An artist project examining the symbiotic relationship between the works and lives of Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss, and the visions they have spawned.
A society which places the highest value on the “Humanity” of man and honors the noble “human” characteristics is truly civilized. If materialism, no matter what form, is given the highest value, whether it be in the form of a “theory,” such as in the Marxist interpretation of history, or in the form of material production, as is the case with the United States and European countries, and all other human values are sacrificed at its altar, then such a society is a backward one, or in Islamic terminology, is a “
—Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (1964)
, the magnum opus of Egyptian Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), a jahiliyyah
society is defined as one in which citizens live in a “state of ignorance of the guidance of God.” That concept, propagated by Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood, would become the germinal idea of modern Sunni fundamentalism, providing moral justification for violence visited upon Western civilians and governments, as well as their hosts and sympathizers, by jihadis.
The works of the philosopher Leo Strauss (1899–1973) include one concept that has had a comparable effect on the politics of the past quarter century: the noble lie, as described in The City and Man
(1964). The noble lie, an idea originated by Plato in his Republic
, is essentially a myth or series of deceptions communicated to a public by the elite, in order to maintain social harmony and the hegemony of that elite within its own society and in the world at large. Strauss asserted that noble lies were essential to American greatness, and that the country should have enemies, whether real or fabricated, by which to define itself. (Adam Curtis elaborates on this aspect of Strauss’s thought in his 2004 documentary, The Power of Nightmares
.) This understanding of politics and its limits—or lack thereof—came to dominate the neoconservative movement.
Qutb spent a brief time as a student in the US in the 1950s before returning to Egypt, where his disgust at American culture pushed him to join the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1954, he participated in a failed attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The authorities cracked down on the Brotherhood, and Qutb was imprisoned and horribly tortured, an experience that intensified his opposition to the West and to accommodationist Arab regimes. He wrote Milestones
in jail before being executed in 1966, for plotting to overthrow the government—he was immediately heralded as a martyr.
Strauss, who was not politically active and spent most of his life as a professor at the University of Chicago, exerted his influence by less radical but no less effective means. His dissections of the world’s great classical and modern philosophers, filtered through a political lens that emphasized the enduring qualities (and desirability) of certain social and moral values (in opposition to the relativism that ruled the day), attracted those men who would become the standard-bearers of neoconservatism: Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky (formerly of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans) obtained doctorates under him, and William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, and Elliott Abrams are among his acolytes. All have played major roles in the formation of post-9/11 foreign policy and in the construction and dissemination of the myths that have sustained it.
Neoconservatism and radical Islam can be understood in part as competing ideologies that have each helped produce and reinforce the other, and have ultimately prospered from the other’s ascendancy. The following sets of images (some scanned, most culled from the Internet) constitute a visual index of this symbiotic relationship, an iconic map of the ideas and realities produced by Strauss and Qutb, both together and apart.
1. Strauss, Leo. Liberalism Ancient and Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
2. Qutb, Sayyid. In the Shade of the Qur'an. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2001.
3. Qutb, Sayyid. In the Shade of the Qur'an. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2001.
4. Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2006.
5. Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion and Death. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.