September 11, 2010


The New Bolsheviks: Understanding Al Qaeda : Victory in war, and particularly in counterinsurgency wars, requires knowing one’s enemy. This simple truth, first stated by Sun Tsu more than two millennia ago, is no less important in the war on terrorism today. It has become almost common wisdom, however, that America today faces an enemy of a new kind, using unprecedented techniques and pursuing incomprehensible goals. But this enemy is not novel. Once the peculiar rhetoric is stripped away, the enemy America faces is a familiar one indeed. The revolutionary vision that undergirds al Qaeda’s ideology, the strategy it is pursuing, and the strategic debates occurring within that organization are similar to those of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism at various periods. What’s more, the methods that led to the defeat of that ideology can be adapted and successfully used against this religious revival of it. (Frederick W. Kagan, November 16, 2005, NATIONAL SECURITY OUTLOOK)

Certain strands of Islamist ideology are so similar in structure to basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism that the comparison is unavoidable. The similarities are most apparent in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Islamist and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood executed in 1966. Qutb, who produced a pamphlet called Milestones that summarized much of his work, has powerfully influenced the modern jihadist movement, especially Ayman al-Zawahiri--Osama bin Laden’s deputy and the ideologue of al Qaeda--and Abdul Musab al-Zarqawi, “emir” of the al Qaeda organization in Iraq.

The Influence of Marx and Lenin

Milestones--like Vladimir Lenin’s famous pamphlet What Is to Be Done?--sums up not merely the ideological foundations of the movement, but also the strategy and tactics that must be pursued to achieve success. Before considering Qutb’s program, however, it is worthwhile to recall the essential tenets of Marxism-Leninism to which Qutb’s jihadism bears such noteworthy resemblance.

Briefly put, Karl Marx argued that the world of his day was corrupt, riddled with oppression, and spawning endless violence and war because of fundamental flaws in the human structures and within human beings themselves. One manifestation of this oppression was the nation-state, which the exploitative capitalist classes had falsely erected in order to suppress proletarians and lower orders. Marx claimed to have applied scientific principles to the study of history and to have discovered its secrets: all history consisted of class struggle, and that struggle moved inevitably to the ultimate triumph of the proletariat.

That triumph once achieved, Marx argued, a period of “socialism” would begin in which human nature would be transformed. People would live in harmony according to the principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” All of the false encrustations of oppressive capitalist society, such as money, mass production, police, religion, private property, would vanish. The state would “wither away,” whereupon the period of true communism would begin, stateless and utterly and eternally peaceful. [...]

Qutb’s Vision

Qutb also viewed the world of his day as decadent, violent, oppressive, and riddled with contradictions. Writing in the 1950s, he condemned Western capitalism, Western socialism, Eastern despotism, and Marxism itself as “unable to present any healthy values for the guidance of mankind.” Like Marx, Qutb was familiar with the society he was condemning, for he had spent two years in the United States and had been profoundly impressed by its godlessness and hedonism. It was not necessary, he argued, for Islam to vie with West or East in the matter of material prosperity and inventiveness, although he did not despise such capabilities. The role of Islam, rather, was to provide the moral and spiritual leadership the world so badly needed, to fulfill “the basic human needs on the same level of excellence as technology has fulfilled them in the sphere of material comfort.”

Qutb argued that the basic problem afflicting the human race was the subordination of human beings to one another. Only God, he wrote, could exercise just sovereignty, and only God’s laws are truly laws. For many centuries, however, man had established his own laws and governments, with individuals usurping God’s sovereignty and thereby elevating themselves as false idols and dictators. Even within the Muslim world, the Umma, he noted, state structures had been established and the leaders of those structures legislated and established laws of their own, distinct from the laws of sharia, which were of God.

This argument was central to Qutb’s thought, for it justified his claim that the world of his day, including most of the so-called Muslim world of that time, existed in a state of jahiliyya, or ignorance of God. Traditionally, this term is applied to the period before Mohammed, but Qutb applied it to most of history following Mohammed’s revelations on the ground that people to whom the words of the Prophet had been presented, but who had rejected those words and were living by their own codes, were no less ignorant than those who lived before the Prophet arrived on earth. Worse still, by “worshipping” other human beings in the process of according them the honors due to the sovereignty they had usurped from God, these people were guilty of polytheism, just as the early Arabs were whom Mohammed chastened, defeated, and then converted.

Qutb was arguing that all human state structures are inherently evil and should be destroyed. He recognized that most of the non-Muslim world, and even most of the Umma, was not yet ready to live in accord with the only true and just laws, the sharia, and so he proposed a period of careful education and training to transform humanity so that it would reject the false teachings and turn toward the true. He described in great detail the manner in which the Koran was to be transmitted, verse by verse over thirteen years, according to Qutb, so that those who received it would be educated gradually and transformed. The clear implication was that once humanity has been reformed and reeducated as Qutb describes, state structures will collapse and vanish, and people will live in peace and harmony under the laws of God and not under their own, as he claimed the first generation of Muslims did.

Like Lenin, Qutb knew that his view was not shared by the majority of the people on whose behalf he proposed to operate. He was untroubled by this difficulty, since he adopted the same solution Lenin had proposed: “How is it possible to start the task of reviving Islam?” he asked. “It is necessary that there should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking on the path.” Milestones would serve as the guide for the vanguard in this fight.

Qutb also considered the problem aired during the Stalin-Trotsky dispute following the Bolshevik victory--should the vanguard aim to win throughout the world all at once or in one place first? He chose the Stalinist approach, arguing that the vanguard should work first to seize power in a single state: “The beauty of this new system cannot be appreciated unless it takes a concrete form. Hence it is essential that a community arrange its affairs according to it and show it to the world. In order to bring this about, we need to initiate the movement of Islamic revival in some Muslim country. Only such a revivalist movement will eventually attain to the status of world leadership.”

Here, then, in a nutshell is the basic structure of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism reproduced in a religious context: the corruption and illegitimacy of current state structures; the inadmissibility of any state structures in a justly ordered world; the need to transform humanity before entering into that world; the need to begin by seizing power in a single state, but with the aim of ultimately destroying all states; the error of having any human or group of humans holding sovereignty over any other; and the critical role of a vanguard revolutionary group in the process. Qutb was in no way a Marxist, but the basic structure of his argument certainly was akin to that of Marx and his disciples.

Note that both are fundamentally French, assuming that man in the state of nature is a perfect creature and that only the corruption of malign social institutions can have caused the injustices in the world. The triumph of Judeo-Christianity/Anglo-Americanism lies in the correct understanding that men are not angels.

[originally posted: 11/17/05]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 11, 2010 12:03 AM
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