May 29, 2007
The Philosophy of Terror
“We say outright: these are madmen, yet these madmen have their own logic, their teaching, their code, their God even, and it’s as deep-set as could be.”
In 1949 an Egyptian teacher and academic travelled to Greeley, Colorado, to study curriculum at the Colorado State Teachers College. His experience, he tells us, was unremittingly awful.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Greeley was a small, conservative town. Liquor was illegal (it was to remain dry until 1969), but the usually dry plains north of Denver were watered with an irrigation system established by its Godly founders in 1872. The apparent austerity of the place, however, was lost on its Arab visitor, who wrote later on the experience of attending a sock-hop in a Church basement:
They danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed against lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire.
But perhaps our visitor’s most memorable observation was of the state of local hair-dressing:
In summary, anything that requires a touch of elegance is not for the Americans, even haircuts! For there was not one instance in which I had a haircut when I did not return home to even with my own hands what the barber had wrought, and fix what the barber had ruined with his awful taste.
For our travelling scholar, jazz became “the music that the savage bushmen use to satisfy primitive desires”; the practice of drinking unsweetened tea was unthinkable.
The reflections, published as “The America I Have Seen”, could be dismissed as sour and misguided riffs had the author not been so important, but he was. The writer was Sayyid Qutb, the philosophical godfather of al-Qaeda.
* * *
Earlier on, Qutb’s concerns seemed reasonable. Angered by the British occupancy of his country, Qutb believed the West’s presence was eroding the indigenous community of Egypt, and it moved Qutb to consider communitarian ideals, established through a commitment to Allah; specifically, the denouncement of perceived Western hedonism, and the acceptance of sharia law—the legal code of the Qur’an. Qutb came to resemble something like a Platonic idealist, a philosopher who, in the words of Charles Tripp, stressed “the unity, the perfection, and the comprehensiveness of God’s creation”.
In Qutb’s mind, to follow any other laws than those explicitly passed down in the Qur’an was to move towards imperfection. This was the inflexible spine of Qutb’s “Islamism” described by writer Paul Berman as “a desire to turn Islam into a political movement to create a new society, to be based on ancient Qur’anic principles”. Everything was to be determined by the Qu’ran, to have it any other way would be to enshrine rules that did not originate in God. For Qutb, it would mean that our moral codes, sense of progress, and the ways in which we organise society would have their roots in ourselves. This, said Qutb, was akin to turning our back on God. It was also preposterously arrogant.
Against his proposed sharia model, Qutb held the Western one—a shabby, stinking testament to the folly of secularism. Aware that the West’s sphere was in constant overlap with the East’s, Qutb noted that all over the world man was miserable, idiotic and divorced from nature. Worse, man was rootless, soulless and empty, and the cause was the West’s “hideous schizophrenia”—its separation of the sacred from the secular. Berman writes of Qutb’s belief:
Europe’s scientific achievements allowed the Europeans to dominate the world. And the Europeans inflicted their “hideous schizophrenia” on peoples and cultures in every corner of the globe. That was the origin of modern misery—the anxiety in contemporary society, the sense of drift, the purposelessness.
In other words, for Qutb the Enlightenment was not progress, and the Industrial Age and modernity were signifiers of moral regression. Qutb says: “The true value of every civilisation lies not in the tools man has invented or in how much power he wields. The value of civilisations lay in what universal truths and worldviews they have attained”.
It is arguable whether Qutb felt this strongly about the West before visiting America, but his writings on that experience suggest a man who had already made his mind up on the matter before he arrived. Writing in The Believer, Rolf Potts notes that Qutb’s American essay “reflects the stereotyped sentiment—commonly encouraged by the Egyptian prejudices of his day—that America’s material culture was morally inferior to the spiritual civilisation of the Arab world”.
Potts also writes of the odd methodology Qutb used for collecting his information on the US: “Of the 54 brief sections in ‘The America I Have Seen’ only seven allude to specific real-life observations; the other sections consist of broad generalisations and second-hand anecdotes”.
National Public Radio’s Robert Siegal noticed Qutb’s strange relationship with truth also, when he filed a story on Qutb’s American essay for flagship program “All Things Considered” in 2005. Noting Qutb’s skewed re-telling of American history, Siegal says:
He informed his Arab readers that it [American history] began with bloody wars against the Indians, which he claimed were still underway in 1949. He wrote that before independence, American colonists pushed Latinos south toward Central America—even though the American colonists themselves had not yet pushed West of the Mississippi… Then came the Revolution, which he called ‘a destructive war led by George Washington’.
How seriously then, are we to take Qutb’s claim—a man who “saw only what he already believed, and wrote no facts, but his own truth”—that “humanity makes the gravest of errors and risks losing its account of morals, if it makes America its example”.
Qutb’s flexible relationship with observable truth is crucial in understanding the final look of his fundamentalism, and the later influence Qutb was to have on al-Qaeda—this point will be revived later.
