A Comparison of Qutb’s & Ramadan’s Ideals on Islamic States & an Examination of Westerners Motivation to Join ISIS



Estimates state approximately 3,000 Westerners have joined the fight alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The motivation behind the move to join a militant Islamist group halfway across the globe is one that requires an examination of the attractive components presented by groups such as ISIS and al Quaeda. What would drive a person to join a movement against anyone who is not Sunni Muslim?

“Islam , then, is the only divine way of life which brings out the noblest human characteristics, developing and using them for the construction of human society…” (29, Milestones)

Above is an excerpt from Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones. Qutb is perhaps the most prominent Muslim Brotherhood member of all-time. In fact, I believe his imprisonment under the Gamal Abdel Nasser administration and subsequent hanging, years after he had served his sentence are a great representation that Nasser recognized the large sphere of influence Qutb held. Qutb’s literature works and ideologies are among the most important from which the Islamist terrorist groups we are so familiar with nowadays (e.g. al Quaeda, ISIS) have built their following. Particularly in Qutb’s Milestones, an Islamic state is the end all, be all.

The word “community” (ummah) is used over 70 times in Sayyid Qutb’s ideological declaration Milestones, and in nearly all instances it is accompanied by the word Muslim or Islam. The term ummah implies that there is a collection of people striving for a common goal and purpose. Through repetition of the word, one can sense that Qutb aims to make the believer feel that the spread and manifestation of Islamic ideals is possible only through interaction and collaboration with other Muslims. Qutb’s ideas are given concrete form when Western fighters decide to join this ummah that is ISIS. Fighters from the West may feel that they would cherish chance to be a part of something much larger than themselves. One of the leading proposed reasons for the migration of Westerners to the Middle East is that they may have lacked a sense of identity and belonging in the Western world. As one intelligence source put it, the French have called their jihadists,  “Disaffected, aimless and lacking a sense of identity or belonging.” Additionally, nothing requires more of a commitment than a religious ummah and the opportunity to enforce one’s religious ideals through force and establishment of a society based on such ideals is extremely tempting.

Qutb is also consistent with his goal to clearly define Arabic terms such as jahiliyyah and jihad. Jahiliyyah is defined by Qutb as, “The state of ignorance of the guidance from God” (5). Qutb then goes on to say that jahiliyyah is illustrated by one man’s lordship over another, a theme that he thought was thoroughly prevalent in Western society and culture. It was necessary that an Islamist state be established to break the shackles of oppression found in jahili society. A jihad, nowadays simply known as a holy war, was necessary in order to overthrow governments that did not uphold Islamic ideals. Ultimately, Qutb sees war and force as the only means by which to achieve an Islamic state. The goals of the ISIS currently fighting in the Middle East and Iraq are completely in agreement with Qutb’s line of thinking. Westerners hoping to join such a movement already have an understanding that they will have to participate in an all-out war. For some it may be the thrill brought about by the action, while for others it may be total commitment to their religion and the spread of Islam.

“The distinctive feature of a Muslim [ummah] is this: that in all its affairs it is based on worship of God alone” (51, Milestones). Qutb believed that an Islamic society needed a government completely based on shari’ah’ law and not one based on a hierarchy of officials. Qutb was strongly against Western society because he felt it was to blame for oppression. Qutb exclaims, “Thus, the development of the civilization, according to the method and manner of Islam, does not depend on any particular level of industrial, economic or scientific progress” (74, Milestones). Qutb wants to do away with what he views as a materialistic society that is dependent on measurable such as wealth and status. In order to eliminate Western values of society that in his view promoted oppression, Qutb believes that a total Islamic state is necessary. Fighters from the West must be sharing the same sentiment that a society freed from oppression could only be made possible through the establishment of an Islamic system, otherwise there would be no purpose behind their efforts.

Tariq Ramadan, a currently active Egyptian writer and academic, has some ideas of his own relating to an Islamic state. Ramadan warns against an Islamist state established through war and violence in his work Islam & The Arab Awakening, “The Islamism of violent extremism is the antithesis of the nonviolent movements that swept the Arab world” (74). Ramadan believes that a government set up by terrorist groups like ISIS would be counter-productive to the possible progress towards an open government that would respect its citizens’ rights. In a bit of a contradictory point, Ramadan then critiques secularization in the Arab world because it leads to less religious freedom. Ramadan comes to some sort of compromise stating that he sees Islam as way to develop ethics within government and society; he is much less in support of complete shari’ah’ law like Qutb. However, Ramadan does understand Qutb’s militant way of thinking because the Muslim Brotherhood was initially created as a way to counteract colonialism, which is one of the ultimate forms of oppression.

The oppression that ISIS has identified has to do with Western presence in the Middle East and the current secularist governments in Syria and Iraq. One of the most telling signs that Western fighters were a part of the efforts of ISIS was the beheading video in which the main speaker had a strong British accent. The use of a Western jihadist in the video was most likely a ploy by ISIS to demonstrate to other Westerners contemplating whether or not they should join the movement that there were others like them. ISIS is essentially informing Westerners that if they accept their teachings and beliefs, they will be welcome with no hesitation.

Overall, the factors influencing the migration of Westerners to fight in Syria and Iraq are complex in nature and there is no real answer besides educated speculation. Islamist groups are accepting fighters with open arms; as ISIS member Abu Muslim said, “This is more than just fighting…we need the engineers, we need doctors, we need professionals … there is a role for everybody.” A sense of identity and belonging serve as recruitment tools that do not need much convincing. Coupled with a commitment to religion and the motivating force behind migration to fight in a holy war becomes amplified. Some may attribute the Westerners move to join Islamist groups as a form of rebellion and they would not be wrong. As Qutb stated in Milestones, Western society seems to have materialistic views in place that could be interpreted as forms of oppression. Westerners may see Islamist groups as break from the norm of Western society and its “shackles.” However one thing is for sure, if the avenues by which Westerners are migrating towards ISIS are not kept in check, a dire situation could turn into utter disaster in the fragile Middle East very soon.