Sayyid Qutb cut short his stay in America and returned to Egypt in 1951 after the assassination of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the nationalist, religious and militant movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the next decade and a half, often writing from prison, Qutb refined a violent political theology from the raw anti-modernism of his American interlude. Virtually the entire modern world, Qutb theorized, is jahiliyya, that barbarous state that existed before Muhammad. Only the strict, unchanging law of the prophet can redeem this uncivilized condition. Nearly a millennium of history became, to the radicalized Qutb, an offense wrought by the violence of jahili “Crusaders” and the supposed perfidy of the Jews. And Muslim leaders allied with the West were no better than the Crusaders themselves. Therefore, Qutb called all true Muslims to jihad, or Holy War, against jahiliyya—which is to say, against modernity, which America so powerfully represents.
This philosophy led to Qutb’s execution in 1966. Proud to the end, he refused to accept the secular Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s offer of mercy in exchange for Qutb’s repudiation of his jihad. Nasser may have silenced a critic, but the martyrdom of Sayyid Qutb accelerated his movement. The same year the philosopher was hanged, according to journalist Lawrence Wright, the teenage al-Zawahiri formed his first violent cell, dedicated to the overthrow of the Egyptian government and the creation of an Islamist state. Meanwhile, Qutb’s brother Muhammad went into exile in Saudi Arabia, where he taught at King Abdul Aziz University. One of his students, an heir to the country’s largest construction fortune, was Osama bin Laden.
Others have taken Qutb’s ideas in less apocalyptic directions, so that M.A. Muqtedar Khan of the Brookings Institution can rank him alongside the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran as “one of the major architects and ‘strategists’ of contemporary Islamic revival.” But the last paragraphs of Qutb’s American memoir suggest just how far outside normal discourse his mind was wont to stray. After noting the stupidity of his Greeley neighbors, who failed to understand his dry and cutting jokes, Qutb writes: “In summary, anything that requires a touch of elegance is not for the American, even haircuts! For there was not one instance in which I had a haircut there when I did not return home to even with my own hands what the barber had wrought.” This culminating example of inescapable barbarism led directly to his conclusion. “Humanity makes the gravest of errors and risks losing its account of morals, if it makes America its example.”
Turning a haircut into a matter of grave moral significance is the work of a fanatic. That’s the light ultimately cast by Qutb’s American experience on the question of why his disciples might hate us. Hating America for its haircuts cannot be distinguished from hating for no sane reason at all.