Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Mythic Foundations of Radical Islam

The Mythic Foundations of Radical Islam

Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice, not because of the danger of complete annihilation which is hanging over its head— this being just a symptom and not the real disease— but because humanity is devoid of those vital values for its healthy development and real progress. Even Western scholars realize that their civilization is unable to present healthy values for the guidance of mankind and does not possess anything to satisfy its own conscience or justify its existence.[1]

These are the words of the Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), taken from his 1964 treatise Maalim fi al-Tariq(“Milestones”), which is to the Islamist movement what Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” was to Marxism. In this passage Qutb expresses one of the most enduring themes in radical Islamist discourse: that the Western-dominated world order is in the grip of spiritual decline and decadence. He goes on to explain why only Islam, properly understood, is in a position to remedy this. According to Qutb, the crass materialism and selfish individualism of the current age are features not only of Western secular societies, but also of ostensibly Muslim nations such as Egypt. True Muslims, he writes, have an obligation to challenge this global decadence and restore the full sovereignty of God over every area of life. Qutb argued for a vanguard of believers to spearhead a revolt against the powers that be, thus releasing man from servitude so that he could serve God alone.[2]

Beyond vague references to the imperative use of “power,” Qutb was not precise as to the form this jihad should take. His execution at the hands of Egypt’s Abd al-Nasir regime in 1966 precluded his elaborating on this point. But there was no doubt in the minds of many who were inspired by his vision of the “Islamic imperative”[3] that it required immediate and violent confrontation with the forces of state. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, underground organizations such as Egypt’s Jamaa Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad, of which Al Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri was a member, drew upon Qutb’s radical thought to justify attacks against leading members of the Egyptian political establishment. Islamic Jihad assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, and in 1995 militants made an attempt on the life of President Hosni Mubarak. Over those same years, radical Islamist groups with Qutbian-style maximal agendas emerged in other countries, including Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia. These and other manifestations of radical Islam were equally influenced by local conditions and a variety of religious traditions (for instance, Saudi Arabian Wahhabism), but all responded to Qutb’s exhortation to challenge forcefully the Western hegemonic order in the name of “true Islam.” Qutb had provided the ideological template of contemporary radical Islam, which would be taken up by Al Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, as well as Abdallah Azzam, bin Laden’s Palestinian mentor.

The core concepts of radical Islamist dissent constitute a political myth of Islam’s rebirth as a vital force in world affairs, to be attained by confrontation with the West. Composed of simplistic images that speak to the despair and alienation felt by many Muslims, as well as to their hope for the future, the myth addresses the fundamental malaise of modern Islam, the “sense that something has gone wrong with Islamic history.”[4] Not only does this myth function to mobilize activists in support of Islamic resurgence, it can also provide the necessary justification for acts of terror. As British journalist Fergal Keane observes:

To be capable of sustaining a savage war against the enemy, to be able to subject him and his loved ones to a relentless campaign of terror— a war in which the normal rules, the concept of a ‘warrior’s honour’ are abandoned— it is necessary to narrow the mind, make it subject to a very limited range of ideas and influences.[5]

At this mythic level, radical Islam shares points of similarity with political opposition movements of other times and places, including most notably the secular nationalist movements, which likewise call for collective reassertion. Keane cites the IRA gunmen of the 1920s, whose political consciousness and willingness to adopt political violence were shaped by the vision of a reborn Ireland, but other examples could equally be cited, including the Revisionist Zionist movement in British-mandate Palestine and the various articulations of Arab nationalism, such as Baathism. These movements differ on a multitude of points, including their commitment to “direct action,” but all share the underlying premise of community regeneration through struggle.

To be sure, radical Islam differs from secular nationalism in its affirmation of the metaphysical over the worldly, but it is nonetheless expressive of a common, deep-seated drive to attain self-transcendence and a sense of belonging by pursuing radical solutions to alleged ills. Viewed in this way, radical Islam sheds some of its exoticism and acquires a degree of historical normalcy.

