October 21, 2004
It's been a while since Sayyid Qutb turned up on ideofact, but I haven't been ignoring him entirely. This column (registration required. regrettably) ties up Qutb, bin Laden and the radicalization of the Chechens:
In 1996, Osama bin Laden himself proclaimed the Chechen resistance an integral part of global jihad. Adopting Islamist cant and Taliban dress, the Chechen jihadists espouse the philosophy of Egypt's late Sayyid Qutb, earlier adopted by al Qaeda. It espouses martyrdom in the global war against "crusading Christians and Zionists."
Chechen leader Shamil Basayev, who masterminded the Beslan school carnage, is hardly a heroic figure like his namesake, 19th century Sufi warrior Imam Shamil, who battled Russian soldiers, not children. Like Yasser Arafat earlier, Basayev launched his career as a brutal, Soviet-backed commander in Abkhazia. After the fall of communism, he trained in Afghanistan, shaved his head, grew a Taliban beard and reincarnated as Abdullah Shamil Abu Idris -- a general of the Islamic Brigade of Martyrs.
Islamic verses in his headband replaced Che Guevara's sacred picture. Saudi Arabia's Haramein Islamic Foundation helped to establish his Chechen training camps. While bin Laden became the White House's bogey man, Basayev emerged as the nemesis of the Kremlin.
There probably aren't too many columns in which Qutb and Guevara turn up a few paragraphs apart, but perhaps there should be more. (And not because, as this piece suggests, we awful American rewriters of history are trying to smear Qutb as a Marxist -- but because, like Marx, Qutb's ideas seem to attract a disproportionate share of thugs, assassins, sadists and slaughterers).
There's what appears to be an online course about Qutb and Islamism -- the title is "Inventing Islamic Fundamentalism: The Religious and Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb," and I guess you can sign up at the link if you're interested. As fascinated as I am, I'm going to pass -- November and December look like busy months.
But not too busy for me to continue delving into books. The Poe book I'd mentioned below -- Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe by John Evangelist Walsh -- is regrettably not as good a book as it could have been. I think that's in part because Walsh makes the mistake of trying to "solve" the mystery (and I put solve in scare quotes because I'm hoping Walsh, despite his at times overreaching language, realizes that his theory is an enjoyable diversion rather than a serious attempt at ratiocination). This leads Walsh to ask us to make all sorts of leaps of faith -- that a friend of Poe would, in recounting his last meeting with the author, forget that Poe had shown up at his door days before his death claiming that murderers were plotting his demise; that the doctors attending Poe's last days in the hospital would not notice on their patient's body the tell-tale bruises and contusions left by the beating administered by the murderers; and so on. Which is not to say that there may not be something to this particular rumor about the cause of Poe's death -- but rather, that in trying to prove it, Walsh betrays his rather effective telling of all the conflicting accounts and the facts that simply don't add up, and descends to the level of the disreputable, the deceivers and the deceived who tried to make of Poe's death something that it wasn't. (The physician who attended the delusional Poe in his last days wrote a book that preserved the poet's final surprisingly sober poetic phrasings -- which included of course the word "nevermore"; a temperance advocate who helped Poe to the hospital used the poet's death as exhibit A in his indictment of the devil drink...)
I suppose it wouldn't have been quite as good a book proposal if it began, "After years of meticulous research in dozens of archives across the country, I have attempted to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of America's premiere writer, Edgar Allan Poe. I failed." Maybe there were moments when Walsh was persuaded that everything confirmed his theory, followed by sickening crises occasioned by those stubborn parts -- like the friend forgetting Poe's fear of the assassins just days before he died -- which he had to reconcile with the theory. And maybe advancing a theory he didn't entirely believe in was the price he was willing to pay to get his research on Poe's death published.
With Walsh, it's a harmless thing, and I have to admit, he's a competent enough writer that he can almost carry it off. Were he slightly more adept at handling the material that completely contradicted his thesis, he might have written one of the greatest footnotes of American letters. (How's that for damning with faint, Poe-esque praise?)
I shouldn't be too hard on Walsh -- his book is an enjoyable diversion, with little at stake, so, even if he unreservedly believes his theory as definitive, what harm is there in it? (I don't need to believe it...) In a few days, I'll begin reading yet another work of Sayyid Qutb, who raises entirely different questions: not so much whether he ardently believed in what he was writing, but rather, who believes in it now, and who is likely to act on its implications...
Posted by Ideofact at October 21, 2004 11:59 PM
Qutb keeps on turning up.
Yet almost no one else seems to notice the way in which Qutb's writings attract such large numbers of "Thugs, assassins, sadists, and slaughterers" for his followers.
Thank you for your continued study of his writings, and for sharing it with us.
Bill and steve h,
First of all, I see the media constantly referring to the followers of Sayyid Qutb as being "thugs, assasins, sadists and assasins." Are you suggesting that there has been anything positive said about Sayyid Qutb or those who are claimed to be his followers in the mainstream media since 9/11? I haven't seen it.
