ISIS & THE RISE AND FALL OF ISLAM part 1 of 3

electron microscopeMany radicalized Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, such as ISIS and al Qaeda, adhere to a doctrine that can be summed up as “the religion of Islam vs. the world.” The most recognizable such name in our time is that of Osama bin Laden who, with Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (deceased), founded al Qaeda. Another is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who became the head of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and waged jihad on U.S. and coalition troops and on Iraq’s Shiites (he was killed in June 2006). Another recognizable is Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s longtime chief ideologue, who was named al Qaeda’s leader after bin Laden’s death (May 2011). He is thought to be holed up somewhere in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

During the past few years, a murky figure named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS (or, IS, the Islamic State), has been aiming to surpass the reputations of bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Zarqawi as the most powerful jihadi leader. He took over AQI in 2010 or 2011, and began turning it into a worse child of hell than al Qaeda itself. However, according to Michael Morell, former Deputy Director of the CIA, Baghdadi was booted out of al Qaeda in January 2014 because he would not obey Zawahiri – not because ISIS had become inordinately violent, as is commonly reported.

So what’s up with this “us vs. everyone else” mentality anyway? And why does it drive these Sunni jihadist organizations? We began to see in the previous two posts, that a well-thought, modern-day rationale can be found in the prolific writings of the Sunni political activist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). I don’t mean that you would find his books calling for suicide bombings, beheadings, and similar other horrors. But it’s clear that “the religion Islam vs. the world” is an organizing principle of his worldview. It is also clear that jihadist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda are deeply indebted to Qutb’s worldview, which can be traced to his radical view of history and of Islam, which we will now look at.

But first a caveat. I can sympathize with the countless numbers of Sunnis who are not violent and who hate it that the above jihadi leaders and their organizations are seen as representing Sunni Islam. In my own tradition, Christianity, countless numbers of us hate it that many people consider violence done by Christians as representing Jesus. Guilt by association is a horrible mark to have to bear, not easily, if ever, removed. Nevertheless, the jihadis mentioned above, as well as Sayyid Qutb, claim to be Sunni, not Shia or Sufi, Muslim.

fallen apples (r-z)Previously, we saw that Qutb argued in Islam: The Religion of the Future (IRF) that the root human problem is a religious one: We habitually choose to let God rule our religious, and perhaps our moral, life, but not public life, and so we have become idolaters (a word Qutb uses frequently). That is, having kept God’s rule out of social, political, and other aspects of life, we created human systems for ruling them ourselves. Qutb is pointedly clear about this, and no one can accuse him of being short of breath about it, either. Perhaps this was because for him it meant the loss of the sovereignty of God over all of life (his doctrine of the sovereignty of God was key to his worldview). Loss of God’s sovereignty expressed itself, for Qutb, in what Qutb called the miserable state of the world, beginning with the ancient Jews and culminating (in his time) with the Marxists, for whom God was completely off-limits.

In (IRF), Qutb shorthanded this root human problem as “the hideous schizophrenia,” or “the sacred vs. the secular dichotomy,” whereby not only world history but also Islam was sliding to its nadir. And the reason? Islam, he believed, was once totally submitted to God’s total rule, but only for a very short time. Mostly, Islam, including its contemporary expression in his day, had a habit of falling prey to idolatrous ways of running public life, so it lost God’s favor, and with that its authority and rulership. This is a view held by al Qaeda and ISIS.

But why was Islam once getting the job done and what had scotched that? Qutb’s answer takes us back to a conclusion that he drew about religious purity and Islam’s original vision, and it is a key for understanding the “us vs. everyone else” religious mentality of ISIS and al Qaeda. To help in understanding Qutb on this crucial point, I want us to look in the next post at Islam’s earliest years.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by EMSL & r-z respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

WHERE ISIS STANDS: US VS. EVERYONE ELSE part 2 of 2

old typewriter and booksHaving identified when, where, and how the world went wrong (in ancient Jewish history; see the previous post), the Egyptian intellectual and widely-read Islamist activist Sayyid Qutb believed he had found the religious and historical starting point for what he considered history’s God-less trajectory. The life and times of Jesus in ancient Palestine was the next stop is his radical view of history.