The “Quickening Fire” of Myth

The term “myth” has several meanings. Here, it is used not in the common meaning of an unfounded and false notion, but in the sense of a body of beliefs that express the fundamental, largely unconscious or assumed political values of a society— in short, as a dramatic expression of ideology. The details narrated in a political myth may be true or false; most often they meld truth and fiction in ways that are difficult to distinguish. What is important, however, is that the myth’s narrative elements are perceived and embraced as true. To be effective, political myth must engage not reason, but belief and faith.[6] British philosopher Terry Eagleton notes that “Men and women engaged in conflict and struggle do not live by theory alone… . It is not in defense of the doctrine of base and superstructure that men and women are prepared to embrace hardship and persecution in the course of political struggle.”[7] Shared myths and symbols define their social being. Radical Islamist activists and ideologues appear to have intuited this requirement in drawing upon images from the Islamic heritage that facilitate setting community boundaries and determining the nature of the political and social struggles in which they are engaged.

A number of Western thinkers have examined the non-rational and inspirational forces that underlay ideologies, including Vilfredo Pareto, Carl Schmitt, and Georges Sorel, the father figure of political myth theory. Sorel’s observations about the nature of symbolic images and their relationship to political action remain useful in understanding the mythic dimensions of ideologies.[8] Political myth may well denote the irrational mainspring of all ideologies, “irrespective of their surface rationality or apparent common sense.”[9] Yet its galvanizing potential has made it a prominent feature of dissident movements that stand in opposition to a dominant order, however that order may be defined. Given the distinctive antiestablishment orientation of Islamist discourse, that too is enmeshed in myth, authorizing opposition to the status quo with reference to emotionally charged symbols that connect Muslims to paradigmatic moments of their past.[10] Construed as pointers of timeless truths, these symbols signal fidelity to the cause of Islamic moral rearmament, which, following victory, its adherents hope to articulate in forms of association that express sentiments of value and dignity.

Yet it would be incorrect to label radical Islam a utopian ideology, in the strict meaning of that term. Whereas utopias are models of the future based upon speculative discussion and planning, radical Islam is the expression of the collective conviction intuited in the moment. Much like fascism, radical Islam makes the revolutionary process central to its concerns at the expense of a fully thought-out “‘orthodox stage when the dynamics of society settle down to becoming ‘steady-state,’ namely when its internal and external enemies have been eliminated and new institutions created.”[11] In other words, the mythic horizons of radical Islam do not extend beyond the stage of struggle to envision precisely what a “proper” Islamic state should look like.

Perhaps uniquely among Islamists, Sayyid Qutb explicitly understood this emotional aspect of the Islamist discourse. In his mature writings, composed in prison between 1956 and 1964, Qutb wrote that the Islamic movement was propelled by the catalytic power of the religious imagination, not by logical arguments meant to convince Islamism’s detractors. In Qutb’s view, Islam was not a truth to be analyzed, but an ensemble of images that stirred souls and called Muslims to action. The source of this power, he explained, resided in the Quran’s aesthetic propensities, especially its unique abilities of artistic description, which enabled readers and listeners to experience the divine message palpably. Here Qutb took cues from the classical Islamic doctrine of the ijaz, the Quran’s “inimitability,” which prompted Muslim scholars to identify the stylistic and rhetorical characteristics of the Quran that set it apart from human-produced literature. In Qutb’s view, just as the artist speaks through forms that, gathered into a unity, possess the ability to affect emotionally the individual consciousness, so too does God communicate to men by means of images designed to render absolute value as intuitive.[12]

All of this is reminiscent of Sorel’s understanding of political myth’s ability to create an “epic state of mind” in its adherents. But whereas in Sorel’s view the mythic élan lay within subjective consciousness, for Qutb it was the expression of the individual’s faith in God and of unquestioning obedience to His will. In this sense, Qutb lived the purported truth of myth rather than conceived it, as Sorel did, as an instrument of expediency whose grounding in truth was unimportant. For Qutb, belief preceded understanding and was the primary mode of self-alteration. He instructed his Muslim readers that if they had forgotten the Quran’s method of fusing theory and practice, such a method was used by the first, exemplary generation of Muslims in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and had been the secret of that generation’s worldly success. According to Qutb, specific deliberations for the formulation of a new body of Islamic laws (sharia) relevant to the modern era would take place only once God’s sovereignty on earth had been reestablished.[13] In the meantime, Muslims had an obligation to struggle in the name of the Islamic idea until victory was complete.

