The Middle East Channel

The afterlife of Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb was executed in 1966 for his role in a failed conspiracy against the Nasser regime. Yet his call for Muslims to replace the sovereignty of man with that of God continues to haunt Egyptian state authorities. On Feb. 8, 2010, following a controversial election for the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide post, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak regime arrested three prominent Brothers belonging to the movement's conservative wing -- ‘Isam al-‘Aryan, Muhiy Hamid, and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Barr -- accusing them of belonging to a radical organization inspired by the thinking of Sayyid Qutb, the prominent ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. Almost certainly, the arrested men did not belong to a clandestine organization dedicated to violent political change. Nevertheless, by their own admission they upheld Qutb as the embodiment of the Islamist movement. In so doing, they allowed the Egyptian government to peg the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement that harbors revolutionary intent.

Given these risks, why do significant numbers of Muslim Brothers, including many in leadership positions, continue to invoke the example of Sayyid Qutb? Certainly, there are many politically engaged Brothers who would prefer to keep Qutb's thought under wraps. A large part of the reason has to do with the weight and complexity of his thought. The diversity of Qutb's ideas (Qutb's thought traversed several stages), coupled with his status as a martyr make it difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood to cast a negative judgment on him. As a result, his influence persists -- despite reservations on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood's reform-minded political pragmatists.

Qutb's Islamism has been a source of division within Muslim Brotherhood ranks from the beginning. In the early1960s, as Muslim Brothers languished in Nasser's prisons, a number of them pointed out that Qutb's censure of contemporary Muslim society smacked of takfir, the declared excision of Muslims from the body of the faithful. Such teaching, these Brothers said, went against the preference of Islamic theology for inclusiveness. They backed up their claim by pointing to Hasan al-Banna, who made clear that both the society and the state were Islamic despite the corruption wrought by the Western cultural onslaught. As far as al-Banna was concerned, Islam had not disappeared; it had only waned.

But other Muslim Brothers disagreed. They accepted Qutb's explanation that he did not condemn individual Muslims but only the barbarism of the contemporary global culture. They lauded Qutb's efforts to strengthen Islam against "ignorance" (jahiliyya) of the divine mandate, and admired him for standing up to the powers that be.

However, the matter was not allowed to remain moot. By the late 1960s, some Islamists -- extrapolating from Qutb's theory -- had adopted an explicit takfiri point of view, one that would later feed the radical jihadi current. In response to this trend, then-Supreme Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi put his name to a tract called "Preachers, Not Judges," which argued that the Muslim Brotherhood's job was to preach God's message, not to evaluate the faith of others or to topple the political authority. Hudaybi hoped that the work would dampen the ardor of the extremists and save the Brotherhood from another round of persecution. The argument in "Preachers, Not Judges" remained the official position of the Muslim Brotherhood over the following decades. It laid the foundations for the Brotherhood's reemergence on Egypt's political stage as a tolerated, albeit officially banned, movement of politico-religious reform.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood repudiated the controversial aspects of Qutb's thought, there was no question of eradicating his influence completely. As the Brotherhood's only systematic thinker, his books could not be easily dismissed. Adding to the difficulty, many Muslim Brothers continued to defend Qutb's reputation against detractors. Following the old line, these supporters argued that Qutb's intentions had been misconstrued. If Qutb evinced a confrontational attitude, they said it was because torture led him to read the Quran through the distorting lens of anger. Moreover, his execution cut short an ideological project that might otherwise have had different emphases.

Acknowledging Qutb's high status, Hudaybi and succeeding Supreme Guides allowed Muslim Brothers to read his works, but said that they must do so carefully, accepting from them what was good and rejecting what was problematic. The leadership discouraged Muslim Brothers without sufficient grounding in the religious sciences from delving into Qutb's oeuvre. However, none banned his books.

Yet there always existed the possibility that circumstances might bring Qutb's doctrinal certainty to the fore. During the Muslim Brotherhood's January 2009 elections, the victorious conservative faction evoked Qutb's legacy in order to shore up the spiritual, intellectual and organizational strength of the movement. In the view of this group, Brotherhood reformers had weakened the movement's core values in their efforts to work within the prevailing political system. The time was ripe, its members said, to follow Qutb's example of building a cadre of dedicated Muslims, unblemished by political compromise, which would pave the way for the future success of the Islamic movement.

The personal experiences of the conservatives led them to believe that their tact was correct. Many, including Muhammad Badi'a, the new Supreme Guide, belonged to the historic generation that had suffered in Nasser's prisons. They understood that survival depended on a certain aloofness from the political culture of the secular state.

