West's lessons in decadence fuel the making of a martyr

August 1, 2003

Roxanne Euben relates how Sayyid Qutb's traumatic time at college contributed to the manifesto that inspires today's Islamic terrorists.

Weakened by torture, illness and almost ten years of incarceration, Sayyid Qutb was nevertheless convinced that it was he who was healthy and the world diseased. From behind the bars of the prison infirmary, the man who would become perhaps the most influential thinker of Islamic fundamentalism was certain that he could see clearly what free men could not: that society was cleft in two, divided between true Islam and the almost overwhelming forces of corruption, moral decay, ignorance and unbelief.

Almost 40 years before hijackers steered passenger planes into the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush called for a crusade against "evil-doers", and Osama bin Laden declared a jihad against the West, Qutb conceived of a world defined by the epic confrontation between good and evil. It was a vision that no doubt imposed order on the chaos of his life and perhaps gave some meaning to his suffering. But for generations of Islamic fundamentalists, it has provided a moral map of history and politics in which the decline of Muslim power, the rise of western colonialism, the impotence of modern Middle Eastern states and the poverty plaguing Muslims is both explicable and reversible.

The lifelong political, philosophical and religious journey that led Qutb to his conclusions started in 1906 in an Egyptian village. Educated in Islamic as well as in European-influenced "modern" schools, he went on to work as a primary teacher and then as an inspector at the ministry of education. He was also a frequent participant in the literary debates among Egypt's leading intellectuals. Qutb's contributions were often less than original, tending to follow the liberal nationalism of his early mentors.

Yet even then, Qutb divided the world into two. He cautioned Egypt against blind imitation of a West characterised as anti-Muslim and as morally and spiritually impoverished despite its material and political prosperity. As his interest in the Koran intensified, so did his personal crises (the death of his mother, a cancelled engagement) and his disappointments with domestic politics. The failed constitutional experiment, the manipulation of Egypt by the British, the increasing impoverishment of the people, and the opening of Palestine to Jewish immigration all contributed to the increasingly angry moralism of his social commentary.

Expressing the frustration and pessimism of many like-minded Muslims of his generation, Qutb concluded in 1946 that the conscience of all westerners was "rotten". By 1947, he was publicly exhorting his countrymen to call for the death of imperialists. The following year, the 42-year-old was shipped off to the US. Ostensibly, the government wanted Qutb to study the US system of education. More likely, however, the true purpose of the trip was to silence his diatribes and expose him to the seductions of a world he loathed but had never experienced.

Qutb spent the next 21 months travelling the country, seldom staying long in one place. He briefly studied English at Wilson's Teachers College in Washington DC (later the University of the District of Columbia) before going on to spend six months at the Colorado State College of Education.

The experiment backfired: Qutb viewed his entire stay through the lens of a stark division between a virtuous East and a degenerate West. Dark-skinned and homesick, Qutb disliked intensely what he saw as Americans' racism, sexual promiscuity, materialism and blind support for Israel. He was outraged by the forwardness of US women who, by his account, frequently made inappropriate sexual overtones to him (he demurred). As evidence of Americans' superficiality and general lack of good taste, Qutb invoked everything from his hosts' lawn cultivation to their pre-eminence in producing glitzy movies.

Even Americans' church-going was not what it seemed: in church, Qutb insisted, US citizens sought not moral truths and spiritual reflection, but social intercourse of the basest kind. In one instance, a church social was nothing more than an excuse for men and women to dance closely under lights dimmed by the pastor himself.

Not long after his return to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organisation that strongly opposed imperialism. This group initially supported the 1952 coup that brought Nasser to power, but it soon became apparent that Egypt's new ruler had no intention of transforming the country into an Islamic state. The subsequent break between the Brotherhood and Nasser's inner circle turned rancorous. Qutb, along with others who had been swept up and convicted in the wave of arrests in this period, was incarcerated. He was executed in 1966.

