Making the Arab World: A Review

Yoav Di-Capua Reviews Fawaz Gerges

Fawaz Gerges. Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East. Princeton University Press, 2018. Hardcover, $29.95.

Sayyid Qutb’s friends and associates are finally talking. They didn’t say much in prison during the 1950s and 1960s, and torture rarely made them “sing.” Since their release, they tended not to dwell on a painful past comprised of internal political and theological splits, schisms that were eventually written in blood. As young idealists in their twenties, they crossed paths with the fast blazed trail cut by Qutb, a secular literary critic that turned Islamist ideologue. It is an encounter that changed their personal lives, that of the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole and, most critically, that of contemporary Islam. While some of them resisted Qutb with all their hearts and minds, others willfully embraced his hyperbolic and dangerous propositions. Many, as we now learn, did not fully understand what was at stake, and when they finally did, it was already too late to change the course of a violent history on behalf of a newly invented Islam.

Occasionally, some former inmates did publish memoirs and gave a passing interview, but their words never really diverged from the hegemonic narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood, built around the themes of absolute unity and ultimate victimization by the state. But unity among the ranks of the Brotherhood was always more a lofty ideal than an actual political reality. Interviewing close to a hundred elderly comrades for a new history of the relationship between the Egyptian state and the Islamists, Fawaz Gerges, a longtime professor at the London School of Economics, breathes new life into one of the most formative periods in the history of post-colonial Egypt. It is a good story, worthy not only of a fine historian but providing rich material for a novelist or a playwright who might take interest in digging through the ruins of decolonization and the rubble of dystopia.

There was once a different Arab world than the one we presently know. It was a world that stubbornly struggled for dignity and liberation from European domination, one that was culturally optimistic about the prospects of building a brave new society. It was a world whose movers and shakers were young people in their late twenties and thirties with virtually no practical experience but with ample amounts of energy and belief in the possibility of change. In Egypt, the epicenter of Arab modernity, multiple groups positioned themselves for the coming of the end of WWII and the beginning of decolonization. All of them wanted full independence, social justice and freedom. Human dignity was on everyone’s mind and, with so many shared goals, any possibility of difference in how to accomplish them was routinely overlooked or pushed aside. In comparison with left-wing groups, the Muslim Brotherhood was the largest and most organized popular organization. It functioned in the same extra-parliamentary environment alongside many other groups such as the forbidden political club of the Free Officers. These young military officers came from a similar socio-economic background to that of the Brotherhood and shared the same broad political goals. Some officers, like would-be president Anwar al-Sadat, even took membership in the Brotherhood. Others kept their distance, yet, like the Brotherhood, they also took Egypt’s defeat in Palestine in 1948 very personally. Both camps despised the constitutional monarchy that ruled the country and considered it corrupt, ineffective, and hence responsible for the defeat. With so much in common, politicized military officers and the leadership circle of the Brotherhood could pretend that they were one and the same and that once the officers seized power the Brotherhood would join in and do the rest. But this division of labor was not to be.

As is often the case, constructive ambiguity comes at the expense of intellectual clarity. With both groups positioned on shaky intellectual foundations, their respective desire for power turned personal, and soon after confrontational. By the mid 1950s, the rivalry that developed between the officers who ousted the king and the self-entitled Brotherhood who were ready to rule quickly metamorphosed into an existential fight for survival. It was a vicious and bloody affair that landed the entire leadership of the Brotherhood in jail, where they were routinely abused and tortured. Under pressure, the Brotherhood’s unity began to unravel along intellectual fault lines that Qutb began to chart. Fragmented as they were, the Brotherhood had to confront a state that had successfully fashioned itself as a revolutionary popular republic and as a secular alternative to faith-based politics.

