In a first-class stateroom on a cruise ship bound for New York from Alexandria, Egypt, a frail, middle-aged writer and educator named Sayyid Qutb experienced a crisis of faith. "Should I go to America as any normal student on a scholarship, who only eats and sleeps, or should I be special?" he wondered. "Should I hold on to my Islamic beliefs, facing the many sinful temptations, or should I indulge those temptations all around me?" It was November 1948. The new world loomed over the horizon, victorious, rich, and free. Behind him was Egypt, in rags and tears. The traveller had never been out of his native country. Nor had he willingly left now.
The stern bachelor was slight and dark, with a high, sloping forehead and a paintbrush moustache somewhat narrower than the width of his nose. His eyes betrayed an imperious and easily slighted nature. He always evoked an air of formality, favouring dark three-piece suits despite the searing Egyptian sun. For a man who held his dignity so close, the prospect of returning to the classroom at the age of 42 may have seemed demeaning. And yet, as a child from a mud-walled village in Upper Egypt, he had already surpassed the modest goal he had set for himself of becoming a respectable member of the civil service. His literary and social criticism had made him one of his country's most popular writers. It had also earned the fury of King Farouk, Egypt's dissolute monarch, who had signed an order for his arrest. Powerful and sympathetic friends hastily arranged his departure.
At the time, Qutb (pronounced kuh-tub) held a comfortable post as a supervisor in the Ministry of Education. Politically, he was a fervent Egyptian nationalist and anti-Communist, a stance that placed him in the mainstream of the vast bureaucratic middle class. The ideas that would give birth to what would be called Islamic fundamentalism were not yet completely formed in his mind; indeed, he would later say that he was not even a very religious man before he began this journey, although he had memorised the Koran by the age of 10, and his writing had recently taken a turn toward more conservative themes. Like many of his compatriots, he was radicalised by the British occupation and contemptuous of the jaded King Farouk's complicity. Egypt was racked by anti-British protests and seditious political factions bent on running the foreign troops out of the country - and perhaps the king as well. What made this unimposing, mid-level government clerk particularly dangerous was his blunt and potent commentary. He had never got to the front rank of the contemporary Arab literary scene, a fact that galled him throughout his career; and yet from the government's point of view, he was becoming an annoyingly important enemy.
He was Western in so many ways - his dress, his love of classical music and Hollywood movies. He had read, in translation, the works of Darwin and Einstein, Byron and Shelley, and had immersed himself in French literature, especially Victor Hugo. Even before his journey, however, he worried about the advance of an all-engulfing Western civilisation. Despite his erudition, he saw the West as a single cultural entity. The distinctions between capitalism and Marxism, Christianity and Judaism, fascism and democracy were insignificant by comparison with the single great divide in Qutb's mind: Islam and the East on the one side, and the Christian West on the other.
America, however, stood apart from the colonialist adventures that had characterised Europe's relations with the Arab world. At the end of the Second World War, America straddled the political chasm between the colonisers and the colonised. Indeed, it was tempting to imagine America as the anti-colonial paragon: a subjugated nation that had broken free and triumphantly outstripped its former masters. The country's power seemed to lie in its values, not in European notions of cultural superiority or privileged races and classes. And because America advertised itself as an immigrant nation, it had a permeable relationship with the rest of the world. Arabs, like most other peoples, had established their own colonies inside America, and the ropes of kinship drew them closer to the ideals that the country claimed to stand for.
And so, Qutb, like many Arabs, felt shocked and betrayed by the support that the US government had given to the Zionist cause after the war. Even as Qutb was sailing out of Alexandria's harbour, Egypt, along with five other Arab armies, was in the final stages of losing the war that established Israel as a Jewish state within the Arab world. The Arabs were stunned, not only by the determination and skill of the Israeli fighters but by the incompetence of their own troops and the disastrous decisions of their leaders. The shame of that experience would shape the Arab intellectual universe more profoundly than any other event in modern history. "I hate those Westerners and despise them!" Qutb wrote after President Harry Truman endorsed the transfer of 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine. "All of them, without any exception: the English, the French, the Dutch, and finally the Americans, who have been trusted by many."
The man in the stateroom had known romantic love, but mainly the pain of it. He had written a thinly disguised account of a failed relationship in a novel; after that, he turned his back on marriage. He said that he had been unable to find a suitable bride from the "dishonourable" women who allowed themselves to be seen in public, a stance that left him alone and unconsoled in middle age. He still enjoyed women - he was close to his three sisters - but sexuality threatened him, and he had withdrawn into a shell of disapproval, seeing sex as the main enemy of salvation.
