March 08, 2008

COIN Book Club, No. 6 (Resurrecting the Book Club)

Back by popular demand, the long-awaited Book Club has returned.

Wars are by their nature dialectical struggles in addition to being physical ones. Clashes of human interest are stemmed as much by clashes in belief as they are by clashes in human interest. Indeed, at times it becomes impossible to define the boundary between interest and belief.

Today's struggle against extremist Muslim takfiris is very much a war of ideas in the same way that the Cold War was a struggle not just of the Warsaw Pact against NATO but of ideologies based on state control versus those premised on individual liberty.

While US doctrine through the Cold War and particularly with AirLand Battle doctrine, ignored the primacy of ideas for the calculus of steel, our small warriors of the Cold War who wrote, for instance, the counter-guerrilla manual recognized that one had not only to counter the guerrillas but also their ideology and "narrative." In the wake of Communist insurgencies, these warriors knew where to look to understand the ideas they were fighting. The Communist pantheon included Mao, Lenin, and Marx and, depending on the particular country various local, contemporary ideologues.

In our new struggle, however, very few of the warriors who fight, even while understanding the importance of defeating extremism and terrorism not only militarily but also in the realm of ideas, are well-versed in the canon of our enemies nor the internal logic upon which it operates. Very few of them even know this canon exists (or worse believe that the Koran is sufficient to explain the ideology of Osama bin Laden), and so today's book club focuses on the ultimate work of arguably the "Karl Marx" of al-Qaeda, Seyyid Qutb's Milestones.

Qutb himself received a secular higher education in Egypt and served both as a teacher and administrator within Egypt's secular public education system. He undertook graduate studies in the United States, and the experience radicalized him as an opponent of what he thought was the West's immorality. After joining the Muslim Brotherhood, he supported the Free Officers Movement and Nasser's 1952 coup only to eventually come to oppose Nasser for failing to implement Islamic law (Shari'ah). Nasser eventually had him thrown in prison, where Milestones was composed, and the text of Milestone's was used as the main evidence to send Qutb to the gallows. He was executed by Nasser in 1966.

Milestones' basic argument is that the world, after the death of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) reverted back to a pre-Islamic state called Jahiliyyah in Arabic. This Jahiliyyah, According to Qutb:

takes the form of claiming that the right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behavior, and to choose any way of life rests with men, without regard to what God has prescribed…

The most extreme form of Jahiliyyah in the eyes of Qutb was the claim of sovereignty by the state.

Any system in which the final decisions are referred to human beings, and in which the sources of all authority are human, deifies human beings by designating others than God as lords over men. This declaration means that the usurped authority of God be returned to Him and the usurpers be thrown out—those who by themselves devise laws for others to follow, thus elevating themselves to the status of lords and reducing others to the status of slaves. In short, to proclaim the authority and sovereignty of God, means to eliminate all human kingship and to announce the rule of the Sustainer of the universe over the entire earth.

Qutb believed that the state claim of sovereignty over the individual was a fundamental usurpation of their freedom to choose or reject the path of Islam. The rule of Islam was needed, he believed, not to force Islam upon unbelievers but rather to give them a choice:

It should leave every individual free to accept or reject it, and if someone wants to accept it, it should not prevent him or fight against him.

At first, this seems like less than a radical thought which could be accommodated by allowing Muslims to worship freely. Yet Qutb made clear that such accommodation within existing societies was not enough:

Sometimes it appears in the form of a society in which God’s existence is not denied, but His domain is restricted to the heavens and His rule on earth is suspended…In this society, people are permitted to go to mosques, churches and synagogues; yet it does not tolerate people’s demanding that the Shari’ah of God be applied in their daily affairs. Thus, such a society denies or suspends God’s sovereignty on earth…

In fact, Qutb said:

Other societies do not give it any opportunity to organize its followers according to its own method, and hence it is the duty of Islam to annihilate all such systems, as they are obstacles in the way of universal freedom.