But while in prison, Qutb produced the book that was to prove the culmination of his life's work. Signposts along the Road was hardly the most complex or erudite of his many publications, but it would nevertheless become a manifesto for the Islamic fundamentalist movement. Much of its power derives from the dramatic circumstances in which it was written, not to mention its role in Qutb's death: in his trial on charges of conspiracy, Signposts was used as evidence against him. Found guilty, Qutb was hanged on the gallows.

"Humanity," Qutb wrote, "is standing today at the brink of an abyss, not because of the threat of annihilation hanging over its head - for this is just a symptom of the disease and not the disease itself - but because humanity is bankrupt in the realm of 'values', those values that foster true human progress and developmentI the West can no longer provide the values necessary for humanity."

The name of the disease is jahiliyya. As it appears in the Koran, the word refers to the time of ignorance in pre-Islamic Arabia. But Qutb detaches jahiliyya from its historical moorings, insisting that it is a pathology into which a society plunges whenever it wilfully rejects the truth Allah has already revealed to us. In Qutb's view, the new jahiliyya is distinguished from the old by sheer human arrogance, the unwarranted confidence in human beings' ability to know, govern and master the world without divine guidance.

Operating as shorthand for everything Qutb dislikes, jahiliyya obliterates the fine distinctions and messy, mixed allegiances that are the stuff of political life. For Qutb, all "infidel" regimes - liberal, communist, socialist and democratic alike - are jahili, the heart and soul of all that is anathema to Islam. Equally to blame are the philosophers, Christian crusaders and prophets of European Enlightenment who either exemplify or justify western hostility to Islam throughout the ages.

Taking aim at his tormentors, moreover, Qutb also counts as jahili those regimes headed by "so-called" Muslims who aid and abet foreign cultural corruption by claiming for themselves the legislative authority that belongs only to Allah. Nasser, Arab nationalists and socialists, Muslim monarchs and theocrats are all jahili, Qutb argues. And they are the most pernicious kind, for they rot Islam from the inside.

The book that sealed Qutb's fate simultaneously transformed him into a martyr and leading thinker of the Islamist movement. More exhortation than argument, Signposts seeks to coax, cajole and command into awareness a vanguard of Muslims sufficiently devout to overcome jahiliyya. Once removed from the moral schizophrenia that has infected the entire world, this vanguard will see what Qutb already knows - that every single system of law devised by humans is an affront to Allah's sovereignty as embodied in Islamic law.

In Qutb's view, jahiliyya is much like an aggressive cancer, and once the disease is known, the cure is urgent and the antidote clear. It cannot be reasoned into remission, but rather must be cut out by means of jihad.

Qutb has little patience for the liberal shibboleth that in a world where diverse moralities compete, religion must be a private affair. Rather, he insists that as Islamic law regulates all facets of life, it must govern public and private realms equally. Brushing aside centuries of interpretive debate among Muslim scholars, Qutb insists there is but one true Islam that is self-evident when purged of foreign corruption and the accretions of misguided commentary.

Forged in the crucible of one man's life, Qutb's world view is a prism that both reflects and reinforces the grievances of all those who would see themselves as engaged in permanent jihad on behalf of Islam in a world defined by western power. His manifesto, after all, traffics in clear absolutes, brooks no dissent and helps bring into existence the very state of emergency it claims to describe.

This is nowhere more evident than in the rise of al-Qaida, the result of the merging of Bin Laden's organisation and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, one of many Islamist groups shaped by Qutb's Manichaean view of the world, and eager to employ his conceptual tools to remake it. But like Qutb's life, the appeal of his perspective is also tied to its pathos, to its sense of loss and suffering, and its conviction that a world defined by overwhelming confidence in human knowledge and laws has lost the capacity to answer the most profound questions of the human condition: why we are born, what is our purpose on earth, and why we must die.

Roxanne Euben is associate professor of political science at Wellesley College, in the US.

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