With the global rise of political Islamism, many pundits have recently begun paying closer attention to the writings of Egyptian scholar and Muslim Brotherhood publicist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), whose radical Milestones and thirty-volume In the Shade of the Koran are said to be masterpieces of jihadist thought and persuasion. These writings, which some analysts consider to be an ideological influence on violent Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda, contain an uncompromising anti-Western slant that Qutb supports with observations from his travel experiences in the United States.
In these classic jihadist works, Qutb is never all that specific about how and where he went about assembling his presumed expertise on American culture, but biographers note that he spent a majority of his 1948–50 U.S. sojourn as a scholarship student at Colorado State College of Education, in the high-plains town of Greeley. Moreover, not long after his return to Egypt from the United States, Qutb attempted to sum up his expatriate experience in “The America I Have Seen,” a short travel memoir that appeared in the November 1951 issue of Egypt’s Al-Risala magazine.
As travel reportage, “The America I Have Seen” doesn’t exactly provide the reader with a vicarious window into living in the United States. Structured as a series of short, thematic arguments, Qutb’s essay primarily attempts to prove that America—despite its great wealth and scientific genius—suffers from a corrosive moral and spiritual primitiveness. This thesis might have carried some rhetorical weight had Qutb backed it up with evidence from his own experiences, but—oddly—the Egyptian traveler didn’t have many direct encounters worth sharing. Of the fifty-four brief sections in “The America I Have Seen,” only eight allude to specific real-life observations; the other sections consist of broad generalizations and secondhand anecdotes. Perhaps his most memorable direct recollection is described as follows:
In summary, anything that requires a touch of elegance is not for the American, even haircuts! For there was not one instance in which I had a haircut when I did not return home to even with my own hands what the barber had wrought, and fix what the barber had ruined with his awful taste.
Qutb’s exasperation with American barbers humanizes him in an unexpected way: In spite of his relentless didacticism, we realize that our skeptical Egyptian exchange student was really just a querulous sojourner in an unfamiliar land, compulsively judging everything he saw through the rosy, idealized lens of his home culture.
Indeed, biographers have implied that Qutb’s experience in the United States is what convinced him to reject Western values, but “The America I Have Seen” is clearly the memoir of a man who traveled to America seeking evidence for conclusions he’d drawn before he ever left Egypt. Never deviating from the Muslim fundamentalist assumptions he set forth in Social Justice in Islam (written before he visited the U.S. and published in 1949), Qutb’s travel essay reflects the stereotyped sentiment—commonly encouraged by the Egyptian prejudices of his day—that America’s material culture was morally inferior to the spiritual civilization of the Arab world. In fact, were one to strip the political cloaking from his essay, it’s apparent that Qutb’s experience of America was characterized by an oddly familiar combination of superficial experiences, paranoid conjectures, and passive culture shock.
In other words, before Qutb returned to Egypt to write his most influential and incendiary Islamist treatises (for which he was ultimately hanged by Egyptian president Gamal Nasser in 1966), the man who would one day influence terrorists passed his time in America as the most banal of interlopers: a tourist.
The anthropological and sociological study of tourism is a fairly recent phenomenon. Fifty years ago, social scientists largely regarded tourists as irritating aberrations in what were otherwise “pure” research environments. As anthropologist Erve Chambers notes in his 2000 book Native Tours, “so long as the idea of culture remained bound in place and time… phenomena such as tourism could rarely be viewed as more than an unwelcome intrusion upon the neat categories and orderly distinctions with which anthropologists were wrestling.”
This notion began to change in the 1970s, when sociologist Dean MacCannell published The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (1976), and anthropologist Valene L. Smith edited an anthology entitled Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism (1977). Both books examined the complex social and cultural aspects of travel, and treated tourism as a historically valid expression of human behavior and society. Two decades later, when globalization became a buzzword and cross-cultural travel began to take on new meanings, academic interest in tourist behavior intensified even more.
To a large extent, these studies of tourism explored the ways in which the traveler brings his home culture and assumptions with him. In The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (1990), for example, sociologist John Urry quotes scholar Jonathan Culler, who noted that tourists are “semioticians reading the landscape for signifiers of certain pre-established notions.” Urry goes on to assert that travel behaviors, in the context of displacement, have much to reveal about the prejudices of one’s home society. Similarly, in Tourism: Between Place and Performance (2002), editors Simon Coleman and Mike Crang note that the Western tourist actively seeks to root himself in certain habits and manifestations of home, even as he travels. Away from his home, the traveler is nonetheless beholden to it psychically.
