Sayyid Qutb
March 23, 2003 3:21 PM   Subscribe

The New York Times Magazine (yes, I know the link disappears in a week or two, sorry) published a fascinating article about , "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror." An Egyptian born in 1906, he veered toward radical Islamic fundamentalism by the 1950's, but had much company in Egypt in this endeavor. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a precursor to Al Qaeda, and became the editor of their journal. Nasser imprisoned him and eventually executed him. In prison he wrote powerful works which described in his view a diversion in society between human nature and human reason, with human reason having so overwhelmed human nature as to lead to mankind's potential downfall. The answer was a return to human nature through a ritualistic adherence to the teachings of God, as described by Muhammad. Rather than separate science and reason from religion, he sought to combine them as taught in the Koran, thus providing real freedom for mankind. For a liberal Episcopalian (me) these are difficult ideas, but they are nevertheless compelling not only to the poor and uneducated Muslims but more importantly to the intelligentsia. They explain the pain of modern existence, especially to those raised on the Koran. The author describes Qutb as the Islamist's Marx. Scary - religion and philosophy carry much greater power than Marx's mere economics and philosophy. Western media portray Islam as mostly a fringe group drawing power from economic poverty and the power imbalance between the West and most Muslim countries. This article shows that, at least at its heart, the movement draws upon a powerful philosophy which for many answers their agony of modern existence, regardless of their economic status.
posted by caddis (10 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is a very interesting story, and quotes one of my old Arabic professors from Berkeley. This kind of careful explanation of the ideological basis of our antagonists and attackers has been too rare since Sept. 11. We prefer to view the Islamic world as a monolithic block of rabid, primitive religious fanatics, a world that hasn't changed since the Middle Ages. Big mistake. The article is especially illuminating on the rift between Pan-Arabists, like Saddam's Baath Party, and Islamists, like al-Qaeda, who refer to the Ba'athists as "communists" (they're really secularist national socialists in origin, though Saddam is really more of a mafiosi with tank divisions).

We don't know what we've gotten into here. Hell, we don't even have CIA field officers who speak the language. For all our moral certainty, we're innocents abroad. At the risk of saying something unpopular: the French, with their colonial experience and their misadventures in Algeria, might have been wiser and better-informed in this case.
posted by hairyeyeball at 3:57 PM on March 23, 2003

Thanks, this is interesting.
But what I really want to know is this:
If Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, why isn't he using them?
posted by spazzm at 4:33 PM on March 23, 2003

diversion in society between human nature and human reason, with human reason having so overwhelmed human nature as to lead to mankind's potential downfall. The answer was a return to human nature

There's a good deal of this kind of sentiment in new age philosophy, too. It's appealing. I really enjoyed Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and you could argue that its primary thesis is about the same topic.

Or Parker Palmer's To Know as We are Known.

The difference is that neither leads to the conclusion that the rational way of thought needs to be overthrown through violent revolution and a religious state.
posted by namespan at 5:06 PM on March 23, 2003

Thanks, namespan - I've been meaning to read ZatAoMM for a long time.
posted by spazzm at 5:24 PM on March 23, 2003

I'd read the NYT piece yesterday and though I think it does a good job of explaining a bit about the major Arab factions, I also think that since, as namespan points out, the same points can be made without bringing in religion, why bother?
posted by billsaysthis at 7:14 PM on March 23, 2003

I instantly thought of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance too. Though I never imagined ideas like Pirsigs' could be branched off and cultivated to such radicalism...

It all comes down to the separation of church and state. If only more people understood that desire is what all fundamentalists have in common, regardless of which one God it is they want a nation under.

What I find quite interesting is how little attention this thread is getting compared to, say, overblown claims of a "weapons factory" in Iraq. Articles like this are what MeFi are for, imo. You never see the hawks talking about things like this though...
posted by jbrjake at 8:02 PM on March 23, 2003

This hawk would talk about it but if I failed to be a creepily coherent as the author of the article found Sayyin Qutb, the discussion would go nowhere. So I'll keep my thoughts to myself (except for this one of course).
posted by wobh at 9:58 PM on March 23, 2003

The separation of reason and science from religion is the single greatest advancement since the dark ages.
posted by Ynoxas at 6:05 AM on March 24, 2003

the same points can be made without bringing in religion

WTF?? You say you read the article, billsaysthis, but I find it hard to believe; the entire thing, and Sayyid Qutb's entire philosophy, is about religion. If you leave that out, you have nothing.

Great post, caddis; this has got to be one of the most important articles the Times has published this year, and I hope it gets more attention from the public at large than your post is getting here.

(I don't find Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance especially relevant here, but hell, it's a wonderful book, so I'll join in the plug!)
posted by languagehat at 3:44 PM on March 25, 2003

Sayyid Qutb's entire philosophy, is about religion. If you leave that out, you have nothing.

Actually, billsaysthis reads me partially right, and I think picks up one of the most relevant points. Both Pirsig and Qutb observed that rationalism/logic have been a tremendous tool -- and done a fair amount of damage to human spirit/psyche in some way.

Pirsig, in looking for a solution, takes a turn through philosophy and metaphysics and makes contact with religion tangientially, and pulls out a metaphysical entity called "Quality" which can bridge subject/object dualism. Qutb heads straight for the Koran and pulls out a set of laws which must be established on society by any means necessary. Their observation of the underlying problem is the same, their solutions are radically different. Their philosophies both grow out of and address a similar problem.

I don't know that Pirsig's philosophies would have the same appeal to Arabs. But I think what the author of the article is trying to say is that someone needs to be fighting a war of ideas here... there needs to be a competing philosophy that addresses the underlying issues Qutb and followers addressed.

The place where billsaysthis didn't read me right is the idea that religion can be left out of this discussion -- the second book I referenced, To Know as We Are Known, is strongly religious, largely in a Christian vein, but with a strong reverence for and tie in with other religious traditions. It smells of the desert, and might even appeal to the arab mind. Or you could look at Wendell Berry, who really does an excellent job of examining how western/american thinking boiled a lot of practical sensual day-to-day connection out of religious thought. But whether or not that stuff specifically would go over with Arab thinkers, any philosophical challenge that tries to dodge or degrade religion will be at best completely irrelevant to Arab thought (and quite possibly, seen as at odds with).

In particular, I think it's important to examine why fundamentalists (of many stripes!) perceive the "separation of church and state" and other western philosophies as directly hostile to Islam. Athiesm didn't drive the separation -- the urge towards religious freedom did, and if it's resulted in the kind of place where anyone can view porn and commit adultery and blaspheme, it's also resulted in the kind of societies where one can worship how, where, and what they may without fear of reprisal. But at the same time, much of modern cultural thinking sometimes is directly hostile to religion/religious principles, sometimes without knowing what the hell it's talking about.

Addressing all this is a big job. Get on it.
posted by namespan at 5:50 PM on March 25, 2003

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