a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Sayyid Qutb’s French connection

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th August 2003

Sayyid Qutb is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of 20th century radical Islamism. I’ve read about him in Paul Berman’s fine book Terror and Liberalism, and in an informative series of essays* by “Ideofact” blogger Bill Allison, who has this “boilerplate” description of Qutb:

Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian Islamist, an early theoretician for the Muslim Brotherhood, and has been described by some as the brains of bin Laden. He died in 1966 in an Egyptian prison.

Allison goes on to write:

[I]n Qutb’s version of the ideal Islamic society, the ruler would have absolute authority over education and legislation, over property and natural resources, who would preside over a society permanently on a war footing, even at times of peace. The legislation is dressed up with Islamic elements, but essentially what Qutb is arguing for is a fascist or totalitarian state after the 1920s and 1930s European model.

Berman makes similar points, and notes in particular what motivated Qutb — a fear that Islam was facing a battle “to exterminate this religion as even a basic creed, and to replace it with secular conceptions…” Berman then adds the provocative point that Qutb’s response actually comes from the apocalyptic tradition underlying — Berman argues — all totalitarian ideologies:

[I]n twentieth century Europe each of the totalitarian movements entertained a grand vision of modern civilization and of despeerate predicaments and utopian destines. Each of the totalitarian doctirnes of Europe expressed that vision by telling a version of the ur-myth, the myth of Armageddon. So did Qutb.

With him, too, there was a people of God. They happened to be the Muslims. The people of God had come under insidious attack from within their own society, by the forces of corruption and pollution. … There was going to be a terrible war against them, led by the Muslim vanguard. … [The reign of God] was going to create a perfect society, cleansed of its impurities and corruptions — as always in the totalitarian mythologies. (p. 98-99)*

Alexis Carrel
It turns out that Qutb had a more direct connection to a variety of European mysticism and nascent totalitarianism in the writings and philosophy of one Alexis Carrel — Nobel Prize in Medicine winner for his work on circulatory surgery and transplants, arch-conservative Catholic, Vichy regime supporter, and, in the end, apologist for Nazi euthanasia and eugenics programs.

Rudolph Walther, a historian living in Frankfurt, recently wrote a piece for the German newsweekly Die Zeit that discusses the Qutb-Carrel connection, “The strange teachings of Doctor Carrel: how a French Catholic doctor became a spiritual forefather of the radical Islamists.” Excerpts:

The superficial commonalities between Carrel and Qutb are plain: we meet the medical man’s elite in a “scientific monastery” as Qutb’s “avant garde,” and the Carrel’s “biological classes” are Qutb’s “belief classes.” Whether “civilization” (Carrel) or “barbarism” (Qutb) — neither are “worthy of us,” because they contradict “our true nature” (Carrel) or Qutb’s “good, healthy nature.” Both are quite in agreement in their goal to reconcile knowledge and belief.

The decisive affinities lie deeper, though. Qutb cites no author aside from the Koran as often and as extensively as Carrel. What fascinated Qutb about Carrel was, as Islamic Studies scholar Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi wrote in his 1996 book “Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence,” first of all his view of humanity “which he relies on more than the Koran.” Second, Qutb follows Carrel’s method. The pious doctor complains that “man, this whole,” this unique, complex being, is being subdivided and torn apart by social reality and science… The exclusive concentration on the material nature of man had the effect of repressing his spiritual side. […]

Qutb follows Carrel in making “human nature” the condition and measure of all thought and action. Because “human nature” is simultaneously posited as God-given, both immunize “human nature” against criticism, because God answers queries as little as “nature” does objections. The core of Qutb’s supposed Middle Eastern Islamism is formed by a naturalistic logical error that is deeply rooted in European philosophy… Carrel writes: “The goal of life is to follow the laws of life. We decipher these laws from our bodies and our souls, not from philosophical systems and concepts.” Thus ethical norms (“laws of life”) are derived directly from biological facts and psychological diagnoses. Translated to Qutb’s language, human freedom and thus a free, varied society are not possible, only obedience to the law of God. […]

What Qutb calls “the Islamic method,” the integration of education, ethics, economics and politics to a unified system of “divine uniqueness,” matches Carrel’s “unification of all capabilities and their coordination to a single belief,” the “super-science” in every detail …*** [emphasis added]

