Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A little thought experiment

The Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by Nasser's regime in 1966 and whose fundamentalist version of Islam contributed to the ideological formation of al-Qaeda, spent some time in the U.S. at the end of the 1940s. As a student in Colorado, Qutb had a variety of experiences that, shall we say, rubbed him very much the wrong way and helped persuade him of the moral bankruptcy of American culture.

In the opening chapter of his 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright described Qutb's reaction to a church dance in 1949 (Qutb at the time was a student at the Colorado State College of Education, now the Univ. of Northern Colorado):
"On Sundays the college did not serve food, and students had to fend for themselves. Many of the international students, including Muslims like Qutb, would visit one of the more than fifty churches in Greeley [Co.] on Sunday evening, where, after services, there were potluck dinners and sometimes a dance. 'The dancing hall was decorated with yellow, red, and blue lights,' Qutb recalled on one occasion. 'The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips, and the atmosphere was full of love.' The minister gazed upon this sight approvingly, and even dimmed the lights to enhance the romantic atmosphere. Then he put on a song titled 'Baby, It's Cold Outside,' a sly ballad from an Esther Williams movie that summer, Neptune's Daughter. 'The minister paused to watch his young charges swaying to the rhythms of this seductive song, then he left them to enjoy this pleasant, innocent night,' Qutb concluded sarcastically."
Imagine what Qutb would make of certain aspects of American culture if he were still alive and happened to plop down on either the East or West coasts today (or any other part of the country, probably, but let's stick to the coasts for this thought experiment). For example, on a December weekend in Miami Beach he would see young women in scanty bikinis posing for fashion-shoots at hotel pools and in hotel lobbies. Everywhere he would see youth, physicality, and sex being used to sell every imaginable product. He would turn on a re-run of a TV program like 90210 and see actors in their 20s who look like they have stepped out of the pages of fashion magazines pretending -- badly and unconvincingly -- to be high-school students and operating on the premise that their school is simply the venue in which their complicated "romantic" (read, sex) lives unfold. He would be pursued by "seductive rhythms" or merely insistently obtrusive "music" in virtually every public space, rendering sequential thought a challenge and reflection even more difficult. Given his reaction to a church dance in Colorado in 1949, what would be Qutb's reaction to these and similar aspects of American culture today? The mind boggles.

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