Fifty-four years ago, an Egyptian scholar arrived at the Colorado State College of Education in Greeley. He stayed for six months, sat in on a few classes, and did his best to sample day-to-day life in post-war America. When he left, he was quickly forgotten by the tiny community.
But Sayyid Qutb didn’t forget Greeley.
More from our June/July 2003 Issue
Time passed and the world changed. Colorado State College became the University of Northern Colorado and Greeley grew like the rest of the state. Qutb (pronounced KUH-tahb) returned to Egypt, where he became the foremost Islamic thinker of his time.
His articles and books were scholarly but passionate examinations of history, politics, and religion. He immersed himself in the Koran, compared it to the world around him, and came to a grave conclusion. Though the modern, liberal societies of the West preached freedom of religion, in truth, they undermined it. Religion and modernity, he concluded, could not coexist.
Qutb saw salvation in Islam, a religion that he believed offered true freedom. But for Islam to survive, a jihad would have to be fought to rid society of the West’s secular ways. Qutb envisioned an Islamic society ruled by Islamic law.
This was subversive stuff, even in the Middle East, and it wasn’t long before Qutb was thrown into prison, where he would stay for more than 10 years. Not surprisingly, prison only hardened his views. Qutb rewrote many of his earlier books and produced new ones at an astonishing pace, including a 30-volume masterwork entitled In the Shade of the Qur’an.
And through it all – right up until the day in 1966 when he was executed – Qutb remembered Greeley. What he had seen in those few months stayed with him through the decades and filled him with fear, disgust, and contempt. What he saw in Greeley made him hate America.
The story doesn’t end on the Egyptian gallows. In death, Qutb’s work became even more influential. Milestones, his best-known book, has been published in nearly 2,000 editions, and though many of his books have been banned in Egypt and other moderate Arab states, millions continue to illicitly circulate throughout the Middle East and over the Internet.
His writings have become both the inspiration and the blueprint for the fundamentalist jihad that now engulfs the world. Qutb’s work is to militant Islam what Das Kapital was to communism or Mein Kampf was to the Nazis. In American terms, he is Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine, all rolled into one. His disciples include Anwar Sadat’s assassins, and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian cleric convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up several New York landmarks. They include militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And they include a Saudi militant named Osama bin Laden.
In the days following 9/11, the question on countless American lips was, “Why do they hate us?” Given our collective shock and grief, it’s understandable that we weren’t really looking for an answer. But if you really want to know why Osama bin Laden hates America, you might first ask why Sayyid Qutb hated America. And to answer that question, you’d have to go to Greeley.
Roots of Radicalism
Sayyid Qutb was born in a small village in Upper Egypt in 1906. Like bin Laden, Mohamed Atta, and many of the disciples that would later follow his teachings, he didn’t come from poverty. His parents were landowners who could afford to send him to live with an uncle in Cairo, where he attended modern schools.
After graduating from college in 1933, he went to work for the Egyptian Ministry of Education as an elementary school teacher and, later, as a school inspector. Qutb became a member of Cairo’s cafe society, and was well known as a poet, novelist, and literary critic, though his most lasting contribution to secular Egyptian literature was the discovery and early promotion of Naguib Mahfouz, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.
Legend has it that Qutb had memorized the entire Koran by age 10, but it’s clear that as a young adult, he wasn’t particularly devout. Instead, his passion was politics, and like his father, Qutb was a strident advocate of Egyptian independence from the British. For a time, he flirted with socialism.
At this point, Qutb didn’t have strong feelings about the United States. Most of his attention was focused on England and the other European powers that had carved up the Middle East following World War I.
“He really wasn’t as anti-American as much as he was anti-British or anti-French – the countries that were the imperialists of that time in the region,” says John Calvert, an assistant history professor at Omaha’s Creighton University and a leading Qutb authority. “But World War II changes everything, and that’s directly related to the American support of the Zionist cause.”
From that moment on, Calvert and other scholars note a shift in his writing. Islam takes on an increasing presence, culminating with the writing in 1948 of Social Justice in Islam, his first explicitly religious book.