Notions of Islamic Decline and Rebirth

Given the prevalence of the rebirth myth across cultures and eras, it is not surprising that the impetus to renewal within Islam has a long pedigree itself, predating by many centuries the emergence of radical Islam in the middle and late decades of the twentieth century. For purposes of comparison, it is useful to situate the radical Islamist discourse in this broader Islamic context.

In the medieval and early modern periods, Muslims living in putatively decadent times often resorted to a hadith (reported saying) of the Prophet Muhammad that told of the mujaddid (the renewer of the faith), who would appear at the outset of each century to combat creedal innovations (bidai) and restore Islam to its original purity and vigor. Important mujaddidin included the Umayyad caliph Umar II (early eighth century); the Baghdad scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111); the influential Naqshbandi Sufi from India, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624); and Usman dan Fodio, who founded the Fulani empire in what is now northern Nigeria in 1804–8. Sometimes rebels appeared in various parts of the Islamic world claiming to be the millennial figure of the Shiite or Sunni Mahdi or his precursor. Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885), the charismatic Sufi leader who sought to rid the Sudan of the disruptive features of Egyptian and British colonialism, is perhaps the best-known Mahdist claimant within the Sunni tradition.[14]

The religious modernist reformers of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries put a different spin on the mythic impulse to Islamic rebirth. In contrast to the mostly indigenous concerns of earlier and traditional revivalists, these men constructed understandings of Islam that implicitly or explicitly addressed the political, economic, and cultural dominance of the European nations, which by that time enjoyed unprecedented degrees of influence and power in the swath of Muslim lands that stretched from Morocco to the Malay archipelago. The decline of Islam as a worldly force was a terrible blow to the reformers, who took seriously the Quran’s pronouncement that Muslims constituted “the best community raised for mankind” (Quran 3:110). To this extent they shared in the general sentiment of Muslims of the age. Given the debilitating circumstances of colonialism, they sought “to set their history going again in full vigor, so that Islamic society may once again flourish as a divinely society should and must.”[15]

The reformist trend was best represented in its formative stage by the Turkish Namik Kemal (d. 1888), the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), and the Indian Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), all of whom aimed to accommodate Islam to the requirements of global modernity by fashioning historically specific, metaphorical, or even purely apologetic understandings of the Quran. This approach enabled them to justify in Islamic terms the adoption of European political, economic, and civic institutions, which they regarded as progressive and modern. Thus, for example, several reformers, including Namik Kemal and Abduh, mobilized the old Islamic principle of shura (consultation) to legitimize the writing up of political constitutions in their countries.

These reformers expressed the regenerative dimension of their thought in terms of “progress,” an Enlightenment concept that influenced the names they used to describe their particular movements.[16] This critical, modernist trend continues in the present period, although in a much different, contemporary form, and is exemplified by the figures Hasan Hanafi, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd of Egypt, the Iranian Abdul Karim Sorush, and the Syrian Muhammad Shahrur, all of whom, in various ways, call for a reformed Islam that is socially inclusive, open to change, yet authentic to basic Quranic principles. As a mostly intellectual tendency, the trend exists on the margins of Muslim society, making very little impact on the way people live their lives or the way states conduct their business.

Like the reformers, radical Islamists also react to what they perceive to be the ongoing reversal of Muslim fortunes, but in a way that breeds a sense of distance from the West rather than accommodation with the foundations of its civilization. In this view, far from a benevolent mentor to Muslim peoples, the West is an adversary intent on the political and cultural conquest of the Islamic world. As evidence of Western disregard for Muslim sensibilities, radical Islamist ideologues point to the fates of beleaguered Palestinian, Bosnian, Kashmiri, and Chechen Muslims, all of whom are seen to suffer as a consequence of policies implemented by the Western states and their regional allies. Special odium is reserved for the United States, whose historical support for the State of Israel and long-term presence in the Gulf (recently institutionalized in the occupation of Iraq) are viewed as components of a seamless policy aimed at undermining Muslim aspirations. As is well known, radicals like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri talk of a “Zionist-Crusader alliance.” At issue for the radicals also is the pervasive influence in Muslim societies of secular Western values, which, in their view, work to destroy the distinct features of Islamic culture. As a result of these Western policies, al-Zawahiri writes, “The Muslims in general and the Arabs in particular are left with nothing that is dear to them.”[17]

