Martin Amis: On Qutb and Islam(ism)
I directed my Islamism students to the article "The age of horrorism" that Martin Amis published over a year ago in The Observer (Sunday September 10 2006) as an intelligent and insightful even if nonexpert perspective on Sayyid Qutb and Islamism.
I especially called attention to what Amis wrote on two things, the first on Qutb's unreliable recollection of his Atlantic crossing on the way to America (a sojourn of two years, 1948-1950):
Sayyid was presumably still sorely shaken by the birth of Israel (after the defeat of Egypt and five other Arab armies), but at first, on the Atlantic crossing, he felt a spiritual expansion. His encyclopedic commentary, In the Shade of the Koran, would fondly and ramblingly recall the renewal of his sense of purpose and destiny. Early on, he got into a minor sectarian battle with a proselytising Christian; Sayyid retaliated by doing a bit of proselytising himself, and made some progress with a contingent of Nubian sailors. Then came the traumatic incident with the drunken, semi-naked woman. Sayyid thought she was an American agent hired to seduce him, or so he later told his biographer, who wrote that 'the encounter successfully tested his resolve to resist experiences damaging to his identity as an Egyptian and a Muslim'. God knows what the episode actually amounted to. It seems probable that the liquored-up Mata Hari, the dipsomaniacal nudist, was simply a woman in a cocktail dress who, perhaps, had recently drunk a cocktail. Still, we can continue to imagine Sayyid barricading himself into his cabin while, beyond the door, the siren sings her song.I recall reading this anecdote by Qutb elsewhere, perhaps somewhere in Paul Berman's writings. Berman and Amis both find Qutb to be an unreliable narrator, and Qutb's remembrance of a drunken, half-naked woman trying to break through his locked door to force him into having sex with her struck me as entirely unbelievable, no more reliable than his 'memory' of Americans cheering in the streets in 1949 upon learning that Hasan al-Banna had died -- a riotous uproar that Qutb supposedly heard as he lay in a hospital room during an illness.
Qutb's belief that the sexually aggressive woman was an American agent sent to seduce him suggests a paranoid aspect to his thinking, an aspect that seems to pervade much Islamist discourse. Perhaps the Islamists' utopian vision -- or anyone's utopian vision, for that matter -- gives rise to a paranoid mindset, as one attempts to make sense of history and explain why the utopia that one seeks to realize has been so successfully blocked. There must be malevolent forces opposed to the truth, the just, the right. Such a view can even provide the utopian believer with a satisfying if grossly inflated sense of self-significance. In Qutb's case, while he might appear to others as just an unknown writer in an underdeveloped part of the world, he knew himself to actually be of such profound significance that the great superpower America had understood that he must be stopped.
The second thing that I called my students' special attention to was what Amis wrote on the totalizing demands of Islam . . . or does he mean Islamism?
Like fundamentalist Judaism and medieval Christianity, Islam is totalist. That is to say, it makes a total claim on the individual. Indeed, there is no individual; there is only the umma -- the community of believers. Ayatollah Khomeini, in his copious writings, often returns to this theme. He unindulgently notes that believers in most religions appear to think that, so long as they observe all the formal pieties, then for the rest of the time they can do more or less as they please. 'Islam', as he frequently reminds us, 'isn't like that.' Islam follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, into the bedroom, into the bathroom, and beyond death into eternity. Islam means 'submission' - the surrender of independence of mind. That surrender now bears the weight of well over 60 generations, and 14 centuries.The second passage raises questions about just where to draw the line between Islam and Islamism. If Islam does make total demands, even political ones -- or perhaps especially political ones, then wouldn't Islam itself demand the struggle to make shariah into the law of all lands? Perhaps we can think of the difference in the way that Bernard Lewis distinguished between quietists and activists in Islam -- except that I want to reverse Lewis's distinction. Just as Muhammad's career had two phases, a quietist one in Mecca and an activist one in Medina (Lewis sees the activist first, the quietist second), so Islam has two faces: quietist and activist. In Mecca, Muhammad called for converts but forced nobody to submit, for in his powerlessness, he could not do so. In Medina, however, Muhammad demanded converts and did force others to submit, for in his power, he could do so. What we're calling "Islam" corresponds more to the quietist phase, and what we're calling "Islamism" corresponds more to the activist phase. Maybe. But since I'm rather at odds with the expert Lewis on this analogy, perhaps I'm no more reliable than Qutb.
At any rate, as I told my students, we have a couple of interesting passages that raise questions about the character of Islamism.