In every detail, of course, but the underlying faith, but the similiarities do seem very strong. It’s also interesting to speculate about the degree to which Carrel’s field — the “parts is parts” world of organ transplants, coupled with the tissue rejection issues that bedeviled his efforts — influenced his philosophy. At any rate, an online biography records that in 1935,

Carrel published MAN, THE UNKNOWN, a work written upon the recommendation of a loose-knit group of intellectuals that he often dined with at the Century Club. In MAN, THE UNKNOWN, Carrel posed highly philosophical questions about mankind, and theorized that mankind could reach perfection through selective reproduction and the leadership of an intellectual aristocracy. The book, a worldwide best-seller and translated into nineteen languages, brought Carrel international attention. Carrel’s speculations about the need for a council of superior individuals to guide the future of mankind was seen by many as anti-democratic. ****

From Carrel’s introduction to “Man the Unknown”:

To progress again, man must remake himself. And he cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor. In order to uncover his true visage, he must shatter his own substance with heavy blows of his hammer.

Carrel doubtless didn’t see himself in need of remaking, he saw himself as wielding the hammer. From the final chapter of the same book:

We need, therefore, an institution capable of providing for the uninterrupted pursuit for at least a century of the investigations concerning man. Modern society should be given an intellectual focus, an immortal brain, capable of conceiving and planning its future, and of promoting and pushing forward fundamental researches, in spite of the death of the individual researchers, or the bankruptcy of the research institutes. Such an organization would be the salvation of the white races in their staggering advance toward civilization. This thinking center would consist, as does the Supreme Court of the United States, of a few individuals; the latter being trained in the knowledge of man by many years of study. It should perpetuate itself automatically, in such a manner as to radiate ever young ideas. Democratic rulers, as well as dictators, could receive from this source of scientific truth the information that they need in order to develop a civilization really suitable to man.

Carrel’s ideas, conflated as they were with others about diet, nutrition, and purity, have remained attractive — or at least not disqualifying — to certain subspecies of “ecological” thinking, as evidenced by the site providing the text above, “,” and other such enterprises.

So What
In one way, I’m not sure whether any of this was worth learning. An Islamist thinker, obscure to most of us, seems to have found support for his views in the writings of a right-wing European surgeon and mystic who is equally deservedly obscure to most of us.

On the other hand: know thy enemy. Qutb was bad enough, and Bin Laden and Zawahiri have taken his writings to the next murderous level. Understanding (or at least cataloguing) Qutb’s views and motives can help make sense of (or at least predict) those of his followers.

It may also be worthwhile to see that an apparently foreign and mysterious ideology like Qutb’s has analogues and even ancestry in certain cul-de-sacs of Western thought — which were for their part considered progressive, scientific, and forward-looking at one time, and still seem to beguile some people today.

Mainly, I just mean to point out the Qutb-Carrel connection as a kind of footnote to the more extensive and informed discussions of Qutb at “Ideofact” and elsewhere. The connection is more direct than the general “apocalypticism” that Berman sees Qutb’s ideas sharing with other totalitarian world views, so it may interest those of you who have read or will read Berman’s book. At any rate, if you’ve had the patience to bear with me, thank you!

* Mr. Allison’s posts are organized by the chapters of one of Qutb’s main works, “Social Justice In Islam”:18:1, 8:2, 8:3, 8:4, 8:5, 8:4:1, 8:6. For a complete archive of the earlier chapter reviews, see Aziz Poonawalla’s ongoing archive of Allison’s posts about Qutb.
** Berman also points out that Bin Laden and Zawahiri notwithstanding, Qutb’s version of jihad was not terror pure and simple, but bound by Islamic tradition and the Qur’an:“Do not kill women and children”“Fight for the cause of God those who fight against you, but do not commit aggression. God does not love aggressors.”
*** Spiritual forefather: “Vordenker,” lit. fore-thinker. View of humanity: Menschenbild, lit. “human image.” “Middle Eastern” translated from “orientalisch”, lit. oriental(istic), a more loaded term in English than in German, I think. “Matches in every detail” translated from “gleicht aufs Haar,” lit. “matches down to the hairs,”
**** The “loose knit group” at least overlapped with an organization called the Twilight Club, which still exists today, primarily as a vehicle for the metaphysical speculations of deceased member Walter Russell.