However, while many of these tourism studies broke new academic ground, they invariably focused on the modern conception of home, and the one-way impacts of Western tourism on developing cultures. Often using the lens of Marxism or postcolonialism to critique their tourist subjects, many of these researchers seemed to be operating on the weirdly colonialist assumption that individuals from poorer countries were not also traveling abroad and having their own “tourist” experiences. The superficiality of middle-class American tourists exploring the East was analyzed in depth, but few scholars considered the possibility that Easterners might be having similarly superficial experiences as they traveled to America for study, work, and (occasionally) recreation.
Qutb’s “The America I Have Seen” first appeared in English in 2000, as part of an anthology entitled America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature. Edited by Kamal Abdel-Malek, this collection translates and showcases a century’s worth of essays originally written in Arabic by Egyptian, Palestinian, Moroccan, Lebanese, and Syrian travelers. Containing a wide range of positive and negative views on the United States, one strength of the anthology is that it provides an interesting perspective on what Arabs thought about America in decades past, well before the rift between East and West became a daily media obsession.
The charm of the essays in America in an Arab Mirror is not that Arab travelers see the world in a unique way, but that they can be just as credulous, self-absorbed, and touristically dorky as their American counterparts. For example, many writers in the Arab anthology echoed the standard tourist complaints with unfamiliar food, including Egyptian author Jadhibiyya Sidqi, who spends almost two pages of her 1962 memoir America and I outlining her distaste for salad dressing. Elsewhere, reporter Muhammad Hasan al-Alfi’s 1989 essay “America: The Jeans and the Switchblade” expresses shock at the rituals of a “satanic celebration”—which might have been shocking indeed were he not describing Halloween festivities in Minnesota.
Moreover, some encounters described by the Arab travelers sound as if they could be case studies from tourism sociology textbooks. In the 1982 travel narrative “America: Paradise and Hellfire,” journalist Adil Hammuda is so obsessed with New York’s violent reputation that he inflates a seemingly benign encounter with an airport panhandler into a near-death experience. “[He] just sold me my life for only ten dollars,” Hammuda declares. “Everything is expensive in New York, everything, that is, except human life… As a stranger in New York you may be assaulted, torn apart, even killed for no reason.” Scholar Dean MacCannell describes this exact same sentiment in The Tourist. “Couples from the Midwest who visit Manhattan now leave a little disappointed if they do not chance to witness and remark on some of its famous street crime,” he writes. “One is reminded that staged ‘holdups’ are a staple motif in Wild West tourism.”
Of course, not all of the Arab travelers in Abdel-Malek’s anthology are caricatures of touristic awkwardness. As is the case in Western travel circles, many of the Arab sojourners are perceptive, self-aware, and willing to question their own cultural assumptions. Some even acknowledge their own analytical limitations as tourists. “[W]hat I saw… pales in comparison to what I have not seen,” reports agriculturalist Muhammad Labib al-Batanuni in his 1930 essay “The Trip to America.” “One can view many things in a hurry and not know exactly which to write about and which to ignore. As the classical Arab poet puts it: ‘Many were the gazelles that passed by the hunter / But he was unable to decide which to catch.’” Elsewhere, Egyptian scholar Zaki Najib Mahmud attempts to refute Arab prejudices in his 1955 travelogue “My Days in America”: “I am amazed that these people are known for leading materialistic lives while we Egyptians consider ourselves spiritual,” he writes. “The ‘Americans’ isn’t just a meaningless term, they are human beings. If you wish to utter anything against them, keep silent until you have met individuals from amongst them…”
Sayyid Qutb’s analysis of America is not nearly so generous. A primary case in point would be his appraisal of American sexuality, which he finds primitive and debauched. To this day, Qutb’s biographers take these conclusions at face value, with some Muslim analysts going so far as to insist that Qutb found the U.S. a place of “widespread sexual anarchy.”
The setting that so scandalized Qutb, however, was not a place of hippie-era love-ins or disco-era cocaine orgies, but Truman-era conservatism. Greeley, Colorado in 1949 was a dry town, with an abundance of churches and not a single bar. Still, our Egyptian traveler was able to locate a den of licentiousness in none other than a church sock hop. “And they danced to the tunes of the gramophone,” Qutb writes, “and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests. The atmosphere was full of desire.” Qutb then goes on to describe—without alluding to a conversation with any girl in particular—American girls’ knowledge that “seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.”
