Mark Twain is noted for having said that history may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme. If you were in your early teens or younger between September 11, 2001, when the United States launched its “war on terrorism,” and May of 2003, when the U.S.-led war about Iraq “ended,” you probably had other things to do than to notice the glut of news stories that were on the Web and in the media about ending the threat of terrorism that was coming out of the Middle East.
Such stories, and every conceivable kind of spin-off that can be imagined, from every point of view, dominated the news during that twenty-month period. If you went on the Web to find a sports score or even just tomorrow’s weather, to find what you were looking for you had to plow through any number of stories about defeating al Qaeda, or the war in Iraq, or U.S. airstrikes, and so on. So if you were in your early teens then, just know that today’s profuse news stories about the threat of terrorism, airstrikes on ISIS, and every conceivably related matter is not something new in the world. History is just rhyming. And pray that the following ten years does not rhyme with the ten years that followed the “end” of the war about Iraq.
But today we have a leg up. A huge amount of scholarship that was not available on 9/11 is now available about the religious dimension of what is going on. In this series of posts, I am drawing on that research to help us understand the religious dimension of the threat.
In the Middle East, Sunni Muslim extremists such as al Qaeda and ISIS find a large degree of religious justification for their political and social militancy in the writings of the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). An intellectual, schoolteacher, and critic, Qutb, a Sunni Arab, did not turn to radical Islamist ideology until he was in his forties, and in 1951 he joined the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was soon one of its leading figures. We covered this ground in the two previous two posts.
We pick up the story with Qutb’s arrest in Cairo for sedition in 1954. He was sentenced to hard labor in what some have likened to a concentration camp. Except for two short periods, he spent nearly twelve years in prison, where the persuasive communicator studied extensively and wrote many books, including most of his thirty-volume commentary on the Qur’an, In the Shade of the Qur’an. He was executed by hanging in 1966.
With the Brotherhood’s loss of the al-Banna, murdered by the Egyptian secret police in 1949, Qutb, after joining the organization, became editor of the Brotherhood’s radical newspaper. This gave him a national platform for advancing his growing body of writings, which promoted Islamic ideology, or political Islam (government that follow Islamic principles).
After his death, Qutb’s books (many still available only in Arabic) began having a huge effect on Muslim youth who were coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s. This was not what the Egyptian government expected now that they had Qutb out of the way. This postmortem is another of the curious twists of Qutb’s story. At his trial, passages from his militant-sounding book Milestones were cited as proof of its author’s treasonous intent. Having closely read the book, I can see why, and we will look at that book in a future post. On the other hand, a sustained public outcry arose during the trial from leading Muslims around the world who supported Qutb, and the government’s showcasing of Milestones at the trial backfired. It triggered the book’s publication throughout the Muslim world after Qutb’s death.
Organizations such as al Qaeda and ISIS (or simply IS, the Islamic state) do not come out of thin air, and for the next several posts I want to look carefully at core religious beliefs of Qutb’s political Islam. There we will find a well-thought-out religious ideology that Sunni Islamic militant groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS use to justify their existence. It shows us what the world is up against. And although even President Obama wants to “destroy” ISIS, as he said in his September 10 address to the nation, it cannot be destroyed by military power. For the problem is not merely organizational. It is individual. It is the problem of a gross spiritual disorder of the heart. Here’s why.
Beginning decades ago, for any number of reasons, scores of individuals began adopting a dangerous religious-political ideology that can lead to choosing the violent paths that groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS have chosen to go. These individuals call this the way of jihad. (Many Muslim scholars, for good reason, object to the militants using the word “jihad,” but I am using it because the militants use it of themselves.) Having committed to jihad, they then go to fight for jihad in any way possible in any country, such as individuals did in Afghanistan against Soviet Russia in the 1980s (Osama bin Laden was there and helped to finance that jihad). Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda group were eventually given safe haven in Afghanistan by the Taliban government in the late 1990s. Other individuals traveled to Chechnya in the 2000s to fight the jihad against the Russians. Others went to fight for jihad in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of that country in 2003, and individuals who have joined ISIS are fighting for jihad in Iraq and Syria.
In short, the heart of the problem is the hearts of the individuals who comprise al Qaeda and ISIS, and although all kinds of different kinds commit to fight for jihad, they find their basic theological and religious unity in the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Of course not everyone fighting for jihad has read Qutb. His writings, however, provide the most comprehensive and well-articulated fundamental rationale for political Islam, or Islamist ideology. And in that rationale the individuals can find their inner unity and, in my view, a way to justify their violence, which they call fighting for jihad.
Qutb’s rationale has been widely disseminated in the Middle East and taken up by individuals who have either read Qutb firsthand or accepted his views through secondary sources, perhaps imams or other preachers. Some understanding of Qutb’s Islamist ideology will help us understand of what unites the jihadists religiously and theologically as individuals. This heart problem is what ultimately must be addressed if Islamist jihadism in the world is to end. Getting some understanding of it is the first step down that road.
Continued in the next post.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Top image by Chris Hagood (permission via Creative Commons)