In his three-part BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis compares the philosophies of Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss and their followers, radical Islamists and the American neoconservatives, respectively. Curtis argues that these two factions are, in essence, two sides of the same coin. Both fight against liberal individualism, which they perceive as a threat to society with their conservative ideologies. Each faction is motivated by its own ideology to exert itself in a nostalgic effort to change the world. At the same time, Curtis argues that the threat of radical Islamists, while real, looks nothing like the Bush/Blair rhetoric. These politicians of fear, he argues, have exaggerated the radical Islamist threat, in much the same way their predecessors did the threat of Communism, in order to consolidate their political power. There is no global network of radical Islamists called Al Qaeda or otherwise, argues Curtis. There is certainly no radical Islamist existential threat to the West.
In Part I: Baby It’s Cold Outside, Curtis begins by introducing Sayyid Qutb, the so-called philosopher of Islamic terror. Qutb was born in small village in Egypt and moved to Cairo, where he was educated. He became a man of letters and a literary critic in the Western tradition. Employed by the Egyptian Ministry of Education, he was sent to America to study its education system. There he completed a master’s degree at the Colorado State College of Education. During his stay in America, he wrote a scathing critique of the West entitled The America that I Saw, condemning its racism, materialism, and lack of morality. He also published his first major religious social critique, Social Justice in Islam, while in America. Upon his return to Egypt, he became politically active and rose to prominence in the Muslim Brotherhood, becoming a publicist for the Brotherhood. Imprisoned by Nasser, Qutb developed and wrote in Milestones his theory of jahiliyyah, an accusation of apostasy against Nasser and his supporters, which extended in theory to all so-called Muslims who failed to reject secularism and rise up against Egypt’s Western-tinged secular governments. In Milestones, he issued a call to a vanguard to put his ideas into action. After his execution by Nasser, Ayman Zawahiri answered Qutb’s call. Zawahiri’s organization, Islamic Jihad, assassinated Sadat.