Many reformers within the Brotherhood, men like ‘Abd al-Mu'min Abu al-Futuh, questioned the wisdom of the conservatives in evoking Qutb. They regard the revival of Qutb's thought as a slippery slope that could lead to the kind of zero-sum game that marked relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. One blogger insisted that the difference between Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb is that "between peace and war." Few reformers were surprised when in February 2010, the Egyptian state arrested the three Muslim Brothers mentioned above, accusing them of resurrecting Tanzim '65, Sayyid Qutb's ephemeral underground organization.

But the question remains: Why has the Muslim Brotherhood's new leadership made a point of bringing to the fore aspects of Qutb's ideology? What aspects of Sayyid Qutb's discourse do they find appealing and/or politically useful? It seems that the conservatives are interested in Qutb's emphasis on shoring up the spiritual, intellectual and organizational strength of Muslims. Reviewing the recent history of the Brotherhood, they see that the reformers' efforts to work within the system, contest elections and move Brotherhood thought in a more liberal direction has only led to crackdowns by the state. The time is ripe, conservatives say, to affect a tactical withdrawal. Not a hijra -- or migration -- to remote places, but a strengthening of the Muslim Brotherhood's core values, which the reformers have compromised though their accommodations.

It's worth speculating about how Sayyid Qutb would have regarded the 9/11 attacks. Almost certainly, Qutb would not have sanctioned the extreme violence that the hijackers employed. As Qutb pointed out in his writings, the killing of innocents finds no justification in the Quran. In fact, it's a moot point whether he would have sanctioned violence, preemptive or otherwise, against state or military targets. Nor would Qutb have understood Al Qaeda's desire to attack Western targets. In his mind, the jihad against the purported idolatry at home was always paramount. Yet Qutb would have appreciated Al Qaeda's view of itself as knights under the Prophet's banner; in other words, as comprising a vanguard striving to change society from outside. And although he would have disagreed with the hijackers' purpose, he would have understood the substratum of their ideology: that the world, as it stands, constitutes a conceptual realm of irreligion, vice and exploitation that ought to be resisted in the name of God.

Qutb may be a divisive figure among the Muslim Brothers, but his presence within the movement's discursive repertoire cannot easily be brushed aside. As the Muslim Brotherhood's new leadership grapples with the policy implications of it new strategy, Muslim Brothers will continue to evoke Qutb, either as a model to be followed, or as an avatar of dangerous and outmoded thinking.

Dr. John Calvert is the Fr. Henry W. Casper SJ Associate Professor of History at Creighton University and author of the newly released "Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism."

The Middle East Channel

Strategic engagement with Iran

Frustrated by the absence of substantive progress during the latest round of P5+1 talks in Geneva, some Iran analysts would have U.S. policy plunge once again into the murky territory of regime change. Some hope that a military attack might bring about this goal. Others, taking what seems to be the high road, argue that the U.S. should back a people's democratic revolution. This second idea is deeply alluring. After all, it accords with our most cherished ideas while also offering a solution that serves U.S. national interests. What advocate of democracy would not want Iran's Green Movement to prevail? In one fell swoop, its victory would bring to the table legitimate Iranian leaders who keenly defend Iran's right to peaceful nuclear power, but who would also provide a far more constructive negotiating partner for the U.S. and its allies. 

The problem, however, is that democratic reform in Iran is a long-term proposition. As a result, it cannot serve as the basis for an effective U.S.-Iran policy. If the Obama White House were to rest its efforts to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons on regime change, it would end up with an Iran policy as incoherent as those of the administrations that preceded it.

That incoherence is rooted in the reluctance of both Republican and Democratic administrations to make a decisive choice between making war or talking peace. Given the costs of both it is hardly surprising that our leaders have been unwilling or unable to mobilize political and bureaucratic support for either option. Instead, they have split the difference by using a mix of punitive measures and tepid incentives to in one way or another "contain" Iran -- thus avoiding the domestic discomfort that would inevitably accompany a more strategically cogent policy. 

To his credit, President Obama tried to overcome this legacy of policy confusion. He did so by reinvigorating a "two track" approach that imposed increasing costs while holding out the prospect of benefits that Tehran might gain in the event that it came clean on its nuclear program. But this policy has been long on the tactics of sanctions and other punitive measures, and short on a cogent strategic vision on the ultimate relationship with Iran that U.S. leaders -- and the public -- would endorse.

If, as administration officials insist, sanctions are a "means rather than an end," we need to define that end far more clearly. If it is stopping Iran's nuclear program, then let's be clear: sanctions may be slowing that program down, but by themselves they will not compel Iran's leaders to comply with the International Atomic Energy Commission or the UN Security Council. To get the attention of Iran's current leaders, we must decide whether the goal of sanctions (or for that matter, engagement) is to set the stage for war or for sustained peace negotiations.

