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.
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.