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Gotcha, you bastard (the series continues)

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th March 2003

Osama running out of bridge partners? The Washington Post reports that it wasn’t just Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who got nabbed in Rawalpindi. Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi, alleged financial chief of Al Qaeda, was apparently caught napping as well. Hawsawi, a Saudi native (go figure), is said to have been the paymaster for the 9/11 terrorists. Some free advice: you guys should move around more … unless, of course, it isn’t safe, as Douglas Turnbull notes helpfully.

Sound familiar? That’s right! “” for Al Qaeda: Stay indoors … or move around! We just don’t know what to tell you! Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?

Other “Gotcha” posts: 1, 2, 3. Trade them with your friends!

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Gotcha, you bastard (an ongoing series)

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd March 2003

Lovely news from Rawalpindi: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed apprehended. (I can’t help mentioning: you’ve looked better, Khalid.) He’s considered the chief planner of the September 11 attacks. Mr. Mohammed will be seeing Mr. Atta in hell, but not before a lengthy layover in Guantanamo Bay.  Sayonara, s**thead.

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th November 2002

U.S. Strike Kills Six in Al Qaeda (Washington Post):

A missile fired by a U.S. Predator drone over Yemen Sunday killed six suspected al Qaeda terrorists in a vehicle about 100 miles east of the nation’s capital, the first time the United States has used the unmanned weapon outside Afghanistan, sources familiar with the action said yesterday.

A senior administration official said Yemeni defense officials had identified one of the men killed as Abu Ali al-Harithi, a senior al Qaeda leader and one of the terrorist network’s top figures in Yemen. Al-Harithi is one of the suspected planners of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors in the Yemeni harbor of Aden, and has been linked to the Oct. 7 bombing of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.

There’s a great AP photo of some guy poking through the rubble. Great photos need great captions, leave yours as a comment if you like. “Asses to ashes”? The group was probably not on a coffee-and-doughnuts run. As ABC News reports:

Yemeni government sources have confirmed that traces of explosives and communications equipment were found in the car traveling in the oil-producing Marib province, about 100 miles east of the capital, San’a on Sunday.

…making me even less concerned about some Swedish foreign minister’s concerns (“summary execution”) than I already thought possible.

It’s a quibble, but we might have left this and the next two or three attacks “unexplained” for a while. On the other hand, this may slow down the operations these guys were planning, make their buddies rethink their travel plans, and allow more time to prevent terror attacks. In the meantime: are there any Predators flying over the “Empty Quarter“?

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Gotcha, you bastard

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th September 2002

Great news that Binalshibh, a key 9/11 plotter, has been caught (Arrests in Karachi Raising Hopes in Hunt for Al Qaeda). Mixed feelings that the Al-Jazeera reporter who interviewed Binalshibh a week ago fears for his life as a suspected snitch (WPost, 9/15/2002, “Arab Journalist Fears Al Qaeda Retaliation”). Also a relief — for those of us who still care about relations with that country — that Germany has apparently passed on any effort to extradite Binalshibh to its own jurisdiction.

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The other American Taliban

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th January 2002

Via Boing Boing (A Directory of Wonderful Things):

I say burn him.

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Saudi “humanitarian” among Al Qaeda detainees?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th January 2002

At the end of an otherwise dispiriting article (“Al-Qaida PoWs revolt in Pakistan”), the Guardian reports:

Fifteen detainees from Mazar-i-Sharif have been turned over to the US Marines at a new jail at the American base at Kandahar. […]

One prisoner is believed to be Abdul Aziz, a Saudi Arabian official of the Wafa humanitarian organisation, a US official said. Wafa’s assets have been frozen by President George Bush’s administration for alleged terrorist links.

Getting at the money, and understanding how it flows, is as important as rounding up Al Qaeda, so Aziz’s capture, if it indeed happened, could be a big break.

