Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sayid Qutb

The exact motivations of Boston terrorists remain unknown, but it looks increasingly likely that militant Islamism was involved, that apparently they saw the attacks as retaliation against the USA for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Curiously, the situation in their homeland of Chechnya seems not to have been a factor, so far. The Tsarnaev brothers spent most of their lives in this country, and had only a tangential relation with their homeland. The driving passion seems to have been a broader sense of Islam under assault by Western colonialism.

Where did this idea start?

Sayid Qutb is a name that might be familiar to some who regularly read this blog, but I'm sure remains largely unknown to most Americans, and to most Westerners in general. He may well turn out to be one of the most influential thinkers shaping the early 21st century world. He may be as important an influence upon our time as Marx or Lenin were on the early 20th century. Sayid Qutb was the spiritual and intellectual father of militant Islamism.

Born the son of a landowner and government official in a small Egyptian village, Qutb was a prolific writer; a poet, scholar, essayist, and theologian. He wrote his most influential work toward the end of his life, most of it while in prison. He wrote a 30 volume commentary on the Quran, whose title in English is In The Shade of the Quran. He wrote another very influential book on political Islam titled Milestones. He worked much of his life for the Egyptian Ministry of Education. It was in that capacity that he visited the USA in 1949 to report on American methods of education. He was horrified by the materialism and the loose sexual mores of American society. Qutb never married and seems to have been unusually squeamish around women. He was always a prudish and fastidiously puritanical man. He was also a staunch and ferocious antisemite. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood after holding out for a long time despite repeated invitations. In the end, Gamal Abdul Nasser executed him on a treason charge in 1966.

It was Qutb who saw through Nasser's Baath Party Pan-Arab nationalism as mostly a self-serving exploitation of nationalist emotion by the military. It was Qutb who first proposed a Pan-Islamic identity, a revival of the old vision of a unified Caliphate to challenge and to ultimately defeat the imperial powers of the West. Qutb went even further to propose a revived Islamic civilization to oppose the influence of Western secularism and Western liberalism. He categorically rejected the Enlightenment liberal values of the West. He also rejected universalist influences within Islam, especially the Sufis. Under the influence of 19th century Islamic thinkers from the Deobandi School in India, he turned his wrath upon Muslims who cooperated with the West, or who made any accommodation with Western values.

When Qutb compared Islam to other systems, he did not compare it to Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism; he compared it to socialism and capitalism. Qutb saw Islam as a social and political order as much as a religion. Indeed, in the Muslim world, there is no clear separation between religious and secular as there is in the West. The Caliph in the Muslim world was both Pope and Emperor. There never was any separation between the two. The idea of Islam as an all-encompassing religious, legal, social, and cultural order is at the heart of Qutb's most influential book Ma-alim-f-il-Tariq or Milestones.

Islam is as large and conflicted a universe as Christianity. It was never any kind of unified monolith, no more so than Christianity ever was. There is a whole range of belief from the most liberal universalism to the most reactionary fundamentalist anti-modernism. There is the mystical universalism of the Sufis, the apocalyptic and messianic traditions of the Shia, and the militant anti-modernism of the Salafis. The major difference with Christianity, apart from beliefs, is historical experience. Most of Islam lived through the experience of colonialism. Western Christianity did not (though Eastern Christianity did).

Islam, like all the religions of the earth, is struggling with the challenges of modernity. Most people in the world still pin their hopes for a better life for themselves and for their children on modernity. The proof of that can be seen in the millions of people who continue to pour into the world’s cities from the countryside. Even the most anti-modern fundamentalist of any religion values the power and the productivity of modern science and technology. Muslims, like people everywhere, must deal with the nihilism of market capitalism and with the relentlessly cold and impersonal quality of modern life.
Islam is now going through a serious internal struggle over how to face modernity. The added combustible ingredient in this is the experience of colonialism. Science (if not quite the technology it produces), liberalism, and feminism are considered Western imports and corruptions imposed by infidel outsiders (never mind that there are awakening expectations among the urban professional classes who make even the most reactionary regimes work, and among women who form half of their populations). 

Qutb’s writings speak powerfully to this sense of outrage and alienation.
Curiously, most of those attracted to terrorism are not the beat-down poor of the Muslim world, but people like the Tsarnaev brothers, educated and relatively privileged people. Osama bin Laden came from one of the richest families in the world. Ayman al Zawahiri is a former Egyptian physician. Mohammed Atta, one of the pilots in the September 11th attacks, was from an affluent Egyptian family and was a student of urban planning in Germany (his professors described him as “brilliant”). Qutb himself was from rural Egypt, but also from a privileged upbringing.
These are the same sorts of folk who were once attracted to militant Marxism in the early part of the 20th century, and who are still drawn to Anarchism in the West.

Perhaps it was Qutb who created today’s militant Islamism by combining the rage of the colonized with something very much like Western political ideology, together with the anti-modern Islamic fundamentalism that had been around since the mid 19th century. I wonder just how broad the appeal of this blend really is in the Muslim world. While violent Islamist movements like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabab in Somalia, and others continue to proliferate and attract fanatically devoted followers, I couldn’t help but note the very muted reaction in much of the Muslim world to the death of Osama bin Laden. The loudest and most violent protests against bin Laden’s death were not in Cairo or Karachi, but in London. There seems to be an equally powerful reaction against the fundamentalist revival brewing in Iran, and a smaller reaction growing out of the urban/rural divisions in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. It remains to be seen how all this will play out, and how it will affect the rest of us outside the Muslim world.


What about 'Christianism?'  Is there anything quite comparable to Islamism?  Yes and no.  I think the main difference is the experience of colonialism drives the passion and the appeal of Islamism.  There is no corresponding experience in the Christian West.  That said, there certainly are fundamentalist movements with political ambitions, and they are almost all in the USA.  The USA and India are the only 2 countries outside the Muslim world that have politically powerful fundamentalist movements.
Probably the closest thing we have to anything like what Sayid Qutb dreamed up is Christian Dominionism.  Like Islamism, it proposes to tear down any distinctions between secular and religious law.  It is not quite as carefully thought out as Qutb's Islamism.  Like Islamism, it is driven by anger and resentment over transformations in modern life, but the experience of being colonized is lacking.  There is a very extreme and even violent form of Dominionism, Reconstructionism, that is very similar to the doctrines and practice of the Taliban.  Like the Taliban, the Reconstructionists would make adherence to their form of Christianity compulsory and punish breaches of the moral code with the most draconian measures possible including frequent use of the death penalty.
There is a streak of racism in Christianism that comes to the surface in Christian Identity movements.  There was also a strain of racism in Qutb's writings as well as strong antisemitism.

These Christianist movements are all confined to the USA, so far as I know.  I know of no international influence or any interest in these movements from abroad.  Like the American Communist Party, they are mostly marginal, impotent, and inept.  They are occasionally dangerous as was seen in the Atlanta Olympic bombing of 1996.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Sadly Doug, I believe a lot of it goes back to the way our foreign policy has been since the Bush(s) administration. The idea that we can invade and make changes is more conquest oriented than helping a country.