Saturday, March 22, 2003

A terrifying look at the roots of terror. The cover story of tomorrow's New York Times Magazine is an adaptation from Paul Berman's new book, Terror and Liberalism. And it is terrifying. Berman examines the life and work of Sayyid Qutb, an early Islamist extremist, who was executed by the regime of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966.

According to Berman, Qutb is slightly known in Western circles as a writer who inspired Al Qaeda. But his best-known work in the West, Milestones, is "shallow," Berman writes. What really inspires terrorists is a 15-volume work he produced mainly in prison, under horrific conditions, called In the Shade of the Qur'an.

Berman's essay is long and detailed, and defies neat summary. Read it. Qutb loathed the Jews, and blamed the Christians for the 2000-year-old theological mistake of separating the secular from the sacred, a "hideous schizophrenia" that harks back to Jesus' telling his followers to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar's -- almost certainly a misquote, in Qutb's view.

Worse, the Christians later exported their notions of the separation between the worldly and spiritual realms back to the Muslim world -- particularly Turkey, a non-Arab country that nevertheless was the seat of the seventh-century Islamic caliphate for which Qutb and his followers so yearn.

Not-so-fun fact: Qutb's brother, who held similar views, taught theology to a young Osama bin Laden.

Qutb favored a society that practiced a particularly harsh form of Shariah, or Islamic law, and stressed martyrdom, a message that gained particular resonance after his execution. He would have loved the Taliban.

"He opposed the United States because it was a liberal society, not because the United States failed to be a liberal society," Berman writes. Later, he adds: "Qutb gave these people [Islamist radicals] a reason to yearn for death. Wisdom, piety, death and immortality are, in his vision of the world, the same. For a pious life is a life of struggle or jihad for Islam, and struggle means martyrdom. We may think: those are creepy ideas. And yes, the ideas are creepy. But there is, in Qutb's presentation, a weird allure in those ideas."

And this is an extraordinarily creepy article.

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