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.

Qutb spent the next several years in and out of prison. He was routinely beaten and tortured, and eventually he was convicted of inciting sedition and terrorism (admittedly under procedures far short of a fair trial) and hanged in Cairo together with two friends. Yet Qutb's prison period was his most productive. He published Milestones, a short account of his vision of an Islamic society, and "In the Shade of the Quran," "the most widely read modern commentary" on the Koran, according to Hamid Algar. Through his writings, Qutb helped his political cause prevail over Nasser's. In recent decades, Arab nationalism has faded, and Islamic fundamentalism has become the power to be reckoned with in the Muslim world.

What, then, did Sayyid Qutb believe? A good place to begin is with his account of this country in "The America That I Saw." While he was impressed with the productivity and technological efficiency of America, he was shocked by what he deemed its rampant racism, especially toward people of Arab descent, its materialism, and the sexual promiscuity of its women. Even the church, Qutb commented, had become a place of amusement and social interaction rather than worship. Qutb concluded that America was materially prosperous but morally rotten. The Muslim believer, he wrote, has no reason to envy American society; rather, he should feel contempt for it. "The believer from his height looks down at the people drowning in dirt and mud."

To explain America's decadence, Qutb argued that from its earliest days Western civilization had separated God and society. Long before the American doctrine of separation of church and state, the institutions of religion and those of government operated in separate realms and commanded separate allegiances. Consequently, God and society were bound to come into conflict. And this, Qutb pointed out, is precisely what happened in the West. If Athens represents reason and science, and Jerusalem represents God and religion, then Athens has been in constant struggle with Jerusalem. Now the terrible truth is that Athens has won. Reason and science have annihilated religion. True, many people continue to profess Christianity, but religion has ceased to shape society. It does not direct government or law or scientific research or culture. In short, a once-religious civilization has been reduced to jahiliyya--the condition of social chaos, moral diversity, sexual permissiveness, polytheism, unbelief, and idolatry that was said to characterize the Bedouin tribes before the advent of Islam.

Qutb's alternative to this way of life is Islam, "an unparalleled revolution in human thinking" that provides the only solution to "this unhappy, perplexed, and weary world." Islamic societies may be poor, he admitted, but at least they are trying to implement the will of God.

In his book "Social Justice in Islam," Qutb told the story of a man and woman who came to the prophet Muhammad and said, "Messenger of Allah, purify us." Muhammad asked, "From what am I to purify you?" They replied, "From adultery." Muhammad asked whether the couple was mad or drunk. Assured that they were not, Muhammad asked them again, "What have you done?" And they said they had committed adultery. Then Muhammad gave the order, and they were stoned to death. While the couple were being buried, onlookers scorned them, but Muhammad chided the scoffers. The couple had repented, he said, and now they were with Allah.

"This is Islam," Qutb wrote. Analyzing the incident, he pointed out that no one had witnessed the adultery, and the prophet initially sought to attribute the couple's confession to the influence of alcohol or mental disturbance. Still, they had persisted. Finally Muhammad had no choice but to have them stoned in accordance with God's law. Qutb posed an interesting question: Why did the couple demand to be stoned? His answer: "It was the desire to be purified of a crime of which none save Allah was cognizant. It was the shame of meeting Allah unpurified from a sin which they had committed."

Islam, Qutb emphasizes, is not merely a moral code or set of beliefs; it is a way of life based upon the divine government of the universe. The very term "Islam" means "submission" to the authority of Allah. This worldview requires that religious, economic, political, and civil society be based on the Koran, the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, and the sharia, or Islamic law. Islam regulates religious belief and practice, but also the administration of the state, the conduct of war, the making of treaties, divorce and inheritance, property rights and contracts. In short, Islam provides the whole framework of life, and in this sense it is impossible to "practice" Islam within a secular milieu.

This is especially true in the West, whose institutions are antithetical to Islam. In Qutb's view, Western society is based on freedom, while Islamic society is based on virtue. Moreover, Qutb argued that Western institutions are fundamentally atheist, based on a clear rejection of divine authority. When democrats say that sovereignty flows from the people, this means that the people--not God--are the rulers. So democracy is a form of idol-worship, just as capitalism is a form of market-worship. Qutb contended that since the West and Islam are based on radically different principles, there is no way that Islamic society can compromise or meet the West halfway. Either the West will prevail or Islam will prevail.

Qutb rejected the view of those Muslims who say that Islamic countries should embrace capitalism and democracy and follow the ways of the West. That, he writes, would assure Muslims a place "at the tail of the caravan." Instead, Qutb reminded Muslims that the Koran promises prosperity in this world and paradise in the next world to those who follow the teachings of Allah. The problem, he contended, is that Muslims have fallen away from their faith. Qutb argued that only by purging Western influences and returning to true Islam can the Muslim world recover its glory.

Qutb's work concludes with a resounding call to true-believing Muslims to stand up for Islam against the Western infidel and against those apostate Muslims who have sold out to the West for money and power. Many of his followers have interpreted his work as a call to jihad. Kill the apostates. Kill the infidels. Qutb's writing stops short of advocating violence, but his long association with the Muslim Brotherhood would suggest that he approved of terrorism.

Today, we need to take Qutb's views seriously for two reasons: because they are taken seriously in the Islamic world, with which we must find ways to communicate; and because, for all his vehemence, Qutb raises a fundamental challenge. For Qutb, Western prosperity, pluralism, and equality of the sexes are as nothing, worthless. The true Islamic society is superior to Western society because it makes virtue as laid down by the Koran the chief end of government. To counter this idea will require a full-bodied defense of freedom as understood in the West, as a gift from God and a necessary pre-condition for true virtue.

Dinesh D'Souza's book "What's So Great About America" has just been published by Regnery. He is the Rishwain Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution.