The militancy practiced by extremists such as al Qaeda and ISIS is not irrational, at least not to them. To them, it has a large degree of its religious and intellectual justification in the prolific writings of the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb, a Sunni Arab who for much of his adult life was more a man of letters than a political radical.
Early adult life. Born in 1906 and educated in Cairo, Qutb received degrees in teacher training and education in 1929 and 1933. From 1933 to 1949, Qutb served the Egyptian ministry of education as a teacher and school inspector. He eventually resigned over philosophical differences with the ministry and to devote himself full time to writing. During this period, he acquired some Western leanings and had serious interests in poetry and journalism, and he published poems, short stories, essays on social and literary criticism, and books.
But Qutb was not apolitical. He ran with prominent elite intellectuals who had interests in domestic and international politics. During the 1930s, for instance, he increasingly objected to British influence in Egypt’s political life and deplored Jewish immigration to Palestine. Gilles Kepel, a foremost Western scholar on Qutb, writes in Muslim Extremism in Egypt that by 1945, “the principal subject matter of [Qutb’s] articles [had] shifted from literature to nationalism, political events, and social problems.” And Qutb had a growing disillusionment with the West, as we know from a book he wrote in the 1940s, Social Justice in Islam, which I will discuss in a future post. And in 1948, Qutb condemned the founding of the Jewish state.
“Exile” in America. As Qutb’s political writings became more critical of the Egyptian government in the 1940s, his polemics against the Egyptian monarchy infuriated King Farouk, who wanted him imprisoned. Influential friends, however, negotiated a deal in which Qutb, in 1948, went into a kind of voluntary exile in the United States, ostensibly to study the American education system on behalf on Egypt’s Ministry of Public Instruction. Farouk was friendly with Western governments, and according to Kepel “it was hoped that [Qutb] would return a supporter of ‘the American way of life.’” But the complete opposite occurred. Qutb’s time in America was a turning point for him on the road to political radicalism. Two experiences in particular stand out.
The first was what seems to have been a deeper conversion to Islam on the ship that was taking him to America. What specifically took place I have not been able to discover. Essayist and critic Paul Berman wrote in The New York Times Magazine that Qutb showed “that even before his voyage to America, he was pretty well set in his Islamic fundamentalism.” But apparently he was not a regularly practicing Muslim, for Kepel wrote that during the voyage Qutb began praying five times a day and preaching to his coreligionists. At any rate, his heightened sense of religious meaning, and its moral implications, walked off the ship with him on to America soil, where another life-changing experience awaited him.
Qutb brought his penetrating mind to bear on American life while he studied and traveled in the States for two years. Although impressed by American technology, he was appalled by much else that he saw, especially American materialism, its sexual immorality, and the freedom it allowed to women. He detested America’s separation of church and state and what he considered the prejudiced way the American press reported on Muslim events in the Middle East. Kepel writes that Qutb was shocked at a country so “devoid of any values that made sense to him.”
Qutb lay the blame at the feet of American Christianity. For instance, while studying at Colorado State College of Education, in Greeley, he attended a church service and the social event that followed, a church dance. Bruce Lincoln, of the University of Chicago Divinity School, writes in Holy Terrors that “Qutb was not disturbed simply by the eroticism he took to be indecorous and improper” – the room, Qutb would later write, “became a confusion of feet and legs; arms twisting around hips; lips met; chest pressed together.” More troubling for Qutb, Lincoln wrote, “and analytically most revealing, was the enabling condition of this offensive spectacle: the disconnection between the preceding ‘religious’ service and the ‘social’ event that followed.”
By the end of his America trip, Qutb had concluded that Christianity had failed in America because it had split religious life off from politics and the rest of life. It was therefore antithetical to the kind of whole-life Islam that Qutb was now practicing. Disgust with American Christianity and American values fueled Qutb’s growing religious and political radicalization. In the next post we will pick up the story of how it crystalized and began having a huge influence on a new generation of radicals in the Middle East, especially Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and now ISIS.
Story continues next post.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by mikelehen & davidecasteel respectively (permission via Creative Commons)