In her recently published book, French writer Charlotte Nordmann studies the theme of commitment amongst philosophers and sociologists that the concept of the intellectual in the west is long gone, even if commitment regarding social issues remains strong amongst philosophers and Western thinkers.
The writer highlighted that the era of Jean-Paul Sartre is long lost, when intellectuals were considered vanguards of the public’s struggle and quest for liberation, and were considered part of the silenced oppressed people as well as rational thinkers who create tools to liberate the oppressed.
Nowadays, what distinguishes protest movements in the West is the cautiousness of the cognitive and symbolic powers of intellectuals. Such cautiousness is based upon a presumption that this power penetrates the pattern of repression and exclusion that comes between intellectuals on one hand and the expression of interests and aspirations of the public on the other hand. In turn, the public cannot be confined to one economic or social class or another, according to definitions by social sciences which are simultaneously non-neutral evaluations that have their own set of implied criteria.
What Charlotte Nordmann highlighted is that a large part of the ongoing conflict nowadays, revolves around the discourse, the legitimacy and credibility, which were once monopolized by intellectuals, through the application of what philosopher Jacques Ranciere had expressed as assigning the duty of speech to those who do not have the legitimacy to speak.
One of the oddest coincidences in this regard is that when Sartre was placed once again at the forefront of Western intellectuals a quarter of a century after his death (he was neglected in past decades owing to the rise of the structural and dissociation philosophies), Sayyed Qutb was brought once again to the fore of the Arab arena a century after his birth and forty years after his execution under Nasser’s rule.
There is no doubt that the two men, despite their divergent intellectual background and political activity, enjoy two common points which are; the impact that they have had on their fields on one hand and their perceptions of doctrinal and societal commitment (despite the referential differences between both versions of commitment).
Undoubtedly, the impact of Sartre on western thought after the Second World War is unmatched by any other, especially in an era that was dominated by existentialism that had taken over the fields of philosophy and arts, as well as life itself. Similarly, Sayyed Qutb’s writings of the same era on the Islamic scene is unparalleled by any other.
The existential philosopher and Islamic scholar share one basic methodological characteristic which is the magnificence of their linguistic styles, their forceful expressions and the flow of emotion. There is no doubt that Sayyed Qutb, who was an outstanding literature critic, was acquainted with the first translations of novels and books written by Sartre. Some references even state that before he joined the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Qutb was somewhat influenced by existentialism and had even adopted its values and ideas.
Sartre dies at seventy-five years old. When he led student demonstrations in 1968 and challenged the security forces, the police did not dare to hurt him. At that time, President De Gaulle had made his famous statement, “I cannot put the conscience of France in prison.” In 1980, on the day of Sartre’s death, the Council of Ministers held a session in memory of the great French philosopher attended by President Giscard d’Estaing. As for Sayyed Qutb, he had spent the last years of his life in prison and was executed by hanging as a punishment for his writings. It is said that when President Jamal Abdul Nasser read Qutb’s last book, ‘Maalim fil Tariq’ (Milestones) whilst on an official visit to Moscow, he considered the book a serious threat to the government. Eventually, Abdul Nasser rejected the mediation of kings, presidents and religious figures, who had intervened to prevent Qutb’s execution issued by the military court.
However, the voice of the philosopher, who had mobilized the European publics in the late 1960s like no other since Voltaire and Rousseau, was silenced after a decade of uprising universities. Existentialism had then shifted into a philosophical and literary study that is being taught academically and is no longer a choice of behaviour or a lifestyle. As for the “martyred” scholar, he became a symbol of all radical trends that were introduced in the Arab arena. His followers, who were detained in Egyptian prisons, have formed organizations such as Takfir wal Hijra (Excommunication and Exodus) and tried to implement his theory of separation from pagan ignorance and the establishing of leading believers to entrench religion into people’s lives.
Iran’s Shiite Imams, who had translated Qutb’s writings, were influenced by the scholar as they rebelled against the Shah and established the Waliyat Al Faqih system (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists). However, Sayyed Qutb, who my colleague Radwan Al-Sayyed considered the only great writer to come out of the school of the Muslim Brotherhood, had become a burden on Islamic movements that aim at acquiring political legitimacy. His theory on the governance and the uprising of the religious vanguard is inconsistent with the concept of political participation within a democratic system. Also his thoughts on the pagan ignorance of modern society endanger the coexistence between Muslims and others in society at a point in which Islamic trends have raised the slogan of cultural dialogue and consolidating the principle of internal and external differences.
The successor of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Imam Hassan Al Hedeby, may have detected these pitfalls, thus he wrote an implicit response to the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, which was entitled, ‘Advocates not Judges’. One can say that what remains of Qutb is the image of a glorious martyr who, smiling, celebrated death in the name of defending his principles and creed and not in the name of his intellectual creations, editions of which are still being published, however his actual influence has become limited in the field of Islamic political thought. His in an image of a hero who had proved his existence and imposed his freedom through death and this is without a doubt a wonderful Sartre image from the existential tragedy.