With its call for a classless society, Social Justice in Islam was (and continues to be) wildly popular in the poverty-stricken countries of the Middle East. It concludes with a passage that would prove prophetic both for Islam and Qutb himself:
”We are at the crossroads. We may join the march at the tail of the Western caravan…or we may return to Islam and make it fully effective in the field of our own life.
In 1948, he 42-year-old Qutb was assigned by Egypt’s education ministry to travel to the United States to study the American educational system. Typically, a younger man would have been sent on this type of mission, which has led historians to surmise that government officials had other motives. If nothing else, it would get Qutb out of their hair in the short-term. And with a little luck, first-hand exposure to American society might also soften his views on the value of Western influences.
The Ideal American Town
Greeley was founded in 1870 by a group of about 500 utopians led by Nathan Meeker, a New York newspaper editor. He named the town for his boss, Horace Greeley, the New York Tribune publisher, who popularized the phrase “Go West, young man.”
Meeker had visited what was then the Colorado Territory the year before and was taken with the region’s abundance of fertile land and “perpetual” sunshine. Upon his return, he wrote an article on Dec 14, 1869, inviting his readers to join him in building a new community based on high morals and total abstinence from alcohol:
“I propose to unite with the proper persons in establishing a colony in Colorado territory. The persons with whom I would be willing to associate must be temperance men and ambitious to establish a good society. In particular moral and religious sentiments should prevail, for without these qualities, man is nothing”
More than 3,000 readers responded, from which the best applicants were chosen. Each household contributed $155 (about $2,100 in today’s money), which was used to purchase about 60,000 acres of land at the confluence of the Platte and Cache la Poudre rivers on Colorado’s Front Range, about 60 miles north of modern-day Denver.
By the end of their first year in Greeley, the industrious colonists had built houses, dug 36 miles of irrigation canals, started a newspaper, planted a park, and laid out streets 100 feet wide and lined with trees. Much effort was put into living up to Meeker’s belief that, “The highest ambition of a family should be to have a comfortable, and if possible, an elegant home, surrounded by orchards and ornamental grounds, on lands of its own.”
Though its success as a planned community was emulated by other new towns throughout the state (most notably, Fort Collins, Longmont, and Colorado Springs), Greeley’s utopian ideals soon earned it a reputation as the “City of Hayseeds and High Morals.” The latter wasn’t just talk. The town was so squeaky clean that by the late 1870s, Greeley’s city fathers decided to rent out the town’s perpetually empty jail to hunters wanting to store buffalo hides.
In the 1880s, the city invested $20,000 for 50 miles of smooth-wire fence to surround the town in an effort to combat the “bovine blight” of cattle roaming the streets and trampling gardens. (They may have won that battle, but were destined to lose the war. Thanks to the huge feed-lots outside town, today’s Greeley has a distinctive, barnyard aroma.) Cowboys and noncolonists complained the fence’s real purpose was to separate the “Greeley saints” from the nontemperate outside world
By the end of World War II, Greeley had grown to a population of about 20,000. Sugarbeet faming had become the area’s leading industry, with Greeley producing a quarter of the nation’s sugar. The sugar industry changed the town’s homogeneous complexion, thanks to the immigration of Russian, German, Japanese, and Mexican laborers recruited to work the fields.
Still, the town would have been recognizable to its original settlers. It remained dry and committed to an ambitious program of building parks and schools to accommodate its growing population. Had Andy Griffith decided to set his TV show in Colorado instead of North Carolina, he very possibly might have chosen Greeley.
In short, Greeley would have seemed to be the ideal town to introduce the American way of life to a visiting Muslim educator.
Pilgrim Among The Infidels
Qutb set sail from Alexandria Harbor in November 1948. It was his first overseas journey, and almost immediately, he got his first blast of culture shock when a “drunken, semi-naked” woman appeared at the door of his cabin late one evening. Qutb would later proudly relate how he had resisted her advances, but the incident set a tone for the remainder of his voyage (and, indeed, his entire American expedition). He was to be a solitary pilgrim alone among the infidels.
