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.
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:
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.