July 27, 2004

3 Qutb -- America

I haven't gotten around to reading the 9/11 Commission Report, but I did take a peak at the online searchable version to see what they had to say about Sayyid Qutb; the commission cited Qutb's work What I saw in America, published in translation in this volume, America in An Arab Mirror : Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature: An Anthology, as being emblematic of Qutb's mixing "Islamic scholarship with a very superficial acquaintance with Western history and thought."

That's interesting, because in the eighth chapter of Milestones, Qutb assures us,

The person who is writing these lines has spent forty years of his life in reading books and in research in almost all aspects of human knowledge. He specialized in some branches of knowledge and he studied others due to personal interest. Then he turned to the fountainhead of his faith. He came to feel that whatever he had read so far was as nothing in comparison to what he found here. He does not regret spending forty years of his life in the pursuit of these sciences, because he came to know the nature of Jahiliyyah, its deviations, its errors and its ignorance, as well as its pomp and noise, its arrogant and boastful claims. Finally, he was convinced that a Muslim cannot combine these two sources-the source of Divine guidance and the source of Jahiliyyah - for his education.

I think it's a little unfair to Qutb to cite only his American travelog -- in which he complains that he never find a really good hair stylist and that muscular young American boys seem to be oddly attracted to those brazen hussies (American girls, if you couldn't figure that out) -- as demonstrative of his superficial acquaintance with Western knowledge and thought. Qutb demonstrates such superficiality (which is actually too kind a word) throughout his works. See, for example, this prior post on Milestones, in which Qutb avers that the idea that culture is a universal human heritage -- that Gilgamesh or Aesop's Fables or the Upanishads or Huckleberry Finn have cross cultural value -- is a conspiracy of World Jewry. Still, perhaps it's worth spending a little time with "What I saw in America" -- which I happen to have.

The work is divided into three major sections, each of which consists of short paragraphs (only one is longer than a page) with headings like, "The Deformed Birth of the American Man," "The Secret of the Deformed American Character," "An American Woman Carouses while Her Husband's Corpse Lies at Home," and "The Appearance of the American Temptress." The latter entry tells us,

The American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, in the expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it. She knows it lies in clothes: in bright colors that awaken primal sensations, and in designs that reveal the temptations of the body -- and in American girls these are sometimes live, screaming temptations! Then she adds to all this the fetching laugh, the naked looks, and the bold moves, and she does not ignore this for one moment or forget it!

Lest there's any doubt, Qutb regards all this as a bad thing (and remember, he's writing about his time in the U.S. in the late 1940s -- we're not talking Britney Spears here). I can well imagine that this and a few of the other passages on bobby socksers may have been popular among young Egyptian men, although perhaps not for the high-minded reasons Qutb intended.

Altogether, there are 54 of these short observations. Probably half of them are based on some anecdote Qutb wants to tell -- the widow who talks about her financial situation rather than her grief or the man at the hospital who makes fun of the victim of an elevator accident -- from which he extracts some universal characterization of Americans (they do not mourn the dead, they mock the injured). Others display a complete lack of understanding of American history -- Qutb suggests that the Civil War was not fought to preserve the Union or to end slavery, but rather because the South, thanks to slavery, had economically outstripped the North (he also thinks that African Americans were "fragile and could not withstand the cold climate in the North," thus explaining why some states were slave and others free...). He is horrified by American football (so am I, although it's largely because I'm a Philadelphia Eagles fan) and food, complains that for every "Gone with the Wind" Hollywood produces dozens of b-movies, and that Americans have no fashion sense.

I'm being flip -- but it's an uneven work. At various other times Qutb contrasts American mores (as he imagines them) with the animal world, and finds Americans to be lower than animals, and, if there's any doubt as to the implications of this, he titles one section, "The Americans Are Free of Humanity." The implications of such a statement are fairly clear.

I could say more -- Qutb's description of the pilgrims, for example, is such that, to paraphrase Wilde, only someone with a head of stone could read it and not burst out laughing -- but I'll close with one short entry from Qutb which once again displays his utter ignorance. He is writing about a quintessentially American art form:

The American is primitive in his artistic tastes, whether in his judgment of art or his own artistic works. Jazz music is his music of choice. It is this music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires, and their desire for noise on the one hand, and the abundance of animal noises on the other. The American's enjoyment of jazz does not full begin until he couples it with singing like crude screaming. And the louder the noise of the voices and instruments, until it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree, the greater the appreciation of the listeners. The voices of appreciation are raised, and palms are raised in continuous clapping that could deafen ears.

Duke Ellington. Jelly Roll Morton. Miles Davis. Benny Goodman. Dave Brubeck. Savage bushmen???


All by himself, Louis Armstrong did a whole hell of a lot more good in terms of integration, racial understanding, freedom and of course good ol' fun than anything to come off of Sayyid Qutb's poisoned pen.

Posted by Ideofact at July 27, 2004 12:53 AM

perhaps he derived his views on jazz from adorno... or the white press, sections of which described jazz in terms not too different.

i have not read the book but if saying americans don't have family values and the chicks are hoes and jazz is savage is as bad as qutb gets in his travelogue, that's really pretty mild. no worse than many americans ahve said.... about america and about the savage lands.

Posted by: drapeto at July 27, 2004 01:35 PM

I must agree, the description of Jazz musicians as "savage bushman" boggles the mind.

But then, I like jazz because it has an element of beauty in it (distantly related to the beauty of classical) but it is also full of improvisation, syncopation, and catchy tunes.

I am even more surprised at the depiction of American history. (The South was economically stronger than the North! I suppose that's why the Confederate Army had such an easy time supplying their soldiers with food, clothes, shoes, ammunition, etc.)

The most telling is his generalizations about Americans from single scenes: like the widow who was concerned about life insurance, or the man who mocked another in the hospital. (How do women from Islamic cultures behave when they care more about their family position than about mourning a recently deceased husband? Did Qutb never know jocularity among his friends and family, in either its harmless or spiteful form?)

Did Qutb ever talk to any Americans, and attempt to find a way to communicate around the cultural divide?

Posted by: steve h at July 27, 2004 10:24 PM

drapeto --

Don't know if it comes across in the post, but I was a little surprised that the 9/11 Commission cited the "What I saw in America" essay when some of his other works demonstrate his vitriolic ignorance of the West far more systematically.

One difference between Sayyid Qutb and the American scolds is that the latter think the "hoes" -- at least the white ones -- have souls worth saving, if only they can get them to stop listening to that devil music. Qutb's condemnation is offered to show that Americans have no souls -- that they are equal to or even beneath animals.

In that sense, Qutb is much worse. Once you've crossed that rhetorical line, and denied the humanity of your enemy, anything is permitted.

Posted by: Bill at July 28, 2004 01:42 AM

Steve h --

I think Qutb goes out of his way not to understand things.

I might quote some more from the essay -- his take on the American Revolution is also a bit of lunacy.

Posted by: Bill at July 28, 2004 01:48 AM

Considering Al Qida's prime defector in the 911 report, before 911 happened, was economically impoverished and that OBL's business' seemed to hinge on the Sudanese stewardship that was launching a war as aggresive and as inhumane as the Holocaust. I dont mean to offend Jews in tis context. The inhumanity shows their quest for domination over the darker skinned Africans. Black also means slave in Arabic. Jihadists mean to dominate and not empower anyone( the racist and bigot included) and establish trade routes that go through hell and heaven here on earth. Their apparent urge to die for their families are all supported by some means of lofe insuance. I mean to say that their means are physical destruction of our symbols here in the west and establish an economy based on charities. For everyone from the destroyed structure will be dependent on their good will.

Posted by: Frank at August 1, 2004 02:13 AM