He arrived in Colorado by train in time for the summer session. Qutb had two priorities: improving his English and exploring his new environment. By day, he devoted himself to an eight-week English composition course. In the evenings, he walked Greeley’s tree-lined streets.
He recorded his observations in letters to friends and a series of articles for several leading Egyptian magazines, which have only recently been translated into English by Creighton’s Calvert.
One of Qutb’s earliest reports had this to say about his new surroundings:
”This small city of Greeley, in which I am staying, is so beautiful that one may easily imagine that he is in paradise. Each house appears as a flowering plant and the streets are like garden pathways. As one observes, the owners of these houses spend their leisure time in toil, watering their private yards and trimming their gardens. This is all they appear to do…”
”I stayed there six months and never did I see a person or a family actually enjoying themselves, even on summer nights when breezes waft over the city as if in a dream. The most important thing for these people is the tending of their gardens, much in the same way a merchant spends time organizing his store or a factory owner his factory. There is nothing behind this activity in the way of beauty or artistic taste. It is the machinery of organization and arrangement, devoid of spirituality and aesthetic enjoyment”
To be sure, Qutb’s reaction to Greeley’s fastidious homeowners was hardly original. Not that many years earlier, Ernest Hemingway had derided the “broad lawns and narrow minds” of his native Oak Park, Ill. And to this day, the perfect American lawn is regularly mocked in such movies as Blue Velvet and Edward Scissorhands.
But in this obsessiveness, Qutb saw a deeper weakness:
”Everywhere there are smiles and everywhere there is a fun and on every corner hugs and kisses. But never does one see contentment on a person’s face. There is no indication of satisfaction in anyone’s heart.”
”Life is comprised of constant worry, constant work, constant yearning, the constant quenching of thirst and the effort to be on time.”
Qutb’s writing tended toward broad strokes, so he didn’t tell us much about his day-to-day life. He did, however, leave behind a few clues.
Thanks to a generous stipend from the Egyptian government, we know that he was able to live off-campus in a manner better than most students. We also know he was regarded as something of a celebrity by the school’s administration, which included a photo of Qutb with college president William R. Ross in it’s Oct. 17, 1949, bulletin. The caption described him as a “famous Egyptian author,” “an outstanding authority on Arabic literature,” and “a noted educator in his homeland.”
The school’s 1950 yearbook shows Qutb as a member of the International Club, a group of 45 students that met for multicultural potlucks and to swap stories about their home countries. Both this photo and the bulletin picture show a dark-skinned man fastidiously dressed in a jacket, vest, and a tie. He wore a small mustache of the type not often seen in his country after America went to war with Adolph Hitler’s Germany.
Still, even among members of the International Club, Qutb doesn’t seem to have made much of a lasting impression. In researching this article, 5280 was able to contact 17 former students who were on campus in 1949, including five members of the International Club. Only one remembers Qutb.
Saeb Dajani, a Palestinian who at age of 75 now lives in California, describes Qutb as “a lovely person. He was quiet, but his intelligence was apparent. He had the personality of a politician. Once he met you, he never forgot your name.”
Dajani and other former students interviewed for this story remember Greeley as a welcoming place, especially for international students.
”You have to understand that Americans were not used to foreigners, so we were something of a novelty. We were often invited into people’s homes for meals, especially at Easter and Christmas and other holidays,” Dajani says. “We were also often invited to their churches, and we did that quite often. We were Moslems in church – how do you like that! I went regularly to the Methodist church.”
Churches figured prominently in Qutb’s writings. He marveled that, “No people can compete with the Americans in building churches,” adding that he counted more than 20 churches in the small town of Greeley.
But for all the churches, Qutb was quick to point out that most American seemed distant from religion and spirituality, “Most do not go to church on Sunday but rather on general holidays and on the feast days of local saints who far outnumber the ‘holy men’ popular among the common people of Egypt!”
It was at one of those churches that the most infamous event of Qutb’s American journey took place. In a story that remains well-known in the Islamic world today, Qutb attended a dance held at a local church.
The dance began after an evening service, and was led by the church’s pastor, who, according to Qutb’s breathless account, lowered the lights and put a recording of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on the turntable in an effort to get the few remaining wallflowers out on the dance floor.