As he prayed in his stateroom, Sayyid Qutb was still uncertain of his own identity. Should he be "normal" or "special"? Should he resist temptations or indulge them? Should he hang on tightly to his Islamic beliefs or cast them aside for the materialism and sinfulness of the West? Like all pilgrims, he was making two journeys: one outward, into the larger world, and another inward, into his own soul. "I have decided to be a true Muslim!" he resolved. But almost immediately he second-guessed himself. "Am I being truthful or was that just a whim?"
His deliberations were interrupted by a knock on the door. Standing outside his stateroom was a young girl, whom he described as thin and tall and "half-naked". She asked him in English, "Is it OK for me to be your guest tonight?"
Qutb responded that his room was equipped with only one bed.
"A single bed can hold two people," she said.
Appalled, he closed the door in her face. "I heard her fall on the wooden floor outside and realised that she was drunk," he recalled. "I instantly thanked God for defeating my temptation and allowing me to stick to my morals."
This is the man, then - decent, proud, tormented, self-righteous - whose lonely genius would unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and would find it in jihad.
Qutb arrived in New York Harbour in the middle of the most prosperous holiday season the country had ever known. In the postwar boom, everybody was making money - Idaho potato farmers, Detroit auto-makers, Wall Street bankers - and all this wealth spurred confidence in the capitalist model, which had been so brutally tested during the recent Depression. Unemployment seemed practically un-American; officially, the rate of joblessness was under 4 per cent, and practically speaking, anyone who wanted a job could get one. Half of the world's total wealth was now in American hands.
The contrast with Cairo must have been especially bitter as Qutb wandered through the New York streets, festively lit with holiday lights, the luxurious shop windows laden with appliances that he had only heard about - television sets, washing machines - technological miracles spilling out of every department store in stupefying abundance. Downtown and in the outer boroughs, vast projects were under way to house the immigrant masses.
It was fitting, in such a buoyant and confident environment, unprecedented in its mix of cultures, that the visible symbol of a changed world order was arising: the new United Nations complex overlooking the East river. The United Nations was the most powerful expression of the determined internationalism that was the legacy of the war, and yet the city itself already embodied the dreams of universal harmony far more powerfully than did any single idea or institution. The world was pouring into New York because that was where the power was, and the money, and the transforming cultural energy. Nearly a million Russians were in the city, half a million Irish, and an equal number of Germans - not to mention the Puerto Ricans, the Dominicans, the Poles, and the largely uncounted and often illegal Chinese labourers. The black population of the city had grown by 50 per cent in only eight years, to 700,000, and they were refugees as well, from the racism of the American South. Fully a quarter of the 8 million New Yorkers were Jewish, many of whom had fled the latest European catastrophe. Hebrew letters covered the signs for the shops and factories on the Lower East Side, and Yiddish was commonly heard on the streets. That would have been a challenge for the middle-aged Egyptian who hated the Jews but, until he left his country, had never met one. For many New Yorkers political and economic oppression was a part of their heritage, and the city had given them sanctuary, a place to earn a living, to raise a family, to begin again. Because of that, the great emotion that fuelled the exuberant city was hopefulness, whereas Cairo was one of the capitals of despair.
At the same time, New York was miserable - overfull, grouchy, competitive, frivolous, picketed with No Vacancy signs. Snoring alcoholics blocked the doorways. Pimps and pickpockets prowled the mid-town squares in the ghoulish neon glow of burlesque houses. For a man whose English was rudimentary, the city posed unfamiliar hazards, and Qutb's natural reticence made communication all the more difficult. He was desperately homesick. "Here in this strange place, this huge workshop they call 'the new world', I feel as though my spirit, thoughts, and body live in loneliness," he wrote to a friend in Cairo. "What I need most here is someone to talk to," he wrote to another friend, "to talk about topics other than dollars, movie stars, brands of cars - a real conversation on the issues of man, philosophy, and soul."
Two days after Qutb arrived in America, he and an Egyptian acquaintance checked into a hotel. "The black elevator operator liked us because we were closer to his colour," Qutb reported. The operator offered to help the travellers find "entertainment". "He mentioned examples of this 'entertainment', which included perversions. He also told us what happens in some of these rooms, which may have pairs of boys or girls. They asked him to bring them some bottles of Coca-Cola, and didn't even change their positions when he entered! 'Don't they feel ashamed?' we asked. He was surprised. 'Why? They are just enjoying themselves, satisfying their particular desires.'" This experience, among many others, confirmed Qutb's view that sexual mixing led inevitably to perversion.
The end of the World War had brought America victory but not security. Many Americans felt that they had defeated one totalitarian enemy only to encounter another far stronger and more insidious than European fascism. The fight against Communism was being waged inside America as well. J Edgar Hoover, the Machiavellian head of the FBI, claimed that one of every 1,814 people in America was a Communist. Under his supervision, the bureau began to devote itself almost entirely to uncovering evidence of subversion.
Qutb took note of the obsession that was beginning to dominate American politics. He was himself a resolute anti-Communist for similar reasons; indeed, the Communists were far more active and influential in Egypt than in America. "Either we shall walk the path of Islam or we shall walk the path of Communism," Qutb wrote the year before he came to America.
In Qutb's passionate analysis, there was little difference between the Communist and capitalist systems; both, he believed, attended only the material needs of humanity, leaving the spirit unsatisfied. He predicted that once the average worker lost his dreamy expectations of becoming rich, America would inevitably turn toward Communism. Christianity would be powerless to block this trend because it exists only in the realm of the spirit - "like a vision in a pure ideal world". Islam, on the other hand, is "a complete system" with laws, social codes, economic rules, and its own method of government. Only Islam offered a formula for creating a just and godly society. Thus the real struggle would eventually show itself:It was not a battle between capitalism and Communism; it was between Islam and materialism. And inevitably Islam would prevail.
No doubt the clash between Islam and the West was remote in the minds of most New Yorkers during the holiday season of 1948. But, despite the new wealth that was flooding into the city, and the self-confidence that victory naturally brought, there was a generalised sense of anxiety about the future.
"The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible," the essayist EB White had observed that summer. "A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions."
White was writing at the dawn of the nuclear age, and the feeling of vulnerability was quite new. "In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning," he observed, "New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm."
Soon after the new year began, Qutb moved to Washington, where he studied English. "Life in Washington is good," he admitted in one letter, "especially as I live in close proximity to the library and my friends."
He enjoyed a generous stipend from the Egyptian government. "A regular student can live very well on $180 a month," he wrote. "I, however, spend between $250 and $280 monthly."
Although Qutb came from a village in Upper Egypt, it was in America that he found "a primitiveness that reminds us of the ages of jungles and caves". Social gatherings were full of superficial chatter. Though people filled the museums and symphonies, they were there not to see or hear but rather out of a frantic, narcissistic need to be seen and heard. The Americans were altogether too informal, Qutb concluded. "I'm here at a restaurant," he wrote to a friend in Cairo, "and in front of me is this young American. On his shirt, instead of a necktie, there is a picture of an orange hyena, and on his back, instead of a vest, there is a charcoal picture of an elephant. This is the American taste in colours. And music! Let's leave that till later."
On 12 February 1949, while Qutb was in hospital having his tonsils removed, news came of the assassination of Hasan al-Banna, the Supreme Guide of the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Cairo. Qutb relates that there was a hubbub in the street outside his hospital window. He inquired about the reason for the festivities.
"Today the enemy of Christianity in the East was killed," he says the doctors told him. "Today, Hasan al-Banna was murdered." It is difficult to credit that Americans, in 1949, were sufficiently invested in Egyptian politics to rejoice at the news of Banna's death. But for Qutb, lying in his hospital bed in a strange and distant country, the news came as a profound shock. Like Qutb, Banna was precocious and charismatic, but he was also a man of action. He founded the Muslim Brothers in 1928, with the goal of turning Egypt into an Islamic state. Within a few years, the Brothers had spread across the country, and then throughout the Arab world, planting the seeds of the coming Islamic insurgence.
Banna's voice was stilled just as Qutb's book Social Justice in Islam was being published - the book that would make his reputation as an important Islamic thinker. Qutb had held himself pointedly apart from the organisation that Banna created, even though he inclined to similar views about the political uses of Islam; the death of his contemporary and intellectual rival, however, cleared the way for his conversion to the Muslim Brothers. This was a turning point, both in Qutb's life and in the destiny of the organisation. But at this pregnant moment, the heir apparent to the leadership of the Islamic revival was alone, ill, unrecognised, and very far from home.
Qutb returned to Cairo on 20 August 1950. Like him, the country had become more openly radical. Racked by corruption and assassination, humiliated in the 1948 war against Israel, the Egyptian government ruled without popular authority, at the whim of the occupying power. Although the British had nominally withdrawn from Cairo, concentrating their forces in the Suez Canal Zone, the hand of Empire still weighed heavy on the restive capital. The British were present in the clubs and hotels, the bars and cinemas, the European restaurants and department stores of this sophisticated, decadent city. As his people hissed, the obese Turkish king, Farouk, raced around Cairo in one of his 200 red automobiles (his were the only cars in the country allowed to be red), seducing - if one can call it that - young girls, or else sailing his fleet of yachts to the gambling ports of the Riviera, where his debauchery tested historic standards. Meanwhile, the usual measures of despair - poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and disease -grew recklessly out of control.
In this rotten political environment, one organisation steadily acted in the interests of the people. The Muslim Brothers created their own hospitals, schools, factories, and welfare societies; they even formed their own army and fought alongside other Arab troops in Palestine. They acted less as a countergovernment than as a countersociety, which was indeed their goal. Their founder, Hasan al-Banna, completely rejected the Western model of secular, democratic government, which contradicted his notion of universal Islamic rule. "It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations, and to extend its power to the entire planet," he wrote.
The fact that the Brothers provided the only organised, effective resistance to the British occupation ensured their legitimacy in the eyes of the members of Egypt's lower-middle class, who formed the core of Brothers membership. The government officially dissolved the Muslim Brothers in 1948 but by that time the Brothers had more than a million members and supporters - out of a total Egyptian population of 18 million. Although the Brotherhood was a mass movement, it was also intimately organised into cooperative "families" - cells that contained no more than five members each, giving it a spongy, clandestine quality that proved difficult to detect and impossible to eradicate.
There was also a violent underside to the Society of the Muslim Brothers, which would become deeply rooted in the Islamist movement. Although most of the Brothers' activity was directed at the British and at Egypt's quickly dwindling Jewish population, they were also behind the bombings of two Cairo cinemas, the murder of a prominent judge, and the actual assassinations - as well as many attempts - of several members of government.
In retaliation for raids against their bases, British forces assaulted a police barracks in Ismailia in January 1952, firing at point-blank range for 12 hours and killing 50 police conscripts. Upon hearing the news, agitated mobs formed on the streets of Cairo. They burned the old British haunts of the Turf Club and the famous Shepheard's Hotel. The arsonists, led by members of the Muslim Brothers' secret apparatus, slashed the hoses of the fire engines that arrived to put out the flames, then moved on to the European quarter, burning every cinema, casino, bar, and restaurant in the centre of the city. By morning, a thick black cloud of smoke lingered over the ruins. At least 30 people had been killed, 750 buildings destroyed, 15,000 people put out of work, and 12,000 made homeless. Cosmopolitan Cairo was dead.
Something new was about to be born, however. In July of that year, a military junta, dominated by a charismatic young army colonel, Gamal Abdul Nasser, seized control of the government, which fell without resistance. For the first time in 2,500 years, Egypt was ruled by Egyptians.
Qutb published an open letter to the leaders of the revolution, advising them that the only way to purge the moral corruption of the old regime was to impose a "just dictatorship" that would grant political standing to "the virtuous alone". Nasser then invited Qutb to become an advisor to the Revolutionary Command Council. Qutb hoped for a cabinet position in the new government, but when he was offered a choice between being the minister of education or general manager of Cairo radio, he turned both posts down. Nasser eventually appointed him head of the editorial board of the revolution, but Qutb quit the post after a few months. The prickly negotiation between the two men reflected the initial close cooperation of the Brothers and the Free Officers in a social revolution that both organisations thought was theirs to control. In fact, neither faction had the popular authority to rule.
In a story that would be repeated again and again in the Middle East, the contest quickly narrowed to a choice between a military society and a religious one. Nasser had the army and the Brothers had the mosques. Nasser's political dream was of pan-Arab socialism, modern, egalitarian, secular, and industrialised, in which individual lives were dominated by the overwhelming presence of the welfare state. His dream had little to do with the theocratic Islamic government that Qutb and the Brothers espoused. The Islamists wanted to completely reshape society, from the top down, imposing Islamic values on all aspects of life, so that every Muslim could achieve his purest spiritual expression. That could be accomplished only through a strict imposition of the Sharia, the legal code drawn from the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed, which governs all parts of life. Anything less than that, the Islamists argued, was not Islam. In retrospect, it is difficult to see how Qutb and Nasser could have misunderstood each other so profoundly. The only thing they had in common was the grandeur of their respective visions and their hostility to democratic rule.
