Who inspired them?

Eddie Ford looks at Sayyid Qutb, the inspiraion of many of today's jihadi groups

Undoubtedly the main ideological inspiration of today's jihadi groups is the Egyptian-born Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Gamal Nasser's regime in 1966 (ironically, but in its own twisted way logically, he was charged at one point with the crime of "Marxism"). Qutb's prolific writings, most notably his seminal 1964 work Milestones or Signposts (Ma'alim fi'l Tariq), were eagerly adopted by many of the militant islamist groups and it is not much of an exaggeration to say that his writings and teachings made him the Karl Marx-cum-Che Guevara of the islamic fundamentalist world, with Milestones acting as its surrogate Communist manifesto. Oppression and exploitation breeds resistance ... and in turn theoreticians of the oppressed, of all stripes and colours. When examined, Qutb's works can be viewed as a powerful, but darkly violent and essentially backward-looking, condemnation of "western decadence" and capitalism - not to mention a dismissal of what he thought of as Marxism (ie, Sovietised 'official communism'). Throughout his entire works, his insurrectionary brand of islam regarded all non-islamic rule as jahiliyya - the pre-islamic era portrayed by muslims as a period of darkness and ignorance. Therefore this sort of regime is inherently heretical and must be fought through a holy war, or jihad. At the same time, Qutb argued, the true believers must separate themselves from this contaminated society by means of migration (hijra) and thus create their own pure islamic space, protected from the omnipotent and oppressive bureaucratic state machine. A cardinal element of his theory was the concept of the "internal jihad" within the muslim community - spiritual purification, if you like. One can only imagine what Qutb would have thought of the muslim 'community leaders' traipsing into No10 on July 19, in order to have a cosy 'unity' conference with Tony Blair. Another central - and vitally important - element of Qutb's political cosmology was the islamic ideal of tawhid (the singularity of god and, therefore, of nature and the universe). It is hard to believe that the four bombers in London were not inspired by the sort of vision, or hope, that Qutb held out: "So all creation, issuing as it does from one absolute, universal and active will, forms an all-embracing unity, in which each individual part is in harmonious order with the remainder .... "Thus, then, all creation is a unity comprising different parts; it has a common origin, a common providence and purpose, because it was produced by a single, absolute and comprehensive will .... "So the universe cannot be hostile to life, or to man; nor can 'nature' in our modern phrase be held to be antagonistic to man, opposed to him or striving against him. Rather she is a friend whose purposes are one with those of life and of mankind. And the task of living beings is not to contend with nature, for they have grown up in her bosom, and she and they together form a part of the single universe which proceeds from the single will" (S Qutb Social justice in islam New York 1970, pp19, 49, 66). Is such a cosmo-philosophy so far removed from Marxism and communism in terms of general humanitarian intent? Or is it so hard to imagine how the downtrodden masses - and members of the intelligentsia - in the Arab and islamic world turned to Qutbism, given the grinding, brutal, daily realities of their lives? Unsurprisingly, Qutb - like so many others - flatly rejected 'official communism' and hence 'Marxism'. While he languished in Nasser's jails, and was routinely subject to torture by his brutal prison guards, 'official communist' leaders, both in Egypt and the Soviet Union, were lending technical and military support to the Nasser regime - as part of a process of top-down, bureaucratic, 'modernisation'. All this led him to write: "Democracy in the west has become infertile to such an extent that it is borrowing from the systems of the eastern bloc, especially in the economic system, under the name of socialism. It is the same with the eastern bloc. Its social theories, foremost among which is Marxism, in the beginning attracted not only a large number of people from the east but also from the west, as it was a way of life based on a creed. But now Marxism is defeated on the plane of thought, and if it is stated that not a single nation in the world is truly Marxist, it will not be an exaggeration." However, Qutb adds: "On the whole this theory conflicts with man's nature and its needs. This ideology prospers only in a degenerate society or in a society which has become cowed as a result of some form of prolonged dictatorship. But now, even under these circumstances, its materialistic economic system is failing, although this was the only foundation on which its structure was based. Russia, which is the leader of the communist countries, is itself suffering from shortages of food. Although during the times of the tsars, Russia used to produce surplus food, it now has to import food from abroad and has to sell its reserves of gold for this purpose. The main reason for this is the failure of the system of collective farming, or, one can say, the failure of a system which is against human nature." Therefore, Qutb concludes: "It is essential for mankind to have new leadership!" (http:/www.young muslims.ca/online_ library/books/milestones/Introduction.asp). On that point, communists have no disagreement with Qutb. Rather, Qutb's life and writings only serve to re-emphasise the need for a universal programme that can show, practically, how to positively overcome and transcend the global capitalist system. Those who now look to islam, in whatever form, can and must be won over to communism and human freedom in the here and now, not the after-life l Eddie Ford