Qutb in America


A reader writes:

I have not read D'Souza's latest, but if reviews are accurate, I am very disappointed in him. Barnett notes that D'Souza discusses Sayyid Qutb and how his disgust with American culture helped lead us to where we are now. According to Barnett, D'Souza fails to note that Qutb lived in the US in the late 1940s, before hippies and sexual liberation and the rest. What Barnett failed to mention was that what apparently pushed Qutb over the edge was a church dance in Greeley, Colorado (a city that at the time was dry).

The Denver magazine, 5280, ran a story in 2003, detailing Sayyid Qutb's encounter with small-town Colorado in 1948. It's a fascinating article, not least because it reveals Qutb's first reactions to America and the West. He is repelled - by the apparent joylessness of post-war suburban America. His critique is reminiscent of many left-liberals of the time:

"This small city of Greeley, in which I am staying, is so beautiful that one may easily imagine that he is in paradise. Each house appears as a flowering plant and the streets are like garden pathways. As one observes, the owners of these houses spend their leisure time in toil, watering their private yards and trimming their gardens. This is all they appear to do ..."

Gomorrah anyone? Qutb goes on:

"I stayed there six months and never did I see a person or a family actually enjoying themselves, even on summer nights when breezes waft over the city as if in a dream. The most important thing for these people is the tending of their gardens, much in the same way a merchant spends time organizing his store or a factory owner his factory. There is nothing behind this activity in the way of beauty or artistic taste. It is the machinery of organization and arrangement, devoid of spirituality and aesthetic enjoyment."

Yep: Qutb was a liberal snob, condescending to small-town American life. No doubt small towns in Egypt were saturated with profundity at the time. Then there's the infamous dance. Not exactly a circuit party:

The dance began after an evening service, and was led by the church's pastor, who, according to Qutb's breathless account, lowered the lights and put a recording of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" on the turntable in an effort to get the few remaining wallflowers out on the dance floor. "The dance hall convulsed to the tunes on the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs," Qutb later wrote. "Arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion."

Qutb never mentioned the incident to [contemporary Arab student Saeed] Dajani, so neither he nor scholars know exactly when or at what church Qutb's dance took place. Such events were common, often drawing hundreds of students. Dajani, however, had a similar experience, albeit with a bit of a twist.

"I do not know if this is the same one that Mr. Qutb wrote about, but I went to a dance at the Methodist church. And I thought, 'This is outrageous, seeing boys and girls dancing together.' You have to understand, we had a Moslem background where the sexes were kept apart, in schools, and in most other ways, until marriage. So this was shocking to us."

It may be, of course, that Qutb's Islamism, metastasized into bin Laden's Islamism, is indeed shocked beyond measure at the thought of women's equality, gay dignity and the more lurid aspects of American popular culture. But the shock goes far deeper than anything that has happened in America since the 1960s. The social conservatism of the Islamic fundamentalist did indeed see small-town America of the 1940s, even in a dry county, a repository of evil. That's our problem. That's how deep their fundamentalism goes. The president is right: they do hate us for who we are. And for daring to reach for a freedom that their version of Allah would never allow.