red sunsetThe 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.

old churchQutb 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)


storm night skyAs we saw in the previous post, the religious dimension of violence in the Middle East among Muslims is becoming analogous to the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants in first half of seventeenth-century Europe. That religious war included shifting alliances, blood-soaked fields, incredible suffering especially of the German peasantry, slow and halting diplomatic initiatives at peace, and the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire. It left much of Europe socially, economically, and politically devastated, as well as an aversion to religion that eventually entailed its removal as an official role in political power. “There are obvious differences,” Richard Haass wrote, “between the events of 1618-1648 in Europe and those of 2011-2014 in the Middle East. But the similarities are many and sobering. [And] as bad as things are, they could get worse.”

Yes, it could get worse. During the past decade in the Middle East, however, there were times when things seemed to be getting better. I am thinking here of the Taliban’s loss of political rule in Afghanistan, a shattered al Qaeda network, the promise of the Arab Spring, and the death of Osama bin Laden. But then the Arab Spring in Egypt was quashed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the military now runs the country. The Arab Spring in Syria was crushed by President Assad and the country plunged into a vicious civil war fueled also by militant Sunni groups from Iraq, including ISIS (an al Qaeda offshoot), entering Syria to fight against the Syrian government, which is supported by Iran.

When U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, al Qaeda emerged in the country and bloodshed between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia populations escalated and has not ebbed. (Only a small percentage of Sunni – Shia violence in Iraq is reported on our evening news stations.) In 2013 Hezbollah militants (Shiites supported by Iran) entered Syria to fight the Sunnis. And in 2014, the religious militancy of ISIS, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State (IS), has made that of al Qaeda, which has disavowed IS, seem tame by comparison. (ISIS and al Qaeda are Sunni.)

So, yes, it may get worse. Beginning with the next post, and running for several more, I am going to offer a reader’s digest version of my research on the modern history of this religious militancy, and also share my conclusions, some of which may be surprising to many Americans.

One of the things that really puzzled me in the days following September 11, 2001 was the religious belief behind that day’s terrorist attack on the United States. I was born and raised just down the road from Dearborn, Michigan, the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company. But Dearborn, one of Michigan’s largest cities, is also home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the U.S., and even though I grew up nearby, I never had much contact with Muslims. And because Dearborn was a quiet, middle class community, including its large Muslim population, I did not “get” the notion of Islamic militancy and 9/11. So in the aftermath, I began researching why people were saying that Islam was implicated in 9/11. Honestly, I was shocked at what I eventually discovered about what Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives believed. But having learned that, the social and political goals of ISIS, and its brutal violence, do not surprise me.

But let me add this caveat, which is so rarely reported by the American media that many Americans are ignorant of it. There is an ideological war occurring in Islam between scholars and imams of the Muslim reform movement (broadly so-called) and extremists such as al Qaeda and ISIS, who promote militant interpretations of Islam, and this is an internal struggle within Islam for the hearts and minds of Muslims in the Middle East.

There are many kinds of reformers, and I am only generalizing, but as I have written elsewhere (here and here), the reformers see Islam as a flexible, nondogmatic religion adaptable to the contemporary world while remaining faithful to Islam – not unlike many Western Christians feel about their faith. Some reformers even call for the separation of mosque and state. This growing Muslim reform movement must be kept continually in mind, and I may talk about it at times, as we work our way through the following posts on the nature and goals of radical militants such as ISIS, who see the reformers as apostates and enemies who must be killed.

The next post begins discussion on core beliefs of al Qaeda and ISIS.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by blainecourts (permission via Creative Commons)