Radical Islamists proclaim the resurrection of Islam as the necessary panacea to these perceived indignities and injustices. Against the Western hegemony of what constitutes the “good life,” they represent Islam not in terms of privatized religion but as a comprehensive ideological system (nizam) covering all aspects of the state, economy and society. Once the Quranic principles have been implemented in their entirety, Muslim societies will find their God-given potential and slough off the defeatism that has plagued them for the past two centuries. Strengthened thus, Muslims will be in a position to defeat Islam’s enemies and reestablish the universal caliphate. Although, as we shall see, there is much that is novel in the radical Islamist discourse, it also has some important resemblances to religious revolts of the past. This is true of the totalizing aspect of Islam, which was often featured in earlier jihadist and Mahdist efforts to renew Islam against its enemies.[18]

Critical assessments of U.S. policy and Western values are common to Muslims (and others) who chafe at the imbalance of power in the world. Many of these will support their positions on world affairs with reasoned arguments, and dismiss the rhetoric of the Islamists as reductionist and hyperbolic, even while appreciating the kernels of “truth” lurking in the discourse. Other Muslims might sympathize with the radical Islamists’ grievances against the West, yet shy away from outright activism on behalf of the cause. Indeed, many who expressed genuine horror at the 9/11 attacks on America nevertheless suggested gingerly, “America had it coming.” Interviews of Cairo metro passengers conducted by the Cairo Times in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks are revealing in this regard. The interviewees consistently focused on what they considered to be the provocations of American foreign policy, especially regarding the Palestine issue.[19] There is a small but crucial number, however, for whom the one-dimensional imagery of the radical Islamist ideology is especially compelling. The profiles of captured or killed lower-level Al Qaeda operatives suggest an ideal type: young men of conservative religious and middle- or lower-middle-class backgrounds, caught between cultures and often living lives of alienation and anomie. The radical Islamist myth created by the ideologues gives shape and direction to these outsiders’ anger, which is as likely to have a personal source as to derive from political grievances.[20] In gravitating to the mythic heart of radical Islam, these young men are able to identify their activities with a “sacred and transcendent cause,” thus insulating the propositions and preferences of the movement “against criticism by mere mortals.”[21]

The Mythic Core of Radical Islam

The Islamist myth harnesses aesthetic power to present the cardinal features of its worldview. The mythic substance of this ideology— the ensemble of images and symbols that crystallize for Islamists the struggle against the political and cultural power of the West and its allies in the Muslim world— is the vision of Islam’s renewal. In common with millenarians and nationalists the world over, radical Islam addresses the past in an attempt to address the decadent present, aiming to build a new society by claiming kinship to the glorious and healthy eras of Islam’s past.

The starting point of Qutb and the ideologically related activists of Al Qaeda is the concept of the umma (global community of Muslims) as a superior historical and spiritual reality. Governed by Quranic principles, it reflects the divine law of the universe (namus). To live in accordance with this law, manifestly expressed in the sharia, is to exist in harmony with the natural order of the cosmos, a condition “entirely beneficial for mankind, as the only guarantee against any discord in life.”[22] In the activists’ view, the community represented by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions (al-salaf al-salih) at Medina reflected this harmony to its fullest extent. Theirs was a unique generation whose example in matters of belief and practice was worthy of emulation, who comprised a golden age similar in the nature of its ennobling imagery to the glorious pasts represented in other communalistic-type ideologies. The tracts of Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden, and other Salafi-oriented activists are replete with quotations from and references to the pious ancestors of the faith, for clues of how best to live the life of the Quran.

Sayyid Qutb articulated the importance of deference to the divine Will in his avowal of God’s sovereignty (hakimiyya) over the universe.[23] The term is not found in the Quran, nor can it be traced in the normative statements of classical Islamic political theory. This is because the concept of hakimiyya is a uniquely modern one, plausible only within the context of modern state formation. As Cambridge sociologist Anthony Giddens observes, modern state authorities exercise sovereignty because they are able, unlike their medieval counterparts, “to make laws and effectively sanction their upkeep; exert a monopoly over the disposal of the means to violence; control basic policies relating to the internal political or administrative form of government; and dispose of a national economy that is the basis of its revenue.”[24] Recognized in international law, state sovereignty became the legitimizing principle of the discrete political units that emerged in the early modern period.

