Global Extremes: Opinion

The enduring appeal of Sayyid Qutb’s jihadist ideology

Sayyid Qutb’s ‘Milestones’, published in 1964, has been the ideological force behind a succession of violent Islamist groups

Georges Fahmi
26 July 2021, 8.13am
Sayyid Qutb wrote ‘Milestones’ while in prison under the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime
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Sayyid Qutb’s book ‘Milestones’ has been one of the main inspirations for violent Islamist groups since its publication in 1964. The appeal of his ideas lies in their ability to offer a religious framework to the political struggle against post-colonial regimes, as well as redefining the meaning of victory and defeat.

An Associated Press team that covered the Kurdish offensive to liberate the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s last stronghold in Syria in March 2019 described items left behind in one of the IS fighters’ bases: “The ID cards of two men from Aleppo province… a teddy bear; and, not far away, a torn copy of ‘Milestones’.”

An Egyptian Islamic theorist, writer and a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb wrote ‘Milestones’ while in prison under the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime. The 200-page book lays out a plan to revive a true ‘Muslim society’, one that follows a strictly Quranic approach, according to his understanding. Qutb’s ideas have been an inspiration to armed Jihadist groups around the world, from the first wave of violence in Egypt in the 1970s to the fall of the IS caliphate. While Qutb’s rationale for violence is based solely on theology, other ideological frameworks have failed to gain similar influence. One faction of the Muslim Brotherhood offered a different ideological basis for the practice of violence against the post-2013 regime in Egypt following the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi: one based on politics rather than theology. But its ideas failed to attract followers from within its own ranks, let alone inspiring outsiders to join.

Why are Qutb’s ideas still inspiring radical youth in the region and outside it, while other competing ideas have failed?

Qutb’s ‘Milestones’ offered an answer to why the post-colonial regime in Egypt had failed to build a rule based on Islamic norms and had persecuted a variety of Islamic groups, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood, including Qutb himself, had been one of the strong supporters of the 1952 military coup in Egypt that brought Nasser to power, thinking he would build a regime based on Islam.

Nasser, who had close contacts with the Brotherhood, nevertheless left Islamists disappointed. It was his regime’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1950s and 1960s that led Qutb to reconsider the framework of the political struggle in Egypt, and to conclude that it was neither economic nor political, but religious.

In Qutb’s words, the struggle is one of religious doctrine, nothing else, between believers and non-believers. According to Qutb, political rulers who do not apply the rules of Islam, are kafir (non-believers), even if they claim to be Muslims, and hence should be fought. He frames the choice as either to struggle to live according to the rules of Islam or to accept living in the pre-Islamic era of ignorance, the Jahiliyyah.

When the Muslim Brotherhood reframed its violent struggle against the post-2013 regime in Egypt, it refused to excommunicate the regime and instead saw its struggle as that of a revolutionary battle to “liberate Egypt from the military rule”. This ideological switch put doubt in the minds of many Brotherhood members and led them to wonder why they were now targeting Muslims and why they were resisting a regime led by a Muslim leader. Unlike 'Milestones', this frame failed to offer an interpretation of the political environment and has increased uncertainties.

The fact that Qutb was executed by the Nasser regime in 1966 gave his ideas a sacred frame

Qutb’s ideology saw the struggle against the political regime as that of believers against non-believers, where jihad is a religious duty – regardless of its outcome.

But an ideology based solely on armed political resistance led many Muslim Brotherhood youth to question the strategy, doubting that using violence against Egyptian state institutions would destabilize the political regime, given the imbalance of power between the two sides. When weighing their unlikely victory against all the sacrifices they would have to offer, many of them gave up on the armed struggle. Qutb’s followers did not face this dilemma, which explains his ideas’ ability to survive despite military defeats.

The fact that Qutb was executed by the Nasser regime in 1966 gave his ideas a sacred frame and confirmed him as a martyr in the eyes of his followers. The image of him as the man who stood up for his ideas, and died without renouncing them, led many people, in particular Islamist youth, to read his work with admiration and respect. In a conversation with this writer, a former Egyptian jihadist argued that if Qutb had not been executed, his book would not have had the same impact on him and his generation. In fact, Qutb might have revised some of his ideas later in life, as leaders of the Salafi jihadi movement did in Egypt during the 1990s, he suggested.

While socio-economic and political grievances might lead youth to political radicalisation, it is the framework put forward by 'Milestones', as well as other Jihadi literature inspired by it, that has translated radicalisation into violent action. Limiting the influence of Qutb’s ideas should be an integral part of any counter-violent-radicalization strategy. Although many religious scholars have tried to answer Qutb’s ideas on excommunication and jihad with lengthy refutations, religious scholars in the MENA region often lack the legitimacy Qutb enjoys in the eyes of these radical young people.

Most are perceived as mere regime mouthpieces. Seeking to limit the influence of Qutb’s ideas requires not only a religious answer but legitimate voices that are able to speak to radical youth and are independent of the state institutions that these young people are politically contesting.

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