On this elemental question, the White House's Iran policy is not all together clear. Hesitant to prematurely reveal its negotiating hand, and determined to show at home and abroad that it is tough, the Obama administration has hesitated to spell out a detailed package of economic, geo-strategic or diplomatic benefits that Iran might attain by seriously addressing the amply documented concerns of the International Atomic Energy Commission the UN Security Council.

Tehran's actions and words have not helped matters. Its dismissal of Obama's two "Nowruz" messages, President Ahmadinejad's verbal attacks on the legitimacy of the "Zionist enemy," Tehran's support for Hezbollah and Hamas -- not to mention the regime's repression of the Green Movement -- have all undercut support within and outside the administration for engagement.

As support for engagement wanes in Washington, calls for regime change are reverberating in the U.S. Congress and out national media. The idea that we can slay the Iranian nuclear dragon by destroying its autocratic heart will probably become a leitmotif of the House and quite possibly the Senate in 2011. 

How to accomplish this is the question. Secretary of Defense Gates has publicly asserted that a military attack on Iran would "bring together a divided nation" and make Iran's weapons program "deeper and more covert." This sober observation echoes conclusions set out in a joint report of the Unites States Institute of Peace and the Stimson Center, namely that a U.S. attack on Iran would "destabilize the entire Middle East in ways that could do grave damage to U.S. strategic, economic and political interests." Drawing on the insights of a diverse group including James Dobbins, Dov Zakheim and Admiral William Fallon, this report argues that an attack would not only cement Iran's determination to get the bomb, it would also accelerate the effort of ultra-hardliners to impose total control, thus shutting the door to any hopes of even modest political reform.

Political reform will eventually come to Iran, but in manner far more prolonged and partial than that imagined by advocates of a full-scale democratic revolution. This kind of dramatic scenario may pluck a tour heart strings, but it has not been the animating vision of Iran's reformists. The latter speak for a 25-million urban middle class of Iranians, many whom share one goal: to compel the state to stop forcing religious dogma on the population.

In the wake of the controversy over the June 2009 presidential election and the mass protests that followed, this drive for reform within the system gave way to a more radical vision of the system within some circles of the Green Movement. But battered by a repressive regime and deeply divided, the movement's leaders have yet to define a common strategic vision of what they want to achieve. Moreover, they must still or forge durable alliances with key elite groups such as the urban commercial bazaar and the official clergy, or with popular sectors among the urban and rural lower classes. This is not an impossible project, but it will require a grass roots process of networking, communication and alliance building that will take years to unfold.

There is very little the U.S. can or should do to affect this prolonged dynamic. The more we embrace Iran's democratic activists, the more we suffocate them. Iran's reformists want the international community to stand up for their human rights; they do not want to be pawns of a U.S.-Iranian conflict. In a land where concerns about national sovereignty and religious identity cut across the regime-opposition divide, the quest for democracy will be discredited if it is seen as anything but homegrown.

There is one thing, however, that the U.S. can do promote political decompression in Iran, and that is to make détente with the Islamic Republic a top priority. Sustained U.S.-Iranian engagement would undercut the "threat" that ultra hardliners regularly invoke to legitimate their efforts to pummel or isolate their critics. The latter include prominent conservatives, many of whom are eager to deflect the efforts of Revolutionary Guard to undermine the autonomy of clerical institutions, private sector businesses, and the parliament. Fighting for their very political and economic survival, these conservative leaders are likely to push for a process of internal political accommodation that could open up some doors for reformists. While they face many hurdles, one thing is sure: an escalation of U.S.-Iranian tensions (much less a war!) will only harm the efforts of those Iranian leaders who favor internal dialogue to make their voices heard.

In the coming decade, Iran's politics will be defined by a slow, agonizing struggle waged through rather than against the institutions of the Islamic Republic. If we indulge in the seductive dream of a sudden democratic revolution -- whether delivered by bombs from above or by popular resistance from below -- we will destroy the seeds of a political change in Iran. But we if we push for a process of engagement that moves Iran and the U.S. from conflict to diplomatic coexistence, we can help nurture Iran's own capacity to change and transform from within.

Let us hope that 2011 will be the year, not for war, but for a revitalized diplomatic initiative to resolve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. If we do not pursue a bolder engagement strategy, the U.S. and its allies will ultimately have no choice but to contain a nuclear Iran. Secretary of State Clinton's recent BBC interview, in which she stated U.S. conditional acceptance of Iran's enrichment rights, provides one step in the right direction. The Obama administration must move forward, despite the obstacles at home and abroad.

Daniel Brumberg is a special advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace. Barry Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center. They are the co-authors of "Engagement, Coercion, and Iran's Nuclear Challenge," a collaborate report published by the Stimson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace. This report is the product of a year-long examination by more than 50 experts of the Iranian nuclear problem.

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