”The dance hall convulsed to the tunes on the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs,” Qutb later wrote. “Arms circles waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion.”
Qutb never mentioned the incident to Dajani, so neither he nor scholars know exactly when or at what church Qutb’s dance took place. Such events were common, often drawing hundreds of students. Dajani, however, had a similar experience, albeit with a bit of a twist.
”I do not know if this is the same one that Mr. Qutb wrote about, but I went to a dance at the Methodist church. And I thought, ‘This is outrageous, seeing boys and girls dancing together.’ You have to understand, we had a Moslem background where the sexes were kept apart, in schools, and in most other ways, until marriage. So this was shocking to us.”
Unlike Qutb, Dajani made his feelings known to the church’s minister. “I remember his response,” says Dajani. “He said, ‘Would you rather they were alone out under some tree where we can’t see them?’ I thought about that and had to agree that he was right.”
Qutb was no monk. Though he apparently made few close friends (Creighton’s Calvert notes that the 42-year-old likely had little in common with his twenty-something classmates), he did his best to study a variety of social and cultural offerings. In addition to churches, Qutb sampled jazz (he thought it “primitive” and intended to bring out “animal instincts”), classical music (he played it night and day, according to Dajani), football (an example of America’s “love for hard-core violence”), and movies. Of the latter, he wrote, “The one form of art in which Americans excel is the cinema,” adding that he particularly enjoyed Gone with theWind and Wuthering Heights.
According to Dajani, Qutb and another Egyptian student were denied admission to the theater because they appeared to be African-American. When the other student, a Ph. D. candidate in mathematics named Mohammad Abbas, explained that they were Egyptian, the manager apologized and offered to let them in. Qutb, however, indignantly left.
It’s unlikely that this was Qutb’s only personal encounter with American racism. Though the campus itself was farily progressive on race, the town was not. Jame McClendon, then a star of the college’s football team and an African-American, confirms that segregated parks and lunch counters were still to be found in 1949 Greeley. “I had to go to Denver to get my haircut because none of the barbershops in Greeley would serve me,” says McClendon, who now lives in Colorado Springs.
Dajani remember discussing such incidents with Qutb and expects that he encountered others. “To me, this was shocking that people would treat each other this way. Because he was darker skinned than me, I’m sure that Sayyid Qutb had other experiences of this kind.”
Qutb never wrote directly about his personal encounters with racism, but Calvert notes that the subject would become one of his foremost criticisms of American Society.
”It’s telling that when Qutb returned to Egypt, he wrote an article for the Cairo periodical al-Risala condemning the ‘White Man’ for his racist imperialism,” Calvert says. “This is the first time, to my knowledge, that Qutb used such racial epithets and it is almost surely due to his U.S. experience.”
Though it’s often reported that Qutb earned a master’s degree while in Greeley, his transript reveals that, shortly before the semester’s end, he withdrew from all of this classes. After leaving Greeley, he made short visits to San Francisco, Palo Alto, and San Diego. “Of his 21 months in the United States, the six spent in Greeley was his longest stay,” says Calvert, “and it clearly is the place that had the greatest effect on how he looked at America.”
Jahiliyyah And Jihad
America stayed with Qutb. Upon his return, he wrote another series of article for a popular Egyptian magazine in which he praised America’s scientific and industrial achievements, as well as the American “genius for administration and organization that stimulates one’s sense of wonder.”
But he also sensed an emptiness to life in America and the West:
”I am afraid that there is no correlation between the greatness of America’s material civilization and the greatness of the people who built it. I am afraid that when the wheel of life has turned and the files of history have closed, America will be found not to have contributed any thing to the scale of human values, which distinguish humans from material things and animals.”
Of course, many Westerners of that era were coming to similar conclusions. European social critics, such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger, all struggled with the alienation of modern life Even in America, Martin Luther King, Jr. would soon worry that, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
So you might think that Qutb would’ve been happy to be home and put his American experiences behind him. But for Qutb this wasn’t a faraway problem. In the same way that many Americans in Qutb’s time saw Communism as an inexorable force bent on devouring the West, Qutb saw Western modernity as a monster that would swallow Islam whole. The dirty West wouldn’t just stay “over there.”
