Friday Discourse 230
Sayyid Qutb and Terrorism
In the aftermath of 9/11, the West did not waste time in searching the roots of Al-Qaeda to find out the institutions that support it, the sources of its funds, and the philosophy that informed its actions. Writing in The Guardian of 11 November 2001, Robert Irwin, under the title "Is this Man Who Inspired Bin Laden?", said, "As the West struggles to get to grips with its newest enemy, pundits, scholars and journalists have combed every inch of Osama bin Laden's life story for clues to what turned an apparently quiet and unexceptional rich Saudi boy into the world's most feared terrorist. But the most useful insights into the shaping of Bin Laden may lie not in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, or the rampant materialism of 1970s Saudi Arabia, but the biography of a long dead Egyptian fundamentalist scholar called Sayyid Qutb."
Listing the legacies of that scholar, Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayyid_Qutb) wrote, "In terms of lives and property destroyed, Qutb's greatest impact has been through Islamic resurgent/terror groups in Egypt and elsewhere…" With this testimony, had Sayyid lived to 2001, he would have certainly been one of the detainees at Guantanamo. Well, Bush does not need to worry. He was tried and executed by Nasser, under the pressure of the Soviets, on 29 August 1966.
How Sayyid came into the equation of the war against terror is neatly captured by another writer, Paul Berman. From his book, Terror and Liberalism, he wrote an article in New York Times on 23 March 2003 under the caption "The Philosopher of Terror." Berman, whom, we must appreciate, has read Qutb beyond the superficial level of Western journalists, said, "The Egyptian factions (of al-Qaeda) emerged from an older current, a school of thought from within Egypt's fundamentalist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the 1950's and 60's. And at the heart of that heart of that single school of thought stood, until his execution in 1966, a philosopher named Sayyid Qutb – the intellectual hero of every one of the groups that eventually went into Al-Qaeda, their Karl Marx (to put it that way), their guide."
Berman's essay about the intellectual output of Sayyid Qutb was long and thorough. The author did show significant appreciation of what he studied as well as a substantial recognition for the depth of Qutb's intellect. Yet, I found his conclusion disturbing, for his post-mortem reconstruction of Qutb has placed the long time executed and foremost theoretician of Islam in modern times on the side of the terrorists who kill indiscriminately as we are witnessing in Iraq and other parts of the World including the West.
"These people," Berman wrote about al-Qaeda, "are in possession of a powerful philosophy, which is Sayyid Qutb's… a gigantic work of literature, which is his "In the Shade of the Qur'an… They feel they are benefiting the world, even if they are committing random massacres. They are certainly not worried about death. Qutb gave these people a reason to yearn for death. Wisdom, piety, death and immortality are, in his vision of the world, the same…"
Then Berman presented his wish for a counter philosophy: "It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas – it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries… The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this…"
"But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical and the spiritual world?" Berman started to ask in his conclusion. "Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society's every failure?" The answer as well as the worries came readily in his last paragraph: "Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this and on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding – one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all."
Unfortunately, the worries of Paul Berman and of the people on his side will remain unattended. If any philosopher or religious leader will pick up the fight, it will hardly match the originality, clarity, sincerity and vehemence of Sayyid Qutb. There have been several criticisms of his writing within the Muslim World since his execution in 1966 but even if combined, they can hardly pose a threat to the popularity of his ideas.
It was during his twelve years of incarceration, between 1954 and 1966, that Sayyid produced the bulk of his work on Islam and its relevance in salvaging mankind from the brink that he encountered twice: his experience in the states and the brutality he was suffering from in the prisons of Nasser. The genuineness of those writings cannot be matched by any produced under the comfort of air-conditioners; more so when we recall that Sayyid preferred to pay the highest price for them when he declined to flee Egypt as many did, but remained and died at the gallows in 1966.
That is not to say that his ideas are faultless. I have read Qutb for over twenty-five years now. His idea of reviving Islam, for example, did not fit into the conventional means by which it was preserved and revived many times in different places over the last fourteen centuries. Basically, the Islamic paradigm for change provides for tajdid (reform) not for excommunicating the umma and beginning from the scratch as it happened in Mecca at the dawn of Islam. This is based on the fact that Muslims do exist today, in spite of their deviation from thorough Islamic practice. "At the eve of every century", the Holy Prophet was reported saying, "God will rise a person that will reform your religion." Simple.
Yet, despite its shortcoming on methodology, the message of Islam which Qutb projected was noble and clear, as he depicted it in the last paragraph of his final book, Characteristics and Values of the Islamic Vision. "Adherents of Tauhid (Monotheism) may not offer humanity discoveries in science or conquests in civilisation", he noted, "but they can offer it something greater… the liberation of man, nay, a new dawn. Their gift to mankind includes a complete manual for life that is based on human dignity and liberating its hand, mind, conscience and soul from any form of exploitation. This will enable man to use all his abilities to play his role as a vicegerent of God, the Exalted, the Great… He will then neither be a slave to technology, nor a slave to another man."
No credible scholar will deny that the writings of Sayyid were misused by many groups after his execution. Such groups often quote him and pay tribute to him. The litmus test here would be to ask if Sayyid would have condoned the indiscriminate killings of civilians that these groups carry out as part of his idea of a jihad. He would not, because it negates the very goals of his philosophy. Here, I tend to agree more with Charles Tripp, another authority on Sayyid Qutb. Writing in 1994 in a collection called Pioneers of Islamic Revival, Tripp concluded a long essay on Qutb by saying, "It might be more helpful to see Qutb himself as representative of a continuing trend in the Islamic world, which the protest groups are also a part. The members of these groups, like Qutb are evidently disturbed by the material and moral dislocation of their societies, by the unresponsive and authoritarian regimes to which they are subject and by the continuing denial of power to ordinary people to shape their lives as they would prefer…"
It will remain difficult for the West to match Qutb's philosophical writings as Berman would wish for the very fact that the West is supportive of the oppressive regimes that push people to terrorism. In the past half-century, western establishments and the oppressive regimes in the Muslim World have jointly and brutally suppressed any move towards the revival of Islamic consciousness because they see it as a threat to the exploitation they survive on.
So, unless there is a shift from the paradigm of exploitation that has become characteristic of Western civilisation since its dawn, dissenting philosophies like Qutb's will continue to attract followers and misrepresentations. The way out of this quagmire does not lie in the utopia of bringing the entire world under the umbrella of a divine creed – a concept that is itself alien to the Qur'an, nor in the continuing exploitation of other nations by the West. It lies in our genuine and joint effort to establish a world order that will respect the dignity of every person on this globe and ensure his right to peace, freedom and decent living. These must not remain the exclusive preserve of civilized countries, namely – in the political taxonomy of the West – America, Britain, Europe, Australia, Russia and Canada; they must include us, those who live in the 'non-civilised' part, the hell called developing countries.
31 January 2007