The Muslim Brotherhood's 'intellectual godfather'

Sayyid Qutb lived in the United States from 1948 to 1950.
Sayyid Qutb lived in the United States from 1948 to 1950.
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By Omar Sacirbey
Saturday, February 12, 2011

Is the jazz standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside" a heartwarming ode to winter romance or the worst example of American hedonism?

After hearing the song at a Colorado church dance in the 1940s, Egyptian exchange student Sayyid Qutb viewed the song as a moral indictment of the West - views that some say could now shape the future of Egypt.

After returning to Egypt, Qutb emerged as the intellectual godfather of Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that now appears poised to assume a larger role in Egyptian society, possibly including whatever government takes root after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

The massive demonstrations across Egypt have revived interest - and debate - over Qutb's impact on the Brotherhood, and whether his anti-Western views that were shaped by his time in America will find renewed favor in a more democratic Egypt.

Qutb lived in the United States from 1948 to 1950, but even Qutb experts are divided on whether he was ultimately more disenchanted with the United States or with authoritarian Islamic governments that themselves didn't live up to Muslim ideals.

Born in 1906, Qutb received both a Western and Islamic education, and in the 1930s he became a civil servant in Egypt's education ministry. He made his name as a writer, specializing in social and religious issues.

In 1948, Qutb was sent to study the American education system. Some scholars say Qutb already viewed America negatively because of its ties with Great Britain, Egypt's former colonial master, and later because of its support for Israel.

"There was a sort of Utopian quality to his vision. He thought that if society reached a certain level of education, then this ideal Islamic society will come into being," said Ellen Amster, an associate history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

Qutb began in Washington at Wilson Teachers College and then moved to Greeley, Colo., home to Colorado State College of Education, where he spent the bulk of his time. It was a religiously conservative town; consistent with Muslim beliefs, alcohol was prohibited.

Still, Qutb disdained what he saw.

"Nobody goes to church as often as Americans do. . . . Yet no one is as distant as they are from the spiritual aspect of religion," he wrote in "The America I Have Seen," a 20-page tract he published in 1950.

Qutb was also critical of American sexual mores, arguing that objectifying females and promiscuity had led women away from the roles as mothers and resulted in the breakdown of the family.

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