Why Life is Not Beautiful in Life is Beautiful: Holocaust in Film

Life is Beautiful, originally titled “La vita è bella,” was released in 1997 in Italy (1999 in the United States). The movie is a drama and romantic comedy that takes place during the 1930s in Arezzo, Italy and revolves around the comedic antics and acting talent of Roberto Benigni, who plays the role of Guido, a Jewish man who arrives in town with plans to open a bookshop. The first half of the movie follows Guido as he attempts to woo Dora away from her fiancé and starts a family with her. The second half of the movie takes place in what the audience is meant to believe is a death camp, where Guido and his son Giosué are interned. During this internment, Guido deceives his son into believing their incarceration is a game, where points are awarded for good behavior and the first person to earn a thousand points will win a tank.[1]

Life is Beautiful DVD Cover
Life is Beautiful DVD Cover

In 1999, Life is Beautiful won three Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Music, Original Dramatic Score. The movie won 55 other awards and received 31 nominations.[2] But, did the movie actually earn those awards? Despite the movie having been called a modern masterpiece, there are many critics and reviewers who believe the movie doesn’t live up to the hype it received, referring to it as an “unholy film,” or a “cinematic abortion.”[3] This paper will explore and present major themes in those negative reviews, looking for common complaints that may be used to point out potential weaknesses in the movie. There are a number of criticisms of the movie among reviewers, but surprisingly, after reading approximately one-hundred reviews from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes (which links to external sites, including Time Magazine, Salon.com, and SFGate), I discovered that almost all of the complaints fall into just a few categories, including poor acting, implausibility of the plot, historical inaccuracies, the poor choice of humor, and a general insensitivity to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust itself.

The main complaint regarding the quality of acting begins with Benigni himself, who one reviewer describes as “a six-year old trapped in the body of a middle-aged Italian man on a steady diet of Red Bull and Ecstasy.”[4] Benigni’s performance of Guido became difficult for some viewers to watch, for a few reasons. Benigni is, first of all, overly energetic throughout the movie and talks incessantly, rarely allowing any other character get a word in edgewise. This problem is also indicative of bad directing, since Benigni was both the director and lead actor. His overwhelming of the storyline through Guido leads directly to the next problem with acting in the movie: the nature of the other characters. Perhaps because they have so few lines, they have no room to develop as independent characters and remain two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts. One reviewer complained of the irony of Jews being dehumanized into a faceless mass by Life is Beautiful in much the same way they were dehumanized by the Holocaust itself. Overall, reviewers noted that all of the characters in the movie merely act as targets for Benigni’s gags or as foils to emphasize the good natured optimism of his leading character, Guido.[5]

The second largest complaint generally centers on the implausibility of the plot itself. The movie is divided into two distinct portions: the town scene, where Guido woos Dora, they get married and have kids; and the concentration camp scene, where Guido lies to his son about the nature of their surroundings in an effort to shield him from the horrors of reality and thereby preserve his innocence. Regarding the first half of the movie, most reviewers complained that Guido’s buffoon antics make him a completely unbelievable character that would not have been able to attract Dora, who would have, in the words of one reviewer, been more likely to have a restraining order issued against him. The first portion of the movie was generally described as contrived, predictable and ultimately useless in terms of lending anything useful to the second half of the movie. One reviewer summed it up quite well by saying that when the movie transitioned to the second half, he felt as though he had changed the channel on his television.[6]

In the second half of the movie, the implausibility of the plot was even more evident. Reviewers cited specific cases which make the movie impossible to believe or take seriously, starting with Guido’s intentional failure to relay important instructions to the Jews who have just arrived in the death camp, instead creating a fanciful speech about the rules of the “game” that he says is being played, for the sole benefit of his son. Had this really happened, it is entirely likely that it would have been discovered, leading to Guido’s death, either by the Nazis or by the Jews who were left in the dark about what was going on because of Guido’s disregard for their lives. Also hard to believe is that Guido is able to hide his son in a death camp after all of the other children are exterminated. And not only did Guido hide him, he had his son speaking on an intercom system to communicate with his mother in the conveniently nearby women’s camp, which did not result in the death of either the father or the son, though it should have. The biggest implausibility of all is that the kid actually believed the lies his father was telling him. Reviewers stated that the kid is depicted as being intelligent, so how could he have spent any time at all in a death camp without realizing what was going on, especially after all of the other kids disappeared?[7]

This leads directly into the next major complaint, which was the lack of historical consistency present in the movie. To start with, Guido and Dora’s marriage never could have happened, because marriages between Jews and non-Jews had been made illegal. The camp that Guido and his family are taken to is mentioned to have a crematoria and mass killings, which would make it a death camp, and yet, according to reviewers, all of the death camps were in Poland and Italian Jews remained in Italy. Most of the historical criticisms revolved around the conditions portrayed in the death camp itself. In a real death camp, people would not have appeared well-fed and well-dressed. People would not have had a bunk to themselves. Guido would not have had freedom of movement to wander the camp as he pleased. Central areas with intercom systems would not have been left unattended and had a Jew taken it upon himself to use the camp intercom without permission, he would have been killed on the spot. Had a Jew spoken to a guard, he would have been killed on the spot. Death wouldn’t have been hidden away in foggy piles of dream-like bodies; it would have been casual and ever-present. There is no way Giosué could have missed it. One reviewer wrote that the death camp looked more like a fat kids’ summer camp than a place where people were being systematically murdered. [8]

And perhaps that’s the biggest problem with the movie. The audience is led to believe that the lies being told are meant to spin a horrible situation into a fable to preserve the innocence of Guido’s son. In the beginning of the movie, the story is presented as a fable, but some reviewers didn’t feel that labelling the movie as a fable helped make it any more believable, because fables are meant to deliver a moral truth and what moral truth is there to Life is Beautiful? That lying makes life bearable? That’s certainly not what the movie is billed as delivering. The DVD box cover insists that “love, family and imagination conquer all,” but that’s not possible, or at least it’s not possible given the way the movie is portrayed, because if it were, no one would have died in the Holocaust. Certainly Guido wasn’t the only person who loved his family and had imagination. What about all of the other people? Why didn’t their humor save them? Maybe they weren’t funny enough.[9]

The type of humor used in the movie was another big issue with reviewers, including many reviewers who gave the movie moderately good ratings. Benigni’s brand of humor is very physical and includes a lot of slapstick humor, which for some was bad to start with, but for others could have been fine, had he been able to pull it off well. Many people complained that his jokes were entirely predictable and because you could see them coming, there was no reason to laugh when the moment arrived. For example, when an egg goes in a hat, it’s eventually going on someone’s head. Benigni was accused of grandstanding and trying so hard to be cute that he forgot to be funny. He was also accused of trying too hard to be Charlie Chaplain, but wound up just being loud and obnoxious. Reviewers also stated that instead of creating his own version of “The Great Dictator,” Benigni produced something much more similar to an extended episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” He was accused of using the Holocaust as a prop to hide his poor comic ability and earn himself an Oscar, because including the Holocaust would make his movie critic-proof.[10]

That point brings us to the final, and perhaps most often cited, complaint about the movie: it is completely insensitive to the nature of the Holocaust, what it meant for the people who were victims of it, and what it should mean for those of us who learn about it today. The movie was, according to multiple reviewers, so sanitized that it probably wouldn’t even have offended the Nazis. A few reviewers said Life is Beautiful would have made great Nazi propaganda for Goebbels to show the Red Cross, to prove that life in the camps wasn’t so bad after all. Many reviewers called the movie an attempt at neo-Nazi revisionist history that denies the overwhelming horror of the Holocaust and that the movie obscures the human and historical events it set out to portray. It doesn’t expand our knowledge of the Holocaust and instead acts as a plot device to help Benigni bring more attention to himself.