Our good friends the Pakistanis

But the rest of the Guardian story above paints a picture of a pretty leaky bucket when Al Qaeda types get to Pakistan, or within reach of Pakistan forces. The incidents described by the Guardian appear to be due to incompetence by the Pakistanis, but I have to wonder. In a similar vein, Seymour Hersh alleges in the New Yorker (“The Getaway“) that Pakistani forces got a lot of their friends out with them as the Kunduz noose tightened in November.

In interviews, however, American intelligence officials and high-ranking military officers said that Pakistanis were indeed flown to safety, in a series of nighttime airlifts that were approved by the Bush Administration. The Americans also said that what was supposed to be a limited evacuation apparently slipped out of control, and, as an unintended consequence, an unknown number of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters managed to join in the exodus. “Dirt got through the screen,” a senior intelligence official told me. Last week, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld did not respond to a request for comment. […]

Indian intelligence had concluded that eight thousand or more men were trapped inside the city in the last days of the siege, roughly half of whom were Pakistanis. (Afghans, Uzbeks, Chechens, and various Arab mercenaries accounted for the rest.) At least five flights were specifically “confirmed” by India’s informants, the RAW analyst told me, and many more were believed to have taken place.

In the Indian assessment, thirtythree hundred prisoners surrendered to a Northern Alliance tribal faction headed by General Abdul Rashid Dostum. A few hundred Taliban were also turned over to other tribal leaders. That left between four and five thousand men unaccounted for.

Hersh has published a number of “insider” stories about the true course of the war now, generally of the “it’s not going quite as well as they say it is” tenor; I don’t know what his batting average will turn out to be. But if this is even nearly true, we may have really blown it at Kunduz. Why could we not have insisted those flights head to Uzbekistan under US fighter escort? “Good guys” would have gotten a ticket to Islamabad (and some thorough debriefing and photographing for future reference), bad guys a ticket to “Club Fed” in the lovely Caribbean. What alternatives would they have had? (“No, I’ll stay in Kunduz rather than accept such humiliation.” “Fine.”) As for Musharraf, I would think in some ways he might be pleased to have corralled and controlled some of his nation’s own wild and woolly military types, under the guise of “debriefing” or whatever.

Although hindsight is always 20/20, I really don’t understand the U.S. reasoning here — again, assuming Hersh got the story more or less right. We need the Pakistanis… because? Because we want to catch Al Qaeda. Where were the Al Qaeda? …. In Kunduz. Leaving out those who wound up in Mazar-e-Sharif, we seem to have had hundreds, maybe thousands of birds in the hand, that we seem to have traded for nothing in the bush.

For some coverage at the time, see my posts of 11/24/2001, “B-52 that airport now“, and 11/21/2001, “72 virgins not enough, argue trapped Al Qaeda fighters” (to explain, that was an attempt to poke fun at would-be martyrs suddenly eager to escape). Obviously not so much for my deathless prose, but the news links still work.

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Photodude ID’s Raimondo as crypto-warblogger

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th January 2002

Late Tuesday Matt Welch drew attention to “” guy Justin Raimondo, who published a screed deriding “warbloggers”. Now Reid Stott, aka “Photodude”, has gone to the trouble to read more of Justin Raimondo’s stuff. Lo and behold, Reid discovered that Raimondo is practically a warblogger himself. On September 28, Raimondo wrote:

After releasing the evidence against Osama bin Laden and his followers – or whoever – we need to go in and take them out.The conquest of the Middle East, or even Afghanistan, needn’t enter into it. An attack on our own soil must be meant with retaliation swift and sure: but what kind of retribution is it that demands we go in and engage in ‘nation-building’ as neocon columnist James Pinkerton suggests? It seems like an open invitation to terrorists everywhere: just blow up a few major American landmarks, and we’ll rebuild your nation for you! […] No, much better to strike – and leave. … let us be done with this nest of Middle Eastern vipers.

Well, Rumsfeld granted your every wish, Mr. Raimondo. As Stott writes, this reads like it might have come from most any “warblog”, even by Raimondo’s own tilted definition (“War is good, bracing, and invariably righteous … vehement in their contempt for Arabs…”). So what’s up with Raimondo? It’s almost as if his latest item is in penance for the just-after-9/11-one. Or maybe it’s just tough to have to pay the bills (suggested donation: $50) with a site called “”

But I still don’t think it was very nice to generalize about Middle Easterners that way.