In fact, now that Qutb haad seen it firsthand, it only frightened him more. Perhaps this is what revived his faith, the idea that Islam was the region’s only defense from ending up at the “tail of Western caravan.” His writings began to describe a world divided into Us and Them.
“All of these opinions overlook one vital element in the question…the Crusader spirit that runs in the blood of all Occidentals. It is this that colors all their thinking, which is responsible for their imperialistic fear of the spirit of Islam and for their efforts to crush the strength of Islam. For the instincts and their interests of all Occidentals are bound up together in the crushing of that strength. This is the common factor that links together communist Russia and capitalist America.”
Soon after his return, Qutb resigned from the Ministry of Education and joined the Muslim Botherhood, an extremist organization founded in 1928 to fight foreign influences and impose Islamic law “by the Koran and the sword.” (In recent decades, the group has renounced violence and endorsed democracy.)
Dajani was surprised to learn of his former classmates’ new affiliation: “I asked myself, ‘Why is this man joining the Muslim Brotherhood?’ In my time in Colorado, I never saw him pray. I think he was more political than religious.”
That quickly changed. Qutb reinvented himself as a militant fundamentalist. As editor of the Brotherhood’s newspaper, Qutb became one of its more visible and outspoken figures. His criticism of Egypt’s pro Wstern government was relentless until 1954, when Qutb and about 1,000 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were rounded up after a failed assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The story of Qutb’s imprisonment is told in the Islamic world to this day with the kind of reverence Christians reserve for the Passion Play. And, given that Egyptian prisons are still among the world’s most brutal, it would be tough to argue that the legend is exaggerated.
As the story goes, Qutb was already suffering a high fever on the day of his arrest. The officers forced him to walk to jail, even after he fainted twice. Once at the jail, he was beaten for several hours before being left with a trained dog that locked his jaw on Qutb’s thigh and drug him back and forth across the room.
He was tried before a panel of three judges that included future Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. During the trial, Qutb tore open his shirt to reveal the scars from his torture, but that didn’t stop the court from finding Qutb guilty and sentencing him to life in prison.
Conditions in the prison were deplorable. Physical torture was routine, and when Qutb and his fellow inmates returned to their cells they were forced to listen to taped recordings of Nasser speeches 20 hours a day.
Somehow, Qutb managed to write. He rewrote many of his older works to better reflect his increasingly radicalized ideology, and he began the exhaustive study of Islamic scripture that would become his 30-volume In the Shade of the Qur’an. His view of the world’s problems and the necessary solutions began to crystallize.
From his cell, Qutb saw parallels between current events and the world in the time immediately prior to the time that the Koran was revealed to Muhammad. At the start of the seventh century, a large portion of Arabia was occupied by foreign powers, and the rest was a battleground for warring tribes. Arab society had become morally bankrupt, consumed by perversity, drinking, and greed. It was a time known as jahiliyyah, an Arabic word that literally means “ignorance,” but also suggests a state of barbaric chaos.
It was into this setting that Allah intervened with the gift of the Koran. Islam’s followers repelled the foreigners and established a religious society, which ruled the region for centuries.
Qutb argued that the Arab world had returned to jahiliyyah, and as evidence pointed not only to the region’s occupation by foreign imperialists, but also to what he perceived as man’s increasing state of isolation and sinfulness.
Qutb blamed Christianity for this state of affairs, but not for the reasons you might guess. Though Christianity and Islam have much in common, Qutb saw that they completely differed in their relationship to government, and, thus, day-to-day life.
Unlike Islam, which brought order to a region of warring tribes, Christianity was born to the Roman Empire – the most powerful and fully mature state yet seen in history. Jesus set a clear example for his followers that his new religion would coexist with, not replace, the secular government. He did this both in word (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”) and deed (submitting to the authority of Pontius Pilate even though it meant his death).