The negative reviews of this movie have very strong arguments that point to serious flaws in the movie that could have been addressed to create a better movie. The movie doesn’t really show that life is beautiful. It shows that life for characters created in the author’s imagination is beautiful. If depicted realistically, this movie would not have ended well for any of the characters involved, and without those elements of realism, the movie cannot really hope to deliver a message as strong as family, love and imagination conquering all, because in the movie, that doesn’t happen. Instead, events are set up in such a way, and history is rewritten in such a way, to make it possible for “all” to be conquered. Had elements of real terror been included in the movie, alternated by more fantastical scenes as recollected by Giosué, it could have been possible to pull of what Benigni intended, but instead, he created a platform for selling himself, reducing all but the leading character to caricatures of human beings, doing implausible things in inaccurate settings using poorly thought out humor and ultimately desecrating the memory of millions of people who died in the camps.

[1] IMDb, “Plot Summary For Life is Beautiful,” 2013.

[2] IMDb, “Life is Beautiful (1997),” 2013.

[3] IMDb, “Reviews & Ratings for Life is Beautiful: La vita è bella (original title),” 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


Flixster, Inc. 2013. “Life is Beautiful (La Vita è bella) Reviews.” Rotten Tomatoes by Flixster. March 8. Accessed June 13, 2013. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1084398-life_is_beautiful/reviews/.

IMDb. 2013. “Life is Beautiful (1997).” Internet Movie Database. June 15. Accessed June 15, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/.

—. 2013. “Plot Summary for Life is Beautiful.” Internet Movie Database. June 15. Accessed June 15, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/plotsummary?ref_=tt_stry_pl.

—. 2013. “Reviews & Ratings for Life Is Beautiful: La vita è bella (original title).” Internet Movie Database. June 8. Accessed June 13, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/reviews?filter=chrono.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: The Holocaust in Film

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Image appropriated from Tumblr).
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Image appropriated from Tumblr).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, originally released in Italy in 1970 under the title “Il giardino dei Finzi Contini,” was directed by Vittorio De Sica. The film uses the lives of an aristocratic Jewish family to tell a story about the Jewish community and fascism in 1930s Ferrara, Italy. The plot of the story seems to revolve primarily around the interactions between Giorgio and the Finzi-Contini family. The increasing limitations on the rights of Jewish people in Italy plays out in the background and only reaches center stage in the closing sequence of the film, when the Jewish people of the town are rounded up and concentrated in the school building.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a color film that contains two very noticeable camera techniques. One technique used throughout the film is the blurred lens or soft focus. In some scenes, the soft focus is light and feels a little pointless. In other portions of the film the soft focus creates heavy blurring. An example is the scene where Micol is sitting in the back seat of a government car that is taking her and her family to the town’s school house as part of a collection and deportation process.  The blurring may have been added to the scene to emphasize the dreamy or surreal quality of the experience.

The other camera technique that is used extensively is zooming. In some scenes, the camera starts with a long-shot and zooms out until the actor is in the frame. In other scenes, the camera zooms in on things the director may have wanted to make sure his audience took note of, like the Hebrew inscription on the lintel of Giorgio’s home, or Micol’s Star of David necklace. Perhaps there is another reason for the zoomed in scenes of Jewish symbols, but it comes across to me as the director not trusting his audience to be able to figure out on their own that the Finzi-Continis and Giorgio’s family are Jewish without prompts and reminders. Maybe that’s the point, though? Reinforcing the fact that, despite social advancement, they’re still “only” Jews.

A large portion of the film takes place on the property of the Finzi-Continis. All of the characters that we are introduced to are wealthy, but the Finzi-Continis are exceptionally well-off, own extensive property and employ at least half a dozen servants. The film begins after the racial laws had already started being passed in the country, barring Jewish people from entering public buildings and clubs. Because of this, the Finzi-Continis are essentially restricted to their walled-in property. As Alberto puts it, even if he went out, what would he do? Where would he go? Alberto also mentions the fact that when he used to go outside of his family’s estate, he felt that he was constantly being spied on and envied. The Finzi-Contini family’s semi-voluntary seclusion behind their garden walls is an excellent foreshadowing of the fact that they will later be involuntarily restricted to a ghetto, or perhaps placed behind the “walls” of a concentration camp.

It is hard to relate to the lives of the people shown in the film, because they live such privileged lifestyles and, despite all that happens, manage to continue living privileged lives. I believe this was an important aspect of the film, because even though the Finzi-Continis are able to ignore many of the rules and live well in their walled garden, in the end, their wealth makes no difference. The fact that they are relatively non-practicing also makes no difference. For all their wealth and privilege and ability to ignore some of the racial laws, like continuing to employ domestiques after Jews are banned from having Italian servants, they receive no special treatment or consideration from the state. For example, the Finzi-Contini’s integrity as a family unit isn’t considered and they are placed in separate classrooms after they are arrested and transported to the school house. They are lumped in with the rest of the Jewish community. The message here may be that there was no escaping one’s Jewish heritage when the fascists came knocking. To the Italians, there was no distinction that mattered other than whether one was Jewish or not.

Trees are an important symbol in the film. At one point, Micol mentions that one of the trees on her family’s property was rumored to have been planted by Lucrezia Borgia and might be as much as 500 years old. The same tree is shown at various points during the film, including the last scene with Alberto, just before he dies. The camera focusing on the tree during Alberto’s death scene may have been done to emphasize the long presence of Jews in Ferrara and the imminent death of that community, because Alberto’s failing health can be seen as an indicator of the state of the Jewish community in Ferrara. As the film progresses and the Jews’ status in the town becomes more tenuous, Alberto’s health declines. In the scene right after Alberto’s funeral procession, we’re informed, through Giorgio’s interaction with the fair booth attendant that the round-up of Ferrara’s Jews has begun.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is an important film that gives the viewer a glimpse of what life was like for wealthy Jews in Ferrara during the round-ups and deportations during World War II. Beyond being a fascinating love-drama that sheds light on class and status within Jewish society, this film presents the Holocaust as an event that touched all Jewish lives in Europe, from the poorest to the wealthiest. It was the great equalizer. Religiosity and self-identification did not matter. All that counted was whether or not one was Jewish.

The Shop on Main Street: Holocaust in Film

Obchod na korze (original title)
Obchod na korze (original title)

The Shop on Main Street is a 1965 film directed by Ján Kadár. The film was originally presented in Slovak and Yiddish and was originally titled “Obchod na korze.” The film takes place in a small town in Slovakia during World War II and attempts to tackle the question of how the Jewish people were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. What was going through the minds of the Jewish people? Why didn’t they fight back? How did the average citizen allow their neighbors to be rounded up like animals and packed into cattle cars for deportation? Kadár addresses all of these questions and more. Besides being an informative and well-told story, The Shop on Main Street is packed with symbolism that further addresses the subject of the film. Symbolism is so prevalent in the film that Kadár was able to present much more information and meaning within the confines of the film’s running time than what seems possible.

