For a national leader newly arrived on the world stage, a New York Times front page interview is a valuable opportunity. In a small space of a few hundred words the leader must shape and influence both American and International opinions. It might seem odd that President Mursi would invest a significant fraction of that in denouncing a second-rate greasy spoon restaurant chain. But perhaps not.
Since Muhammad Ali first started to send Egyptian men for training abroad in the early 19th century their response to the West has oscillated between fascination and revulsion. And it usually centers on matters of sexual mores. This is not surprising for young men from a closed and sexually segregated society who are thrown into the roiling and evolving Western struggle on women and gender. For some of these young men, it is the heart of darkness.
How these men came to see the West depended greatly on their experience of Western women. For Taha Hussein, married to a French bourgeois, the West was helpful, tolerant and progressive, for that how his beloved wife was. For Salama Mousa, the West was a bracing and addictive mixture of progress and revolution, as to be expected from someone who spent happy years in love with a fiery Fabian. For Sayyd Qutb, a small man that the Amazons of Colorado must have found odd, and who could not possibly express his true sexuality in a short time in America without psychological rupture, the West was a hideous circle of hell mired in sexual depravity and godless thoughts.
Mursi’s experience was also obviously searing. A young married man, with a sweet and dutiful wife, was exposed daily to the alluring sins of a country in the middle of a cultural and sexual revolution. The trip from the lush and dusty Egyptian delta to the verdant and permissive campuses of Southern California was, like Sayyd Qutb’s, a pilgrim’s progress through hell. And years later, grown satisfied and powerful, that trip must be recalled over and over again as a totem of his resilience and the center of his personality. Leaders always believe they are of a different metal and hence made in a crucible. The US would do well to understand Mursi’s crucible, and he gave all of us a powerful glimpse into that. In that sense, he did not waste his interview with the New York Times. He hit the target.
The anniversary of the execution of Sayyd Qutb was an occasion for many of the Muslim Brotherhood members to remember one of their patron saints as a latter day Thomas More, a man who went to the gallows rather than bend his beliefs. Of course Nasser was hardly Henry VIII, and Qutb is no Thomas More. Whereas More’s Utopia recommends religious tolerance (excepting atheists) and gender equality, Qutb’s Ummah tolerates almost no one (save his faithful followers), and eyes women with his peculiar psycho-sexual pathology. This is but one of many reasons why the Brothers’ Nahda is no Renaissance. Still it would be churlish to deny the Brothers their saint, and the current leadership is Qutbist to a fault. As luck would have it, his followers have met radically different fates. Some are ducking drones in the lunar landscape of Afghanistan, while others are hobnobbing with the very same American leaders responsible for these drones.
President Mursi belongs to the second variety. History served up an ironic moment when it placed Mursi in Iran on the anniversary of Qutb’s death. Mursi blurted his views with the blunt sincerity of a true believer rather than the careful articulation of a political leader. In a country of Shi’a Islam he opened his speech by an arcane and obscure reference to the four Caliphs, consciously echoing Qutb. Some in the West, including the drone masters, naively applauded his attacks on Iran, while oblivious to the religious symbolism of his speech. Mursi made his declaration of faith in Qutb and directly rejected any form of Islam that is tolerant or syncretic. When historians rightly speak of the golden age of tolerant Islamic civilization, it is an age well past the first four Caliphs. Mursi the politician is also the student of Qutb. Let it not be said that he is not transparent.
When President Obama, reflecting on the Egyptian revolution, quoted Martin Luther King’s famous phrase that “the arc of history bends to justice”, little did he know that in less than two years he would shake the hand of an Egyptian leader whose cultural horizon is formed by a man who regarded Negro spirituals, sung by Dr. King, as “the primitive and coarse expression of the Negro’s bestial tendencies”.
History continues to serve up ironies.