Friday, August 25, 2006

The father of Al-Qaeda

In November 1948 a frail, middle-aged writer and educator named Sayyid Qutb left Alexandria, Egypt for New York where he was to continue his education, writes Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11:

For a man who held his dignity so close, the prospect of returning to the classroom at the age of forty-two may have seemed demeaning. And yet, as a child from a mud-walled village in Upper Egypt, he had already surpassed the modest goal he had set for himself of becoming a respectable member of the civil service. His literary and social criticism had made him one of his country’s most popular writers. It had also earned the fury of King Farouk, Egypt’s dissolute monarch, who had signed an order for his arrest. Powerful and sympathetic friends hastily arranged his departure.

At the time, Qutb (his name is pronounced kuh-tub) held a comfortable post as a supervisor in the Ministry of Education. Politically, he was a fervent Egyptian nationalist and anti-communist, a stance that placed him in the mainstream of the vast bureaucratic middle class. The ideas that would give birth to what would be called Islamic fundamentalism were not yet completely formed in his mind; indeed, he would later say that he was not even a very religious man before he began this journey, although he had memorized the Quran by the age of ten, and his writing had recently taken a turn toward more conservative themes. Like many of his compatriots, he was radicalized by the British occupation and contemptuous of the jaded King Farouk’s complicity. Egypt was racked by anti-British protests and seditious political factions bent on running the foreign troops out of the country—and perhaps the king as well. What made this unimposing, midlevel government clerk particularly dangerous was his blunt and potent commentary. He had never gotten to the front rank of the contemporary Arab literary scene, a fact that galled him throughout his career; and yet from the government’s point of view, he was becoming an annoyingly important enemy.

He was Western in so many ways—his dress, his love of classical music and Hollywood movies. He had read, in translation, the works of Darwin and Einstein, Byron and Shelley, and had immersed himself in French literature, especially Victor Hugo. Even before his journey, however, he worried about the advance of an all-engulfing Western civilization. Despite his erudition, he saw the West as a single cultural entity. The distinctions between capitalism and Marxism, Christianity and Judaism, fascism and democracy were insignificant by comparison with the single great divide in Qutb’s mind: Islam and the East on the one side, and the Christian West on the other.

America, however, stood apart from the colonialist adventures that had characterized Europe’s relations with the Arab world. America, at the end of the Second World War, straddled the political chasm between the colonizers and the colonized. Indeed, it was tempting to imagine America as the anticolonial paragon: a subjugated nation that had broken free and triumphantly outstripped its former masters. America’s power seemed to lie in its values, not in European notions of cultural superiority or privileged races and classes. And because America advertised itself as an immigrant nation, it had a permeable relationship with the rest of the world. Arabs, like most other peoples, had established their own colonies inside America, and the ropes of kinship drew them closer to the ideals that the country claimed to stand for.And so, Qutb, like many Arabs, felt shocked and betrayed by the support that the U.S. government had given to the Zionist cause after the war. Even as Qutb was sailing out of Alexandria’s harbor, Egypt, along with five other Arab armies, was in the final stages of losing the war that established Israel as a Jewish state within the Arab world. The Arabs were stunned, not only by the determination and skill of the Israeli fighters but by the incompetence of their own troops and the disastrous decisions of their leaders. The shame of that experience would shape the Arab intellectual universe more profoundly than any other event in modern history.

To read more of this excerpt, click here.

In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Martin Amis suggested that Qutb's disgust with the decadence in America was not so straightforward:
[Qutb] had a very fascinating time in America in the late '40s, and you read his account of it. And tormented by temptation and sexual interest and which he, of course, doesn't acknowledge for a moment. He's pretending to be disgusted by it. But it stares you in the face that America is driving him crazy. And it's that where we have to face this sort of ridiculous notion that the meaning of the West for them, what we've brought into being with all these skyscrapers and clubs and restaurants and all that is just there to tantalize Muslims.
Click here for a Q & A with Lawrence Wright that includes this exchange:

Q: When did you begin working on The Looming Tower?

A: On the morning of September 11, 2001, within an hour of the attacks, I sent an e-mail to David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, saying, “Put me to work.” A few hours later, New Yorker writers scattered all over the United States engaged in a conference call, in which David asked us to file reports that he would incorporate into a narrative. I was fortunate to locate a young man, Kirk Kjeldsen, who had slept through his subway stop and was running late to a meeting at the Windows on the World restaurant on top of the World Trade Center. His story of escaping the tower became the centerpiece of the now famous black issue of the magazine.

Click here to listen to Wright's interview on Fresh Air, August 16, 2006.

--Marshal Zeringue