This internal Islamist struggle and the fight against the state is the subject of Gerges’ new book, and his thesis is that the struggle shaped the future course of Egyptian and even Arab politics as a whole. Since that time, there has consistently been a split between secular nationalists and religious Islamists (who are themselves split between moderates and radicals). Though it is a familiar thesis, it is important to acknowledge the superb level of documentation with which Gerges supports it and his choice to stage this passionate rivalry as a symbolic confrontation between Qutb, as the would-be intellectual godfather of al-Qaida, and Egypt’s new leader and demi-god in the making, Gamal Abd al-Nasser. In their own way, both men pushed for intellectual clarity, which left no room for ambiguity and co-existence. Both could be better understood only in terms of the other.

Even before his intellectual fingerprints were identified all over the 9/11 plot, books about Sayyid Qutb were already becoming somewhat of a cottage industry. In all likelihood, he is probably the most translated and read modern Arab thinker. That is of course quite unfortunate, as the world of Arab letters is rich, diverse, and passionate, and it merits much more attention than it is currently able to attract. However, to be fair to Qutb, he had won this prestigious status due to his own very hard work, on behalf of which he willingly paid with his life when he became a martyr for his newly-invented cause, though at the time, that eventual future was not clear even to Nasser himself, the man who would hang him. At the end, Qutb left behind a very coherent intellectual corpus. Most of it was published after his death and was embraced by a new generation for whom post-colonial dystopia was a painful daily reality and violent revolt was the most immediate answer to all problems.

Qutb’s reactionary argument is well-known. Like his fellow Occidentalists, he argued that modern Arab life is nothing but the internalization of a morally corrupt and materialist Western culture which is devoid of humanity and spiritual content. By internalizing these qualities, contemporary Muslims had come full circle to a pre-Islamic age of darkness and barbarity. Rather than thinking in terms of Islamic decline, as most critical thinkers did, Qutb proposed a cyclical course of events which brought Islam back to its beginning point where subjugation, mental slavery, emptiness, immorality, anxiety and absence of sovereignty, authenticity and social justice reign supreme. Conditioned by this seventh-century reality, fellow citizens of the 1950s were not really good Muslims but infidels in disguise whose false consciousness blinded them to the reality of their condition. This radical view of internal impurity was particularly applicable to Nasser, his entire leadership circle, and to state culture as a whole. With this insight firmly in mind, a sure path for a theological revolution became available, and with it, the call to reinvigorate Jihad and take arms against the Egyptian leader, the regime, and its misguided supporters.

Not everybody in the Brotherhood went along with these ideas. Most, apparently, did not. Though the Brotherhood did have a secret military wing and used violence with impunity, the official doctrine prescribed a persistent, peaceful, and slow process of persuasion and seduction to rejoin the faith and strengthen one’s belief. On that basis, Supreme Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi forthrightly rejected Qutb’s violent doctrine. Mostly, he viewed him as a recent newcomer for the organization who poses a threat to Islam by toying with its legal and theological DNA without proper training. Like his many imitators – all the way to ISIS’ lumpen intellectuals – Qutb had no formal training and very minimal experience in Islamic thought and practice.

With a solid background as a secular literary critic and a largely failed literary career, Qutb occupied the intellectual gray zone that al-Hudaybi and his generation failed to clarify. Criticizing the impotence of the clerical establishment, Qutb re-indoctrinated Islam and equipped it for the era of decolonization with a renewed emphasis on sovereignty (that of God rather than Nasser), authenticity (a return to the simple ways of the founding fathers), rejection of false consciousness (borrowed from Marx), and sacrificial action (Leninist-style vanguard politics). The degree to which Qutb was a thinker of his time who freely borrowed leftist revolutionary ideas and framed them in Islamic rhetoric is quite astonishing. So too was his unapologetic drive to deny that Islam is compatible with socialism and democracy. Most importantly, in contrast with the confused and ambiguous nationalist rhetoric of the Brotherhood, Qutb utterly rejected the apparatus and belief system of the modern nation sate.

