Yesterday in Time online, Pulitzer prize-wining reporter Mark Thompson wrote: “If you’re having a tough time figuring out how much of a threat … ISIS poses to the United States, you’re hardly alone.” A large reason for that widespread lack is because our leaders and the media use the word “ideology” to label the threat but do not explain what that ideology is. It is an Islamist, that is a religious-political, ideology, and we here on this blog we are currently looking at key aspects of it in the influential writings of the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), who became a political radical.
After returning to Egypt from two years “exile” in America, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood in early 1950, which immediately gave this persuasive communicator a ready-made national platform to promote his emerging brand of Islamist ideology, or political Islam. Much in the news because of its role in Egyptian politics in 2012, the Islamist organization has had a long and controversial history in Egypt.
Founded in 1928 by Egyptian-born Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), a schoolteacher, the Muslim Brotherhood by the 1940s had grown into Egypt’s leading political alternative. It opposed Western liberalism, international Communism, and the separation of religion and politics. It was socially, religiously, and politically highly activist and promoted Islamic unity, strict modesty, and gender separation. Their slogan, still popular with today’s Islamist movements, was: “The Qu’ran is our constitution.”
In Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel, a Rhodes scholar with a Ph.D. in Islamic thought, writes:
“Islam, for the Brothers, was a complete and total system, and there was no need for looking for European values as a basis for social order. Everything was made clear in the Koran, whose moral principles, the Brothers believed, were universal. This doctrine was shared by the entire Islamist movement, whatever their other views. All agreed that the solution to the political problems facing Muslims lay in setting up an Islamic state that would implement the law of the sacred texts of Islam – the sharia – as the caliph had done in the past.”
Hasan al-Banna had a decisive shaping influence on Qutb’s emerging Islamist worldview. The late-nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the birth of the movement known as political Islam, which preaches a return to the totality of Islam for all of life, including nonseparation of religion and government. Al-Banna had become its most influential proponent after studying the life of Muhammad and his companions and making conclusions about what he thought was the original vision of Islam in its first decades, which al-Banna complained Muslims had lost. Islamic scholar Noah Feldman, in his book After Jihad, writes that for al-Banna and his Muslim Brotherhood
“Islam was not merely a faith but a comprehensive worldview that covered the whole field of human existence…. It provided a blueprint for a just society, organized along Islamic principles.”
Al-Banna laid the guilt for what he called the pre-twentieth century decline of Islam at the feet of Islamic scholars (the ulema), whom he felt had reduced Islam from a comprehensive way of life to religious life only. Feldman continues:
“The mature Banna’s Islam was therefore both political and fundamentalist: political in refusing to be relegated to the sphere of the private or the personal, and fundamentalist in the technical sense that it went back to the most basic, fundamental elements of Islam: the divine message of the Qur’an and the sayings and actions of the Prophet and his followers.”
Al-Banna popularized the term “Islamic” as an adjective to distinguish his worldview from Western and other worldviews, including nationalist Muslim ones. The terms “Islamism” and “Islamist” also arose from al-Banna’s system of thought and, according to Feldman, the two terms were meant to describe “not just Muslims but people who see Islam as a comprehensive political, spiritual, and personal worldview defined in opposition to all that is non-Islamic.”
Following Banna’s logic, the Brotherhood became increasingly political and strongly opposed to the British-backed monarchy of Egypt, which, it said, failed to promote Islamic law and government. Al-Banna publicly denounced Egypt’s King Farouk and wrote letters to him demanding the Islamization of Egyptian life. In 1949, when Qutb was in America, al-Banna was murdered by the Egyptian secret police. His sudden death further radicalized Qutb, who, after joining the Brotherhood, quickly gained status as its leading intellectual and the editor of its radical newspaper.
By the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule (1954-58), the Brotherhood had reorganized as a major political player in Egypt, with chapters springing up outside Egypt, a process that Feldman believes “was the single most important institutional element in the diffusion of political Islam.” Although the Brothers generally sought gradual transformation of Egyptian society through peaceful means, such as through the publication of articles, newspapers, and periodicals, and by supporting social welfare initiatives, such as hospitals, schools, and charities, its reformist tone was edgy if not militant and its potential for violence was occasionally actualized.
During the 1950s, Brotherhood members were arrested for sedition and several of its leaders were executed by hanging after being accused of the failed 1954 assassination attempt on Egyptian prime minister Nasser. The government’s suppression of the Islamist organization then became so severe that many of its key leaders fled to Saudi Arabia, where they were welcomed by the princes, who put them to good use. In Terror and Liberalism, the essayist and critic Paul Berman writes:
“The Saudi princes were determined to keep their own country on a path of pure adherence to Saudi Arabia’s antique and rigid version of Islam [Wahhabism]; and Egypt’s intellectuals, with their stores of Koranic knowledge, had much to offer. The Egyptian exiles [from the Brotherhood] took over professional chairs in Saudi universities. And their impact was large. Qutb’s younger brother, Muhammad Qutb, a distinguished scholar in his own right, fled to Saudi Arabia and became and became a professor of Islamic studies. One of his students was Osama bin Laden.”
Story continues next post.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
First image (unknown credit), second image by Matt Create (both via Creative Commons)