During the Cold War the world was easily identified into two blocks – capitalists and communists, each led by a superpower in America and the Soviet Union. Each society was based around it’s own philosophy and both competed in the field of war, sport and even in attempts to create the ultimate supersonic airliner. When the ‘Cold War’ came to an end, one political commentator went as far as declaring that history was over as capitalism and democracy had won the great ideological struggle.
However as the two heavyweights suspiciously eyed each other through chinks in the Iron Curtain, the development of a popular Islamist movement went almost entirely unnoticed. Indeed, it was their very own moonwalking bear… So many in the west are of the belief that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda formed in the summer of 2001, however their roots can be traced back to an Egyptian student of education who took a trip to small town America in the late 1940s.
Sayyid Qutb was a devout Muslim from rural Egypt who became a key Islamist political theorist and writer. A keen student from a young age, he was fascinated by literature and it’s role in education. Throughout the 1930s he moved between various literary jobs, even writing an unpopular novel however it was in 1948 that his life drastically changed when he decided to broaden his horizons and travel extensively around the new world of America.
For two and a half years he threw himself into western culture. He lived in a small town with it’s own prohibition laws, visited major cities and great universities, experiencing all which the exciting new post-war America had to offer. He hated it. From an awkward situation with a flirtatious tipsy western woman on the ship over to feeling ostracised as an Arab in white communities, his trip strengthened his faith in Islam and built up a pure disdain of western society.
Upon his return to Egypt he wrote ‘The America I Have Seen’ in which he lambasted the exclusionary culture he had tried to throw himself into. He saw alcohol-free dances in church halls as ‘entertainment centres and sexual playgrounds’ and jazz simply as the creation of negroes to ‘satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other.’ Yet he also criticised the inherent racism in society. On women he wrote, ‘the American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity.’ He went on to criticise American sports as barbaric and society corrupted by materialism and a lack of artistic feeling. He felt that Christianity had failed America and that only Islam could fill the gaping spiritual void left behind.
This trip greatly influenced, not necessarily his hatred of the west, but certainly his faith in Islam as a perfect tool for controlling the government, religion and society of civilisation. However he did not wish to deny western achievements and indeed he felt that the Muslin Brotherhood (Whom he joined upon his return from the west) should embrace the ‘creative genius of Europe to provide mankind with high ideals and values’.
As he aged, however, his views became more strident and fierce. In order to understand this development we must look at his experiences as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1952 the Egyptian monarchy were overthrown by General Nasser in a military coup. He welcomed this change however over time his views of the new government’s secular nationalism soured. He was imprisoned by the torturous new regime and evolved his ideas, which were spelt out in two books, Milestones and In the shade of the Qur’an.
In these popular texts, as well as attacking corrupt Muslim leaders, he argued that society should be based on Sharia law and would then evolve into a self-regulating civilisation with no need for leaders as each subject would adhere to laws and governance as set out in the Qur’an. Although this idea was not new, indeed it had been spelt out by the fourteenth century writer Ibn Taymiyya, Qutb gave it a twentieth century meaning which took modern philosophy into consideration. Let us note, however, that at no point did Qutb call for a jihad against the west, but more so for Islamic revolution against corrupt leaders such as Nasser. As a result of his public stance against Nasser, he was executed for conspiracy to murder to president in 1966.
In order to understand how his views were adopted by Al Qaeda, we must look to his passionate student Ayman al-Zawahari (On whom I will write my next article) who used Qutb’s ideas as the intellectual justification for their policy of mass murder. So taken was he with Qutb’s ideas for a utopian society that he vehemently argued the Al Qaeda leadership to adopt a policy of terrorism to achieve their goals.
The legacy of Qutb is primarily the intellectual justification of Al Qaeda’s aims. With the organisation of al-Zawahari and the finance of Bin Laden they were able to enter the world stage by launching a jihad on America.