In fact, one reading the media would think that people who read or agree with Qutb are all thugs and assasins because according to the media a)no non-terrorist is ever thought to be a follower of Qutb, if one hasn't ever committed violence in his life, he's just being tricky and deceptive and is some sort of sleeper cell waiting to kill children and b)if any person who is Muslim does commit any terrorist or even violent act, he/she is automatically declared to be a follower of Qutb, even without any evidence.
Let me just ask this to those reading who have tried to do a little reading on the issue. Does Osama bin Laden ever in his writings or speeches even refer to or quote Sayyid Qutb? Did the attackers of the World Trade Center quote or praise Qutb in their farewell letters or carry "Milestones" onto the planes? I'd like to see the reference because I have not come across any. All people will point to is that Qutb's brother (a famous Islamic scholar, author and teacher in his own right) was one of bin Laden's teachers. Well, bin Laden had a lot of other teachers and Muhammad Qutb had a lot of other students -- you're going to need to give me more to prove to me that the terrorist acts of anyone are to be blamed on Sayyid Qutb.
I am not denying that Sayyid Qutb is widely read and influential in the Muslim world. In fact, I have tried to argue that Qutb is so widely read and so influential that this is another argument against any notion that he is calling for terrorism because the vast vast majority of his readers do not approve of or carry out the killing of innocents.
The purpose behind many of my comments has been exactly this: to get interested people to understand better, from the perspective of a believing, practicing Muslim sympathetic to Qutb what Qutb is actually saying, and as a result hopefully to show that no person correctly or even reasonably understanding what Qutb wrote would come to the conclusion that he or she should kill civilians.
More later, including some useful historical information about what Qutb actually did when people came to him, asking him to support or endorse such violence.
Bill, I also highly recommend that you read Anatol Lieven's piece "Liberal Hawk Down" from The Nation (available on the web) for many reasons, but especially for its critique of the views put forth by Paul Berman and picked up widely since regarding Islamism. I see your own views as a little different and a little more credible than Berman's, Bill, but I still would like to hear your reaction to the piece.
I think you're being entirely disingenuous here, Abu Noor.
We all know there are many Marxists who never committed a violent act, but it doesn't change the fact that Marxism as an ideology called for some fairly brutal acts, on which many of its followers were only too happy to deliver. Qutb demands the smashing of all man-made systems and he's fairly explicit that this isn't to be achieved by, say, reasoned argument with all due deference to dissenting viewpoints.
I don't know whether or not bin Laden has explicitly cited Qutb in any of his writings, or whether the 19 hijackers cited him (I presume that most of them did not leave behind copious political writings complete with footnotes, or if they did, then these have yet to be translated into English.) I do know that any number of scholars (n.b. -- not reporters), both Muslim and infidel, have emphasized Qutb's writings as the ideological font of the more radical (and violent) Islamist groups. Mohammed Qutb, who was indeed bin Laden's tutor and is described as being a significant influence on him, was more a disciple of his brother than an independent thinker in his own right, and certainly would have communicated to bin Laden his brother's views.
But since you raise the subject, what has bin Laden done that is inconsistent with Qutbian philosophy?
As I have said repeatedly, to the extent that bin Laden has endorsed, ordered, carried out, planned, or whatever else you believe he has done the killing of innocent civilians than he is going against what was taught by Sayyid Qutb in his writings.
To the extent that bin Laden has used violence, whether against civilians or against Muslim regimes as the primary tactic in overthrowing those regimes, then he has gone against the methodology that Qutb repeatedly stressed in both his writings and his life of convincing the Muslim people of the need for establishing the complete Islamic way of life before doing so.
Qutb was not a pacifist to be sure, but he believed that the majority of people would be convinced to accept Islaam willingly (as was the case during the time of the Prophet (saw) but that those who held power in the society would harness that power to use violence against the Muslims and to oppose such movements. At some point this would result in armed clashes, incidentally, this would surely be after a sustained period of persecution of the Muslim side during which it would not be able to fight back. Qutb, for sure, believed that his whole life was part of that aspect of the struggle.
Qutb has been a highly influential modern writer to Islamists of all stripes from the most peaceful to the extremist types who have misread his writings. Because it is clear that such extremist actions are outside of what Qutb called for, this is why one will not see persons who have gone to the extremes quoting from Qutb, because they realize they are not following his prescription.
To say that the vast majority of people who have read and appreciated Qutb misunderstood him and are not accurate representatives of his teachings while the extremist few who engage in violence against civilians and don't quote him, are suddenly the only true inheritors of his legacy is complete sophistry.
It is like saying Thomas Jefferson is the inspiration for Tim McVeigh or the right wing militia movement. As Jefferson said, ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.’ Jefferson supported a more violent revolution in his lifetime than Qutb ever did.
Such argumentation would be unfair to Jefferson in the extreme, but not in the least bit more unfair than what the type of argument you are advocating ist to Qutb. And you call me disingenous?
As to your comment that Muhammad Qutb was more a disciple of his brother than an independent thinker of his own right, maybe you could tell me who you are quoting here or what writings of Muhammad Qutb have you read that make you feel qualified intellectually to come to such a conclusion? Have you in fact read anything written by Muhammad Qutb?
I will give you a couple of excerpts from the essay, "Violence in Sayyid Qutb's Perspective," written By Adil Salahi who is the translator of Qutb's "In the Shade of the Qur'an" into English.
This essay forms the introduction of Volume IX, which was published this year.
The whole essay is vital to this topic, but I'll just include a part which deals with what Qutb actually did in his life for the sake of time at this point.
"When he was released from prison in 1964, he was approached by a group of young men who had started to form organizations on the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood. They wanted him to take over their leadership and merge them into one movement. They tried hard to persuade him to do so but he was not short of sincere advice that he should not.......
"However, Sayyid Qutb felt that the new groups which wanted to give him thier leadership were composed of such sincere young men and women who were genuinely committed to Islam. They needed to have the right approach, so that they would be spared the pitfalls that lay ahead. Such pitfalls could lead to a new wave of suppression accompanied by much suffering and persecution. Sayyid Qutb hoped to steer them away from such pitfalls and spare them much hardship, provided that they acceptt the change of course he desired.
"In the discussions that followed between Sayyid Qutb and the leaders of these new groups, he asked them about their immediate and long term objectives. One of their primary objectives was 'revenge for the injustice perpetrated by the Nasser regime on the Brotherhod in 1954.' He insisted that they must put all such thoughts out of their minds. This thought was not easy for them to accept. Nonetheless, he argued with them at length, saying that all they would succeed in doing would be to assassinate Nasser of some of his assistants. He would then be replaced by yet another dictator. Even if the new ruler were less brutal, he would still be someone who would not allow the cause of Islam to gain any ground. the degree of suppression might be less, but the message of Islam would still be suppressed. The nature of the regime would remain the same, even if it moved away from being an outright military dictatorship. He further argued that even if the new regime moved towards democracy, allowing free elections, it would still be hostile to Islamic revival and try to prevent it with all its might. It would also come under strong pressure from different quarters, including Zionist and Imperialist ones, which are extremely hostile to Islam.
"Sayyid Qutb insisted that these young leaders not only broaden thier vision, but also never lose sight of their ultimate objective. Teh only way to achieve that objective was to follow the Prophets's guidance as he went about advocating Islam in Makkah and then established the first Muslim state in Madinah. He never sought revenge for any aspect of the brutal persecution the Quraysh piled on his followers. Instead he counselled followers not to be hasty. In the circumstances that prevailed in Egypt, nothing reflected hastiness more than seeking revenge for 1954.
"The long discussions that followed yielded the fruits he desired and the young leaders accepted his argument. They now drew up plans to disseminate this basic standpoint to the rank and file of thier organization, with a programme of study taking shape. Not only so, but earlier steps were reversed. The leaders of the new organization had arranged for arms to be smuggled into Egypt in preparation for the time when they would be ready to commence their revenge operations. They now agreed to Sayyid Qutb's order for all such arms to be diverted, and that no thought of their use ever be entertained.
Hence, when a year later the existence of this new movement was uncovered by Egyptian authorities, they could find no evidence of any takeover attempt or indeed preparations for such. Nonetheless a new round of mass arrests took place and the detainees were subjected to torture on an unprecedented scale. Confessions were sought in every possible way. One of Sayyid Qutb's nephews, a young man of 22, died at the hands of his jailers, lasting no more than a week after his arrest. Many indeed were those who died as a result of such brutality. Yet, when a specifically constituted military court sat to try Sayyid Qutb and his group, little evidence of any plot of any sort was produced. He and six others were sentenced to death but it is hard to find any plausible reason for any sentence. In fact, young people were sentenced to 10 to 15 years imprisonment for nothing other than reading Sayyid Qutb's Milestones.
"Today, nearly 40 years after these events, we see how everything Sayyid Qutb said to those who at the time represented a new generation of Islamic advocates came true. The wave of persecution that started in 1965 had no justification other than the mere existence of an organization that aimed to advocate the message of Islam peacefully and educate people in how to follow the Prophet's guidance. Events that followed between those advocating Islam in one way or another and the regimes that followed Nasser bear out all that he said to those men who sought to work under his leadership. Yet haste remains a weakness among many of the advocates of Islam. It was haste that the Prophet warned his companions against. Following the Prophet's example, Sayyid Qutb also warned against it.
"Yet today, the war against Islam waged by the Zionist and the Neo-Imperialists tries to describe Sayyid Qutb as the philosopher of Islamic terror. This is by no means surprising. Their predecessors of old described the Prophet as a sorcerer and a madman. These were the most sohisticated labels they could attach to him at the time. In our modern era, it is terrorism that the hostile camp tried to attach to Islam and its advocates. Futile will their efforts be, for, by the nature of things and by God's design, the truth will triumph."
I'm not ignoring you, well, not exactly -- it's just that digging out everything I'd need to write a response is a daunting task. I may just post an entry, referring back to this one, to do so.
Thanks Bill, at least for letting me know that you read my comment -- I spent a good deal of time typing it out.
Whether you respond or not, its ok, I just seriously wanted to share that with you, as I think it sheds a light on Sayyid Qutb that you may not have considered previously.