The main conflict in the film is between the new fascist conception of the Slovakian nation-state and the Jewish people. Because of fascism’s focus on ultra-nationalism, “outside” elements had to be removed from perceived positions of authority and privilege, which resulted in Jewish people having their businesses removed from their ownership and placed under the control of an “Arisator,” an “Aryan” manager. The idea was that Slovakia was for Slovakians (expressed in the film through a marching cadence sung by soldiers marching down the street), and Jewish people were not considered to really be Slovakian. Later, the Jewish people were deported en masse for concentration camps. This conflict is the backdrop for the story that Kadár presents in his film, in which a bumbling “Aryan” carpenter named Tono Brtko is named the Arisator of a button shop on Main Street owned by a Jewish widow named Mrs. Lautmann.

Tono is a very complex character and his relationships with other people, how he interacts with them, is used as a plot device to symbolically portray the director’s opinion of the Aryanization and deportation process. Tono’s symbolism as a character in relation to other characters has multiple layers, starting with his wife in the opening scene, where Tono demonstrates a poor understanding of anything going on in the world while his wife badgers him for money. I felt that this was a critique of Slovakian society, and on a broader scale, Christian society in general, for the apparent greed displayed in the confiscation of Jewish shops and goods during the World War II deportations. It reminded me of something Elie Weisel wrote, when he said that while he and his family were being deported from their home town, he felt as if the people who had just previously been their neighbors were eagerly waiting for them to board the trains, so they could loot and pillage through their homes. Later in the film, Tono’s wife berates him for not finding the gold that Mrs. Lautmann must have buried somewhere in her house, as if all Jews were leprechauns and one need only catch one to receive a pot of treasure.

The other important symbolic relationship that Tono has is with Mrs. Lautmann, the owner of the shop he is supposedly taking over. Mrs. Lautmann is an old, slightly senile widow. Her late husband died in a war (World War I?) and since then she has been on her own, though technically she has been receiving a stipend from the rest of the Jewish community. Her shop is in complete disrepair, but she seems to be completely oblivious to the fact, and also demonstrates a lack of understanding of anything that’s going on around her, including her new “Arisator-Jew” relationship with Tono, until the last scenes in the film, when reality suddenly and painfully dawns on her. Even at that moment, however, instead of proactively trying to hide herself, she runs to her bedroom to study Torah. In this relationship, Tono clearly represents Slovakian society as a whole, while Mrs. Lautmann represents the Jewish community. In this film, while Slovakians are busy robbing the Jewish people of their property and preparing to deport them, the Jewish people are presented as being oblivious to the real dangers that are going on around them and only wake up to reality when it’s too late to do anything about it (Mrs. Lautmann suddenly recognizes the deportation event as a pogram near the end of the film).

The film does present a different view of the Jewish predicament in the form of Mr. Katz, who reminds the viewer that there really wasn’t much they could do in terms of rising up against their oppressors. After all, what could an old woman like Mrs. Lautmann and an old barber do when the fascist government troops were standing on every corner with automatic weapons? The film doesn’t present a clear and easy answer. I don’t think it intended to. It was meant to inform and make the viewer think about how and why something as tragic as the deportation and later near-extermination of the Jews could occur, and it does that well.

These observations are barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dissecting all of the symbolism and meaning in The Shop on Main Street. Ján Kadár’s film is excellently done, explaining both the mindset of the Slovakians and the relationship between the average Slovakian and the Jewish community that doesn’t overly simplify the situation into a black and white conflict. Other important aspects of the film are the references to animals and the natural order of the world vs. the activities of the Slovakian government, as well as an excellent use of music to set the tone, but those issues are beyond my ability to address in this short reaction paper.

Night and Fog: The Holocaust in Film

The documentary, Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais, was produced in 1955 as a short historical documentary about concentration camps used during the Holocaust. The film’s original language is French and the original title is “Nuit et brouillard.” I watched the film using English subtitles. Night and Fog doesn’t attempt to explain how the Holocaust happened. Rather, it is a short film that attempts to explain what happened using a combination of historical footage and contemporary images and video of several concentration camps in Poland. Night and Fog is full of juxtapositions of contradictions: contemporary scenes vs. historical scenes, idyllic music vs. dramatic music, the normal or mundane vs. the absurd reality of the camps.

Night and Fog mixes scenes of contemporary color footage with historical black and white footage. This is done in a way that contrasts the almost pastoral scenes of the period of filming with the reality of what happened in those places in the past. As the narrator says, almost any place, even a resort village with a county fair, could lead to a concentration camp. In the contemporary footage, the narrator reinforces this contradiction by describing how new grass is growing, how a person might mistake a building for an actual clinic, and how the only thing left to see is a shell, devoid of the actions, emotions and experiences of the people that lived there. To go beyond that faҫade of normalcy, the historical footage is used, showing what actually went on inside those buildings and on those grounds. It’s a powerful way to remind the viewer to not dismiss the intensity of the events that happened in concentration camps just because they do not look that dangerous anymore.

Music also played an important role in defining different scenes in the film. From nearly the beginning of the documentary, it became obvious that the music seemed to be intentionally off, playful when it should have been somber, dramatic when it should have been idyllic, and almost graceful when it should have been attempting to express the inexpressible sadness of the scene. One of the most obvious examples of misplaced music is the scene depicting what happens to those who are sent “right” (rather than left, to work) to mass extermination after arriving in the concentration camps. In a scene where the music should be dark and brooding, the tone is soft, graceful, and almost dreamy. Another example is the scene showing the latrine. The music in this scene is probably the most forceful of the whole film, but it comes in at a point where one of those most normal and mundane actions in human life occurs. Why is the music misplaced? Perhaps it is to more closely hold the attention of the viewer by intentionally being jarring and discordant.  And perhaps the fact that the most idyllic music is shown at moments of death is meant to emphasize the peace that death brought compared to those who suffered the horrors of life in the concentration camp, which also touches on the next point.

The juxtaposition of the mundane and normal with the horrific events going on in the camps seems to have been purposely done to both emphasize the unnaturalness of life in the camps and to show the scale of the atrocity. “Normal” life is shown in the home of the commandant, with his bored wife acting in much the same way as she would in “any garrison town.” Just beyond the fences were scenes of “normal” life in nearby villages and towns. These scenes are juxtaposed with the scenes of the “town” the SS had actually built, where every aspect of life is a struggle to survive, even the toilets, where every act of relieving oneself became a litmus test for life expectancy. Normal life for inmates before being brought to the concentration camps is expressed in the film through showing the images of people in their passports. The scale in terms of numbers of people is added by flipping through dozens and dozens of pages of a leger showing camp inmates. The scale of the violence is shown through the casual litter of bodies found by liberating forces and in the way they were disposed of, almost as if they were sacks of garbage. The absurdity of their living situation is shown through their sleeping accommodations coupled with images of the presence of a green house, a brothel and even a zoo on camp grounds. Why add these conflicting images? To continue to break down the idea that anything normal or regular was happening in the camps, to express that it was a break with the natural progress of humanity?

The imagery used in the film is graphic and shocking. The purpose seems to be to force the viewer to observe the real result and purpose of the camps. Close-ups are regularly used. The camera seems to continually focus on the eyes, both in still images and on the eyes of the dead. This might just be for shock value, but it might also be meant to remind the viewer of the images of living, happy people shown in the entry visa photos, before their lives were altered by being in the concentration camps.

