The author Robert Kaplan sharply made the case for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, in The New York Times the other day.
Part of his argument is that the Taliban, the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist militia in Afghanistan, is no weaker than it was once the U.S. invaded, after 9/11. Leaving could virtually return control of the country to it.
And so the U.S. finds itself, 18 years on, still opposed by jihadis across the Middle East.
Why do they hate us? Why did they first hate us?
One logical place to look for an answer is where some scholars turned after 9/11: the Egyptian village of Musha.
That is where, in 1906, Sayyid Qutb was born, a man who would eventually convince generations of Islamists that America and the West and modernity itself were wicked – and that Muslims should be governed in a medieval caliphate.
Qutb, a child of the middle class, eventually made his way to Cairo, as a student, then as a teacher and a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Education. He became disenchanted with Egypt in the 1940s, believing it had been betrayed by secular leaders and western puppets.
His friends convinced him to go abroad on a scholarship, for his own safety. That’s how Qutb landed in Greeley, about an hour north of Denver, in 1949, where he took courses at the Colorado State College of Education.
The town had been founded 80 years before by utopian New Yorkers who banned alcohol. It was still dry when Qutb arrived. It thrived on beet farming, producing a quarter of the country’s sugar. It was by all accounts a wholesome place.
Qutb, a slight bachelor with a small mustache, seethed that townspeople devoted time to their lawns. “This is all they appear to do.”
The young men of Greeley he found brutish and ox-like. They played football, which demonstrated Americans’ “love for hard-core violence,” he concluded. The typical young woman of Greeley, he wrote, “knows 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.”
Qutb’s disgust with Greeley and America seemed to culminate when he was invited to a dance in the basement of a Congregationalist church. The pastor dimmed the lights and played a record. “The dance hall ... was full of ... seductive legs,” he complained.
Qutb returned to Egypt and became a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then of a political-Islamist offshoot which held that Islam must govern the world. He also wrote about the decadence of Greeley, which in his mind represented the West. He was jailed after a failed assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdel Nasser, wrote a 30-volume study of Islam and was hanged as a traitor in 1966. He became a martyr and his writings became an inspiration to the militants of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda.
Obviously, Qutb was unhappy – disgruntled before he went to Greeley, while he was in Greeley and afterward. He channeled that into a contempt that somehow is still fueling terrorism.
It has nothing to do with Greeley, really, or America, which is still reckoning with its own cultures.
At that Congregationalist dance, Qutb noted the song that was played – because he hated that, too: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a 1949 hit.
It is probably just a quirk of history that this holiday season, some Americans, intent on making a better world, focused their disdain on the same song, demanding it be banned from the radio.