(RNS) Is the jazz standard “Baby It’s Cold Outside” a heart-warming ode to winter romance or the worst example of American hedonism?
After hearing the song at a Colorado church dance in the 1940s, Egyptian exchange student Sayyid Qutb viewed the song as a moral indictment of the West—views that some say could now shape the future of Egypt.
After returning to Egypt, Qutb emerged as the intellectual godfather of Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that now appears poised to assume a larger role in Egyptian society, possibly including whatever government takes root after the fall of current President Hosni Mubarak.
The massive demonstrations across Egypt have revived interest—and debate—over Qutb’s impact on the Brotherhood, and whether his anti-Western views that were shaped by his time in America will find renewed favor in a more democratic Egypt.
Qutb lived in the United States from 1948 to 1950, but even Qutb experts are divided on whether he was ultimately more disenchanted with the U.S. or with authoritarian Islamic governments that themselves didn’t live up to Muslim ideals.
Born in 1906, Qutb received both a Western and Islamic education, and in the 1930’s he became a civil servant in Egypt’s education ministry. He made his name as a writer, specializing on social and religious issues.
In 1948, Qutb was sent to study the American education system. Some scholars say Qutb already viewed America negatively because of its ties with Great Britain, Egypt’s former colonial master, and later because of its support for Israel.
“There was a sort of Utopian quality to his vision. He thought that if society reached a certain level of education, then this ideal Islamic society will come into being,” said Ellen Amster, an associate history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Qutb began in Washington D.C. at Wilson Teaching College and then moved to Greeley, Colo., home to Colorado State College of Education, where he spent the bulk of his time. It was a religiously conservative town; consistent with Muslim beliefs, alcohol was prohibited.
Still, Qutb disdained what he saw.
“Nobody goes to church as often as Americans do … Yet no one is as distant as they are from the spiritual aspect of religion,” he wrote in “The America I Have Seen,” a 20-page tract he published in 1950.
Qutb was also critical of American sexual mores, arguing that objectifying females and promiscuity had led women away from the roles as mothers and resulted in the breakdown of the family.
“The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she knows all this and does not hide it,” he wrote.
He was also critical of the gladiator aspect of American sports and the American insistence on civil—not divine—laws. He finished his American tour in Palo Alto, Calif., and shortly after returning to Egypt in 1950, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some contemporary observers contend Qutb’s U.S. sojourn hardened his views of the West’s spiritual and moral bankruptcy—views that formed the basis for his more radical views about violence, jihad, and the West.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently called Qutb a “racist, a bigot, a misogynist, an anti-Semite and a fervent hater of most things American,” all based on his time in the U.S.
“The Islamic state Qutb envisioned would be racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian as well,” Cohen wrote. “It would treat women as the Taliban now does—if only because the Taliban, too, reveres Qutb.”
But others say Qutb’s motivation for joining the Brotherhood had less to do with what he saw in the United States, and more with his belief that Egypt’s government was oppressive and standing in the way of an Islamic state in Egypt.
“The conclusions are drawn on scant knowledge,” said Kamran Bokhari, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia at Stratfor, a foreign intelligence consulting firm in Austin, Texas.
While Qutb was concerned about the erosion of traditional Islamic virtues in Egypt and other Muslim countries, he never would have approved of attacking the West, said John Calvert, a history professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and author of “Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism.”
“He didn’t advocate confrontation against America,” said Calvert. “He wouldn’t have approved of the killing of innocent people. And he wouldn’t have understood the necessity of attacking the West on its own territory.”