Night and Fog uses many techniques to aid in the narration of what happened in the concentration camps, to add impact and express ideas that cannot necessarily be verbalized. The film’s biggest tool is that of juxtaposing imagery to deliver the messages of scale, violence, and absurdity, and the necessity of not forgetting what happened just because things seem to be ok ‘now’. The narrator expresses this need to not forget, to go beyond the apparent faҫade, and watch out for the return of “monsters” that would plunge the world back into the absurdity epitomized by the concentration camps.

Gender and Modernity in Soviet Central Asia

Original Description: Sart woman. Samarkand. Woman in purdah, standing near wooden door. The garment worn appears to be a paranja, taken between 1905 and 1915, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection (Library of Congress) Wikipedia Commons
Original Description: Sart woman. Samarkand. Woman in purdah, standing near wooden door. The garment worn appears to be a paranja, taken between 1905 and 1915, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection (Library of Congress) Wikipedia Commons

The politics of gender in the Muslim world often seem to center on a conflict between Islam and modernity, but in the case of Soviet Central Asia, the conflict was instead between a post-colonial power that was in the process of defining itself and simultaneously trying to incorporate the diverse populations of former imperial territories.[1] In other words, the conflict in Central Asia was not about whether or not Islam was compatible with modernity, but was rather a conflict between the center and the periphery of a new state and methods of establishing control and homogenization. Gender and gender politics came to play an important role in this conflict, and revolved around two concepts: modernity and loyalty.[2] Because the Soviet government was competing with democratic nations on the world stage, officials wanted the state to be seen not only as effectively governing its citizens, but also as modern and progressive.[3] To accomplish this, modernizing Central Asian society became a primary goal of Bolshevik policy.[4] This modernization process came to focus on the social status of women, who, in the Soviet narrative, were oppressed and in need of liberation. Consequently, the role of Central Asian men, in terms of how they related to women, also became a point of contention, causing gender relations to become not only a marker of modernity, but of party loyalty.

This paper will focus on the conflict between Soviet Russian and Central Asian perceptions of gender and family relations and how these traditions became politicized in an attempt to affect social change that would, the Soviets hoped, lead to progress and modernity. This paper will explore different approaches by the Soviet government to revolutionize Central Asian society through regulating or banning customs, including polygyny, underage marriages, and seclusion, which culminated in the Hujum (a systematic, organized attack on all signs of perceived gender inequality in Central Asia by the Soviets) in 1927. The paper will address some of the reasons why the Soviets chose to focus on the role of women in society, why the veil became a marker of modernity and how the adoption of unveiling by the Soviets, as an official policy, affected the ability of women to become “modern” without facing severe repercussions. This paper will focus on the role of the veil and the Hujum in Uzbek society (and later the Uzbek republic), as well as attempts by Soviet authorities to “liberate” women in Turkmen society (and the Turkmen republic). The paper will focus on these two areas because events in those regions exemplify the struggle over the politicization of women in Central Asian society both when there was, and when there was not, a powerful symbol that activists could rally behind. That choice is not intended to diminish the role, importance, or experiences of women in Kazak, Kyrgyz or Tajik societies, but is rather for the sake of brevity. Also, this paper does not explain in detail the events of the Hujum itself, but rather engages with the arguments describing why the Hujum happened and what it meant.

The most prominent confrontation between Soviet ideals and Central Asian society, in terms of gender, was arguably the Hujum, a direct and large scale attack on the social customs of veiling and seclusion. The veil specifically became a symbol of backwardness that needed to be cured by Soviet modernity. Soviet officials hoped that newly liberated Central Asian women would feel indebted to the state, creating a loyal foundation of citizens. According to Douglas Northrop, the decision to substitute gender for class rested on an assumption that, “Despite obvious differences among them… Muslim women were… fundamentally united by a common experience: they were all victims of oppressive structures of patriarchal Islamic society.”[5] This argument, first proposed by Gregory J. Massell, presents Central Asian women as a “surrogate proletariat,” that could finally help the Soviets enact long desired social changes, simultaneously modernizing social customs and dealing a blow to Islam, which was portrayed as a bastion of patriarchy and the major obstacle to women’s liberation.[6]

In Soviet rhetoric, the use of the veil in Central Asia, known locally as the paranji, was due to the influence of Islam. However, the practice of veiling was a culturally specific, rather than religiously specific practice. Tradition in Central Asia attributed the beginning of the practice of veiling among women of the sedentary, agricultural and urban populations to Timur-i Lang, who, in a fit of anger, declared that his wife Bibi Xonum’s “charms” had to be hidden by a veil when he discovered that an architect had become enraptured by her beauty.[7] R.R. Rakhimov was critical of this interpretation of veiling as a uniquely Islamic practice that was inherently oppressive to women. He claimed that authors who were critical of Islam frequently used the “women’s question” as an argument and then cited the veil as irrefutable proof that women in Islam lead a joyless life, locked within the walls of their homes. Rakhimov felt that this notion created a false image of Islam as a religion.[8] Marianne Kamp would probably have agreed with him, writing that in early twentieth-century Islamic societies, veiling and modernity were not necessarily incompatible, and that veiling was in fact a form of liberation from a more repressive form of patriarchy: permanent seclusion within the household, which, ironically, later became a self-imposed punishment among some Central Asian women after the Soviet government forced unveiling.[9]

In his essay on veiling and seclusion of Central Asian women, Rakhimov presented compelling evidence that disproved the notion that seclusion and veiling were uniquely Islamic practices. The practice of seclusion was common to many religious-cultural traditions. It was practiced in aristocratic circles in India and Byzantium and, in Biblical times, in Palestine, Judea and Babylon. At one time, it was customary for Jewish women to only appear in public if their head was covered, sometimes to the extent that only their eyes showed. Customs of women’s seclusion and veiling were adopted by Islam from pre-Islamic traditions in Persia, Byzantium, and Assyria, and the Byzantines in turn inherited the tradition from the Greeks.[10]

According to a theory proposed by G.A. Pugachenkova, the paranji worn by Central Asian women at the beginning of the twentieth century was conceptually descended from a garment worn by a fertility goddess native to Central Asian religion in pre-Islamic times mixed with Islamic ideas later introduced to the region.[11] He also presented a theory of the paranji as being a form of dress designed with the protection of the individual in mind, protecting the wearer from the sun and hot breezes and having a face net that blocks the wearer (and an infant being carried under the veil) from being exposed to diseases, or imagined evils in the world around her.[12] Regardless of whether or not these theories are accurate, they show that the use of veils and seclusion were not specific to Islam or Islamic societies. In fact, Leila Ahmed argued that there is no justification for veiling in Islam, only instructions for women to guard their private parts and cover their “bosoms” with a scarf, though this view is contested.[13]

So, why were women chosen as a means of revolutionizing Central Asian society? And why was the veil such a powerful symbol? A framework that may help explain the discourse in Soviet Central Asia regarding women, and even the current discourse on women’s status in Muslim countries in general, is that the interest in the veil is based on “otherness” and colonial needs to subjugate populations, both literally and conceptually. Leila Ahmed wrote that interest in Muslim women grew proportionally as Western nations established themselves as colonial powers in Muslim countries. The focus on women was a fusion of several strands of thought that were developing in the Western world in the latter half of the 1800s. It was a:

“coalescence between the old narrative of Islam … which Edward Said’s Orientalism details… and the broad, all-purpose narrative of colonial domination regarding the inferiority, in relation to the European culture, of all Other cultures and societies… and finally… the language of feminism… [in which] Victorian womanhood and mores with respect to women, along with other aspects of society at the colonial center, were regarded as the ideal and measure of civilization.”[14]

The veil was a powerful symbol because it was highly visible and clearly differed from the norms established by Western, European society, the supposed peak of civilization. Attacking the veil was a means to an end, giving the Soviets the opportunity to point to something visible that they could remove from women’s lives, to give Central Asian women what they imagined was a gift of liberation that they would be eternally grateful for. Marianne Kamp might have called this a flawed understanding of Islamic societies. She wrote that unveiling movements were only successful when initiated by Muslim women, outside of and apart from government intervention, especially when that government was an outside or Western influence. Instances where outside influences were seen to be pushing for unveiling women were seen as attacks on Islamic values.[15]

An attack on values was just how the unveiling campaign was perceived, which is precisely why it has become known as the Hujum (“the attack”). Before the unveiling campaign in Uzbekistan, some women had already chosen to unveil and, while it was frowned on, the backlash wasn’t very violent. One example is Saodat Shamsieva, an Uzbek woman who was born in To’rtqo’l, Xorazm in 1908 and spent most of her life as a women’s activist and editor of women’s magazines. She told Marianne Kamp about her experiences growing up and living in Central Asia and described why she stopped wearing the paranji. She said she was able to unevil because she fled to another city with a man she had met and married. In her new setting she wasn’t under the supervision of any men that would have forced her to veil or seclude herself, so she decided to just wear a scarf instead. She related having hardships in her life, but not because she chose to be unveiled. [16]

According to Kamp’s research, the practice of veiling was not as widespread as one would be led to believe by Soviet attacks against the practice. Sedentary women working in the fields normally wore a chopan, a men’s or child’s robe, draped from her head, but did not cover her face. In other places, town-dwelling Tajik women (who were normally uncovered or only covered their mouths in the presence of men) would wear a paranji in crowded places and rural Uzbek women went unveiled and only covered themselves when confronted by the clergy or Russians. Some villagers could not even afford paranjis and in the 1910s and 1920s only women who did not work in the fields typically wore them.[17]

Why paranjis and their use became more prominent is not entirely clear. Marianne Kamp proposed that men may have felt the need to hide their women from outsiders. She also wrote that during that time there was growth in Islamic institutions and learning, as well as Hajj participation, so views on veiling and a renewed emphasis on the association of unveiled women with prostitution may have been imported from other Islamic areas. Combined with the increased affluence of Central Asians, paranjis became more affordable and developed into status symbols through the incorporation of expensive materials.[18]

By the time the Soviets decided to launch the Hujum, the use of paranjis had become a mainstream practice associated with traditional Central Asian culture and traditions, but it was still possible for women to unveil when they were outside of their kinship groups. However, after the Soviets adopted the unveiling campaign, the intervention of a foreign power was seen negatively and caused Central Asians to hold more tightly to tradition than they had before. Wearing the paranji came to symbolize upholding traditional Central Asian values, compared to unveiling, which symbolized acceptance of Soviet values. This shift in discourse took the power to choose out of the hands of women, who became passive objects in a battle for control over the future of traditions, values, social structures, and the division of labor. Women were told what being veiled and unveiled meant, and what they represented was essentially coopted by the state and the men around them.

This challenge to society was met with extreme violence in a way that previous decisions to unveil, characterized by Saodat’s experience, did not. Unveiled women were harassed, insulted, sometimes beaten, and sometimes raped or murdered. This behavior was not limited to non-Communist party Central Asians; party officials and even their wives often took part in the abuse.[19] The Hujum was as big an issue for men as it was for women. Besides the obvious potential unveiling had to disrupt the patriarchal social structure, men were measured by their wives’ behavior. Loyalty to the Communist party and Soviet ideals were judged by the status of ones’ wife. Was she veiled or unveiled? Was she actively participating in the party, education, and social life? If it was decided that a Communist party man’s wife was not living according to Soviet ideals, the husband could lose his party membership.

The veil proved to be a powerful symbol to rally behind during the Hujum, but the use of the paranji was mostly limited to urban and sedentary populations in what is modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.[20] In other parts of Central Asia, like the Turkmen republic, women did not wear the paranji or chachvon (the heavy horsehair veil that covered the face) so it was necessary to find other ways to liberate them from the patriarchal constraints of Central Asian society. Without a potent visual symbol that people could rally behind, however, this proved to be a much more complicated process than the theatrical and public displays of burning paranjis.

The Communist party Women’s Department, or Zhenotdel, instead concentrated on legal reforms to draw Turkmen women into public life. Like the other Central Asian republics, laws were passed that outlawed certain “crimes of custom,” but unlike in the Uzbek republic, where Soviet officials shifted from legislating against crimes of custom to engaging in direct actions (the Hujum and burning paranjis), legislating against female subordination never gave way to direct action in the Turkmen republic.[21] The most significant reason for this was that Turkmen women were traditionally unveiled. Because the paranji had so strongly been associated with female subordination, the Turkmen women were imagined to already be liberated, simply because their faces were showing. Adrienne Lynn Edgar quoted a Russian traveler in Transcaspia in the 1880s as saying:

“The Teke woman does not resemble other Muslim women, who do not have the right to show themselves to a male stranger and who know no life but that of the harem. Nor does she resemble the European woman. She has equal rights. The Teke does not regard his wife as a slave or solely as a source of household labor, but sees in her a friend, a person equal to himself.”[22]

This fairly romanticized vision of nomadic Turkmen and their women helps to demonstrate the strength of the association between veiling and subordination among Muslim women that was prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Central Asia. Because Turkmen women were unveiled, they were automatically assumed to have full and equal rights. The lack of a veil did not mean that women were automatically equal, however. The veil was just the most visible sign of a male-dominated society. In Turkmen society, like other Central Asian societies, women were still seen as representative of family honor; they were expected to obey their parents and husbands; they were subject to being part of polygamous marriages; and men had sole authority to initiate a divorce.[23]

By the second half of the 1920s, Zhenotdel activists came to believe that Turkmen women were not as liberated as they had once believed and began looking for new ways to initiate social change. Unlike Soviet officials in the Uzbek republic, who were hoping to use the liberation of women from the veil to delegitimize Islam, officials in Turkmenistan attempted to separate the issues of Islam and women’s oppression, instead emphasizing the ways in which Turkmen customary law denigrated women.[24] By 1927, the year the Hujum started, “official propaganda on Turkmen women could hardly be distinguished from the more general propaganda literature on Muslim female oppression.” A Muslim woman was depicted as a piece of property or a slave that was bought and sold.[25]

But, how do you liberate a woman who is not visibly oppressed? This assault on local culture was something that was looked on with suspicion and hostility by Central Asian men and women. Even some members of the Communist Party disapproved of efforts to liberate women. In the Uzbek republic, the mark of a man’s loyalty came to be defined by whether or not his spouse was veiled, but in the Turkmen republic there was no outward sign of loyalty that could be readily observed. A new symbol had to be found that people could rally behind and use as a marker of modernity and loyalty.

