Al Qaeda's War On Liberalism


The New York Times Magazine published a fascinating article by Paul Berman on Islamist philosopher/theologican Sayyid Qutb's totalist theories of Islam. Qutb hated Western secular liberalism. "The truly dangerous element in American life for Qutb wasn't capitalism or foreign policy or women's independence. It was America's separation of church and state," writes Berman. Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders were educated by Qutb's disciples. If Berman's analysis is right, the clash between Islamism and liberalism may have been inevitable.


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  1. It was and is inevitable. I think a much better and earlier adopter of this theory was Naipaul. Boy did they (liberals and Liberals alike) bash him when his books on Islamism Vs the Universal Civilization ( came out. And no – you dont have to agree with every word that comes out of his mouth to see that,in general, he got things right more often than not.

  2. I don’t know about inevitable, either (I did read the article, and it was very good). Guess it depends on how you define “clash.”

    It can definitely be said that Qutb provided a strong, to put it mildly, ideological foundation for bin Ladenism. But other things, like blowback from Afghanistan and, yes, Gulf War I put the crisis in motion.

    I noticed Qutb’s analysis of Western culture and the split between the rational and spiritual was eerily similar to that laid out in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Now all we have to do is connect Robert Pirsig to the antiwar left and we’ve got ourselves a nice little conspiracy theory.

  3. While the philosophy promoted by Sayyid Qutb might offer a wonderful theoretical explanation of the Islamic world’s problems, life under strict Islamic law is so intolerable that the very people that would want to live under the law are the most greatful when the law is removed.

    For example, Afganistan, I would argue that a majority of the population are happier under the new government than under Taliban Rule.

    Another example, Iran. The hardliners have gotten their butts kicked in nearly every election, the only reason they still hold onto power is due to their constitution that gives a majority of power to the clerics.

    This philosophical battle is very similar to communism vs. capitalism. On paper communism has a coherence, simplicity, and egalitarianism that makes it very attractive. Yet, any objective observation of communism in practice shows the inhumanity of the institutions it creates.

    The same is true of radical Islam, while it offers a coherent world view that is very attractive to people living in the middle east, every nation that has instituted radical islamic law has been faced with an economic disaster.

    I further agree with the article that this is in fact a war of ideas and that the west has not offered any reasoned analysis as to why liberalism is beneficial and not incompatible to religious thinking.



  4. Hey Joe ;)- In what way has the west not offered any reasoned analysis of liberalism and freedom – religious or otherwise ? There’s John Stuart Mill, John Locke etc etc etc. And there is always the example of the west.
    The real problem i had with the article was the idea that Qutb was “deep” not shallow. So what ? There is a misconception that religious fanatics are all pitchfork or sword wielding tribesman. Qutb may be an intelligent man but that does not mean that he’s right OR that his writings are particularly persuasive other than to those who are already leaning his way. I have not read anything by the man other than the quotations in Berman’s article and elswhere ( and i have no plans to) but the quoted stuff was 100 % predictable.

  5. Of course SM you are right. I should have been more specific in my response. Certainly Locke, Montesquie, Mill, and Madison have written wonderful texts on the nature of government and society. Any of which would make good reading. The key problem is no one is reading them, or at least very few. For example, while in college I read the following Marx, Engles, Franz Fanon, and Paulo Freire at length. I seldom read Locke, Montesquie, or Madison until graduate school. I believe this to be a mistake, Locke et al. are the foundation of American and Western European Political thought, thought that has been very successful and influential, yet most Poly Sci professors would rather have you read the failed writings of Marx et al because they find them more “relevant.”

    Thus, few writers or politicians explicitly cite the above authors when making their arguemtns. This I believe to be a mistake.

    If one looks at the development of the ideals of separation of church and state, this separation occured because people were religious not in spite of it.

    Finally, Qutb argues that a separtion of church and state makes the west schizo. I would argue the opposite. For example, at the time of the first great awakening in the American Colonies, Religion was moving from the public sphere into the private sphere, people like Qutb would argue that this is what makes the west schizo. Americans, by taking religion out of the public sphere do something amazing. They make god or one’s belief in god entirely personal. Thus, the first and second great awakenings are not just religious revivals but they also break down the church heirarchies. This break down let the average man explore his own religious ideas and formulate his own relationship with god. Thus religion became intensley personal.

    I would argue that, it was this personalization of god that has made the U.S. one of the most religious nations in the west. Just look at nations like Italy, that support the Catholic Church while a huge majority of the population completely ignore the church and consider themselves agnostic or atheist.

    What this would mean to Islam, if nations in the middle east were to separate church and state it in effect could strengthen the people’s faith in Islam. I although not an expert in Islam would argue that Islam is in many respects already and intensley personal religion. Ironically it is radical Islam’s failure to recognize this that leads to theocracies like Iran that fail miserably.



  6. The typical well-versed but still ridiculous “I know what the pure faith is” crapola.

    If Qutb wants to argue that God first spoke through Moses, then Jesus, then Mohammed, my question would be “Why can’t God get his act together? He obviously can’t get it right. If He knew what he was doing, he wouldn’t need to change his mind.”

    More likely, God doesn’t bother himself with such trivial matters.

  7. Is this a joke? The clash was inevitable? The clash had nothing to do with, say, the U.S. involving itself in a regional conflictin 1991 and, say, stationing troops in Saudi Arabia for 12 years?

    There will always be “inevitable” clashes for warmongers.

  8. Did you read the article?

  9. Hi one and all,

    I am interested to know who and when translated Qutb?s works in Pashto and/or any other language spoken in Afghanistan so that Al-Qaeda and/or OBL could have read it read it.


  10. EMAIL:

    DATE: 12/10/2003 07:39:32
    People are just smart enough to not be happily ignorant.

  11. EMAIL:
    DATE: 12/20/2003 10:51:32
    Good people strengthen themselves ceaselessly.

  12. EMAIL:
    DATE: 05/19/2004 05:03:10
    To go to war with untrained people is tantamount to abandoning them.

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