Qutb believed that the ancient Jews had reduced God’s rule over all of life to the religious and moral aspects, and that Jesus, like Moses and the Jewish prophets, was a true messenger of God sent to restore Jewish life and practice back under God’s total rule. In Islam: The Religion of the Future (IRF), Qutb wrote that “Jesus (peace be upon him) … was sent by God as a prophet to the Jews, confirming and corroborating the Law of Moses.” But the Jews “reacted unfavourably to the message of Jesus” and in the end “resisted Jesus and his message” and “induced Pontius Pilate … to attempt the murder of Jesus by crucifixion.” (Of Christ’s death itself, Qutb was ambiguous because, as he said in IRF, “there is no definite injunction in our Qur’an or Traditions regarding” Jesus’ death. The Qur’an, not the Bible, was his ultimate authority.)

Judaism, per Qutb, had rejected Christ’s restoration message, but Christianity did not fair any better. Due to the persecution and scattering of Jesus’ disciples, Christianity, at least not in any systematic sense, never recovered the original unitary vision of the Mosiac Law concerning God’s rule over all aspects of human life.

And then came another historical disaster: the official conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century. Noting that many people of the era called it “the triumph of Christianity,” Qutb called its Christianity’s “greatest calamity” (IRF). In the books of his that I have read, Qutb ranges through the domestic life, social policies, and foreign relations of the Holy Roman Empire, lambasting much of it, including Church councils. Along the way, he interprets hundreds of passages in the Qur’an as supporting his conclusions. The Christianity of the Holy Roman Empire, like Judaism before it, became hopelessly lost to other gods. In IRF he writes:

“The Christian community …could not crush or eradicate idolatry. Christianity’s principles became muddled and transmuted as a result of a new synthetic religion displaying conspicuously  equal elements of both Christianity and paganism. In this respect, Islam differs from Christianity. It completely exterminated its rival (idolatry) and propagated its principles pure and without opacity.”

Yet at times Qutb shows sympathy for those faithful Christians who were horrified by Roman immorality, imperialist debaucheries, and pagan influences but who could do little about them. He had no patience, however, for the monasticism that arose to counter those tendencies or for the Roman Catholic church’s priestly monopoly on biblical interpretation.

To conclude his march through history through another series of critical moves (which I omit discussing here), Qutb arrives at twentieth century Marxism, which gets his severest attack. E.g.: Marxism “cannot survive without its abominable police machinery, its bloodbaths, its liquidation purges and its concentration camps.” “Marxist doctrine is nothing more than incomprehensible ‘scientific’ fallacy.” “Marxism is completely ignorant of the human soul” (IFR). What Qutb called “the hideous schizophrenia” – the segregation of religious life from practical life in the world – which “the whole modern world” suffered from – made its appearance in Marxism as the world’s worst social disease to date.

But there was fix. Constantly relying on his doctrine of the sovereignty of God over all of life and history, Qutb believed that the solution to the hideous schizophrenia – to what he at times called the sacred vs. secular dichotomy – was “the religion of God.” And he was absolutely clear that by this he meant “the Islamic way of life” (IRF). That was where Qutb stood. It is where ISIS and al Qaeda stand: us vs. everyone else.

We will pick up the story to consider “Why Islam?” in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

WHERE ISIS STANDS: US VS. EVERYONE ELSE part 1 of 2

night blizzardEveryone stands somewhere. And that stand is ultimately a religious one. We are currently in the midst of several posts (begun here) to discover where terror organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda stand religiously. It is an “us vs. everyone else” mentality that gained popularity in the Middle East in the core, religious-political views of the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist activist who books spread widely after his death by execution in Egypt in 1966.

To pick up from where we left off last time, from where Sayyid Qutb stood, he saw an unbearable crisis in the world. Whether he looked East or West or at the Soviet bloc or even at the contemporary Muslim world, everything was sliding away from the “Islamic way of life,” which Qutb believed was “the basic system ordained by God for dynamic human life,” as he wrote in Islam: The Religion of the Future (IRF). Contrary to the core message of the Christian Bible, Qutb believed that Islam was the “universal” and “everlasting” way, and “human beings draw pain and destruction upon themselves whenever they overlook it or contradict it” (IRF).