Zhenotdel activists tried to substitute yashmak for the paranji, since the practice is structurally similar to veiling, requiring the covering of the face. In fact, some officials argued that yashmak was even more oppressive, because it required a woman to remain subordinated even in her own home, unable to speak whenever someone older than herself was present. Attempts to make yashmak a rallying symbol for female emancipation failed. Adrienne Lynn Edgar wrote that this was probably because the practice was much more subtle and flexible than veiling.[26] Also, where veiling was a public affair, yashmak took place within the home, where it was probably harder to detect by Zhenotdel activists and Soviet officials.

Because no substitute for the veil could be found, efforts to liberate Turkmen women relied on passing legislation against customs that were detrimental to women’s autonomy. Legislation against crimes of custom began before the period of national delimitation, beginning with decrees against the practice of bride-wealth in January 1923. An October 1924 addendum to the 1918 Russian Federations criminal code banned polygamy. These and additional measures were brought before peasant conferences for open discussion and while not much attention was given to land reform or elections processes, the people “came alive as if shot from a cannon as soon as the woman question came up.” [27] The ban on bride-wealth was extremely controversial. The arguments used against the ban, however, proved the necessity of its enforcement. Peasants argued that raising a daughter was a large time and money investment and that bride-wealth was their due compensation. Other peasants argued that they relied on the windfall of cash that resulted from marrying off a daughter.[28] Both of these arguments reduce a woman to the status of property to be bought and sold, with no individual will or agency.

Despite the obvious necessity of the ban, the practice continued. Even when the Turkmen Central Executive Committee banned polygamy and set the marriage age at 16 for girls and 18 for boys, the practice of bride-wealth was merely declared to be “not sanctioned by law.”[29] Steps were made to equalize women and men’s rights, but some issues could not be touched. The practice of bride-wealth was widely condemned by all levels of society, but because it lacked the visual flair of burning paranjis, it was hard to gain enough support to ban the practice completely. Like the Soviet attempt to force the issue of unveiling in the Uzbek republic, attempts to outlaw bridewealth became the focal point for Turkmen men who saw it as government overreaching and an attack on traditional values and social structures. True to Marianne Kamp’s theory, the moment outside influence focused on changing an aspect of local culture, the locals pushed back all the harder.

Similarly, attempts to give women the right to initiate a divorce met with strong resistance from men, because, according to Edgar, it was perceived as a direct assault on the Turkmen family.[30] Zhenotdel officials had come to believe that Muslim marriages were by definition oppressive to women, so they attempted to make it as easy as possible for women to initiate divorces, a right which had previously been granted by the 1918 Russian Federation family code. To combat this perceived threat to Turkmen values, men engaged with the state in the language of class warfare. Poor peasants claimed that the right of women to initiate divorces was an unfair imposition on them, because women were leaving marriages with poor men in droves so they could become second, third, or fourth wives to rich men. This wasn’t true, but by using the rhetoric of the state, men were able to justify applying stipulations on a woman’s right to initiate a divorce that effectively blocked their access.[31]

As much as the Soviets wanted to liberate women and gain their loyalty and labor, they had to retain the proletariat they already possessed: the male Turkmen. So, throughout this process, the Soviets had to engage in a balancing act between female interests and maintaining favor with the male proletariat. Edgar argued that this constant need to please men at the expense of women’s rights showed the limitations of Massell’s “surrogate proletariat” argument and said that women should instead be thought of as a “supplementary proletariat.”[32] Edgar sums up her argument by noting that through the use of the veil as the “consummate symbol of female oppression, Zhenotdel activists had undermined their ability to be advocates for Muslim women who did not wear the veil.”[33] Prior to narrowing their emancipation activities to arguing for unveiling, however, Zhenotdel activists had attempted to liberate women through the same legislation as that passed in the Turkmen republic. So, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Soviet officials were only able to make progress at causing deep structural changes in Central Asian society when they had a clear and visible symbol to rally people behind. This, of course, assumes that Soviet officials were deeply interested in women’s emancipation in the first place.

The language of gender was manipulated and politicized by the Soviet Communist party to mobilize labor in Soviet Central Asia, to modernize (and homogenize) traditional society as part of its attempt to show a progressive face to the rest of the world, and as a means of exerting control over elements of society that were seen as dangerous and in need of eradication. The issue of politicized gender in Central Asia is highly complex and deserves more attention than that afforded by this paper, but key elements of Soviet policies, including attempts to legislate against crimes of custom and the need for visible symbols to create markers of modernity have been explored. Further issues that should be explored but were not addressed are the issues of re-veiling and a more in-depth analysis of how Central Asian men used rhetoric to influence gender politics to their benefit.


[1] Deniz Kandiyoti, “The politics of gender and the Soviet paradox: neither colonized, nor modern?”, Central Asian Survey 26 (December 2007): 603.

[2] Douglas Northrop, “Languages of Loyalty: Gender, Politics, and Party Supervision in Uzbekistan, 1927-41,” The Russian Review 59 (April 2000): 181.

[3] Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 77.

[6] Ibid., 76-77.

[7] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling Under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 134.

[8] R.R. Rakhimov, “”Veil of Mystery” (On the Traditional Seclusion of Women in Central Asia),” Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia vol. 45 no. 6 (Spring 2007), 68.

[9] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling Under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 133-135.

[10] R.R. Rakhimov, “”Veil of Mystery” (On the Traditional Seclusion of Women in Central Asia),” Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia vol. 45 no. 6 (Spring 2007), 68.

[11] Ibid., 72-77.

[12] Ibid., 77-87.

[13] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 55.

[14] Ibid., 150-151.

[15] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling Under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 133.

[16] Ibid., 123-128.

[17] Ibid., 135.

[18] Ibid., 135-136.

[19] Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 98.

[20] Adrienne Lynn Edgar, “Emancipation of the Unveiled: Turkmen Women under Soviet Rule, 1924-29,” The Russian Review 62 (January 2003): 132.

[21] Ibid., 133.

[22] Ibid., 134-135.

[23] Ibid., 135.

[24] Ibid., 136 and Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 72.

[25] Adrienne Lynn Edgar, “Emancipation of the Unveiled: Turkmen Women under Soviet Rule, 1924-29,” The Russian Review 62 (January 2003): 136.

[26] Ibid., 137-138.

[27] Ibid., 141.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 142.

[30] Ibid., 144.

[31] Ibid., 144-148.

[32] Ibid., 148.

[33] Ibid., 149.



Ahmed, Leila. 1992. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Edgar, Adrienne Lynne. 2003. “Emancipation of the Unveiled: Turkmen Women under Soviet Rule, 1924-29.” The Russian Review 132-149.

Kamp, Marianne. 2006. The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling Under Communism. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. 2007. “The politics of gender and the Soviet paradox: neither colonized, nor modern?” Central Asian Survey 601-623.

Northrop, Douglas. 2000. “Languages of Loyalty: Gender, Politics and Party Supervision in Uzbekistan, 1927-41.” The Russian Review 179-200.

—. 2003. Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Rakhimov, R.R. 2007. “”Veil of Mystery” (On the Traditional Seclusion of Women in Central Asia).” Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia 67-92.


The Role of Equality in the Formation of Government According to Hobbes and Locke

Comments on this assignment by the professor (including its weaknesses) are at the bottom of the post. Note that this was written using only the text in Leviathan chapters 4, 13-18, 21 and The Second Treatise on Civil Government chapters 1-9, 19. And, not necessarily all of those chapters. That was just the assigned reading.

