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.
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.”