By the late 1950s, it was already quite impossible to reconcile Qutb’s revolutionary and violent brand of Islam with that of al-Hudaybi. Since both were in prison at the time, the future course of political Islam was decided under very unfavorable conditions. The new testimonies that Gerges dutifully collected show us how strenuously fellow prisoners tried to avoid an internal confrontation and how desperately they sought accommodation and reconciliation, even at the price of yet more ambiguity. They also tell us how inspiring, irresistible, contagious, and dynamic Qutb’s new formulations were. The more Qutb and his friends were tortured and abused, the more forcefully Qutb’s violent articulation suggested themselves. By accounting for the mirroring torture, Gerges helps us appreciate the degree to which the phenomenon of Qutbism is Islamized trauma talk.

Parallel to the slow rise of Qutb and his sure march towards martyrdom, Nasser was also doing well. Nasserism is normally understood as a political system that drove to unite the Arab world and infuse it with dignity and hyper-modern development for the benefit of the disadvantaged classes. That is of course true. However, the ambition of Nasserism to invent a new Arab man and a new collective ontology is quite often overlooked. Primarily, we think of Nasserism as a political phenomenon and not as a theological one. While some call Nasserism messianic, scholarship is yet to appreciate Nasserism (and early Syrian Ba`thism too) as a theological system that offered salvation. Gerges looks at this process from a strictly political standpoint. That is enough in order to juxtapose it with Qutbism. However, while Qutb’s intellectual exploits are explored in some detail due to the coherent nature of his work and the scholarly attention he still attracts, there is no comparable appreciation for the ontological counter-concepts that Nasserism proposed with regard to the meaning of sovereignty, sacrifice, authenticity, freedom, authority, dignity, self, and society. Put differently, the messianic properties of Nasserism brought Qutb to mirror them. This dialectic process is somewhat missing from this otherwise excellent account. It would suggest that both Nasserism and Qutubism were nothing but competing theological systems that traded in similar ontological terms for the sake of personal and collective salvation in the wake of colonialism.

In this intimate rivalry for life and death, the mid-1960s stand as a serious watershed. Nasser made the irresistible mistake of executing Qutb, thus turning him into a martyr who sacralized his creed by virtue of his willingness to sacrifice his life for it. Undoubtedly, this act assisted in shaping the sacrificial horizons of Islamic revolutionary action. As Qutb’s sisters smuggled his writings out of prison and began publishing them, his theory and personal example interlaced neatly. Then, ten months later, in June 1967, came Nasser’s own demise. The demi-god who was to march his people through the desert of decolonization and development toward the promised land of secure post-colonial existence was defeated in a quick war that cut him back down to the size of an ordinary, vulnerable mortal. Enough has been written of this defeat and its many cultural aftershocks. Nasser carried on for three more years until his heart finally gave up due to the intense stress of its proprietor’s public life (eighteen hours of work daily) and the effects of diabetes, atherosclerosis, and heavy smoking. He was buried in October 1970. With him was buried the Nasserist utopia and its promise of salvation. It was Qutb’s turn to leave his mark on the defeated generation of 67 and here Gerges makes the important and generally overlooked point that Islamists gained traction only a decade after the 1967 war and not in its immediate aftermath.

In the rest of the book, Gerges projects the internal split inside the Brotherhood between the establishment and the Qutbists, as well as that between the Islamists and the militarized state. He addresses the 2011 revolution, and the ephemeral triumph of the Brotherhood in the presidential elections and its bloody ousting by the military. However, this is mostly an afterthought in which Gerges is reconstructing a very Egyptian story, one that, regardless of the title is not particularly useful for the understanding of the rest of the region. However, the success of this book lies in staging Qutbism in a relational socio-political web vis-à-vis Nasserism. Gerges follows that relationship from its optimistic and amicable beginning all the way to its bloody end.

Professor Yoav Di-Capua teaches modern Arab thought in the University of Texas at Austin. His recent book is No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Decolonization (Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 2018).