How a Philosopher of Terror Became Just Another Curiosity
Monday Notes
How a Philosopher of Terror Became Just Another Curiosity
With every year, the obsessions of the post-9/11 era recede further out of mind. That's a good thing.
Published on: Feb 6, 2023  |  

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I’ve been thinking about Islam and Muslim identity more than I usually do (which is already a lot). My two previous notes explored various aspects of being Muslim in America: how Muslim-ness interacts with wokeness , safetyism, and being boring. I suppose part of it is that I really do sometimes feel that all politics is identity politics. Which sounds like something a postmodernist would say.

Well, my identity is important to me. I just don’t want to be defined by it. Or at least, I want to be the person doing the defining, rather than having my identity thrust upon me, used to predict what I’m about to say or judge what I’ve chosen to leave unsaid.

Probably some of it has to do with the fact that I re-read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones last week in preparation for the graduate seminar I teach on Islam and politics in the Middle East. I’m always struck by how Sayyid Qutb—profiled in The New York Times Magazine as The Philosopher of Islamic Terror”—has receded from the American public imagination. Paul Berman wrote the piece in the long lead-up to the Iraq war. I think Berman is wrong in his assessment of Qutb, but it’s still a fascinating piece, insofar as it tries to take the power of otherwise inscrutable ideas seriously.

But what I find most fascinating about Berman’s article—twenty years later—is its quaintness. So much of the post-9/11 climate in America is hard to convey to those who themselves have no memory of that day and its aftermath. My students were somewhere between 1 and 6 years old when it happened. They will have no real memory of how news was consumed in the pre-Twitter era. In some ways it was better—young people were apparently happier, just like everyone is always happier in the pre-present. In other ways it was worse, a lot worse, in fact. It’s this part of it that I struggle to convey the most.

The nation, in a show of (unfortunately) bipartisan unity, was on a war footing that produced some of our darkest moments, darker than anything Donald Trump could have mustered. We were living in the last vestiges of American monoculture, when gatekeepers could control and shape the narrative largely unheeded. To doubt the wisdom of the war in Afghanistan, the passage of the Patriot Act, or the invasion of Iraq was to find oneself in a lonely place. Muslim identity was securitized. In our depiction in the media, there was one primary mode: extremist, terrorist, or problem to be addressed. The search for “moderate” Muslims was all the rage, and I suppose it was nice that we were found. But to identify Muslims as moderate meant that observers had to be on the lookout for those who weren’t.

Some of this rhetoric was well-meaning. Instead of depicting us as security threats, we were the ones who could fight terror more effectively, because we had inside knowledge of the ways of our co-religionists. It wasn’t quite at the level of “native informant” but it certainly seemed to trend in that direction. You could see notes of this in movies and television shows: if there was a bad Muslim character, then there would also be a good Muslim character. If there was a terrorist, then there could be a counter-terrorist too. Progress!

It was cringe-worthy, and I’m literally cringing now as I look back at what Bill Clinton—in full pro-Muslim mode—said in his 2016 speech at the Democratic Convention. Although we couldn’t have realized it then, an era was ending. But you could still see its traces. Ostensibly to draw a contrast with that hater of Muslims, Donald Trump, Clinton roared to the crowd, apparently to misguided applause:

If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you. (APPLAUSE)

The “if” here is doing a lot of work, but this conditional acceptance of Muslims was par for the course for a surprisingly long time.

All of this was in the context of its own sort of “forever culture war” but in this case the enemies weren’t within but without. Berman and many others, including his comrade Christopher Hitchens, framed the war against terrorism as an existential struggle (which suggests that, for every age, one must find something against which to fight). They were enlisting readers in a fight about something bigger—a battle over ideals and ideas. It wasn’t just about terrorism. It was about reasserting faith in Western liberalism in order to defend it against those who might threaten it, whoever and wherever they may be. The prose was romantic too, befitting a new ideological struggle that would be waged on an epic scale.

The meteoric rise of ISIS allowed this self-definition to continue for a time, but it was already starting to feel strained. As recently (or as long ago) as 2015, the great political theorist Michael Walzer offered up a meditation on Islamism and the left that reminded me of Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism, itself a somewhat quaint title, with a decidedly stark cover.

Walzer’s essay was a continuation of this sort of polemic, ending appropriately with a call to arms. “My friends and neighbors are not ready to enlist; many of them won’t acknowledge the dangers posed by Islamist zealotry,” he writes. “But there are dangers and the secular left needs defenders. So here I am, a writer, not a fighter, and the most helpful thing I can do is to join the ideological wars [emphasis mine].”

Trump would change this and redirect attention away from Muslims. Of course, this wasn’t Trump’s intention, but Muslims and Islam have benefitted from the profound shift of what might be called the post-post-9/11 era.

It wasn’t my intention to test this, but I’ve found, in discussions with my students, that they feel free to say things that would have fifteen years ago been considered “cancellable.” They can understand Sayyid Qutb. His grievances—and his weren’t merely imagined but very real—make him relatable, even sympathetic. Now that he is no longer embedded in the culture war, they are comfortable saying nice things about him. But it’s not just that. It’s more that it wouldn’t even occur to them to be uncomfortable.

There is a lightness, there, if that’s the right word. Divorced from the immediacy and fervor of the post-9/11 context, Qutb is less threatening, and so there is simply less reason, if any reason at all, to measure what one says about him in polite company. And that means we can discuss and debate Qutb more openly, without the weight and baggage of an era that has, thankfully, passed.