Qutb posits hakimiyya as the exclusive prerogative of God, who alone is qualified to fashion principles appropriate to the proper functioning of a social, political, and economic order. To submit to the supervision of secular authorities and humanly devised institutions is to surrender to the whims and selfish interests of imperfect worldly forces.[25] The rule of man over man, according to Qutb, can lead only to oppression and the stifling of man’s God-given nature. “The earth belongs to Allah and should be purified for Allah, and it cannot be purified for Him unless the banner ‘No god except Allah’ is unfurled across the earth. Man is a slave to Allah alone.”[26] According to Qutb, the divine origin of Islam’s basic principles means that they do not change or evolve. Rather, they are constant (thabit), immutable to historically engendered transformation and environmental variation. They are also comprehensive (shamil), making no distinction between religion proper and worldly affairs.[27] Indeed, Qutb upbraids those who would distinguish between the ibadat (devotional duties owed to God) and the muamalat (aspects of the sharia relating to interpersonal relations): “No one who ably understands religion could conceive of a divine religion which limits its influence to people’s emotions (wijdan) and exercises no influence over their daily activities, [for] it is not natural for religion to be separated from the affairs of the world.” And yet, according to the radical activists, the natural order of Islam has in the modern era been contaminated by the mentality encouraged by liberal individualism and by other forces unleashed by Western secular society.

Qutb took the lead in equating this condition with the jahiliyya (Time of Ignorance).[28] Unlike hakimiyyajahiliiya is a Quranic term well placed within the body of classical Islamic discourse.[29] Traditionally, most Muslim commentators took the word to denote the condition of disbelief current among the Arabs of the Peninsula prior to the advent of Islam’s civilizing mission. Qutb, however, provided the term with a wider application relevant to the political thrust of his Islamist discourse. He applied it to those forces that, in his view, worked against the implementation of the divine directive throughout history and were especially prominent in his own time. Qutb regarded jahiliyya as unrelenting and pervasive, especially in the modern period, and included the societies of the Muslim world in this category.

Like the Egyptian jihadists who followed Qutb, bin Laden appropriated this concept of rebuke, melding it with the Wahhabi-oriented traditions of intolerance towards difference, which he gained from his upbringing in Saudi Arabia. Against the tendency of religious tolerance and accommodation fostered by the classical Islamic juristic discourse, the Wahhabis drew a sharp distinction between those who upheld what they considered to be the true and authentic understanding of Islam and “iniquitous others,” including Shiites, Sufis, and “infidel” Jews and Christians. Yet there always existed the possibility that circumstances might turn the Wahhabi discourse against its original benefactors in the House of Saud. In an interview conducted with Al Jazeera TV in October 2001, bin Laden was quick to pronounce anathema on those whom he considered as “traitors within.” Isolating from its interpretive context the Quranic verse, “O you who believe! Take not the Jews and Christians as friends” (5:51), he equated the scholars and princes of the Saudi regime, and indeed all “so-called” Muslim governments in league with the West, with the “hypocrites” (al-munafiqin) who connived with the Jews against the Prophet at Medina. Bin Laden comments, “So the ones who take the disbelievers as leaders, friends, and protectors, then they have disbelieved in Allah and His Prophet.”[30]

Because Islam demands concrete implementation in society, it follows for the radial activists that it is incumbent upon Muslims to confront the jahili forces. In their opinion, this can only be accomplished by reactivating the Islamic principle of jihad (striving), a particularly urgent need given the current levels of disbelief and injustice in the world. As Azzam writes, “Anybody who looks into the state of Muslims today will find that their greatest misfortune is their abandonment of Jihad (due to love of this world and abhorrence of death). Because of that, the tyrants have gained dominance over the Muslims in every aspect and in every land.”[31]Despite the single meaning that the activists give the term, jihad is, in fact, a complex concept “with multiple interpretive possibilities.”[32] In the premodern period, jihad variously referred to efforts to reaffirm, defend, or otherwise support the propagation of the faith. The classical doctrine of the jurists tended to emphasize proactive interpretations of the term, which privileged the “sword verses” of the Quran.[33] These particular interpretations were used to justify the rapid conquests by Muslim armies in the early medieval period. In Sufi discourse, the term denoted the highly personal struggle to tame one’s base desires and debilitating habits.[34] The activists’ understanding of jihad is obviously closer to the classical jurists’ than to the Sufis’, but even so they apply meanings to the concept that go beyond anything envisioned by medieval Quran exegetes, such as al-Qurtubi and Ibn Taymiyya, who addressed the issue.