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I’m saving my hide for you

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd January 2002

MSNBC forwards a Washington Post item reporting that Bin Laden lieutenant Zawahiri urged al Qaeda to let fighters escape for jihad’s sake. But not just any fighter:

IN WHAT U.S. intelligence officials call his “last will,” Ayman Zawahiri wrote that “if the entire movement, or part of it, faces a situation where the noose is being tightened around it and its collapse is a matter of days or hours,” some of its key members must escape. That way, he suggested, those who remain behind can fight to the death without fear that their cause will die with them.

What a guy! Always thinking of the cause! Sound like it’s not Zawahiri’s “last will”, it’s his troops’.

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The Saudi Wahhabite role, contd.

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st December 2001

Following up on earlier posts about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia: In the New York Times, the 12/27 article “Holy War Lured Saudis as Rulers Looked Away” provides an account of the role of Saudi secular and religious establishments in that country’s jihadist movement. Re religious establishment:

A half-blind man of 61, Sheik Sadlaan is a professor at the kingdom’s leading Islamic university and a religious adviser to a senior member of the royal family. What he says carries the weight of the ulemaa, Saudi Arabia’s official religious establishment, and what he says, carefully, is that the king is his imam, and the king does not currently advise young men to march off to holy war.

But asked about other scholars, like Sheik Hamoud al-Shuaibi, who since Sept. 11 and the American retaliation have openly called for jihad against the United States, Sheik Sadlaan stops short of condemnation.

“He made a mistake, but it was not a major one, and it does not detract from his reputation,” he said of Sheik Shuaibi, a former teacher.

Even the Saudi government is not known to have taken action against Sheik Shuaibi, despite his statements that those who support infidels, or unbelievers, should be considered unbelievers themselves, a statement that would seem perilously close to treason in Saudi Arabia, still home to more than 5,000 American troops.

Out of roughly 10,000 religious scholars in the kingdom, perhaps just 150 embrace such a radical view, according to American estimates. But among this group, only a handful is known to have been detained by Saudi authorities since Sept. 11…

This in a country known for crushing religious uprisings of whatever stripe, from the defeat of the Ikhwan in 1929 to the 1979 Mecca Mosque uprising to the 1992 Burayda roundups.* Mr. Sadlaan’s ambivalence may be changing in light of Crown Prince Abdullah’s call yesterday for unequivocal condemnation of terrorism (AP). Then again, it may not, given that “legitimate armed struggle” by the Palestinians was specifically distinguished from terrorism in Abdullah’s comments (Reuters). I don’t know whether Abdullah considers suicide bombing a pizza parlor or busloads of commuters “legitimate” or not.

Re government oversight, there is a lot of detail about the surveillance of Al Qaeda and “Afghan Arabs” by the Saudi government. But this is suggestive, I think:

But in private, Saudi and American officials say the real mystery to the Saudi government is not whether Saudi citizens took part [in the 9/11 attacks], but how so many of them were able to evade detection by the Saudi authorities. […]

To the Saudis, American officials say, the fact that the Saudis involved in the assaults were unknown to them was almost as startling as the attacks themselves.

In recent years, the mubahith, the Saudi equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, infiltrated Al Qaeda cells within the kingdom, while the monitoring of the Saudis fighting abroad was thought to have kept a handle on potential troublemakers.

Assume for a moment that the article is accurate in portraying the Saudi government as merely feckless or negligent in their handling of the “Afghan Arabs.” It seems to me we are still left with a portrait of (1) extremist clergy tolerated in a notably intolerant country — suggesting the government either fears them, believes they are sufficiently well observed, or both — and (2) gaping blind spots in the mubahith surveillance of Al Qaeda. As a theory, I suggest that some of these mubahith officials, and likely some of the domestic mutaween religious enforcement police may be treasonously extremist Wahhabites themselves, and may have helped the 9/11 attackers evade detection in Saudi Arabia. The CIA, FBI, and reliable muhabith should be (and may well be) looking for “sleeper” cells in the Saudi government, particularly in their police forces.


* Viorst, Shadow of the Prophet, Ch.7: “The Saudi Dilemma.”

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