Sayyid Qutb's America

Al Qaeda Inspiration Denounced U.S. Greed, Sexuality

Sayyid Qutb

hide captionSayyid Qutb, behind bars during his trial in Eqypt on charges he was helping an effort to overthrow the government. He was hanged in 1966.

Library of Congress
Map of Greeley and Northern Colorado

hide captionGreeley is about 100 miles north of Denver, Colo.

Erik Dunham, NPR Online
Fans of the Northridge High School Grizzly Bears wrestling team

hide captionFans of the Northridge High School Grizzly Bears wrestling team show their spirit. Qutb singled out the town's love of wrestling as evidence of the "brutish" nature of American males.

Robert Siegel, NPR News
Horace Greeley

hide captionThe town was named after newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, whose rallying cry was "Go west, young man, go west!" Greeley visited his namesake town just once, in 1870.

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Nathan C. Meeker

hide captionNathan C. Meeker

Library of Congress

Egyptian writer and educator Sayyid Qutb spent the better half of 1949 in Greeley, Colo., studying curriculum at Colorado State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Colorado. What he saw prompted him to condemn America as a soulless, materialistic place that no Muslim should aspire to live in.

Qutb's writings would later become the theoretical basis for many radical Islamic groups of today — including al Qaeda. Qutb increasingly saw the redemption of Egypt in the application of Islamic law.

But NPR's Robert Siegel reports that some of Qutb's conclusions may have been the result of the clash of two very different cultures. "The way Qutb saw America was sharply at odds with the way Americans saw themselves," Siegel says.

Qutb pointed out many things Americans take for granted as examples of the nation's culture of greed — for example, the green lawns in front of homes in Greeley.

Ironically, Greeley in the middle of the 20th century was a very conservative town, where alcohol was illegal. It was a planned community, founded by Utopian idealists looking to make a garden out of the dry plains north of Denver using irrigation. The founding fathers of Greeley were by all reports temperate, religious and peaceful people.

But Qutb wasn't convinced. "America in 1949 was not a natural fit for Qutb," Siegel says. "He was a man of color, and the United States was still largely segregated. He was an Arab — American public opinion favored Israel, which had come into existence just a year before."

In the college literary magazine, Qutb wrote of his disappointment:

"When we came here to appeal to England for our rights, the world helped England against the justice (sic). When we came here to appeal against Jews, the world helped the Jews against the justice. During the war between Arab and Jews, the world helped the Jews, too."

Qutb wrote about Greeley in his book, The America I Have Seen. He offered a distorted chronology of American history: "He informed his Arab readers that it began with bloody wars against the Indians, which he claimed were still underway in 1949," Siegel says. "He wrote that before independence, American colonists pushed Latinos south toward Central America — even though the American colonists themselves had not yet pushed west of the Mississippi... Then came the Revolution, which he called 'a destructive war led by George Washington.'"

When it came to culture, Qutb denounced the primitive jazz music and loud clothing, the obsession with body image and perfection, and the bald sexuality. The American female was naturally a temptress, acting her part in a sexual system Qutb described as "biological":

"The American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it."

Even an innocent dance in a church basement is proof of animalistic American sexuality:

"They danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire..."

To Qutb, women were vixens, and men were sports-obsessed brutes: "This primitiveness can be seen in the spectacle of the fans as they follow a game of football... or watch boxing matches or bloody, monstrous wrestling matches... This spectacle leaves no room for doubt as to the primitiveness of the feelings of those who are enamored with muscular strength and desire it."

Egyptian political scientist Mamoun Fandy tells Siegel that Qutb's critique of America was in many ways a critique of Egyptian society. "Fandy says Qutb was warning Egyptians of the West, of modernity, of things they were very attracted to," Siegel says. As for Qutb's revulsion over American sexuality, Fandy says there is no evidence that Qutb ever had a sexual relationship in his life.

Qutb became a leader of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood on his return to Egypt. After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1953, he was once considered for a Cabinet post. But he was later accused of plotting against the government and executed in 1966.

"In his prison writings, Qutb equated governments like Egypt's with the pre-Islamic tribes of Arabia. They represented a state of ignorance — Islam offered liberation," Siegel says. "Among his avid readers were the men who went on to found al Qaeda.

"As for the town? Greeley, Colo., remained conservative — But since 1969, it's no longer dry."

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