“My Trip to Al-Qaeda” (8 p.m., HBO) offers one journalist’s meditation on fundamentalist Islam, and its history and appeal. Lawrence Wright has won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” and he has recently put on a one-man Broadway show about his experiences and his moral qualms about researching the book and interviewing men he knew were murderers and terrorists.
Wright’s link to Islamic culture goes back to the late 1960s, when he taught at an American school in Cairo. Some of the 9/11 hijackers graduated from that school long after Wright’s time there. But he understands the culture of the educated, westernized and disaffected Muslims who chafed against Egypt’s corrupt society and who were radicalized by time spent in jail cells and torture chambers.
Wright does a rather remarkable job describing the existential absurdity of Saudi Arabia. He describes a society where a handful of sheiks literally own everything and where a religious order controls everything else. The only outlet, he observes, is shopping. He cites statistics about the widespread depression of young Saudis who feel trapped and turn to the suicidal nihilism of the extremists as the only way to bring meaning to their empty lives.
Wright’s brush with terrorism predates 2001. Three years before 9/11, Wright wrote the screenplay to “The Siege,” a speculative Hollywood drama about a terror attack on New York starring Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington. Even before its release, fundamentalist groups called the film a slur on Islam and bombed a Hard Rock Cafe in South Africa, citing the restaurant chain’s connection to Bruce Willis. Several tourists were killed.
“The Siege” did not predict 9/11, but Wright found much of it sadly prescient. He sees the invasion of Iraq and the use of torture and rendition of suspects as playing right into Bin Laden’s playbook. While we talked about “liberating” Iraq, most in the Muslim world saw it as just one more humiliation at the hands of Western “crusaders.”
• The Disney Channel turns to an old friend and property with the music-filled “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Road Rally” (6 p.m., Disney).
Tonight’s other highlights
• Starting tonight, “Friday Night Lights” (5 p.m., Family) airs nightly on ABC Family.
• The “30 for 30” documentary “One Night in Vegas” (7 p.m., ESPN) recalls the night of a 1996 Mike Tyson bout that ended with the shooting death of rapper Tupac Shakur.
• The top 10 perform on “America’s Got Talent” (8 p.m., NBC).
• “Primetime” (9 p.m., ABC) looks at food and the brain.