"The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear" consists of three one-hour films, consisting mostly of a montage of archive footage with Curtis's narration.
The films compare the rise of the American Neo-Conservative movement and the radical Islamist movement, making comparisons on their origins and suggesting a strong connection between the two. More controversially, it argues that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organized force of destruction, specifically in the form of al-Qaeda, is in fact a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries â€” and particularly American Neo-Conservatives â€” in an attempt to unite and inspire their people following the failure of earlier, more utopian ideologies.
"The Power of Nightmares" has been praised by film critics in both Britain and the United States and have also been the subject of various critiques and criticisms from conservatives and progressives. The first episode explains the origins of Islamism and Neo-Conservatism. It shows Egyptian civil servant Sayyid Qutb, the founder of Islamism, visiting America to learn about the education system, but becoming disgusted with what he saw as a corruption of morals and virtues in western society through individualism. At the same time in the United States, a group of disillusioned liberals, including Irving Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz, look to the political thinking of Leo Strauss after the general failure of President Johnson's "Great Society". They come to the conclusion that the emphasis on individual liberty was the undoing of the plan. They envisioned restructuring America by uniting the American people against a common evil, and set about creating a mythical enemy.