As Qutb’s fundamentalism hardened, a process hastened by his ten-year imprisonment (and torture) at the hands of the Nasser regime, Qutb arrived at a strange place. Tripp writes:
Qutb appeared to have abandoned the idea of rational exchange or argument as the chief means of spreading the truth of Islam. Faced with the ineffable beauty and startling truth of the vision of the good life vouchsafed by God to Muhammad, Qutb seems to advocate an end to reasoned—philosophical—argument. Instead, faith seems to be all that is required.
Faith is all that is required, because faith is the fountain-point of morality, culture and social responsibility. To claim it to be from anywhere else is to relegate God, and to forget our own, divinely nominated positions on Earth. Tripp points us to the logical, and dangerous, end-point of this: “Fundamentally, he seemed to be demanding that agreement should precede discussion”.
This is a chilling statement, suggesting, as it does, Qutb’s (and al-Qaeda’s) intractable space—a philosophical black-hole, immune to reason. There are also chilling politics to this space—politics shared by al-Qaeda.
* * *
Scholars argue as to whether or not Qutb would have sanctioned al-Qaeda, but it is doubtless that he has had a major influence upon Osama bin Laden (who was taught by Qutb’s exiled brother) and former leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (and current al-Qaeda second-in-command) Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The first influence to note is Qutb’s and al-Qaeda’s shared definition of jihad. Translated to mean “struggle” and traditionally referring to the private difficulties of reconciling oneself with God (it should go without saying, but this understanding of jihad remains the dominant one amongst Muslims), Qutb took jihad to mean the offensive struggle for Islam; a concept of struggle that reserved the use of force. Berman writes of Qutb: “Wisdom, piety, death and immortality are, in his vision of the world, the same. For a pious life is a life of struggle, or jihad for Islam, and the struggle means martyrdom”.
And martyrdom means death. Qutb himself achieved this when he was hanged in 1966 for political conspiracy. Before his death, Qutb had written extensively on the theme of martyrdom:
Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God are honourable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.
There are obvious comparisons between these statements and statements made in suicide martyrdom videos today. Take the 15-year-old Palestinian Hussam Abdo (who is the subject of the photo that heads this piece) who, in March 2004, walked towards a crowded Israeli check-point strapped with explosives. Hussam’s intentions were detected by Israeli soldiers, who trained their guns on the teenager while a robot was dispatched to disarm the explosives. Hussam became famous when footage of the moment circulated the globe. This exchange with Hussam took place a few months after his imprisonment. The interviewer is James Reynolds from the BBC:
JR: Some teenagers want to be footballers, others want to be singers. You wanted to be a suicide bomber. Why?
Hussam: It’s not suicide - it’s martyrdom. I would become a martyr and go to my God. It’s better than being a singer or a footballer. It’s better than everything.
To be sure, Hussam mentions avenging his friend’s death (and, bizarrely, his dislike of school) as reasons for the attempted bombing, but, like many others, the death is couched in a romantic, Qutb-ian logic—the romance, and gifted afterlife, that attends martyrdom.
Another chilling example comes to us from the eldest suicide bomber involved in the July 7, 2005 bombings in London. Mohammad Siddique Khan, 30, left behind a suicide tape on which he recorded justifications for his part in the bombings that took 54 lives:
Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood… Our driving motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer.
Our religion is Islam—obedience to the one true God, Allah, and following the footsteps of the final prophet and messenger Muhammad… This is how our ethical stances are dictated.
Khan also references various and vague injustices committed by the West on “his people”; Khan’s final polemic is undoubtedly politicised, but it is also undoubtedly fundamentally religious. This is about more than the West, this is about a violently enforced “obedience to the one true God”. To view the July 7 bombers, or the s/11 terrorists, as violent political reactionaries is only a partial truth—they are fundamentalists. This is non-negotiable, and its roots go back to Qutb’s privileging of the martyr.
Interestingly, Khan refers to himself as a “solider at war” in the video. It is a recurring theme—suicide terrorists locating their act in an internationally defined holy war. This question—just who will be subject to offensive jihad—has been influenced by Qutb.
Qutb used the word jahiliyya to describe the un-Islamic and for Qutb, the un-Islamic did not just refer to non-Muslims, but rather to all who did not believe in a strict, sharia state, a critical semantic development. Historian John Calvert argues that Qutb’s greatest influence on this current jihad was “the notion that the West and its regional proxies constitute a metaphysical entity. Jahiliyya is not confined to the West but is a constituent component of many Muslim countries”. In other words, al-Qaeda’s jihad is both internationalised against the West and localised against Muslim governments deemed to be un-Islamic.
Qutb’s influence on al-Qaeda stretches to include the question of who may become part of the jihad. In his writings, Qutb privileges the activist, and, as Tripp writes, encourages “the virtues of direct, non-philosophical apprehension of the truth, of dynamic fiqh… It is here that many have read into his work elements for a revolutionary manifesto”. An activist, in Qutb’s terms, is anyone who has faith—in fact it is preferable if they have nothing but faith—and acts upon it.
