A great article in today’s New York Times Magazine, talking about the philosophical and historical roots of Islamist radicalism.
To anyone who has looked closely enough, Al Qaeda and its sister organizations plainly enjoy yet another strength, arguably the greatest strength of all, something truly imposing — though in the Western press this final strength has received very little attention. Bin Laden is a Saudi plutocrat with Yemeni ancestors, and most of the suicide warriors of Sept. 11 were likewise Saudis, and the provenance of those people has focused everyone’s attention on the Arabian peninsula. But Al Qaeda has broader roots. The organization was created in the late 1980’s by an affiliation of three armed factions — bin Laden’s circle of ”Afghan” Arabs, together with two factions from Egypt, the Islamic Group and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the latter led by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s top theoretician. The Egyptian factions emerged from an older current, a school of thought from within Egypt’s fundamentalist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the 1950’s and 60’s. And at the heart of that single school of thought stood, until his execution in 1966, a philosopher named Sayyid Qutb — the intellectual hero of every one of the groups that eventually went into Al Qaeda, their Karl Marx (to put it that way), their guide.
…In 1952, in the days before staging his coup d’etat, Colonel Nasser is said to have paid a visit to Qutb at his home, presumably to get his backing. Some people expected that, after taking power, Nasser would appoint Qutb to be the new revolutionary minister of education. But once the Pan-Arabists had thrown out the old king, the differences between the two movements began to overwhelm the similarities, and Qutb was not appointed. Instead, Nasser cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and after someone tried to assassinate him, he blamed the Brotherhood and cracked down even harder. Some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most distinguished intellectuals and theologians escaped into exile. Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Muhammad Qutb, was one of those people. He fled to Saudi Arabia and ended up as a distinguished Saudi professor of Islamic Studies. Many years later, Osama bin Laden would be one of Muhammad Qutb’s students.
These people believe that, in the entire world, they alone are preserving Islam from extinction. They feel they are benefiting the world, even if they are committing random massacres. They are certainly not worried about death. Qutb gave these people a reason to yearn for death. 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 struggle means martyrdom. We may think: those are creepy ideas. And yes, the ideas are creepy. But there is, in Qutb’s presentation, a weird allure in those ideas.
It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas — it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries. The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.
Yes, indeed, because while we can readily defeat the armies that defend the territories that house, succor, and train Islamist warriors, our philosophical weakness exposes us to attack from within, as today’s horrible news shows:
CAMP NEW JERSEY, Kuwait, March 23 — One soldier from the 101st Airborne Division was killed and 13 were wounded this morning when two hand grenades were thrown into the 1st Brigade tactical operations center at Camp Pennsylvania in central Kuwait, U.S. Army officials said.
A U.S. soldier assigned to the brigade was in custody, the officials said.
We will win the campaign for the territories that were used by these movements, but the more serious issue is how to change the minds of the people who are attracted to them…how to stop the ideology – and the others that exploit the same vulnerability – from spreading.
I don’t think this is just a matter of Islamist sharia vs. Western liberalism; I think that the attack on Western culture resonates on faultlines within our culture and ourselves.
I’ve called this crisis “A War On Bad Philosophy,” and I intend to continue waving that flag.
Compane the commentary on Qutb:
Martyrdom was among his themes. He discusses passages in the Koran’s sura ”The Cow,” and he explains that death as a martyr is nothing to fear. Yes, some people will have to be sacrificed. ”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 honorable 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.”
Qutb wrote: ”To all intents and purposes, those people may very well appear lifeless, but life and death are not judged by superficial physical means alone. Life is chiefly characterized by activity, growth and persistence, while death is a state of total loss of function, of complete inertia and lifelessness. But the death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood. Their influence on those they leave behind also grows and spreads. Thus after their death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction. It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life. . . .
”There is no real sense of loss in their death, since they continue to live.”
With my favorite quote from The Roots of Romanticism by Isiah Berlin:
Suppose you went and spoke with [long list of European Romatic intellectual figures, including Hugo, de Staël, Schlegel, Goethe, Coleridge, Byron]
Suppose you had spoken to these persons. You would have found that their ideal of life was approximately of the following kind. The values to which they attached the highest importance were such values as integrity, sincerity, readiness to sacrifice one’s life to some inner light, dedication to an ideal for which it is worth sacrificing all that one is, for which it is worth both living and dying. You would have found that they were not primarily interested in knowledge, or in the advancement of science, not interested in political power, not interested in happiness, not interested, above all, in adjustment to life, in finding your place in society, in living at peace with your government, even loyalty to your king, or your republic. You would have found common sense, moderation, was very far from their thoughts. You would have found that they believed in the necessity of fighting for your beliefs to the last breath in your body, and you would have found that they believed in the value of martyrdom as such, no matter what the martyrdom was for. You would have found that they believed that minorities were more holy than majorities, that failure was nobler than success, which had something shoddy and vulgar about it. The very notion of idealism, not in its philosophical sense, but in the ordinary sense in which we use it, that is to say the state of mind of a man who is willing to sacrifice a great deal for principles or some conviction, who is not prepared to sell out, who is prepared to go to the stake for something which he believes, because he believes in it … this attitude was relatively new. What people admired was wholeheartedness, sincerity, purity of soul, the ability and readiness to dedicate yourself to your ideal, no matter what it was.
No matter what it was: that is the important thing.
The void filled with Byronic passion is what Qutb means to fill; we in the West have a set of secular values to fill them, but they are out of favor now.
They may need to come back.