Both Hobbes and Locke use the equality of men in a state of nature as a starting point for their theories of the rise of government. Equality plays an important role in how they conceive of government as arising and the form that government takes, but Hobbes and Locke see men’s equality in the state of nature in different ways. Hobbes’ view of equality is essentially negative. He argues that no value judgments can be placed on equality, or men in a state of nature, because there can be no such things as justice and injustice before a government exists to legislate what is right and wrong, but Hobbes’ view of equality is one in which men have no restraint and are prone to violence. All men exist in a state of equality, where every man is looking after himself to the detriment of all of other men. His conception of government then is as a force that compels restraint for the common benefit of all. Locke, on the other hand, conceives of man in a state of nature as being essentially good, and interested in the well-being of their fellow men. All men are at liberty to do what they want, when they want, but because they are equally the property of the creator, they do not have the authority to damage one another, and when they do, justice must be dispensed. Government arises when men, in the interests of preserving the universal rights of life, liberty, and health, as dictated by God, require a method of meting out justice that is fair and balanced.

Hobbes believes that all men are essentially equal, not necessarily as individuals, but as a whole. Even when two men are of unequal strength, the weaker man can still kill the stronger, either through planning or by allying himself with others to accomplish the task. Because of this, Hobbes believes that men cannot claim that they have any inherent benefit that is not also possessed by every other man. No matter your physical or mental ability, you have an equal opportunity to succeed, and that equal opportunity for success is what Hobbes views as an equality of men.

Because men are equal, Hobbes also believes that men in a state of nature have equal desires, which would inevitably lead them into conflict with each other (Hobbes, 55). Wherever a man possesses something of value, he can be reasonably sure that another man wants what he possesses and will attempt to take it from him. The only way a man can attempt to prevent this is through competition, by building up forces of his own until he is in a position where he cannot be threatened by others. This is a social structure that cannot be avoided (Hobbes, 55). Even if a man were to be satisfied with what he has and not engage in conflict to gain what others have, other men would still come to gain what he has. Similarly, Hobbes also says that men would engage in conflict over issues of status or reputation (Hobbes, 56).

So, in addition to an equality of potential, Hobbes posits that men in a state of nature are also equally in a state of perpetual conflict with one another, which Hobbes calls the state of war. This state of constant conflict is not desirable, because man cannot live his life with any certainty or security. Each man relies on his own strength and intellect and competes with other men on an even footing, but the only guiding principle that men in this state live by is “The Right of Nature,” which claims that each man has the freedom to do whatever is required of him to preserve his own life, up to and including the use of other peoples’ lives (Hobbes, 57-58).

Because men in a state of equality would be most concerned with fear of death and a desire for comfortable living, Hobbes says there is a “general rule of reason” that states that every man should work for peace and only engage in war when he has no hope of obtaining it (Hobbes, 58). To work for peace, Hobbes says that man should give up his natural right to everything and be content with having limits to what activities he can engage in against his neighbors. In exchange, man can reasonably expect that his neighbors will also surrender their rights (Hobbes, 58). In that way, man gains security against premature death and the ability to enjoy the result of his labor while remaining on an equal footing with other men. Men remain equal because the natural right to all things that a man gives up to gain security does not disappear or become abandoned. It is transferred to his fellow man. This mutual transfer of the natural right is what creates the limitations that allow men to live in peace. Hobbes calls this transfer of rights a contract, which is the basis of government (Hobbes, 59).

Because Hobbes supposes that men are naturally interested in self-advancement at the expense of their fellow men, enforcing a contract requires the existence of something that is capable of compelling men to fulfil their obligations. When man exists outside of government, there are only two forces that pressure him to honor his obligations: God and fear of retribution by the men he offends by breaking his contract. Outside of government, Hobbes says that the more powerful of the two is man’s fear of his fellow men, because though God is more powerful, other men and the consequences they might impose are more immediate (Hobbes, 63). But, given the opportunity, a man might decide that he is powerful enough to overcome those he has contracted with and re-enter a state of war. The only method of compelling peace is by creating a civil government that can impose a penalty harsher than any expected gain on people who violate their contracts (Hobbes, 64).

Throughout this process, men remain equal. In a state of perpetual warfare, men have equal and unlimited rights against each other for their own preservation or gain. When men enter into contracts, they both agree to give up a certain amount of rights against each other so they can be secure in their lives and property. When entering into a civil government men agree to give up more rights, including their right to break their covenants, without facing repercussions from the civil government, but still remain equal to one another in their rights and new obligations.

John Locke’s theory of government also involves the idea that men are equal when in a state of nature, where they are in “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man” (Locke, Kindle eBook location 454). However, where Hobbes believes that men in a state of nature are essentially evil and remain in a state of constant aggression against one another, Locke believes that men are essentially good and that men in a state of nature would not generally be inclined to inhibiting the rights of other men, as all men are equal before God and therefor equal to each other. This feeling of equality is described as that of creations before their creator, who do not have the authority to bring harm to others who, like themselves, were created. Locke calls this a rule of “reason and common equity,” established by God for man’s mutual security (Locke, Kindle eBook location 493).

This rule of reason and common equity states that men have a responsibility before God to not take away or impair another man’s life, liberty, health, or goods (Locke, Kindle eBook location 482). When men do violate God’s rule of reason and common equity, Locke says that every man has an equal right to punish the transgressor, because there is no superior authority among men (Locke, Kindle eBook location 502). Every man possesses executive power and can act as a judge, inflicting punishments up to and including the penalty of death, if that is what is required to prevent the commission of a particular type of crime (Locke, Kindle eBook location 532).

Where this state of nature fails is in man’s inability to be the judge in his own case, since man cannot reasonably be expected to find against himself when judging. To overcome this problem of partiality, man creates political society, where men equally surrender their natural rights to the community, which is assumed to be capable of judging disputes fairly and impartially (Locke, Kindle eBook location 1214). So, the equality of the state of nature gives rise to the need for every man to be responsible for punishing offenses, and because man cannot be impartial in his own case, that in turn causes man to relinquish his rights to the community, which forms a government that punishes crimes impartially. Equality is still maintained, as every man equally gives up his right to executive power.

Equality plays a major role in both Hobbes’ and Locke’s theories of man in the state of nature and their reasoning regarding the formation of governing institutions. Hobbes’ sees this equality as man’s equal right to everything, which necessarily must be regulated to create any sort of security, so that man can live comfortably. In Locke’s view, man is equal in the sense that every man is equally responsible for not harming his fellow men and for passing judgment on those who do. This equality of responsibility creates a need for impartial adjudication, which requires an equal passing of rights to the larger community. For both Hobbes and Locke, the process and result are essentially the same, where man begins with complete freedom of action and progresses to a state of being governed, but the problem that presents the need for change are of two opposing visions of man in his natural state: one good and one bad.



Hobbes, Thomas. 2004. Leviathan [with Biographical Introduction] [Kindle Edition]. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.: Digireads.com.

Locke, John, and C. B. Macpherson. 2011. Second Treatise of Government (Annotated) [Kindle Edition]. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.: Hackett Publishing Co.

“[Professor’s] Comments: This paper is well-written and well-organized. It’s focused and does a good job working through the relevant dimensions of the text. One element lacking in the Hobbes’ discussion, however, is the determining role that scarcity plays in the conditioning of behavior (and as such, it is scarcity not some inherent evilness that causes man’s behavior). Likewise, in Locke’s nature, initial equality is replaced by scarcity and in inequality, which then requires the creation of government (as a result of currency). Since these dimensions of their thought impact some of the main assertions of the paper, they really needed to be tackled, But even without them, this is a very strong paper. Good work.”

