LONDON — Four years after President Bush launched a war to oust Osama bin Laden from his hideout in Afghanistan, many are mystified how a polite son of a millionaire construction magnate in Saudi Arabia could turn into the world’s most wanted terrorist.
According to many experts, a clue may lie in the life and works of Sayyid Qutb, an Islamic ideologue who was radicalized after an overwhelmingly negative experience in the United States and later imprisoned and executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Egypt in 1966.
This train of thought suggests the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were born not in the mountains of Afghanistan, but by a culture clash with booming post-World War II America and in the torture-chambers of mid-century Egyptian prisons.
Although little known in the West, Qutb is famous in the Arab world, where his criticism of the West and calls for a new society based around pure Islamic ideals remain influential today.
Dubbed "Osama's brain" by the Weekly Standard magazine, Qutb was also a forceful advocate of jihad as a form of resistance to governments that claim to be Muslim but whose actions are judged to stray from true Islam.
Sajjan Gohel, director for international security at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, said Qutb’s ideas are crucial to understanding what Gohel calls “bin Ladenism,” which he defines as a transnational strategy involving a long-term guerrilla war of attrition bonded by a central ideology.
“Sayyid Qutb’s role in inspiring the Islamic resurgence of the last generation should not be underestimated or ignored,” Gohel said.
Fateful visit to U.S.
Qutb’s journey to radicalism started in 1948 when the Egyptian government sent the 42-year-old school inspector to study in the United States.
The time proved to be formative for Qutb, who had closely followed American popular culture and at the time viewed the United States as a somewhat positive influence, especially when contrasted with the European colonialism he had witnessed growing up in the Middle East.
But things started to sour even before he reached U.S. shores — Qutb was repulsed by an American woman’s drunken attempts to seduce him during his sea voyage and, once on U.S. soil, he was shocked at the racism he encountered in the still-segregated country.
Qutb found himself more and more outraged by what he saw as American greed — one example being the lush lawns of Greeley, Colo., where he studied. He also found moral dissipation, including in such seemingly innocent events as dances held in small-town churches.
Returning to Egypt in 1951, he wrote a book, “The America I Have Seen,” in which he denounced, among other things, jazz music and what he called the overt sexuality in American culture, particularly among women.
As for American men, he described them as brutish and sports-obsessed, decrying their "primitiveness" when they watched football games, boxing or "bloody, monstrous wrestling matches."
In Egypt, Qutb refashioned himself a militant Muslim, following up his anti-U.S. treatise with his seminal book, the title of which is translated as "Milestones" or "Signposts along the Road." It begins:
“Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice ... because humanity is devoid of those vital values which are necessary not only for its healthy development but also for its real progress. ... [The West] knows that it does not possess anything which will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence. … It is essential for mankind to have new leadership!”
At around the same time, in 1952, a coup masterminded by a young army officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, threw out the occupying British and their puppet king, Farouk, replacing them with a socialist-tinged and secularist regime. As time went on, Nasser and his henchmen repressed Islamists, who they saw as the main threat to their power.
The Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which had evolved from a charitable organization into a political force, were fiercely opposed to Nasser's pan-Arab ideals, which sought to downplay Islam (though it remained the official religion).
Qutb, along with thousands of fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood, was imprisoned and tortured after an attempted assassination of Nasser.
Ideas born out of torture
Qutb's attitude toward the West was largely formed by life under colonialism and during his stay in the United States, but his experiences in Nasser's torture chambers back home were, say experts, essential in shaping his political theory.
"Qutb’s ideas have been reworked by many movements and inspired different groups," Dr. Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House think-tank and an expert on political Islam, said.
"But it’s important to understand that Qutb experienced life under a very harsh dictatorial regime — it was a particular moment in history and he was speaking to a particular audience about a particular experience," she said.
Qutb came from a tradition of Muslim thinkers who struggled to make sense of the impact of Western civilization on the Islamic world. As Qutb saw it, Nasser's largely secular project was born of European imperialism's influence and, because Egypt was not governed by Islamic law, it must be replaced with a purely Islamic regime.