In the books of his that I have read, Qutb employs evocative images of human disintegration and the miserable state of the world that remind me of a line from Leonard Cohen’s haunting song The Future, about a time when “the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it has overturned the order of the soul,” therefore things will “slide in all directions.”

History’s fatal flaw. To account for what he perceived as the sorry state of the twentieth century, Qutb swept back through time to try to identify when and where the world went wrong. He located it in ancient Israel’s history, in what he said was Judaism’s reduction of God’s reign over all of life to God’s rule over ceremonial and individual moral concerns only. Qutb put it this way: the Torah “included a set of beliefs and divine laws” (the law of Moses) that the “Jews were commanded to apply … to all aspects of their lives,” but they failed to do that. Instead, they made “their Torah a basis for purely oratorial preaching” and “a basis for rituals to be slavishly performed by rote in their temples” (IRF).

According to Qutb, Judaism, now with its reductionist Torah, had lost its founding vision of God’s rule over the totality of life. In the place of God, over time, “gods” (a word Qutb uses frequently) from pagan nations had wheedled in to ancient Israel’s worldview to become organizing principles for many aspects of Jewish life. The Jews had become idolatrous (another word Qutb uses). They embraced polytheism while claiming to be monotheists.

According to Qutb, when the Jews dropped the ball on God’s total rule it set in motion in history what he called “the sacred vs. the secular dichotomy,” and that became the organizing principle of history’s God-less trajectory. This is a main theme running through IRF and Qutb often shorthands it, and its ramifications, as “the hideous schizophrenia.”

The hideous schizophrenia, to summarize his metaphor, is the fatal flaw of history, worked out in varying degrees of idolatry in every culture, including many Muslim cultures. It is the critical problem of civilization detached from God and God’s arrangement for all of life. It is the root of “the social orders, the schools of thought and the secular doctrines which have not issued from the original Divine unitary source” (IRF). And it pitted Qutb and his followers against the entire world. That part of the story we pick up with the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by StormPetrel 1 (permission via Creative Commons)

THE RELIGIOUS ROOTS OF AL QAEDA AND ISIS part 4 of 4

pond studyRecently at lunch a friend mentioned ISIS and immediately shook his head to express his great shock at the unconscionable violence of these fanatics. He also said he was mystified by what makes them tick. At the time, I happened to be writing up the material about their core religious beliefs for these posts, and at the end of long conversation he and I had about those beliefs, he said: I didn’t know any of that, and it’s helpful to know that these guys don’t come out of thin air.

I hope that these posts equally help you to understand core religious reasons why ISIS is responsible for so much death and despair. These shockingly brutal hellhounds include religion among the justifications for their rampage across Iraq and Syria, their beheadings, apparently even of children, their persecution of Christians, and their stated goal of establishing a regional caliphate (Islamic state). Its leader, a terrorist called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known as the “Invisible Sheik,” recently changed the organization’s name from ISIS to IS, the Islamic State, and named himself as caliph (religious and political head of the state).

All of this has taken place even though ISIS probably numbers only about 25,000 (currently) and despite the fact that early this year “al Qaeda central” (so-called) finally disowned ISIS, which was a large branch of al Qaeda. For interested readers, Bobby Ghosh, previously Time magazine’s Baghdad bureau chief, has a short article on the history of ISIS.

Over the years, I have found the clearest, most concise, and most comprehensive framework for understanding al Qaeda and ISIS in the persuasively argued writings of the Egyptian intellectual turned political racial, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), whose influence in the Middle East remains strong. So far in these posts, beginning here, AL QAEDA AND ISIS part 1 of 3 we have been looking at Qutb’s curious bio and the general religious-politic picture of Egypt during his adult life. Beginning with this post we are moving from those general topics to his specific religious beliefs, which helps in understanding what drives jihadist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda.