This recognition of civil authority become a cornerstone of Christian politics throughout its early history and would later give rise in the 17th and 18th centuries to what philosophers alternately call “modernism” and “Liberalism.” Both terms refer to a secular culture based on science, reason, individualism, progress, democracy, and, perhaps most important, the concept of the separation of church and state.
In Qutb’s view, this divorce of the secular and the spiritual had inflicted a “hideous schizophrenia” on modern civilization. And nowhere did he see a more troubling case of this illness than in the United States. Qutb concluded that America’s much-ballyhooed freedom of religion was an illusion. The truth was that America’s secularism had suffocated spirituality to the point where it was nothing more than a Sunday ritual. Americans were self-absorbed with no real connection to their god or even to their fellow man.
The cure for this spiritual illness, he wrote, was Islam, the same medicine that had once before revived man from jahiliyyah:
“This religion is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men and from servitude to his own desires. It is a declaration that sovereignty belongs to God alone and that He is the Lord of all the worlds”
He envisioned an Islamic society, ruled by the law of the Koran, which would rid itself of the West’s vulgar influences. To use an American phrase, it would be “one nation, under god,” but with an important distinction. Eventually, nations would disappear, leaving the whole world for Allah. “A Muslim has no nationality except his belief,” Qutb wrote.
Qutb’s use of jahiliyyah to describe modern events was something of plan for resurrecting Islamic society that he really broke new ground. A departure from Islamic theology of the day, but it was Qutb’s.
First, he took the concept of jihad, which traditionally was largely a defensive concept, and expanded it into an offensive struggle that was the obligation of all Muslims. “Domination should be reverted to Allah alone, namely to Islam, that holistic system He conferred upon men,” Qutb wrote. “An all-out offensive, a jihad, should be waged against modernity so that this moral rearmament could take place. The ultimate objective is to re-establish the Kingdom of God upon earth.”
Second, Qutb made the case that there was more to being a Muslim than simply professing to be one. Consequently, any “Muslim” leader who failed to impose divine law was not, in fact, a Muslim and thus subject to the retribution of jihad.
There were radical interpretations, but in the decades ahead they would be enthusiastically adopted by Islam’s terrorist fringe, who saw them as the loopholes they needed to circumvent the Koran’s otherwise explicit prohibitions on killing, offensive wars, and opposing existing Muslim leadership.
In 1964, Qutb was released from prison due to his failing health, but he was quickly re-arresed, this time on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. It’s believed that Iraq and Libya offered Qutb asylum during his brief freedom, but Qutb said no. He was eager to set an example of martyrdom for his fellow believers.
Once again, he was found guilty, and this time the sentence was death. “Thank God,” he said, “I performed jihad for 15 years until I earned this martyrdom.” On August 29, 1996, he was hanged.
Other members of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood weren’t as devoted as martyrdom, and had long ago fled throughout the Middle East. Many went to Saudi Arabia, where they were given prestigious positions in the kingdom’s universities. Among them was Qutb’s brother Muhammad, who took up his brother’s message, and would later teach a Saudi prince named Osama bin Laden.
Back in Egypt, a 15-year-old named Ayman al-Zawahiri responded to Qutb’s execution by forming a militant underground called dedicated to overthrowing Egyp’s secular government. He would grow up to become a surgeon and the head of Islamic Jihad.
In the 1980s and early 1990s Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad and Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda would both make names for themselves as warriors on the vanguard of the Islamist movement. But in June 2001, they would merge their two organizations (officially, the new group calls itself Qaeda al-Jihad, but is more widely known as Al Qaeda).
It would prove to be a deadly match. Bin Laden would provide the charisma and the cash. Zawahiri would provide the tactical and organizational skills. And Sayid Qutb would provide the ideology.
Virtue And Freedom
Drive down Greeley’s Eighth Avenue today and you’ll see many of the same churches that were there in Qutb’s time, as well as plenty of new ones (“Have you spoken in tongues today?” asks the sign in front of Victory Ministries on the south end of town). The phone book lists more than 100.
Near campus, you see the same tidy houses with their well-kept lawns, though locals say there are more flags hanging from porches than there were before 9/ll.
