He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, a deep look into Al Qaeda and what led to 9/11. So what does Lawrence Wright think about the unrest convulsing the Arab world today?
Before a jam-packed audience at the Avaya Auditorium Tuesday evening, at an event sponsored by UT’s Humanities Institute, Wright offered insights into what he calls the “freedom train” speeding through the Middle East.
Wright is a Texan who grew up in Dallas and later worked at Texas Monthly, but he also has deep experience in the Arab world. He both studied and taught at American University in Cairo and has lived in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region.
It’s the countries with less developed civil societies and rule of law, like Libya and Yemen, that Wright said he worries about most.
“Once they get rid of their tyrant, then what? I’m very concerned about the growth of radicalism in certain peripheral areas,” he said. “I think we’re going to be looking at a lot of turbulence and chaos in the next few years, and Al Qaeda will certainly take advantage of that.”
Wright also talked about the United States’ history of involvement in the Arab world, from using air bases to torturing terrorism suspects.
“It would be nice to align our values and our interests as neatly as we would like to. In the Middle East,” he said, “it’s not always easy to do that. If the Saudi royal family were to fall tomorrow, what would happen? What would happen to the price of oil? It would go through the roof. The world economy would be in a terrible crisis. So we have an interest in not letting change happen too rapidly and chaotically in Saudi Arabia.”
At that point, the lecture lived up to its billing as part of the Humanities Institute’s “Difficult Dialogues” series. Associate journalism professor Robert Jensen spoke up forcefully, calling that thinking ethnocentric and entitled. “If I were an Arab, I would be very angry about that,” he said.
“You sound angry, Bob,” Wright responded, lightening the tension.
Then he added: “I am who I am. I don’t apologize for that. I go out in the world and I try to understand other perspectives. Certainly America has engaged in a lot of things I’m ashamed of, and I don’t deny that either. But I’m proud to be an American. When it fails to live up to those ideals, I’m ashamed of it. But I wonder, Bob, if America were not involved in the Middle East at all, would it be more democratic or free than it is now?”