But perhaps most distressing of all, is the shared ground between Qutb and al-Qaeda’s leaders regarding the scope of jihadi ambition. al-Qaeda, like Qutb, believe that the only law is God’s law, and as such, man-made laws should be abandoned in favour of sharia—a move towards a perfect community. This I have looked at before. But the sheer scope of this vision is unnerving.
al-Qaeda leaders and suicide bombers have spoken of their desire to establish an international caliphate. This, surely, could not explain away the motivations of all, or perhaps even the majority, of Islamic terrorism, but the desire remains. It sits alongside Qutb’s belief that “Islam seemed to have an answer to all current social and political problems as he defined them” and “the contemporary Muslim had a duty to struggle against the forces of jahiliyya in the twentieth century in order to re-establish the perfect community and, more ambitiously, to elevate Islam to its rightful position as the dominant universal creed”.
Dominant universal creed.
With al-Qaeda, Qutb’s ideas have converged to create the perfect storm, whereby the intractable space—that is, the condition that faith is all that is required—is populated with terrorists (Qutb’s privileged activist) and set to wage an offensive jihad with a newly determined international concept of jahiliyya.
This can not end well, but the West can attempt to limit the numbers of “privileged activists” volunteering their services to al-Qaeda. By these activists I refer to the poor, stupid, hungry, criminal, angry or abused peoples that live both in the East and the West (though this isn’t always the case. Siddique Khan, mentioned earlier, was college educated and had worked as a teacher before the July 7 attack). It is the people seduced by the apparent Godliness and purpose and structure of terrorism. With these people we need superior PR, and that means an honest recounting of history.
Qutb’s claims that Western man placed an arrogant faith in reason has a legitimate claim—Nazism demonstrated the technological progress birthed by the Enlightenment in its industrial-scale destruction of the Jews. Profound developments in technology has meant the military ubiquity of the United States. But to note the crimes of the Nazis, or the bloody incursions of Israel and America is not compatible with viewing the men and women who leaped from the twin towers as soulless jahilliya. The men and women who leaped that day were fathers and mothers, Knicks and Yankees fans, drinkers, readers and mortgage holders. They were innocents.
The conflation of American civilians with American government is one made by the propaganda and metaphysical assumptions of al-Qaeda—that the West has been fundamentally corrupted by secularism and capitalism, and poses a profound threat to Islam. If the West is wholly corrupted, then all peoples and places are legitimate targets of violent jihad.
Within this justification exists yet another link between bin Laden and Qutb—each man’s distortion of history, and political use of Qur’anic interpretation. Writer Max Rodenbeck writes well of this in his review of Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden:
He is a soapbox orator, scoring unsubtle points in an imaginary debate by drawing on a mix of Islamic scripture, faddish political constructs, and gross exaggeration, as well as real historical grievances… For all his aura of religious punctiliousness, bin Laden twists Islamic texts to his purposes. He seems happy to engage in factual distortion and, occasionally, the politician’s bald-faced lie.
There are multiple examples of this, but consider the fact that bin Laden has not publicly considered the split in America caused by the decision to invade Iraq; he ignores the millions who marched in Europe before the Iraqi invasion, and of the consequent, considerable dent in Tony Blair’s popularity. Such observations are politically unhelpful; Qutb and bin Laden may well say they are also redundant—each man has defined the West as jahilliya.
bin Laden’s espoused world view is considered legitimate by al-Qaeda’s drifting, impoverished foot-soldiers who, rightly or wrongly, consider their plight America’s fault. al-Qaeda’s leadership (and yes, this group is best defined ideologically, so hierarchical considerations are difficult) exploits existing conditions of enmity towards the West in order to better recruit. Rodenbeck, reviewing Olivier Roy’s Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, put his finger on just these conditions of recruitment, saying:
Roy… notes striking parallels between today’s jihadists and Europe’s radical left of the 1960s and 1970s. The two movements have drawn from similar social pools of alienated, dislocated youth. They have chosen similar symbols (beards and guns and sanctified texts: the Koran substituting for Marx, Sayyid Qutb for Gramsci) and targets (“imperialism,” “globalisation,” “Americanisation”).
al-Qaeda’s seniors may exist in the intractable space, but there are things to be done about preventing the alienated, confused or plain criminal from drifting into it. We must be confident in what the West can offer, and that means being confident enough to admit to its flaws. bin Laden, for all of his hyperbole and distortion, gives voice to genuine historical grievances. An honest discussion with the peoples who may join al-Qaeda, and a considerable effort to understand the conditions—both real and imagined—that encourage terrorism, is surely the only way to prevent them from occupying that intractable space. This may come, but it is unlikely for as long as Bush remains in the White House—at time of writing another 18 months, give or take. Bush’s ideas, and, perhaps just as importantly, his articulation of them, has set us all back. Bush and Cheney have operated from their own intractable space—certainly a much less frightening one, but a space characterised by blind faith and harsh ideology nonetheless. Alongside a great many other things, the damned real estate of political imagery and language in the US needs to be razed and replaced with much different ideas of selling ourselves. We’ll just have to wait and see: the next president of the United States of America will be sworn-in in January 2009.
Posted by Marty at May 29, 2007 6:24 PM