I want to cover Qutb’s religious views in some depth in these posts because few Americans know that the jihadis have a well-thought-out religious rationale, and fewer still know what that rationale is. Although I will be offering a reader’s digest version of it, I believe it is nevertheless a fair assessment that speaks for itself. Christians, in particular, I think, will want to turn a sharp ear to it because some of Qutb’s religious descriptions of what is at the heart the world’s problems may, surprisingly, remind them of ways in which their own preachers and teachers have identified these problems. And, personally, I found it interesting that Qutb brought a combined philosophical and theological intelligence to his criticisms of and prescriptions for whatever aspect of life was in his sights that was not unlike how some Christian philosophers and theologians I have read discuss root problems.

But I want to be clear about three things. One, Qutb’s religious views add up to being highly socially and politically activist, but the books of his that I have read, do not call for beheadings and similar other horrors, as far as I can determine. The syntax of at least one of his popular books, however, Milestones, which we will look at later, is very militant-sounding, and fanatics, of course, will bring and apply their gross spiritual disorder and misuse of the imagination to anything. (Barry Cooper’s excellent book, New Political Religions, discusses this disorder at length.)

gobsmackedTwo, in my view some Muslim scholars, such as Muqtedar Khan (the University of Delaware and the Brookings Institution), who is a self-described liberal Muslim with whom I have had dialogue, seem “soft” on Qutb even when discussing Milestones. See, for instance, this article by Khan. Three, I am not suggesting that Qutb’s religious views hold the truth about life. My purpose here is simply to try to present his views accurately, for they are serious stuff with serious social and political ramification, whether they are acted on peacefully and incrementally or in a revolutionary manner by jihadist organizations.

Having closely read a number of Sayyid Qutb’s English-translated books, I agree with the comment of essayist and critic Paul Berman that “Qutb is not shallow. Qutb is deep” (New York Times Magazine). Greek philosophy, Judaism, Christian theology, church history, church councils, Constantinianism (the formal alliance of church and state first employed by the Roman emperor Constantine), the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the salient ideas of many Western thinkers, politicians, and Christian figures of his day – Qutb was conversant with and critical of them all. Although he appreciated the benefits of science and technology, he criticized as lamentable the intellectual climate and institutionalism of modern Western Europe, and he mounted significant criticisms of American life, liberal democracy, Communism, socialism, Marxism, fascism, Nazism, and capitalism.

Qutb’s knowledge of Islam and the Qur’an, of course, was extensive. After reading three English volumes of Qutb’s In the Shade of the Qur’an, Berman, in his book Terror and Liberalism, concluded that for Qutb, “a proper understanding of the Koran can be achieved only in an atmosphere of serious struggle, and only by someone who is engaged in a ferocious campaign for Islam, not by someone at ease in his chair. The Koran, he observes, does not merely offer a body of knowledge, to be plucked at will, as if from a tree. The Koran offers a way to live.” (The direct bearing of ideas upon actions, of theory on practice, was huge in Qutb’s worldview, as we will see in a future post when we look at his book Social Justice in Islam.)

Despite being an intellectual, Qutb wrote in a simple, straightforward style that appealed to Muslim youth. Gilles Kepel, a foremost Western scholar on Qutb, notes that Qutb’s style was very different from the complex rhetoric of the Islamic scholars. In his book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Kepel writes: “Qutb spoke directly to his readers, using the modern idiom to get simple points across.”

Qutb’s doctrine of “the sovereignty of God” over all of life and history is crucial to his worldview and seems to be the theological starting point for his analysis of the world’s root problem, of what I call Qutb’s view of history’s fatal flaw, and his solutions to it. Some knowledge of this will help us understand ISIS. A short account follows in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Patrick Dohney & Magdalena Roeseler respectively  (permissions via Creative Commons)

THE RELIGIOUS ROOTS OF AL QAEDA AND ISIS part 3 of 4

arch in blue skyMark 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.

sticking pointsWith 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)

THE RELIGIOUS ROOTS OF AL QAEDA AND ISIS part 2 of 4

Egyptian dancing girl (unknown)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.”

Egyptian lamp and jug (Matt Create)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)

THE RELIGIOUS ROOTS OF AL QAEDA AND ISIS part 1 of 4

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)