Why do they hate us?

That's a question many Americans have been asking about radical Muslims ever since al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four jetliners and attacked our nation nine years ago.

Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, often asked that same question while researching his book, The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. The book alone, which won a Pulitzer Prize is informative enough and goes a long way toward providing some answers (we'll never have them all). But Wright took things a step further by turning his material into a critically-acclaimed one-man play, My Trip to al-Qaeda. And now his material shows up in yet another form of media—a movie by the same title which features snippets from Wright's stage play, interviews, documentary footage, photographs, and more.

Wright got to know bin Laden's brother-in-law

Wright got to know bin Laden's brother-in-law

My Trip to al-Qaeda debuts on HBO tonight, and will run on HBO and HBO2 throughout the month (and on demand into early October). It's one of the most compelling things I've seen this year, and certainly one of the most educational 90 minutes you'll get on the topic. You might not learn all the reasons they hate us, but you'll learn quite a bit about the roots of al-Qaeda, Islamic radicalism, and hostility to America.

Wright's interviews include a terrorist who killed a 12-year-old girl while trying to assassinate the Egyptian prime minister; a once-jailed Muslim who describes the torture techniques that turned Islamic intellectuals many into radicals; and a Saudi businessman who was married to Osama bin Laden's sister.

We caught up with Wright via e-mail recently to discuss the film, what he learned from his research, and why he thinks radical Muslims hold so much hatred for the West.

We journalists are supposed to be objective. But when something like 9/11 happens, when people say it's their goal to kill Americans, isn't objectivity pretty hard?

Remaining objective was really difficult for me. I was angry and grieving over the damage done to my country. Meantime, I was talking to a lot of people who were also very angry at America, as well as being full of denial about their responsibility for the tragedy.

I had a particularly nasty spat with one of the leaders of the Muslim Brothers on my last day in Egypt. He had recently gotten out of prison, and I had had my fill of anti-American rhetoric. When he started laying out the revisionist history about America's involvement in the Middle East, which was so wildly distorted, I just flew into a rage. I know I was tired, and I'm not proud of that moment. For one thing, it wasn't helpful. I didn't get the interview I wanted; my feelings just got in the way.

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Some people believe that Islam is basically a peaceful faith, and that extremists are taking teachings and some Qur'an passages way out of context. Others believe that Mohammed and the Qur'an do teach violence and jihad. Based on your research, what do you think is the truth?

The Qur'an, and particularly the hadith—the various accumulated records of the sayings of Mohammed—do have some passages that justify violence, glorify jihad, and deprecate Jews. It's impossible to avoid hearing them cited when talking to jihadis or scanning the websites. On the other hand, there are many other passages that emphasize justice and compassion. It's a matter of what [Muslim] believers choose to emphasize. Imagine if Jews and Christians decided to slaughter homosexuals or stone disobedient children, as the Bible instructs us to do.

Why do radical Muslims hate us so much? Is it directed at Christians, at Americans, at Westerners, or what? Or even all of the above?

It's a mistake to think that the radical Islamists drawn into al-Qaeda hate Christianity, the West, and America more than they hate other Muslims who don't believe exactly as they do. We focus on their rhetoric against the West, but if you look at their actions, they mainly kill other Muslims. Many more Muslims have died at the hands of al-Qaeda—in Iraq alone—than Americans died on 9/11. There is a certainly a hatred of America for supporting repressive Arab governments, but practically all Arab governments are repressive, whether we support them or not, so in my opinion this is just a way of holding the U.S. responsible for the failure of the Arab political system to reform itself.

Our support for Israel is another matter. This issue—along with Kashmir, a struggle we hear less about in the U.S.—is a solvable political problem that has caused enormous resentment and is a wellspring of radicalism. It's gone on far too long and simply must be resolved.

If you could give the Obama administration and the allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan some advice, what would it be? Is it possible to "win" the war on terror? What would victory look like?

The war in Iraq was a terrible mistake and shouldn't really be counted as a part of the war on terror. From a geopolitical perspective, the removal of Saddam Hussein, monster that he was, liberated Iran, which is a far greater threat to the West than the blustery Hussein ever was.

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In Afghanistan, we have two paths ahead of us. One is that the U.S. "stays the course," even as our NATO allies leave the field. The outcome is that we will prop up a phony democracy run by war lords and drug lords, while a chronic insurgency spreads through the country and perhaps the entire region. The other is that we leave, the Taliban gradually regain territory, the tribal civil war resumes, and al-Qaeda regains its sanctuary. Those are pretty dismal prospects.

In a scene from his stage play

In a scene from his stage play

On balance, I favor Vice President Biden's approach of reducing the American military footprint and running operations only against al-Qaeda. I don't think we can save Afghanistan. As for Pakistan, I'm in favor of drastically reducing our foreign aid to that country. Since 9/11, we've given $11 billion, mostly in military aid, which has given the army an outsized position in Pakistani society, while doing very little to counter the radicalism and anti-Americanism that are consuming that country now. In place of aid, I suggest dropping the trade tariffs against Pakistani imports, which would benefit the Pakistani middle class.

If we get Osama (dead or alive), what would happen next? Would that really be a "victory" for the U.S. and allies, or would all hell break loose after that?

I don't think al-Qaeda can survive the death of its leader. The fact that bin Laden is still alive and operating nine years after 9/11 has emboldened other radical groups and added to his legend. Until recently, al-Qaeda had no obvious successor. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who is number two in the organization, has none of the mystique that surrounds bin Laden; indeed, he's anti-charismatic, and he ran his own Egyptian terrorist group, al-Jihad, into the ground. But I am worried that Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni cleric who is also an American citizen, has become a potent voice and a likely candidate to lead the al-Qaeda movement if bin Laden is finally removed from the scene.

What, if any, of your own faith journey and spiritual inclinations did you bring to this story?

Writing and researching my book and the subsequent film was often a very dark spiritual experience. The stark lesson I took from this is how dangerous religious beliefs can be. I have written extensively about cults and various religious traditions, including my own, but I came away from this book feeling angry and depressed at the way religious faith has turned certain believers into righteous barbarians.

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What would you say to a Christian audience about how we should "process" the things you cover in this film? What should we do with such info?

Despite my concern about the malevolent potential of fervent religious belief, I've often seen the transforming power of faith put to excellent use. American Christians have a role to play, especially in the Holy Land, where the intransigence of both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, has stymied any real progress toward peace. I think the region is headed toward catastrophe. A fair and just settlement is possible. Just think of South Africa, which once posed a far more difficult political problem. I don't think the Israelis and the Palestinians can solve this without the help and the prodding of the international community.

Unfortunately, the American Christian community has played an unhelpful, partisan role in this conflict, until now. A real effort on the part of American Christians to fairly resolve this issue will certainly diminish radicalism in the area and reduce the blame for America's role in prolonging the conflict. I think the Beatitudes express the very essence of Christ's message, and it's well to remember them, especially: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."