Locked up in an Egyptian prison in the early 1960s, Sayyid Qutb wrote a book that has inspired succeeding generations of radical Islamists
Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. By John Calvert. Hurst & Co; 256 pages; £25.
PRE-EMINENTLY among the pioneers of 20th-century Islamism, Sayyid Qutb has come to be seen as the evil genius who inspired today’s global jihad. As John Calvert argues in a persuasive new biography, Qutb’s reputation is not entirely undeserved, but it does less than justice to a complex and enigmatic figure.
One of the challenges any biographer faces is to explain Qutb’s evolution from romantic nationalist to mainstream Islamist, and finally to ardent revolutionary. Mr Calvert’s answer is to place his subject firmly on Egyptian soil. Like countless others in the years that followed the first world war, Qutb was a child of rural Egypt who migrated to Cairo as a young man to join the swelling ranks of the effendiyya, the new urban educated class. An intense, proud, rather melancholy man, he worked as a civil servant. In his spare time he struggled to establish himself as a writer of poetry, fiction and literary criticism.
In this early phase Qutb, a Muslim who had come under the spell of Sufism, subscribed to the essentially secular nationalism of the day, the focus of which was opposition to British rule in Egypt and to Zionist colonisation in Palestine. But by the late 1940s, disillusioned with the failings of the nationalist parties, he had become an Islamist and—as exemplified in his first important book, “Social Justice in Islam”—an Islamist of originality and power.
Shortly after finishing the manuscript, Qutb set off for the United States on a visit that was to last almost two years. The trip affected him deeply. Although he was impressed by America’s material accomplishments (and confessed to liking “Gone with the Wind”), he felt an abiding contempt for the materialism, racism and sexual promiscuity of what he saw as a debased Western culture. Was the encounter with America, as some have argued, the turning-point in Qutb’s radicalisation? Did the sight of scantily-clad women on the dance floors of Greeley, Colorado, turn the sexually repressed Egyptian into an Islamist zealot? Mr Calvert doubts it; the visit, he believes, confirmed the radical turn in Qutb’s thinking, rather than inspiring it.
On his return home, Qutb openly identified with Egypt’s main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, although he did not formally join it until 1953. Two years after his homecoming, nationalist army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power, overthrowing the British-backed monarchy. Qutb and the Brotherhood initially welcomed the coup and worked enthusiastically with its leaders. But after an assassination attempt against him in 1954, Nasser cracked down on the Brotherhood, and Qutb was caught up in the mass arrests that followed.
Imprisonment and torture turned him into an impassioned and embittered revolutionary. His book “Milestones”, written in prison to chart a future course for his crushed and demoralised movement, became an internationally influential manifesto of the Islamic revolution—not least because in 1966, two years after it was published, Qutb was hanged for treason, becoming a martyr for the cause.
Part of the originality of “Milestones” was Qutb’s use of the term jahiliyya to depict the abject condition of the Muslim world. Literally meaning ignorance, the term was originally used to describe the benighted condition of Arabia prior to the advent of Islam. But Qutb used it to condemn Muslim governments and societies which, in his eyes, had been corrupted by Western culture and secularism to the point where they had abandoned Islam.
Mr Calvert does not disguise the crudely Manichean character of Qutb’s worldview. He believed in an all-out global struggle between a noble vanguard of true Muslims and the massed ranks of jahiliyya. He depicted Islam’s external enemies as an insidious alliance of “Crusaders and Jews”—the same phrase that is used by al-Qaeda and the global jihadists of today.
But he was not, as has been suggested, an “Islamo-fascist” or an advocate of indiscriminate violence. Qutb opposed the killing of innocents and would have been appalled by what his followers, from the Egyptian radicals of the 1970s and 1980s to the current jihadist groups, have carried out in his name. This rich and carefully researched biography sets Qutb for the first time in his Egyptian context, rescuing him from caricature without whitewashing his radicalism. It is no small achievement.
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