi-national holding company. While Bergen makes reference to similarities between the management of a Multi-national Corporation and that of al-Qaeda, it is seemingly not the primary focus of the book nor does it serve as a particularly suitable metaphor, especially in light of the events that have transpired since the book was released. Despite the title of the book, Bergen does a fine job setting a backdrop to the organization and illustrating how it operates in an increasingly technologically intertwined world system, as well as outlining factors contributed by the West.

It seems there are few people on the planet who are as qualified as Peter Bergen to tackle as complex a task as explaining al-Qaeda to the masses. It is a feat he has clearly accomplished though, evidenced by the fact that the book became a New York Times best seller, was named one of the best non-fiction books of 2001 by The Washington Post, and has been translated into eighteen different languages. Bergen has traveled extensively through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to report on bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. In 1997 Bergen brought the Western world bin Laden's first television interview as a producer for CNN. It was in this interview that Western audiences first heard bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States (1).

Due to his extensive travel and research, Bergen displays an understanding and empathy, if not flat out admiration and sympathy for the Muslim struggle. He spends virtually no effort in further vilifying the terrorists, but concentrates rather on explaining the history and motivation behind the attacks with vocabulary that is, at times, nearly poetic. This ranges from the description of the “hopelessly brave warriors who…suffered so much for their faith” during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, to the moving experience of watching Muslim men at prayer. He reflects on how “the act of collective worship woven into the fabric of daily life is something we have almost entirely lost in the West (2). My personal favorite however, is his description of Pakistan during Ramadan where the “mornings were chilly, but by midday the sun had warmed the velvet breezes that blew the turning leaves off the trees” (3). Apart from the eloquence employed in his writing, it is still most surprising the great lengths Bergen went through to assemble a case of innocence for Khaled al-Fawwaz, the man who had first arranged CNN’s meeting with bin Laden and who was incidentally arrested by British authorities while Bergen was in London. Khaled is still being held in Britain fighting extradition to the U.S. for his involvement in the bombings of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa despite Bergen’s construct of innocence (4).

Bergen does not excuse the terrorist acts performed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but certainly works to explain to the Western world the factors and policies that have contributed to their justification for violence. He is critical of the U.S. Government from the outset of the book where he examines U.S. culpability for placing extremists in power and for providing an arsenal of weapons still employed by Afghan extremists today. During the brutal Afghan war, the U.S. provided political and financial support as well as stinger missiles (via the Pakistani government) to the Hizb party headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic extremist who “consistently placed the long-term goal of Islamic revolution over resistance to the Soviets”(5). Bergen identifies Ahmed Shah Massoud, a moderate Islamic general as having been a better choice of leaders, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. More importantly, Bergen seeks to establish the ignorance on which the United...
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