Al Qaeda’s Greeley Roots
How the intellectual father of Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network learned to hate America in a tiny Colorado town.
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.
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: