Friday, September 16, 2005


Waleed Ziad in today's Times:
The story of Sayyid Qutb, the father of neo-fundamentalism, exemplifies what happened next. Qutb was an Egyptian teacher trained in the Western system. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it was not his trip to America in 1948 that radicalized him. While he was shocked by some aspects of American culture, like women dancing in public, he returned to write about the importance of emulating the educational, economic and scientific achievements of the West.

But in the 1950's, he was jailed and tortured for speaking out against Gamal Abdel Nasser's autocracy, while scores of dissidents were executed. Only then did he decide that violence could be used against an unjust government. He spoke as a Muslim, but his rhetoric was grounded in Western-nationalist and leftist revolutionary principles. His call had great resonance, and thus was neo-fundamentalism born.

As persecution continued across the Arab world, the neo-fundamentalist rhetoric became more Manichean and xenophobic. With mainstream opponents silenced, ultraradicals became the loudest voices of dissent. In Egypt, for example, those who emerged from prison in the 1970's formed militant organizations, including Al Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now chief lieutenant for Osama bin Laden. These men were not thinkers or theologians; rather, many were disillusioned Westernized professionals, former leftists and nationalists.

This new wave of fundamentalism, unlike all the others before it in the Islamic tradition, is inherently anti-intellectual and reactive; it is more reminiscent of the anarchical movements of 19th-century Russia. This "Islamism" is nihilistic, expressing a lack of faith in all political systems, in history, and in all past social developments. The jihadists justify their actions by claiming that they are returning to "pure" Islamic sources to establish a "government of God." Of course, the paradox here is that the Koran does not lay down a mode of governance. What perhaps we in the United States do not understand is that in rejecting the status quo, these groups demonize not just the West, but mainstream Islamic culture and philosophy as well; they pose perhaps the greatest existential threat to 1,400 years of Islamic tradition.

Far from signifying a "clash of civilizations," the neo-fundamentalist ideology involves the appropriation of elements of Western political thought by radical Islamism.

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