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.
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:
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.