May 31, 2007

Some Paragraphs from Berman on Qutb

Paul Berman, author of the splendid Terror and Liberalism, has an important essay in The New Republic (subscription only, methinks, but try the middle link) on the retreat of many Western intellectuals from defending the free inquiry and expression of liberal thinkers against Islamist thugs. The whole thing is well worth reading and pondering, but this bit on ideofact's old friend Sayyid Qutb is worth quoting:

Qutb, even in translation, commands a prose style of his own, which is typically serene and discursive, and nonetheless capable of sulfurous outpourings. He has the advantage of a background in literary criticism, which allows him to comment easily on the Qur'an and its style and mood. Most of all he has the advantage of the Qur'an, which occupies his attention. Qutb shows no embarrassment at all in noting the seventh-century barbarities whenever they seem apropos--the cruel amputations and other punishments ordained by huddud, the penal code, which he carefully discusses ("In case of a third or fourth theft, scholars have different views as to what is cut off," and so forth). The barbarous passages add a peculiar thrill to his writings, a frisson of the weird and the forbidden that seems all the more powerful because his tone of voice never changes: the tone of a man speaking with tranquility and confidence about things that are cosmically true.

And Qutb is, not least, a writer capable of summoning up the passions of hatred. He rains mighty blows upon the Jews of ancient Arabia. He scrupulously acknowledges that, here and there, the Qur'an contains passages that show compassion or kindliness to this or that individual Jew, but he prefers the other, more numerous passages: the descriptions of Jewish treachery and enmity during Muhammad's years in Medina, which in Qutb's estimation represent the eternal Jewish trait. In Qutb's commentaries (just as in Said Ramadan's Al-Muslimun, according to Hamel), you stumble here and there on references to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in a simple display of the continuing influence of Nazi and Nazi-like influences from Europe, even in the period after Nazism had been defeated; and in a simple display, likewise, of Qutb's reformism, to use the right word--his willingness to interpret the ancient texts on the basis of modern ideas. Not every modern idea is a good one, after all; nor every reform, a forward step.

Elsewhere, Berman notes that Qutb, who earlier in his life wrote romantic poetry with an apocalyptic vein, retained this outlook in his Islamist writings:

...he pictured the entire world hurtling toward a catastrophic crisis, which he interpreted along paranoid and apocalyptic lines. His vision of the impending collapse of both the West and the communist East Bloc, his vision of an Islamic revolutionary vanguard establishing somewhere an Islamic state and using it to export the Islamic revolution to the Muslim world and then to everywhere else, his vision of the Qur'anic utopia to come--all this was fairly wild: a grandiose version of al-Banna's already pop-eyed and Mussolinian idea about resurrecting the Islamic Empire.

Also worth noting that Tariq Ramadan argues that al Qaeda follows Qutb fairly closely--I used to have a commenter named Abu Noor al-Irlandee who argued that no such connection existed. I suppose it's good to see that there's one thing Ramadan and I agree on...

Posted by Ideofact at May 31, 2007 11:56 PM


I hope you and your family are doing well.

I am not sure Tariq Ramadan really says that, but to clarify my own view: No doubt there are many, Muslims and non-Muslims who give Sayyid Qutb the prominent role in the ideological evolution of Islamism. Some moderate Islamists even argued that Qutb went off into error himself in some ways after the torture he and his colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood suffered in Egyptian prisons, most moderate Islamists argue that a younger more radicalized generation misintrepreted Qutb.

I was not around at the time, nor am I an expert on the politics of Egypt at that time, although I have done some reading on it.

My only reminders are that there are tens of millions of Muslims at the least who admire Qutb greatly, the vast majority of whom do not see in his writings a call for terrorism and that I have not seen in the speeches or writings of Bin Laden, any mention by himself of Sayyid Qutb as authority for what he is doing.

Like most thinkers who come out of an old and established religious tradition, there is little in Sayyid Qutb which is original or exclusive to him. The difference with Sayyid Qutb and the reason for his prominence and influence are what he chose to emphasize, his writing style, but most of all the environment in which he was situated and responding to, and the power of his particular life story.

Roxanne Euben makes this point in an interesting book (published pre 9/11 by Princeton University Press) entitled Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism, which gives considerable attention to Qutb and which I think you might find interesting.

God knows best.

P.S. Did you actually like that Berman piece. Of course I gobbled up the whole thing immediately because I'm so interested in the subject matter but I cannot believe they let him publish such a long and disjointed babbling in a major magazine. On Blogging Heads Tv I saw the interesting point made that hawkish liberals like Berman who were gearing up after 9/11 to rally the left to the great challenge of fighting the Islamist menace have been really knocked off stride by the disaster of Iraq and so know they are still trying to convince people why Islamism is the new Nazism or the new Communism but they know that the first major move the government launched based on this assumption has been ruinous and they can't really figure out how to proceed from that rhetorically.

Posted by: Abu Noor Al-Irlandee at June 6, 2007 12:03 PM

My family is doing fine: thank you for asking. I realize I know so little about you -- but I hope you are well and your family is well too.

To dive right in to your P.S. -- My editorial judgment (I'm an editor by profession) is that the Berman piece was poorly constructed. I think it was much more a piece about Ian Buruma than it was about Tariq Ramadan, let alone Islamism or Sayyid Qutb (of course, in fairness to Berman, it made no claim to being about the latter two subjects). The one thing I would add is that regardless of what's happening in Iraq, Berman is correct (surely you would agree) in regarding Qutb's project as a competitor to the liberal project who must be confronted....

Thank you for recommending the Euben book -- I'll add to it the depressingly long list of books I need to read.

One other question I'd ask: You say, "there are tens of millions of Muslims at the least who admire Qutb greatly." My question is -- who are they?

I'm typing this from a hotel bar; my bartender is a tremendously pleasant woman who nevertheless has no idea who John McCain is, let alone, say, Russell Kirk. "Tens of millions" strikes me as a wild exaggeration -- there may be tens of thousands who have heard of Qutb, and tens of hurndreds who highly regard him, but I doubt there are tens of millions who revere him.

Posted by: Bill at June 8, 2007 02:00 AM

Bill, I have to run but a quick note.

I am glad to hear your family's fine. One of the big drawbacks of internet discussions is that people are not as fully human as if the discussions took place in person. (Although there are positives, too, we most likely never would have talked at all in real life.)

Just to humanize myself a little bit, I have three children (InshAllaah soon to be four) and if it didn't come up before I am an attorney by profession.

I share the idea that the piece was much more about Buruma than Ramadan. In a way, that makes it more interesting to me because while I am not sure how much Berman really knows or understands about Islam or Muslims, he obviously has more experience and has thought a lot about western liberalism and how it should respond to Islam and Muslims.

Let me think about that tens of millions number. My first instinct actually was to put the number even higher. But I guess you're right what first crossed my mind was what percentage of Muslims would have a problem with Qutb's ideas... I didn't completely factor in what percentage of people (regardless of their ideas) might simply have never heard of him.

I have to admit that I didn't recognize the name Russell Kirk (although thanks to Wikipedia I can just pretend from now on that I know all about him).

I will reflect on that and post more later.


Posted by: Abu Noor Al-Irlandee at June 8, 2007 01:53 PM

Oh, and I'm especially glad to get your input about the Berman piece as an editor. I have been fishing around with people I know who know something about writing to explain me why such a muddled and confusing piece would be published.

As I said, I enjoyed it like I would enjoy reading several long blog posts from someone talking about people and ideas I knowa and care about. I still can't believe it was published like that though.

Posted by: Abu Noor Al-Irlandee at June 8, 2007 01:55 PM