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The World Since 9/11, in Detail and Sorrow

Apparently, a church dance in Greeley, Colo., led to 9/11.

In 1948 Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer who became the father of the radical Islamist movement, was sent to the United States to temper his contempt for the West. What he saw over two years — postwar consumerism, suburban lawns, men and women dancing “breast to breast” — only further inflamed his conviction that the West was the enemy of Islam and doomed.

Mr. Qutb went on to work up a pseudospiritual justification of Islamic terrorism that inspired and emboldened many, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. And that modest Colorado mixer — back then, Greeley was a dry town — was Mr. Qutb’s “epiphanic moment,” as Malise Ruthven, a Middle East expert, puts it in “Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda,” the first documentary in the weeklong, 11-part PBS series “America at a Crossroads.”

The title alone suggests the series’s ambition: “Crossroads” is an attempt to look at the post-9/11 world as broadly and deeply as possible. It’s a worthy and worthwhile examination of the clash between Islam and the West, but it’s also the kind of sorrowful, all-knowing look backward that makes viewers wonder why all these journalists, experts, scholars and former government officials were not more outspoken about the impending crisis before it blew up the twin towers and drove the Bush administration to invade Iraq.

Probably they were less sure, and we weren’t listening anyway.

The Washington PBS station WETA guided and oversaw the series, but each documentary is made by a different filmmaker tackling a different but interrelated chapter: it’s a “Naked Came the Stranger” for Middle East scholars.

“Jihad,” tomorrow night, is a two-hour premiere that examines the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim fundamentalism to explain that the Koran was hijacked by extremists seeking a religious justification for all-out war against the West and secularized Arab states, even ones that say they are Muslim.

Other nights, other nightmares: “Gangs of Iraq,” on Tuesday, is a “Frontline” documentary that in harrowing detail reveals, among other things, that the administration’s goal of handing over the reins of war and peacekeeping to Iraqi soldiers and police officers is elusive at best. “Security vs. Liberty: The Other War,” next Friday, looks at the debate about civil liberties in the age of terror, while “Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia,” on Thursday — which was produced by The New York Times — reveals how Islam there is also becoming radicalized.

Perhaps the oddest and most fascinating segment is “The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom,” also on Tuesday, a documentary that is a kind of video diary by Richard N. Perle, a former Pentagon adviser and one of the most ardent advocates of the Iraq war. In a cheerful first-person narration, he travels to a girls’ school in Kabul, to post-Soviet Russia and to his alma mater, Hollywood High in Los Angeles, the place where he first learned to mistrust liberals.

Mr. Perle avoids the Vietnam War and moves straight to his role assisting Ronald Reagan in undermining the “evil empire.” Mr. Perle currently seems most concerned with mobilizing support for Iranian dissidents, but he does mention Iraq. He is confident not only that the war there was worth waging, but also that it can be won — as long as critics at home go unheeded.

The series comes full circle with “Brotherhood,” an investigation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which got its start in Egypt as an anticolonial movement and evolved after the 1967 war with Israel into a radical modern influence that helped shape Osama bin Laden’s thinking. And much of “Jihad” is a biography of Mr. bin Laden, from his early days as a pious son of a Saudi multimillionaire to his fund-raising for the mujahedeen fighting to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and beyond.

The documentary mentions that the young Mr. bin Laden did not shake hands with women, wear shorts at soccer practice or listen to music, but leaves out that as a boy he loved the American television series “Bonanza,” a detail in Lawrence Wright’s book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”

Mr. Wright is one of many experts interviewed in “Jihad,” and he speaks knowledgeably about Mr. bin Laden’s transformation from freedom fighter to terrorist.

One of the most chilling themes in “Jihad” is that Al Qaeda, which fell to pieces after Americans routed the Taliban in Afghanistan, is back in business and bigger than ever as a result of the invasion of Iraq. Michael Scheuer, a former head of the bin Laden tracking unit at the Central Intelligence Agency, puts it this way: “The unexpected gift of the invasion of Iraq has really been more than bin Laden ever dreamed was possible.”

Published: April 14, 2007, NY Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/14/arts/television/14stan.html

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