For all of Sayyid Qutb’s positive contributions to the Muslim world (and there were a few, despite his influence on figures like Osama Bin Laden) we cannot ignore the negatives. The most infamous is his pivotal role in inspiring modern Islamic anti-Semitism with his influential work Our Struggle Against the Jews (1950). The irony is that Qutb often sounds very Jewish. For all his hatred of Jews, he actually shared many of his criticisms of the United States with leading figures of the Frankfurt School, who were, coincidentally, Jewish.
There are almost too many examples to count. For the sake of time, we will restrict ourselves to a few of them. During his two-year stay in the United States, Qutb developed a disgust with the rampant materialism of American culture and life that was equally expressed by Marxists like Ernst Bloch, who famously called America “a cul-de-sac lit by neon lights.”
This was often done on his own proto-Islamist terms. For instance, Qutb’s hatred of jazz was tinged with his own racist inclinations, which is ironic, given how much he hated American racism:
“The American is primitive in his artistic taste, both in what he enjoys as art and in his own artistic works. ‘Jazz’ music is his music of choice. This is that music that Negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other.”
Theodor Adorno would have strongly disagreed on his core points here. Afterall, Adorno hated jazz because he saw it as being illusively spontaneous, rather than genuinely liberatory. Still though, on the topic of it being “primitive,” they would have found common ground, even if Adorno preferred to use words like “regressive.”
It wasn’t only jazz. Qutb also despised the United States because he was alienated by laissez-faire economics, and libertarian ideas of personal freedom, the same as many Jews of the interwar period, and especially leftist Jews, who were primarily socialist in their political orientation, and strong supporters of the New Deal, and Keynesianism.
His hatred for boxing matches as a showcase of brutality also sounds familiar. Adorno and Horkheimer saw such spectacles as providing a safe catharsis for violated audiences. They both attack, and feel attacked, through the televised subject, in the same way as they do by watching Daffy Duck being hit by an oversized mallet. The total cultural exercise then relieves them of their own suffering in the same way as a religious experience.
The Islamic philospher was additionally troubled by the intense superficiality of American life that masqueraded itself as genuine individual expression. Many of his critics find his views on haircuts, fashion, and professional sports laughable, but Adorno and Horkheimer hit on similar points in their landmark work The Culture Industry.
They most clearly agree on the topic of “idle talk,” and how Americans are fooled into having stilted conversations that ultimately conform to established norms. Today, we call this “making small talk,” which expresses our boredom with the practice, but doesn’t undo it as a reactionary mechanism.
These men all read these aspects of American life as placating the masses in place of traditional religion, and doing so in violently oppressive terms. The crucial question, then, is why Qutb went the way of right-wing anti-capitalist Islamism, while the Jewish exiles clearly embraced different ideas. They were all leftists, after all.
It is probably because Qutb was constantly interpreting this information through a filter of existing religious zealotry, and a particularly Salafist anti-Western sentiment. His disgust with American femininity is a perfect example:
“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.”
Is Qutb wrong? Not entirely. First generation Frankfurt School theorists would have likely noted that this notion of happiness is sanctioned by the culture industry. Qutb never went that far with his cultural criticisms, though. He saw features such as this, and immediately concluded that the problem was religion being divorced from public life. His prescription was, therefore, in the tradition of Hassan al-Banna, a revival of Islam as a social, economic, and political system, retrofitted for modern conditions.
Even there, though, he would have found some agreement with his Jewish contemporaries. America was an ethical void that was previously occupied by organized religion, now replaced by trivial fetishism. The Frankfurt School Jewish exiles were all Marxists because they believed that it would provide for a wider breakthrough in ethical social relations. His execution was the problem, since Qutb believed that a fetishized interpretation of Islam could resolve all social ills. The problem with American femininity therefore became insufficient chastity, rather than a truly emancipated sexuality.
There is a crucial other point to this, though. When studying Qutb, and the Frankfurt School together, it is impossible to escape the fact that they were both lashing out against that “cul-de-sac lit by neon lights” from, well, a cul-de-sac lit by neon lights. This is a crucial point, because Qutb’s continued relevancy for many alienated American Muslims is due to their own presence in those same spaces.
American Salafi jihadists are usually middle-class, educated in elite institutions, and raised in professional households. Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American who became a major leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, actually spent much of his life in Colorado, the same state where Qutb lived several decades earlier.
It is up to North American Muslims like myself, who are freshly alienated by the War on Terror, to bear in mind two realities. One is that we have to escape those confines to truly understand the United States, and another is that for all intensive purposes, Muslims are treated like persecuted Jews once were. This should push us to learn from their experiences.
It was a supreme waste of Qutb’s intelligence and talent that he was never really aware of how ‘Jewish’ his perspectives and ideas actually were. It would be a similar waste if young Muslims today repeat that same mistake, bolstered by anti-Semitism.