Azzam and bin Laden make much of the classical juridical stipulation, related, for instance, by al-Qurtubi, which made jihad a “compulsory duty on every single Muslim” (fard ayn) in cases where Muslim land is occupied by non-Muslims, as in Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Saudi Arabia. Jihad, in this understanding, stands with belief, fasting, and prayer as an obligation of the faith. This stipulation contrasted, according to these activists, with the “collective obligation to jihad (fard kifaya), which made it the responsibility of an official, delimited force such as an army, only.[35] It is precisely this understanding of jihad as an individual obligation that forms the basis for bin Laden’s infamous 1998 self-styled “fatwa” against Jews and Crusaders, in which he makes it obligatory for Muslims to kill Americans and their allies “in any country in which it is possible, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa mosque and holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip.”[36] Again, bin Laden refers to a single verse of scripture bereft of wider context to justify his willingness to kill innocents: “And if you punish (your enemy, O you believers in the Oneness of Allah), then punish them with the like of that with which you were afflicted” (16:126). As bin Laden states explicitly, “they kill our innocent civilians, so why not kill theirs.”

To sum up, the radical Islamists see their advocacy of jihad as part of a continuing and unchanging tradition of Islamic revivalism. The heroes of Islamic reassertion were the Mamluks in medieval times, who, under the spiritual guidance of Damascene scholar Ibn Taymiyya, successfully confronted the ravages and iniquities of their Tartar kinsmen; Nur al-Din Zangi and Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, who unified Greater Syria in the twelfth century; and in more recent times, the Mahdi of the Sudan, Umar al-Mukhtar of Libya, and Abd al-Hamid Ibn Badis of Algeria. Each of these holy warriors struggled against the usurping authority of tyrants and colonialist overlords. According to the essentialist vision of the radical Islamists, the Crusades and the imperialist onslaughts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were cut from the same cloth. All battles, including those currently in progress in Afghanistan and Iraq, are effectively identical in terms of their primary objective: the implementation of God’s rule over the earth.

The Revolutionary Vanguard

Radical Islamists see a vanguard of true believers (talia) as the agents of revolution.[37] According to the radicals, the Islamic revolution cannot be left to the people because their minds have been contaminated by the alien ideas of decadent forces. Moreover, the creation of a small vanguard unit satisfies strategic needs and the requirements of security. In fact, “Al Qaeda” (literally, “the base”) was initially founded in Afghanistan as a center of training and indoctrination for a vanguard of holy warriors in the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s.

The situation of Islamist vanguardism is analogous to, and may well be a derivation of, the Bolshevik experience, where Lenin created a vanguard of dedicated political agents in order to diffuse socialism to the masses. Yet, in keeping with their penchant for cultural authenticity, the radicals have been quick to look to sources of inspiration within their own tradition in order legitimize an organization of this kind. In their view, such a strategy meshed with the example of the nascent Muslim community at Mecca, which, under the leadership of the Prophet, separated itself from the surrounding pagan society as a prelude to its eventual victory. In keeping with the moral resolve of this first community of Muslims, the radicals insist that the beliefs and conceptual grounding of the vanguard be pure and its members devoted to serving God alone. Qutb writes how, as part of his own preparation, he purified himself of forty years’ worth of jahili knowledge and culture gleaned during his years as a journalist and literary critic.[38]

Radical Islamism is a fundamental, though disturbing, aspect of the modern experience of Muslims, anchored in the historical record of suppression by imperialist outsiders. Through recourse to the power of images drawn from the cultural memory of Muslims, radical Islamists have been able to craft a novel and uncompromising understanding of Islam, one whose core myth aims to inspire a movement of purifying, cathartic community rebirth. By demonizing the political and cultural moorings of the Western “other” and envisioning principles for an as-yet-unrealized “community of virtue,” they narrowly circumscribe the range of legitimate political discourse. As Sayyid Qutb well understood, Quranic images possess sufficient power to transform theory into practice.