As these passages suggest, Qutb was content to play the role of voyeur during his time in America, interpreting events not as they might have been understood by the Americans who lived them, but as they sparked his fevered and pious imagination. Jazz was “music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires”; football fans were “enthralled with the flowing blood and crushed limbs, crying loudly, everyone cheering for his team”; sexual choice was “a gripping slavery and a relapse to the first primitive levels.” American haircuts were a disgrace, and the practices of salting watermelon and drinking unsweetened tea (both unknown in Egypt) were revelatory signifiers of cultural stupidity.
Indeed, by the end of “The America I Have Seen,” Qutb comes off sounding less like a nascent Muslim Marx than the Arab equivalent of a floral-shirted American account executive demanding “freedom fries” on the French Riviera.
In some instances, it’s tempting to point out how the essays collected in America in an Arab Mirror seem to prophetically allude to the events of 9/11, or the current Iraq war. In the 1946 essay “The Flying Sphinx,” for instance, Egyptian short-story writer Mahmud Taymur expresses both awe and disgust at the skyscrapers of New York. “They are eloquent in expressing the inherent inferiority complex in the American psyche,” he writes, “which prompts this young rising nation that has been blessed with resources, knowledge, and an undisputed position among nations, to cry out to the world: ‘Look at me, I am the greatest one of all!’” Forty years later, Palestinian intellectual Yusuf al-Hasan appears to predict the workings of the current Bush administration in a 1986 essay called “The Washington Memoirs”:
Americans don’t understand the workings of history, especially when they deal with foreign affairs. … If the situation abroad affects American comfort and pockets, then America interferes; it doesn’t look for the reasons that led to that bad situation but seeks to punish and to “take an immediate action,” just like the cowboy who lives in a world in which only the fastest to pull his gun survives.… The American doesn’t really care about the bloodletting of hundreds of people in the Arabian Gulf, nor the ruin of the economic infrastructure and national wealth of countries in the region. His only concern is to safeguard the flow of oil. That is all.
For the most part, however, the writing in America in an Arab Mirror does not prophesy so much as it reveals the perceptions and prejudices of Arab travelers trying to decipher a strange land for their home audience. In essay after essay, popular Arab stereotypes about America—including sexual promiscuity, ostentatious wealth, and the impersonality of Western life—are affirmed, clarified, or refuted according to the sensibilities of the different writers. Naturally, a collection of essays by Easterners presuming to reveal the mysteries of the Occident to other Easterners invites an interesting literary comparison—and anthology editor Abdel-Malek says as much in the preface. “A question that was raised by a Princeton Arabist after one of my talks on the topic,” he writes, “was whether Arab writings on America could be regarded as a case of Occidentalism, a counter-Orientalism of sorts. It is an important question and I leave it to the reader to devise his or her own answer to it after reading this anthology.”
Not long after Abdel-Malek wrote this, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit provided a formal examination of Occidentalism in their eponymous 2002 New York Review of Books essay, which outlined Eastern anti-liberal stereotypes about the West. According to Buruma and Margalit, the Occidentalist harbors “a deep hatred of the City, that is to say, everything represented by urban civilization: commerce, mixed populations, artistic freedom, sexual license, scientific pursuits, leisure, personal safety, wealth, and its usual concomitant, power.” To the Occidentalist, America is mechanically efficient, but lacking in soul; flashy, but culturally mediocre; rational, but devoid of feeling; comfortable, but cowardly.
In the case of Sayyid Qutb, Buruma and Margalit’s template fits seamlessly. Almost all the Occidentalist bases are neatly covered in “The America I Have Seen,” including sweeping statements on morality (“the matter of morals and rights are an illusion in the conscience of the American,” writes Qutb; “he cannot taste it”), technology (“nothing existed in them besides the crude power of the mind and the overwhelming lust for sensual pleasure”), and religion (“there is no one further than the American from appreciating the spirituality of religion”). Indeed, at times “The America I Have Seen” can read like an instructional Ur-text on Occidentalist rhetoric.
