SAYYID QUTB AND THE ORIGINS OF RADICAL ISLAMISM
By John Calvert
Columbia University Press, $29.50, 256 pages
HAMAS IN POLITICS: DEMOCRACY, RELIGION, VIOLENCE
By Jeroen Gunning
Columbia University Press, $26.50, 320 pages
The study of Middle East issues is highly politicized and often, unfortunately, is burdened by distortion and bias, as demonstrated by these recently published books.
John Calvert’s “Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism” is a biography of one of the architects of modern-day Islamic extremism. Qutb (1906-66) was born in Egypt at the height of Britain’s domination of that country. He emerged as a literary figure in the 1930s, but by the late 1940s turned to a virulent form of Islamic nationalism that he continued to expound throughout his life. Attesting to his lasting importance, among his most ardent modern-day adherents have been al Qaeda’s leaders Ayman al-Zawahri and Osama bin Laden.
Mr. Calvert, associate professor of history at Creighton University in Nebraska, specializes in Middle Eastern Islamic movements. This book reflects Mr. Calvert’s extensive archival research in Egypt and elsewhere on Qutb’s life and writings, but also, unfortunately, his bias in portraying his subject in an overly uncritical light. Throughout the book, Qutb’s condemnations of modernity, Westernization and early 1950s America seem to be adopted practically wholeheartedly by the author - the substance of which is marred by inaccuracies. Moreover, few of Qutb’s virulent commentaries are quoted, making it appear as though he’s actually moderate and reasonable.
A religiously conservative aesthete, Qutb never married nor had intimate relations with women. He was hugely disturbed when he spent some 15 months in America from mid-1948 to late 1949, misunderstanding Americans’ dating practices and sexual relations as “a purely biological matter.” Moreover, even though most social historians would have characterized America at that time as quite conservative and religious, Qutb portrayed it in his writings as “a hellish vision of a country alienated from God’s truth.” Mr. Calvert then joins Qutb’s misguided criticism, noting that “Qutb’s writings signal the moment in modern history when the United States’ glossy image began to tarnish.” Others, of course, might take issue with this point.
Much of the book is devoted to the development of Qutb’s Islamist thinking within the context of political developments in 1950s Egypt. Qutb’s writings greatly influenced the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s leading Islamic opposition group, which was outlawed for much of this period because of its terrorist activities against the state.
As discussed by Mr. Calvert, Qutb’s most famous book, “Milestones,” argues that “Islam stands as the salvation not only of Muslims, but also of humanity as a whole.” What made Qutb so important to radical Islamists is his message that it is up to a determined vanguard of true Muslims to confront “the vast ocean of al-jahiliyya [state of ignorance] which encompasses the entire world.” This directive was later adopted by Islamist insurgent groups such as al Qaeda and Hamas.
Qutb’s political involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood led to several arrests and imprisonment by the Egyptian government, with the last years of his life spent in prison, where he was executed in 1996.
In the book’s epilogue, Mr. Calvert provides a valuable discussion of what he calls the “trajectory of ‘Qutbism.’ ” Qutb’s brother, for example, and others associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood took refuge in Saudi Arabia in the late 1960s, where they influenced a new generation of Islamic extremists, including bin Laden. In Egypt, his ideological successors, such as the Jihad Group, assassinated President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 (al-Zawahri was among those imprisoned for complicity in the assassination).
Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheik,” also a Qutb follower, was one of the leaders of another ideological successor, the Egyptian Islamic Group. Eventually making his way to America in the late 1980s, he was convicted for his role in the plot to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993.
Despite his biased and uncritical treatment, Mr. Calvert’s book deserves to be read for its comprehensive overview of Qutb’s life and writings.
The same cannot be said for Jeroen Gunning’s “Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence.” While passable as a doctoral dissertation - from which it originated - it fails as a published book because Mr. Gunning’s overt sympathies for Hamas thoroughly distort his analysis of the subject. For example, in an Orwellian twist on political discourse, Mr. Gunning asserts that “similarities exist” between Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian affiliate, and John Locke, the English founder of modern liberalism, with “Locke, like Hamas, [insisting] that humans are ‘by nature, all free, equal and independent.’ ” Would any independent journalist covering Hamas’ theocratic and authoritarian rule in the Gaza Strip make such a comparison?
In other instances, Mr. Gunning, a lecturer in the department of International Politics at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, employs jargon to distort reality, such as in this peculiar sentence: “It is important, however, to acknowledge that Hamas’ political theory closely echoes aspects of the Western contractarian tradition.”
Worst of all, despite the fact that this paperback edition was published in 2010, the book’s coverage of Hamas ends in 2006 with no mention in an epilogue of the winter of the 2008-09 Gaza war, which had such a devastating impact on Gazan society. In this reviewer’s opinion, it was omitted because it would have spoiled Mr. Gunning’s characterization of Hamas as a peaceful and enlightened political movement.
Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech (National Capital Region), in Alexandria, Va.