Magazine article The National Interest

Qutb and the Jews

Magazine article The National Interest

Qutb and the Jews

Article excerpt

John Calvert, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 377 pp., $29.50.

The cover of John Calvert's book parades the face that launched a thousand suicide bombers. Sayyid Qutb, the major ideologue of modern, ultra-violent Islamic fundamentalism, is staring through bars, probably during his Cairo trial in April 1966, shortly before his death sentence was pronounced. Bushy eyebrows, a full, dark, graying moustache, large brown eyes, inquisitive, wary, worried. But by some accounts, he was looking forward to his martyrdom: "I have been able to discover God in a wonderful new way. I understand His path and way more clearly and perfectly than before," he wrote to a Saudi colleague in June. He was hanged by the Nasser regime, along with two fellow Muslim Brotherhood activists, in the early morning hours of August 29.

A recent profile of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, says that he has spent much of his time in the American detention facility at Guantanamo Bay reading Qutb. Apparently, so have many others among the fundamentalists wreaking havoc in Middle Eastern, Far Eastern and Western cities in recent decades. Qutb is the man whose books, written as he was edging toward Islamism in the late 1940s and after his "conversion" during the 1950s, explain why Muslims must wage jihad against both the "Near Enemy"--the Western-aligned and Western-influenced regimes in the Arab world--and the "Far Enemy"--meaning the West itself, especially the United States.

Qutb was born in 1906 into a lower-middle-class family in the Nile valley village of Musha, near Asyut. He was educated at a secondary school and a teacher's training college in Cairo, and subsequently earned his living as a teacher, Education Ministry official, journalist, novelist and Islamic thinker. As a young man he developed strong nationalist, anti-imperialist convictions; in his forties, he gradually edged toward an Islamist worldview, seeing Islam as both the means and goal of life on earth. (It was, as well, a tool which would facilitate liberation from Western colonialism; secular nationalism and the governments it spawned--Nasserist, Baathist or whatever--would not do the trick, nor would they provide the social justice and harmony that he espoused.)

The West was both evil and the source of evil, polluting and emasculating the Islamic world, culturally and politically. As Qutb grew up between the world wars in British-dominated Egypt, Western influences were all around. He acutely felt the humiliation of colonialist contempt--they "ran over Egyptians in their cars like dogs"--and in his maturity, repaid it with contempt, and a rejection, of his own. As he put it in 1943: "This [Western] civilization that is based on science, industry, and materialism ... is without heart and conscience.... It sets forth to destroy all that humanity has produced in the way of spiritual values, human creeds, and noble traditions." He contrasted Islamic society's religiosity and morality with the West's "materialism," though in the 1940s and 1950s he became highly critical of Muslim Arab societies, deeming them by and large jahili (ignorant of God's truth) if not downright kafiri (apostatic). A few years later he wrote of the "struggle between the resurgent East and the barbaric West, between God's law for mankind and the law of the jungle." But Qutb, in the immediate post--World War II years, though hateful of Zionism and its Western backers, admired the two right-wing Zionist militia groups, the Irgun and the LHI (the Stern Gang), because of the success of their assassination and terror campaigns that had given the British a bloody nose.


Qutb's anti-Westernism was reinforced by his two-year sojourn in the United States between mid-1948 and mid-1950. He was sent there by the Egyptian Education Ministry to study the American education system--and learn English. …

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