What is most striking about Qutb’s essay, however, is not that it conforms to the notions of Occidentalism, but that its language would easily be considered Orientalist were it not originally composed for an “Oriental” audience. According to Edward Said, Orientalist writing reinforces European prejudices by presuming to speak with authority on behalf of the Orient and the people who live there—often using exaggerated and half-understood examples to represent the whole of society. “[P]eople, places, and experiences can always be described by a book,” Said writes, “so much so that the book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.”
Similarly, while Said objects to Western scholars who imply that life is cheap and death a spectacle in the Orient, Qutb makes his own misleading inferences about life and death in “The America I Have Seen.” Specifically, Qutb expresses shock at the fact that, in times of death, Americans are not as outwardly expressive of their sorrow as are Egyptians. Of course Qutb doesn’t cloak his observations in such neutral terms, because he doesn’t consider Western funeral practices to be a cultural difference as much as a telltale failure of American emotion. Using three examples (two of which are secondhand anecdotes, one of which is drawn from an overheard snippet of conversation), Qutb seeks to reveal presumed American indifference in the face of death by alluding to the seeming cheerfulness of a wake, as well as a widow who is being encouraged to resume her social activities after the death of her husband, and another woman who expresses relief at the security of her late husband’s life insurance payments.
Instead of analyzing these examples (which themselves are already exaggerated by our author’s breathless reportage), Qutb transitions directly into a memory from his youth in Egypt, when he witnessed his chickens’ seeming sorrow when one of their number was slaughtered in front of them. “It was an emotional surprise for everyone who had been in the house,” Qutb writes soberly. “A surprise unexpected from birds as low on the evolutionary scale as these chickens.” The clumsy inference here is that—for all their vaunted technology and progress—Americans are civilizationally inferior to poultry.
In the decades since Sayyid Qutb’s death, the ideas he espoused (including a utopian view of sharia law, an inflexible opposition to Western culture and values, and the advocacy of Islamic theocracy as the only legitimate state) have been combined with puritanical Saudi Wahhabist ideals to influence the rise of militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda. Scholars don’t agree on whether or not Qutb would have approved of al-Qaeda’s tactics, but it’s safe to conclude that he shared their dream of toppling secular governments and setting up theocratic, anti-Western regimes across the Muslim world.
However, considering that Qutb’s rejection of Western values and modernity was informed by such a willfully cartoonish misinterpretation of American culture, it’s natural to wonder how his beliefs might have been tempered had he been a more engaged traveler.
In many ways, Qutb’s disgust with all things American during his Colorado stint was typical of someone undergoing culture shock, which anthropologist Kalervo Oberg defined as rejection of a host country based upon frustration and anxiety in the face of the unfamiliar. Under such stressful circumstances, the traveler attaches heightened importance to his home culture. “All difficulties and problems [back home] are forgotten and only the good things… are remembered,” wrote Oberg in a 1960 article for Practical Anthropology. “Instead of trying to account for conditions as they are through an honest analysis of the actual conditions and the historical circumstances which have created them, you talk as if the difficulties you experience are more or less created by the people of the host country for your special discomfort.”
In addition to identifying the symptoms of culture shock, Oberg also suggested remedies:
An objective treatment of your cultural background and that of your new environment is [important] for understanding culture shock.… Once you realize that your trouble is due to your own lack of understanding of other people’s cultural background and your own lack of the means of communication rather than the hostility of an alien environment, you also realize that you yourself can gain this understanding and these means of communication.
To retroactively apply this perspective to Qutb’s experience, however, is to presume an open-mindedness that he simply did not possess.
Had Edward Said referenced Qutb’s travel essay in Orientalism (or used similarly insidious outtakes from other Eastern writers) his treatise might well have been a more balanced analysis of how people respond to Otherness. Said himself hints at this notion early on in his book, asserting that it is “perfectly natural for the human mind to resist the assault on it of untreated strangeness; therefore cultures have always been inclined to impose complete transformations on other cultures, receiving these other cultures not as they are but as, for the benefit of the receiver, they ought to be.”
In reality, what has come to be understood as an “Orientalist” perspective is invariably the opinion of a far-from-home traveler, Western or Eastern, who comes into contact with a limited number of people; someone who can’t fully understand his surroundings, and who compulsively judges his host culture by the standards of his own.
By coming to America and seeing only what he’d already formulated in his mind, Sayyid Qutb didn’t merely provide a prudish Islamist role model for 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta; he proved that cultural self-absorption is an ecumenical tourist vice, capable of traveling the globe in both directions.