Rejecting America’s Cold War: Sayyid Qutb’s Nationalist-Islamist Agenda and the Failure of U.S. Efforts to Win Over Egyptian Muslims Following World War II
Haddad, Yvonne Y
Known in the post-9/11 context as one of the fathers of Islamic extremism, Egyptian author Sayyid Qutb was writing squarely in the mainstream of anti-British nationalism and Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism in the early post-World War II period. Despite Qutb’s public antagonism in the Egyptian press against America, Great Britain, and the Cold War paradigm, the U.S. government allowed him to spend two years in the United States on an exchange from the Ministry of Education. Furthermore, it appears that the U.S. government secretly paid for Qutb’s 1949 treatise, Social Justice in Islam, to be translated into English and published in 1953. No sources in the existing literature adequately explain either the value of Social Justice in Islam to the U.S. government or the importance of Qutb’s works from this period to his own career.To explain this puzzle, the study combines a close reading of Social Justice and Qutb’s anti-American articles from 1946 to 1952 with declassified U.S. archives, especially State Department, National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, and Congress, and with secondary sources spanning early Cold War U.S. foreign relations and intelligence activities, late 19th and early 20th century Egyptian political and social history, biographies of American and Egyptian figures, and accounts of Islamist organizations and intellectual developments.This study argues that the U.S. government likely promoted Qutb’s Social Justice because he was both anti-communist and an emerging religious leader in Egypt. U.S. officials were looking for Muslim partners who could help sway public opinion in the region against the Soviet Union, preventing communist takeover. They tolerated a degree of dissonance in the views of those they promoted, seeing it as a sign of authenticity which would make indigenous authors more persuasive to the target audience. However, I argue that Qutb was too independent. Although he wrote against communism, he also rejected the Cold War binary and, inverting the power relationship, subjected American propaganda to his own nationalist and Islamist agenda. By explaining the significance of the interaction between Sayyid Qutb and the U.S. government during this period, the study adds to our understanding of the impact of early Cold War American policy in Egypt, the evolution of Qutb’s ideas during this phase of his career, and nationalist-Islamist forms of anti-colonial resistance in Egypt following World War II.
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