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Qutb, who is often cited as the intellectual heart of the Muslim Brotherhood, and who was later executed under the orders of his one–time friend, and adamant modernist, Gamal Abdel Nasser, formed much of his critique on the philosophical vacancy of Western imperialism upon his visit to America.
Entitled “The America I have Seen,” his book is an account of the mangled American dream as a cultural form without substance and only the stupefied bliss of a bromide hit to recommend it.
America “is the case of a people who have reached the peak of growth and elevation in the world of science and productivity, while remaining abysmally primitive in the world of the senses, feelings, and behaviour.”
The reason, according to Qutb, is encapsulated by this absurd moment in history:
One may be amazed when reading the stories of the first pilgrims to America, in its early days, and imagine their epic, amazing struggles against a defiant nature in far–flung, desolate lands, and even before this, braving the ocean’s horrific squalls … [And] one may be amazed at how all this did not leave a shadow upon the American spirit and inspire a belief in the majesty of nature and that which is beyond nature, opening in the American spirit a window on things that are more than matter and the world of matter.
Instead, Qutb notes that the natural landscape, like the original peoples, became framed as a challenge — things to be conquered, uprooted and destroyed, as the carpet of industry was unfurled over them. And, like Sisyphus, “there remains for the American the [endless] continuation of his first construction effort,” leaving no time for the reflection required for a civilized life.
All the refinement and contemplation that typifies civilization are geared toward productivity in America. Social etiquette and politeness are pilfered from the household in favor of the business world. Matters of “tenderness” and the “heart” are missing from relationships but abundant in sterile displays for advertising.
And art, religion and leisure have also been drained of their sanctity, siphoned into a greater marketing scheme — “for the minister does not feel that his job is any different from that of a theatre manager,” and leisure so often finds itself embroiled in the objectification of bodies that it might as well be an ad.
This “drought” of life — as church, merchant and state vie for the scattered attentions of an exhausted populace to further leech their metabolic energies for productivity, and assuage their impending psychological breakdown with toxic doses of hedonism — hollows out the American enterprise. “And this is where America has ended up after four hundred years.”
Blundering in an endless cycle of vices, the American dream is fat from spiritual malnutrition, and as lofty and unanchored as a released helium balloon: groundless, boundless and ultimately meaningless.
Qutb asks: “This great America: What is its worth in the scale of human values? And what does it add to the moral account of humanity?”
“I fear that the wheel of life will have turned and the book of time will have closed and America will have added nothing to the account of morals that distinguishes man from object, and indeed, mankind from animals.”
“Humanity makes the gravest of errors and risks losing its account of morals, if it makes America its example.”
Burnt–out and plain–faced, America hides under the neon glare of the after–hours, sneaking one–ounce shots of life.