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The Economist's unforgivable silence on Sayyid Qutb's anti-Semitism

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I always read the Economist magazine. I like many things about it, but I particularly cherish its book reviews. They are cogent and snappily written, and they often deal with books that I don't find reviewed elsewhere. An example is a forthcoming biography of one of contemporary Islam's most important thinkers, Sayyid Qutb. The book gets a good review. It's more than I can say for the Economist itself.

Qutb was hanged in 1966 by the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser after the customary torture. He had been the intellectual leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and a man of copious literary output. One of his efforts was called "Our Struggle with the Jews." It is a work of unabashed, breathtakingly stupid anti-Semitism, one of the reasons the New York Review of Books recently characterized Qutb's views "as extreme as Hitler's." About all this, the Economist is oddly, ominously and unforgivably silent.

This is both puzzling and troublesome. After all, it's not as if Qutb was some minor figure. He is, as a secondary headline on the Economist review says, "the father of Islamic fundamentalism," and it is impossible to read anything about him that does not attest to his immense contemporary importance. Nor was Qutb's anti-Semitism some sort of juvenile madness, expressed in the hormonal certainty of youth and later recanted as both certainty and hairline receded. It was, instead, the creation of his middle age and was published in the early 1950s. In other words, his essay is a post-Holocaust work, written in full knowledge of what anti-Semitism had just accomplished. The mass murder of Europe's Jews didn't give him the slightest pause. Qutb was undaunted.

But so, apparently, are some others who write about him. In his recent and well-received book, "The Arabs," Eugene Rogan of Oxford University gives Qutb his due "as one of the most influential Islamic reformers of the [20th] century" but does not mention his anti-Semitism or, for that matter, his raging hatred of America. Like the Sept. 11 terrorists, Qutb spent some time in America -- Greeley, Colo.; Washington, D.C.; and Palo Alto, Calif. -- learning to loathe Americans. He was particularly revolted by its overly sexualized women. Imagine if he had been to New York!

The Economist's review is stunning in its omission. Can it be that a mere 65 years after the fires of Auschwitz were banked, anti-Semitism has been relegated to a trivial, personal matter, like a preference for blondes -- something not worth mentioning? Yet, Qutb is not like Richard Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was repellent but did not in the least affect his music. Qutb's Jew-hatred was not incidental to his work. While not quite central, it has nevertheless proved important, having been adopted along with his other ideas by Hamas. Qutb blames Jews for almost everything: "atheistic materialism," "animalistic sexuality," "the destruction of the family" and, of course, an incessant war against Islam itself.

Obviously, this is no minor matter. Critics of Israel frequently accuse it of racism in its treatment of Palestinians. Sometimes, the charge is apt. But there is nothing in the Israeli media or popular culture that even approaches what is openly, and with official sanction, said in the Arab world about Jews. The message is an echo of Nazi racism, and the prescription, stated or merely implied, is the same.

The Economist and Rogan are insufficient in themselves to constitute a movement. Yet I cannot quite suppress the feeling that the need to demonize Israel is so great that the immense moral failings of some of its enemies have to be swept under the carpet. As Jacob Weisberg pointed out recently in Slate, the "boycott Israel" movement is oddly unbalanced -- so much fury directed at Israel, so little at countries like China or Venezuela. Can it be that the French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch was prescient when he suggested years ago that anti-Zionism "gives us the permission and even the right and even the duty to be anti-Semitic in the name of democracy"? The line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, a demarcation I have always acknowledged, is becoming increasingly blurred.

Because the Economist's book reviews are unsigned, it's impossible to know -- and the Economist would not say -- who's at fault here. So the magazine itself is accountable not just for bad taste or unfathomable ignorance but for disregarding its own vow, published on its first page, "to take part in a severe contest between intelligence . . . and an unworthy timid ignorance obstructing our progress." During the week of July 15, it didn't just lose the contest -- it never even showed up for it.

cohenr@washpost.com


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