One of Qutb's central ideas was his concept of jahilliya, comparing the modern “barbarism” of Nasser’s government with the “Godlessness” of the Arabian peninsula before the advent of Islam.
Qutb believed in the need to organize a vanguard of, in effect, professional revolutionaries whose lives were dedicated to restoring Islam as a dominant force in the world. This elite corps, called into existence by one man's faith, would separate from the society he saw as corrupt and set out into the "sea of jahilliya" to convert unbelievers.
Qutb took the unusual step of leveling the serious charge of takfir on virtually all of Egyptian society, essentially excommunicating as “impure” all Muslims who disagreed with his theories, regardless of whether they declared themselves as followers of Islam.
By using this label, Qutb sidestepped the traditional prohibition in Sunni Islam against toppling a Muslim leader — in this case, Nasser — by declaring, in effect, that he was no longer Muslim.
Unlike the vast majority of Sunnis, Qutb also believed it was permissible to reinterpret key facets of the religion and not rely overwhelmingly on judgments passed by scholars in the first centuries of Islam.
'A particular moment in history'
The Muslim Brotherhood, which at the time favored political compromise in pursuit of its goal of social renewal based around Islamic ideals, distanced itself from Qutb’s ideas and remains divided over his influence, Azzam said.
"Qutb’s writings were part and parcel of a particular moment in history,” Azzam added, “and specifically Egyptian history, with the emergence of Nasser, decolonization, the foundation of the state of Israel and so on."
Qutb’s influence, however, seemed to be doomed when he was executed by Nasser in 1966, ostensibly for treason. About a year later, though, his theories found fertile ground among disillusioned Arabs in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Israeli forces routed the combined might of several Arab countries, including Egypt. Many Egyptians felt considerable shame and blamed Nasser's secular model for the defeat. (Nasser himself offered to resign and died in office three years later.)
“Only Islamic values and morals, Islamic teachings and safeguards, are worthy of mankind, and from this unchanging and true measure of human progress, Islam is the real civilization and Islamic society is truly civilized,” Qutb wrote in "Milestones."
It is this type of message that has continued to appeal to many radical Muslims, Gohel said.
"It is because of its comprehensive nature that modern Islamic radicalism, using Qutb as a philosophical foundation, must be understood as more than an ideology of hate," he said. "Qutb lays out a road to victory for Islam. This is not just a message of hate for many Muslims. For them, it is a message of hope."
A step beyond
One young Egyptian who was influenced by Qutb’s ideas was Ayman al-Zawahri, later the leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group and bin Laden’s top lieutenant.
In al-Zawahri's brief book “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet,” smuggled out of Afghanistan in 2001, he wrote that Qutb’s ideas “helped [the Islamic movement] to realize that the internal enemy was a tool used by the external enemy and a screen behind which it hid to launch its war on Islam.”
Al-Zawahri also wrote, “The Nasserite regime thought that the Islamic movement received a deadly blow with the execution of Sayyid Qutb. … But the apparent calm on the surface concealed under it an immediate interaction with Sayyid Qutb’s ideas and … the beginning of the foundation of the nucleus of the modern Islamic jihad movement in Egypt.”
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden, too, was undoubtedly aware of Qutb's ideas: his compulsory course on Islamic studies at Abd-al-Aziz University was taught by Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid Qutb's brother.
Al-Qaida has gone much further than Qutb, however, by focusing on the “distant enemy” — America, primarily, and the West more generally — in order to destabilize the “near enemy” — what it sees as apostate regimes in the Islamic world.
"Qutb’s ideas were part of a new way of interpreting Islam in a particular way and it has opened the door for the radicals in a sense," Azzam said, adding, however, that his theories have been adjusted to fit the changing times and situations confronted by successive groups and individuals.
"The writings of Qutb do not legitimize the killing of innocent people as has occurred in the past few years," Azzam said.
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