The town has grown to more than 80,000 residents, and finally lifted its alcohol ban in 1969 (only 13 years later, the city would unsuccessfully try to lure the worlds largest beer company to build a brewery in Greeley; Anheuser-Busch instead chose nearby Fort Collins).
Agriculture remains Weld County’s biggest industry, though meat packing has replaced sugar as the area’s top export and employer. Colorado State College of Education became the University of Northern Colorado in 1970 and now teaches 11,000 students. The annual Greeley Stampede is the nation’s largest Fourth of July rodeo and, until last year, the town proudly hosted the Denver Broncos training camp each summer.
In short, Greeley remains exactly the kind of chaotic example of American freedom that would have driven Qutb crazy.
What’s less clear is what Qutb would think of what’s been done by those claiming to follow his teachings. His more moderate advocates argue that it is no more fair to blame Qutb for the World Trade Center attacks than it is to blame Karl Marx for Josef Stalin’s atrocities or even Jesus for the bombings of American abortion clinics.
They point out, for instance, that Qutb’s writings never explicitly condone violence. Creighton’s Calvert says there’s some validity to that claim, but with a couple of important caveats.
“Most of his prison writings were approved by an Islamic scholar friendly to the Nasser regime,” Calvert says. “So there was a limit to what he could say. But he was very explicit in saying that these leaders were not true Muslims. He left it to his followers to take it from there.”
In a sense, however, this point is moot. We have seen how Qutb’s disciples regard violence. The question is how we will respond to it.
Ironically, there are those here in America whose answer to 9/11 has been to begin tearing down the very wall between church and state that Qutb so loathed. Sixty miles south of Greeley, Colorado legislators proposed posting the 10 Commandments in public buildings, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg:
- Last year, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum declared that JFK’s vow to separate his faith from politics had caused “much harm in America.”
- Secretary of Education Rod Paige, whose job is to provide a public education for all American children, recently said that, “All things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school where there’s a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with Christian communities.”
- Immediately after 9/11, Jerry Falwell told an approving Pat Robertson that, “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say, ‘you helped this happen.’”
- David Pryor, the judge nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, recently stood at a public rally and announced, “God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time and this place for all Christians to save our country and save our courts.” (Substitute “Muhammad” and “Islam” for “Jesus Christ” and “Christianity,” and you’ve got vintage Qutb.)
In the fundamentalist view – be it Qutb or the Reverend Billy Bob on late-night TV – humanity can’t be trusted with freedom because man’s sinful nature can’t be overcome.
The modern view, on the other hand, argues that enforced virtue isn’t really virtue at all. Just as the true measure of a person’s ethics is what he does when he knows he won’t get caught, forcing a woman to wear a chador doesn’t make her virtuous. In this regard, Qutb isn’t that different than the Colorado legislators who hope to instill patriotism by requiring students to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Patriotism, like virtue, must come from the heart; it can’t be imposed. Both must be born out of freedom.
The problem that America is left to wrestle with after 9/11 is that freedom is a messy business. On the day I recently visited Greeley, much of the local paper was consumed with the confession by a local man that he had brutally raped and murdered a 20-year-old UNC student named Lacy Miller. Qutb, no doubt, would have seen the story as yet another example of our soul-less society.
But though the Lacy Miller murder took up most of the paper’s front page, it wasn’t the only news that day. A few pages back, there was the story of three nuns willing to risk jail in order to exercise their First Amendment right to protest the government’s military policies. Elsewhere, another story profiled a local couple being honored for opening their home to three adopted children and three foster children. And way in the back, just like in most papers, there were listings for all sorts of charitable events – an eyeglass collection drive sponsored by the Lions Club, a fund-raiser for neglected children, a hotline offering free legal advice to the poor, and more.
In those stories and events, and in countless others that never make the papers, we see people using their freedom well; we see them choosing good, even when it isn’t their only option. We see people living simple, praiseworthy lives. In the end, that’s a far more virtuous society than you would ever get from an authoritarian theocracy.
That simple truth was there for Sayyid Qutb to see in 1949 Greeley, and it’s still there today. If Qutb had only been willing to actually see it, today’s world might be a very different place.