Why you should care
Sayyid Qutb is widely regarded as Al-Qaeda’s biggest ideological influence, and he only radicalized after an American education
As he boarded a cruise ship bound for the United States in 1948, the future founder of Islamic fundamentalism as we know it today didn’t quite look the part.
Sayyid Qutb (pronounced kuh-tub) was an Egyptian academic in his mid-40s off to study in Washington DC, rural Colorado and Stanford. He dressed in an elegantly trimmed suit, sported a neat mustache and had years of English-style education under his belt.
Qutb was horrified by the sexual promiscuity of American women, racial inequality, and the capitalist buzz of Wall Street.
Qutb’s well-groomed appearance belied his anxiety about the trip. “Should I go to America as any normal student on a scholarship, who only eats and sleeps, or should I be special?” he wondered to himself. “Should I hold on to my Islamic beliefs, facing the many sinful temptations, or should I indulge those temptations all around me?”
We can see Qutb’s influence in modern acts of terror, from Osama bin Laden to the would-be 2006 Heathrow bombers. “I fear that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of its people,” he ultimately concluded . “America will have added nothing… to the account of morals that distinguishes man from object, and indeed, mankind from animals.”Qutb’s experience in America was both overwhelming and a permanent eye-opener. He was horrified by the sexual promiscuity of American women, arbitrary racial inequality and the capitalist buzz of Wall Street.Though a devout Muslim, Qutb was not particularly radical as he left his country for the first time. When he returned home in 1950, however, he transformed into a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a virulent opponent of the secular Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. When the Brotherhood’s attempt to assassinate Nasser went south, Qutb became the first prominent martyr for 20th century radical Islam. The Nasser regime executed him for his role in the plot, despite Qutb’s own (correct) prediction that fundamentalists would celebrate him for his sacrifice.
The West, Qutb declared in the writings that eventually condemned him and made him a martyr, was one corrosive cultural unit . Western secularism threatened Islam and the Sharia law that brought a healthy dose of spirituality into government. The only solution available to modern Muslims? Fight back.
We can see Qutb’s influence in modern acts of terror, from Osama bin Laden to the would-be 2006 Heathrow bombers . A West Point study suggested that, despite being Al-Qaeda’s best-known face, bin Laden’s ideological influence over the world’s largest terrorist organization is limited. Potential fundamentalists are much more likely to be radicalized by picking up one of Qutb’s books, which have wider readerships in the Middle East.
Shortly after 9/11, The Guardian and The New York Times both published articles about Qutb asking, “Is this the man who inspired bin Laden?”. In October 2001, Robert Irwin suggested that Qutb promoted a kind of “anarcho-Islam” that might lead to relentless guerrilla warfare. Afghanistan and Iraq have since proven him right.
Perhaps there is no reasoning with Qutb’s ideas. He gladly accepted his role as radical stepping-stone via martyrdom. “My words will be stronger if they kill me,” he told his sister shortly before his execution in August 1966. Modern-day Al-Qaeda certainly does not present room for negotiation.
Nevertheless, Louise Richardson, author of What Terrorists Want , argues that the talking option should never be left off the table – even with Al-Qaeda. As Qutb’s radical ideas developed out of his own personal contact with the West, maybe taking a look at our own culture might help us to know our enemy.
We could certainly afford some self-critique. Education writer Christopher Doyle points out that national American education curriculums do not include the history of the War On Terror or radical Islam. The average high schooler taking an AP World History test in 2014 will not know Sayyid Qutb’s name.
With a gloomy future predicted for Afghanistan after a decade of U.S. involvement, maybe it’s time we looked to history to prevent future conflict.
Note: Christopher Doyle, the education scholar cited in the piece, is the author’s father.