The Magazine

Osama's Brain

Meet Sayyid Qutb, intellectual father of the anti-Western jihad.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By DINESH D'SOUZA
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BEHIND THE PHYSICAL ATTACK on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was an intellectual attack--an assault not just on American foreign policy but on the principle of freedom. So far the Bush administration's military response has been quite effective against the al Qaeda network. But our intellectual response has been weak. This matters, because ultimately it is not enough to shut down the terrorist camps. We also must stop the "jihad factories," the mosques and educational institutions that are turning out tens of thousands of aspiring suicide bombers and martyrs. We cannot kill all these people; we have to change their minds. So far, however, America is making few converts in the Muslim world.

Part of the problem is that Americans were too quick to dismiss the terrorists as craven, insane, or misinformed. The truth, however, is that the hijackers were not cowards any more than the Japanese kamikazes were cowards. And on September 11, they performed an act requiring considerable coordination and technical sophistication. Moreover, our assailants were people who had lived in the West and been exposed to the West. In some respects, they understood us all too well.

If one wants to penetrate the mindset that produced their actions, a good place to begin is with the work of the most influential thinker of fundamentalist Islam, Sayyid Qutb. A theoretician for the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb was executed in Egypt in 1966. Since then, his works have gained in popularity, so that he is now considered the most effective Islamic critic of the West and the most eloquent advocate of pan-Islamic revival. Pupils of his assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981. The blind sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, now in prison in the United States for conspiracy to commit terrorism, is also a disciple. The leaders of many of the major terrorist groups--such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad--regularly cite his works. His influence is so pervasive in the bin Laden circle that he has been called "the brains behind Osama."

Sayyid Qutb was born in the Egyptian village of Musha in 1906. As a child he was something of a prodigy; by the age of 10 he had memorized the entire Koran. He became a teacher, and was soon appointed to the Egyptian Ministry of Education. His early writings included poetry, novels, and literary criticism. He became friends with the Egyptian literary figure Taha Husain, whose cosmopolitan and pro-Western outlook he initially shared.

During his tenure at the Ministry of Education, Qutb established a reputation as a critic of corruption and an advocate of an Islamic society free of nepotism, tyranny, and foreign control. In 1948, the Egyptian government sent him on a mission to America, "doubtless with the assumption that direct acquaintance with America would incline him more favorably to official policies," in the words of his English translator, the Islamic scholar Hamid Algar. Qutb stayed three years in America, studied in Washington, D.C., California, and Colorado, and completed a master's degree in education at the University of Northern Colorado. By this time, he had come to hate the United States, and decided not to pursue a doctorate here.

On returning to Egypt in 1951, Qutb broke with the pro-Western Taha Husain circle and began a long association with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 to unify the Muslim world and strengthen Islamic influence over all aspects of society. Qutb began writing for the publications of the Brotherhood, and was appointed editor of its official journal, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun. He also published several books, including his best-known work, "Social Justice in Islam."

Qutb's rising influence as a champion of Islamic revival and an advocate of radicalism brought him into conflict with Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had seized power in Egypt in 1952. Although Nasser was no less anti-Western than Qutb and initially admired him and reportedly attended some of his lectures, the two had different outlooks. Nasser was an Arab nationalist, Qutb a pan-Islamic revivalist who held that "a Muslim has no nationality except his belief." Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood criticized Nasser for putting personal and national interests above the interests of Islam. After failing to co-opt Qutb by offering him a cabinet position, Nasser outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and put Qutb in jail.