[1] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, revised and trans. Ahmad Zaki Hammad (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1990), p. 5.

[2] Ibid, p. 47 and passim.

[3] The expression is Yvonne Haddad’s, “Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival,” in Voices of Resurgent Islam, ed. John L. Esposito (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 77 ff.

[4] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 41.

[5] Fergal Keane, “The Mind of the Terrorist,: The BBC Reports on America, its Allies and Enemies, and the Counter Attack on Terrorism, eds. J. Baxter and M. Downing (Woodstock and New York: Overlook Press, 2001), p. 56.

[6] George W. Egerton, “Collective Security as Political Myth: Liberal Internationalism and the League of Nations in Politics and History,” The International History Review, Nov. 1983, p. 498.

[7] Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction (London and New York: Verso, 1991), p. 190.

[8] On Pareto, see ibid, p. 186; on Schmitt, see Heinrich Meier, The Lesson of Carl Schmitt, trans. M. Brainard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Sorel’s ideas are most fully expressed in his Reflexions sur la violence (1906), trans T. E. Hulm and J. Roth as Reflections on Violence (London: Collier Books, 1950). See also David Gross, “Myth and Symbol in Georges Sorel,” in Seymour Drescher, David Sabean and Allan Sharlin, eds., Political Symbolism in Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of George L. Mosse (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Books, 1982), p. 109; and J. L. Talmon, “The Legacy of Georges Sorel,” Encounter, Feb. 1970, pp. 47–60.

[9] Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 27.

[10] See, e.g., the comments of Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America (London and New York: Granata Books, 2001), pp. 207–8.

[11] Roger Griffen, The Nature of Fascism, p. 39.

[12] Issa J. Boullata, “Sayyid Qutb’s Literary Appreciation of the Qur’an,” in Issa J. Boullata, ed., Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’an (London: Curzon Press, 2000), pp. 354–71.

[13] Milestones, pp. 13, 39.

[14] A good summary of the Islamic revivalist tradition, especially its manifestations in the 18th and 19th centuries, is Nikkie R. Keddie, “The Revolt of Islam, 1700 to 1993: Comparative Considerations and Relations to Imperialism, Comparative Studies in Society and History, July 1994, pp. 463–87.

[15] Smith, Islam in Modern History, p. 41.

[16] See Charles Kurzman, “Recovering the History of Modernist Islam,” ISIM Newsletter, 12, June 2003, p. 32; and Kurzman, ed., Modernist Islam, 1840–1940: A Sourcebook (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[17] Ayman al-Zawahiri, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, published in al-Sharq al-Awsat

[18] Keddie, “The Revolt of Islam,” p. 465.

[19] Cairo Times, Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2001.

[20] See the revealing Seattle Times reportage on Ahmed Ressam, “The Terrorist Within,” June 23–July 7, 2002.

[21] Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) p. 55. Lincoln’s discussion of the “metadiscursive” nature of religion is suggestive in this regard. See esp. pp. 1–18, 51–76.

[22] Milestones, p. 75.

[23] See Calvert, “The Islamist Syndrome of Cultural Confrontation,” Orbis, Spring 2002.

[24] Anthony Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 282.

[25] Qutb, Mustaqbal, pp. 9–11; Milestones, pp. 6–7 and passim.

[26] Milestones, p. 22.

[27] Qutb, Khasa’is al-Tasawwur al-Islami wa Muqawwimatuhu, 2nd printing (Beirut: Dar al-Shuruq, n.d.), 107ff.

[28] See Calvert, “The Islamist Syndrome.”

[29] The term is found four times in the Quran: 3:154, 5:50, 33:33, 48:26.

[30] At; Lincoln, Holy Terrors, p. 35.

[31] Abdullah ’Azzam Join the Caravan,

[32] Roxanne L. Euben, “Jihad and Political Violence,” Current History, Nov. 2002, p. 368.

[33] Quran 9:5, 9:29, 22:39, 3:157-8. See Rudolf Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1996), 2-3 and passim.

[34] Annemarie Schimel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 112.

[35] Azzam, Join the Caravan.

[36] See the full text in Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin (eds.), Anti-American Terrorism in the Middle East: A Documentary Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 149–57.

[37] Milestones, p. 9 and passim.

[38] Ibid, pp. 14–15, 96, and 112.