It was here that Qutb marked his major departure from mainstream Islamic thought. Qutb rejected the idea of "defensive jihad," that is that violent jihad was only permissible in response to an external invasion of a Muslim homeland.

To begin with, Qutb rejected the very idea of a homeland as un-Islamic. The Land of Islam (Dar al-Islam) was not the traditional lands held by Muslims or the lands with Muslim leaders but was exclusively the areas held by true believers implementing God's law, Shari'ah. The rest of the word was the Land of War (Dar al-Harb--translated more eloquently as the "home of hostility" in Dar al-Ilm's very readable English translation). Because "all societies existing in the world today are jahili," all of the world was essentially the battleground where jihad must be waged, not just some traditional homeland, which was as jahili as the rest.

"Indeed," said Qutb, "people are not Muslims, as they proclaim to be, as long as they live the life of Jahilliyah."

This act of takfir, that is declaring other Muslims to be kafirs or unbelievers, has remained at the heart of continued Islamic debate even within extremist circles and continues to separate the extremists of Al Qaeda from fundamentalist Islamists elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Qutb argued in Milestones that the path to freedom under Islam is establishing Islam in one of the predominantly Muslim countries. In this country, the true believers must establish the "vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking on the path, marching through the vast ocean of Jahiliyyah..." This path admits no compromise:

In the world there is only one party of God; all others are parties of Satan and rebellion.

The believer must seek to break the chains of Jahiliyyah and succeed or be rewarded with martyrdom in the attempt. Talk is simply not enough. Violent jihad must first break the bonds of humanity's usurped authority over God and only then can those living within an Islamic society be convinced by words of the true believers to pursue the path of Islam.

While Qutb sought return to a world dominated by Islamic precepts, it would be wrong to call the ideology anti-modern as many have done. Qutb saw no issue in the study of the natural sciences, of war, public administration, and other fields and believed that Islam's Golden Age at the forefront of science had been the result of society's relative nearness to the time of the Prophet (PBUH) rather than a departure from Islamic law. In fact, it was permissible, Qutb wrote, to study these disciplines from a non-Muslim until such time as Muslims were capable of leading in these fields.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about Qutb's Milestones is his appeal to widely accepted human values as the basis for his rationale. Qutb rails against sexual immorality in a way that could be mistaken for a stolen line from a Jerry Falwell speech:

On the other hand, if in a society immoral teachings and poisonous suggestions are rampant, and sexual activity is considered outside the sphere of morality, then in that society the humanity of man can hardly find a place to develop.

Nor is his writing on racism so far off from the sayings of Dr. Martin Luther King:

The "grouping" of men which Islam proclaims is based on this faith alone, the faith in which all peoples of any race or color—Arabs, Romans or Persians—are equal under the banner of God.

Yet the end to which Qutb took this thought in Milestones is deeply disturbing--worldwide war until the ascendancy and dominance of Islam over all. His writing has been profoundly influential in shaping the thinking not only of the adherents of al Qaeda but even of thinkers as far afield as the Shiite Khomeini. Moreover, Qutb's status as a layman writing on Islam rather than a traditional Islamic scholar laid the foundation for other laymen such as Osama Bin Laden to issue fatwas, rulings on Islamic law, that seek to realize Qutb's vision.

Qutb remains central to the war of ideas as he remains central to the ideology of Al Qaeda's global insurgency. For instance Al Qaeda in Yemen's January publication of a pamphlet entitled "Echo of the Epic Battles" contains excerpts from Qutb's writings. A December call to violent jihad on the website Ana al-Muslim sites Qutb as part of the justification. The December issue of the "Vanguards of Khorasan" magazine, a propaganda piece dedicated to the insurgents in Afghanistan, discusses Qutb's writings.

In listing the martyrology of the Al Qaeda movement after the successful assassination of Abu al-Layth al-Libi, commander of Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, al-Sahab (al-Qaeda's media wing) included Seyyid Qutb in their list of martyrs.

Understanding our enemies in the conflict of the 21st Century is necessary although insufficient to defeat them. Seyyid Qutb's Milestones is a good place to start.