Fractured Fundamentalisms

Extremism exists in every major faith, and sometimes turns violent

Qutb's story shows why so many fundamentalists believe that secularism is aggressive and inimical to faith. Nasser paid lip service to Islam and used the rhetoric of religion when it suited him. But he was a secularist, committed to a form of socialism and nationalism. The vast majority of Egyptians, who had not had a modern education, found his secularism alien and baffling; they responded far more warmly to the Muslim Brotherhood, which thus constituted a rival. After an attempt on his life, Nasser imprisoned hundreds of the Brothers without trial. Many of them had done nothing more incriminating than attending meetings or handing out leaflets.

Qutb went into the concentration camp as a liberal, but after 15 years of physical and mental torture, he came to the conclusion that Muslims had a duty to conduct a jihad against their secular rulers. He developed a form of liberation theology: because God alone was sovereign, no Muslim had any obligation to obey any authority--religious or secular. Egyptian society was evil: it was like the jahiliyyah, a term Muslims use to describe the "Age of Ignorance" in Arabia before the coming of Islam. Muhammad had fought the jahiliyyah of his own day, and now Muslims must continue this struggle, even against their own people, who were only Muslims in name.

Qutb devised a program of action, which included a withdrawal from the world, a period of preparation and finally an offensive against the enemies of Islam. This program completely distorts the meaning of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, who was forced to engage in war but who achieved victory by an ingenious and inspiring policy of non-violence.Bin Laden roughly subscribes to this kind of Sunni fundamentalism. His quarrel with the United States is not, however, over theological differences. He resents what he regard as its partisan and one-sided support for Israel, its support of such unpopular leaders as the Saudi kings and President Mubarak; and the continued bombing and sanctions against Iraq, which have deprived the Iraqi people (though not Saddam and his cronies) of food and drugs, as a result of which thousands of Iraqi children have died of cancer. All this Bin Laden regards as an act of war against the Arab peoples. All this seems to him, and to many people in the Middle East, an American war against Islam.


He is not simply concerned with fighting the United States. He also wants to get rid of regimes that he regards as apostate in the Muslim world: his targets include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Shiite Iran. He is not fighting democracy or freedom per se. He simply wants the United States out of the region, and is fighting a war against what he regards as American imperialism.

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