Nasser threw Qutb in prison for the first time in 1954, but after three months he let him out and allowed him to become the editor of the Muslim Brothers magazine. Presumably Nasser hoped his display of mercy would enhance his standing with the Islamists and keep them from turning against the increasingly secular aims of the new government.
Qutb wrote a number of sharply critical editorials calling for jihad against the British at the very time Nasser was negotiating a treaty that would nominally end the occupation. In August 1954 the government shut the magazine down. By that time, ill will between the Brothers and the military leaders had hardened into cold opposition. It was clear that Nasser had no intention of instituting an Islamic revolution, despite his highly publicised pilgrimage to Mecca that same month. Qutb was so infuriated that he formed a secret alliance with the Egyptian Communists in an abortive effort to bring Nasser down.
The ideological war over Egypt's future reached a climax on the night of 26 October 1954. Nasser was addressing an immense crowd in a public square in Alexandria. The entire country was listening to the radio as a member of the Muslim Brothers stepped forward and fired eight shots, wounding a guard but missing Nasser. It was the turning point in Nasser's presidency. Over the chaos of the panicked crowd, Nasser continued speaking even as the gunshots rang out. "Let them kill Nasser! What is Nasser but one among many?" he cried. "I am alive, and even if I die, all of you are Gamal Abdul Nasser!" Had the gunman succeeded, he might have been hailed as a hero, but the failure gave Nasser a popularity he had never enjoyed until then. He immediately put that to use by having six conspirators hanged and placing thousands of others in concentration camps. Qutb was charged with being a member of the Muslim Brothers' secret apparatus that was responsible for the assassination attempt. Nasser thought he had crushed the Brothers once and for all.
Through confessions of other members of the Brotherhood, the prosecution presented a sensational scenario of a planned takeover of the government, involving the destruction of Alexandria and Cairo, blowing up all the bridges over the Nile, and numerous assassinations --an unprecedented campaign of terror, all in the service of turning Egypt into a primitive theocracy. The testimony also demonstrated, however, that the Brothers were too disorganised to accomplish any of these dreadful tasks. Three highly partisan judges, one of them Anwar al-Sadat, oversaw these proceedings. They sentenced Qutb to life in prison, but when his health deteriorated, the sentence was reduced to 15 years.
Qutb was always frail and experienced two heart attacks in prison, and bleeding in his lung. He moved to the prison hospital in May 1955, where he stayed for the next 10 years, spending much of his time writing a lucid, highly personal, eight-volume commentary called In the Shade of the Koran, which by itself would have assured his place as one of the most significant modern Islamic thinkers. But his political views were darkening.
Through family and friends, he managed to smuggle out, bit by bit, a manifesto called Milestones. It circulated underground for years in the form of letters to his brother and sisters, who were also Islamic activists. The voice of the letters was urgent, passionate, intimate, and despairing. When finally published in 1964, the book was banned, but not before five printings had been run off. Anyone caught with a copy could be charged with sedition. Its ringing apocalyptic tone may be compared with Rousseau's Social Contract and Lenin's What Is to Be Done? - with similar bloody consequences.
"Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice," Qutb posits at the beginning. Humanity is threatened not only by nuclear annihilation but also by the absence of values. The West has lost its vitality, and Marxism has failed. "At this crucial and bewildering juncture, the turn of Islam and the Muslim community has arrived." But before Islam can lead, it must regenerate itself.
Qutb divides the world into two camps, Islam and jahiliyya, the period of ignorance and barbarity that existed before the divine message of the Prophet Mohamed. Qutb uses the term to encompass all of modern life: manners, morals, art, literature, law, even much of what passed as Islamic culture. He was opposed not to modern technology but to the worship of science, which he believed had alienated humanity from natural harmony with creation. Only a complete rejection of rationalism and Western values offered the slim hope of the redemption of Islam. This was the choice: pure, primitive Islam or the doom of mankind.
"We need to initiate the movement of Islamic revival in some Muslim country," he writes, in order to fashion an example that will eventually lead Islam to its destiny of world dominion. "There should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking the path," Qutb declared. "I have written Milestones for this vanguard, which I consider to be a waiting reality about to be materialised." Those words would echo in the ears of generations of young Muslims who were looking for a role to play in history.
Extracted from The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, published by Allen Lane