Forty years ago, the godfather of Islamic terrorism was executed, says Rod DREHER, and America today is no closer to understanding his apocalyptic vision.....Two days from now, the country will observe the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its catastrophic aftermath. What will pass unnoticed on that day is the 40th anniversary of a hanging of a revolutionary in Cairo, an event that is incalculably more important to the present and future of the United States than any meteorological event.
The pious life and martyr's death of Sayyid Qutb, and the legacy the Islamic theologian left behind, extend a powerful challenge to the West. Until we provide an answer to him and his followers, we can't hope to prevail in the war of ideas with Islamic extremists. And most of us have no idea who this man even was.
Sayyid Qutb (pronounced KUH-tuhb) has been called "the philosopher of Islamic terror." He rose from humble origins in rural Egypt to become an influential theologian and leading light of Egypt's fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood movement. He advocated global Islamic rule imposed by the sword.
The Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered him hanged for treason Aug. 29, 1966.
Yet, his ideas have spread like a prairie fire over the parched landscape of Islam's last generation. As writer Paul Berman observed, Qutb was "the intellectual hero of every one of the groups that eventually went into al-Qaeda."
We Americans have a bad habit of assuming that there's nothing to radical Islam but fury, grievance and bloodlust. We think of jihadist leaders as wild-eyed mullahs far removed from our experience. It's a fatal form of condescension. Qutb may have been a madman by our lights, but he was no fool – and, in important ways, he had our number.
Americans also cherish the idea that lack of understanding is at the root of conflict – and that there are few disputes that can't be worked out by people getting to know each other. Not so with Qutb, whose sojourn in America as a foreign exchange student between 1948 and '50 radicalized him and confirmed his hatred for Western materialism and freedom.
Qutb spent most of his time in the Colorado State College of Education in Greeley, Colo. The pathologically prudish Egyptian scholar was shocked by the morality of Greeley's women, appalled by its racism and scandalized by the wealth of American society.
As Lawrence Wright writes in The Looming Tower, his acclaimed new book about the roots of 9/11:
"Qutb saw a spiritual wasteland, and yet belief in God was nearly unanimous in the United States at the time. It was easy to be misled by the proliferation of churches, religious books and religious festivals, Qutb maintained; the fact remained that materialism was the real American god. 'The soul has no value to Americans,' he wrote to one friend. 'There has been a Ph.D. dissertation about the best way to clean dishes, which seems more important to them than the Bible or religion.' Many Americans were beginning to come to similar conclusions. The theme of alienation in American life was just beginning to cast a pall over the postwar party. In many respects, Qutb's analysis, though harsh, was only premature."
It is tempting to laugh at the Islamic pietist overwhelmed by the sensuality of the Rocky Mountain Gomorrah. But when Qutb returned to Egypt, his ardor to fight Western cultural hegemony led him to write: "We are endowing our children with amazement and respect for the master who tramples our honor and enslaves us. Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust and revenge in the souls of these children."
Qutb believed that if Muslims accepted democracy, capitalism, civil liberties and the Western way of life, they would commit spiritual suicide. He dedicated the rest of his life to convincing Muslims that their only hope rested in surrendering totally to a stringent form of Islam.
But why, according to Qutb, are modernity and Islam irreconcilable?
Because modernity was only made possible by a fundamental theological error that guaranteed man's alienation from God and from his nature. This alienation had reached a point of crisis worldwide, with the world's richest and most powerful nations producing masses of well-fed, well-off people who are rootless, miserable, hedonistic and self-destructive.
This was not a novel insight. As Paul Berman points out in his 2003 book Terror and Liberalism, many Western thinkers of the same era were writing about alienation amid the freedom and plenty of modern society. Qutb located the source of the modern world's ills in Christianity's separation of the world into sacred and secular realms, creating what he called a "hideous schizophrenia" that caused Western man to split the material realm from the spiritual.
Islam holds the two to be one under God's sovereignty. But this unnatural divorce had material benefits for the West, enabling it to leapfrog far ahead of the Islamic world in science and technology. The West's success made it powerful, true, but its culture grew increasingly debauched, and its people were turning into moral and spiritual wrecks. Yet – and here, Mr. Berman writes, is where Qutb is most original – the all-powerful West was in the present day imposing its false and destructive ideals on the weakened Muslim world.
What is to be done? Lenin famously asked about Czarist Russia. Qutb's answer to the same question about the West was, in part, "Milestones," a Leninist-style tract advocating worldwide Islamic revolution.
In this thin volume, Qutb argues that the Islamic nation must overthrow modernity if it wishes to continue to exist. Only Islam, with its divinely given law regulating all aspects of daily life, is capable of rightly ordering the soul and body, and of being most true to God-given human nature. He believed the West, whether or not it realized it, was engaged in a fight to the death against Islam. Though the conflict had military, economic and cultural aspects, for Qutb, this was essentially a religious war.
"Milestones" calls for the subjugation of all non-Islamic peoples, the total crushing of all non-Islamic institutions and entities, and the universal imposition of harsh sharia law. Reading "Milestones" as a guide to the mentality of jihadists is a bone-chilling exercise (even more so when you consider that Muslim teens participating in a 2004 quiz competition at the Dallas Central Mosque were assigned "Milestones" as part of their contest reading).
His is the voice of the genocidal utopian, an apocalyptic idealist who – like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao – will stop at nothing to create an earthly paradise on the bones of the Crusaders, Zionists, moderate Muslims and sundry infidels.
It's difficult to imagine why anybody fell for Nazism or communism, but neither ideology could have gone anywhere if it didn't speak deeply to the hopes, needs, fears and passions of millions. As fanatical as Qutb's Islam sounds – as fanatical as it is – it provides an explanation for the misery and backwardness so much of the Muslim world lives in today. It gives its followers dignity and solidarity, a focus for their anger, a sense of purpose and of being on the right side of history. It holds out the false promise, that old siren song, that perfect happiness and oneness can be achieved in this life, once the Enemy has been destroyed. And it is a vision that Qutb gave witness to by courageously sacrificing his life.
What are we to do? There are no easy answers, but we should begin by jettisoning as folly the naive idea that all Muslims want the same things the liberal West wants. Followers of Qutb's brand of Islam hold that our wealth, secularity and freedom, especially for women, are evidence of our corruption.
While Qutb's prescriptions are quite mad, his diagnosis of the Western spiritual and psychological condition was serious, and it requires a serious response. If we Westerners cannot look at the world we've created for ourselves and understand that Sayyid Qutb was not all wrong, we will never figure out how to convince the Islamic masses he lived and died for that their holy martyr was a false prophet.
Rod Dreher is an assistant editorial page editor. The views expressed here are his own. His e-mail address is email@example.com .
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