Differing Islamist Ideologies: Violence and Government

A short essay I wrote last year for an undergraduate history course on Islamist political movements:

Modern media has tended to portray Islamist movements as a single entity with a single goal in mind: the establishment of an Islamic state. While it is true that establishing an Islamic state is the end goal, this simple categorization denies the existence of a diversity of Islamist movements, each with different opinions of how a state should be formed and what institutions should be put in place to make it Islamic. Islamists do share a core set of beliefs: the need to establish an Islamic state, the reestablishment of Islamic law as the basis for regulating life, the belief that most or all of the problems in the Muslim world are a result of the failure of the development of ‘authentic’ Islamic institutions to manage political, economic and social life, and the belief that Islam is an all-inclusive social system that could and should regulate all aspects of life.[1]

Beyond these core beliefs, Islamist groups vary widely on essential topics like what form an Islamic government should take and how it should be established. For example, some Islamists believe that Islam is wholly compatible with democracy and others denounce democracy entirely. Part of the reason for the conflict over the admissibility of democracy is a common wholesale rejection of Western ideas due to the long history of colonial exploitation of Muslim lands, or a feeling that adoption of Western ideas is tantamount to admitting defeat, since Islam couldn’t provide a model of government on its own.[2]

In terms of what constitutes proper Islamic governance, the Quran and hadith do not contain much information regarding the establishment of ‘Islamic’ politics or political structures. What Islamic religious sources do say on the topic is vague, laying down general rules rather than specific instructions. An Islamic government should be a “median community” that establishes justice, “command[s] the good and proscribe[s] evil,” and considers the public good in its decision making process.[3] However, what isn’t stated is exactly what constitutes a median community, what justice necessarily is, what institutions should be established to command the good and proscribe evil, or how to include the community in the decision making process, or to what degree the community should be included at all.

The idea of the inclusion of the community in the decision making process, established by Islamic concepts like shura[4] and ijma[5], has been used to justify the idea of democracy being compatible with Islam. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamist, wrote, “A call for democracy does not necessitate a rejection of God’s sovereignty over human beings.”[6] He also said that “Islam antedates democracy in establishing the basic principles on which the essence of democracy rests…” and “…we have the right to borrow from others whatever ideas, methods, and systems might be beneficial to us as long as they do not contradict the clear dictates of the foundational texts or established principles of the shari’a.”[7] He was clearly recalling the fact that much of Islamic philosophy, logic, mathematics, and systems of government were borrowed and adapted from civilizations as diverse as the Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, Indians (South Asian), and Chinese, refuting the idea that the importation of foreign systems and ideas is inherently wrong or contradictory to Islam by using the past as an example.

Additionally, he was arguing against the idea that placing legislative power in the hands of the people (democracy) is a violation of God’s sovereignty and therefore against Islam, an argument favored by Sayyid Qutb. Qutb would not have accepted earlier incorporations of foreign ideologies as a legitimate reason for the incorporation of democracy into Islam. Qutb argued that Muslim society had been degraded and contaminated by Western ideas that had accumulated over the centuries. He believed that these ideas, which he referred to as pathologies, led to the failures present in Egyptian society at the time he was writing.[8] He believed that through action Muslims could regain a dominant position in the world, specifically by re-embracing the ideals of the first generation of Muslims through dedication to the fundamentals of the Qur’an and by purging all vestiges of jahiliyya from their lives, including in the government.

Like Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb advocated the establishment of the Islamic state through violent jihad. Sayyid Qutb was known as the “Philosopher of Islamic Terror” and his ideology inspired the violent jihad of later Islamists.[9] This was true of Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, another Egyptian Islamist who was involved in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Faraj wrote, “Jihad for God’s cause, in spite of its extreme importance and its great significance for the future of this religion, has been neglected by the ‘ulama of this age. … There is no doubt that the idols of this world can be made to disappear only through the power of the sword.”[10] Hamas too believed that violent jihad was the answer, stating in its charter that “Jihad is [the movement’s] methodology, and / Death for the sake of Allah is its most coveted desire.”[11] What these Islamists all had in common was their focus on the near enemy. Al-Banna, Qutb and Faraj were all focused on establishing an Islamic state by defeating the secular Egyptian government. Hamas was focused on defeating the Israeli state. However, not all Islamist groups focus their energies on just the near enemey. Other groups, most notably al-Qaeda, globalized the concept of jihad by placing an emphasis on defeating the far enemy, primarily the United States and Britain. The most memorable of their global strikes was the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in September 11, 2001.

Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, led the fight against the United States because of what he saw as continued American (and general Western) intervention and interference in the affairs of Muslims. He was incensed by the fact that the Saudi government had invited American forces into the country to defend the Kingdom rather than relying on Muslims, especially when the American forces remained in the country after hostilities with Iraq ended. He accused the Saudi monarchy of being illegitimate for acting in contradiction to Islamic law, saying, “this situation is a curse Allah has laid upon them for failing to object to the oppressive and illegitimate conduct and measures of the ruling regime, chief of which are: its disregard of Islamic law, its denial of the people’s legitimate rights, the permission given to Americans to occupy the Land of the Two Holy Places, and the unjust imprisonment of righteous ‘ulema.”[12]

Bin Laden believed the American presence in Saudi Arabia was one step in a bigger plan by America and Israel to subjugate the Muslim countries. Like Faraj, he advocated violent jihad as an individual duty that should be fulfilled at any cost, but unlike Faraj, he advocated targeting the West globally, rather than striking locally, because he saw the West as the source of continued unrest in Muslim countries. This shift in the focus of violent retaliation from local to global initiated a new type of jihad which is best described as a decentralized franchise where local groups may be independent or in contact with other groups and are willing to choose targets world-wide.

The belief that all Islamist groups are the same is an oversimplified interpretation of what is really a much more complex group of beliefs and ideologies. Violent Islamists are not even able to coordinate their misappropriation of jihad into a coherent strategy, with some groups focusing on local targets and others focusing on global targets. There are uniting factors, the strongest of which is the end goal of establishing a state based on Islamic law and Islamic values, but even that goal is a point of contention among Islamists, since they are not able to come to a consensus on what type of government is appropriate. Should there be an Islamic democracy? If not, then what? Who should participate? These are just some of the questions from a specific set of issues, violence and the form of government desired, that separate Islamist ideologies, and they are by no means the only questions or the only differences. Islamists may at some point in the future agree on a unified plan to reach a unified goal, but that time is not now.


Euben, Roxanne L., and Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Management Systems International (MSI). “Exploring the Thinking of Islamists: Islamist Views Toward Government, the Economy, and Pluralism.” USAID. November 2002. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNACW875.pdf (accessed December 13, 2012).

[1] Management Systems International, “Exploring The Thinking of Islamists: Islamist Views Toward Government, the Economy, and Pluralism,” USAID, November 2002, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNACW875.pdf (accessed 13 December 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] An Arabic word meaning consultation, or a consultative council or assembly.

[5] An Arabic word referring to the consensus or agreement of the Muslim community on the rightness of a belief or practice.

[6] Roxanne Euben and Muhammad Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 238.

[7] Ibid., 236-237.

[8] Ibid., 131.

[9] Ibid., 129.

[10] Ibid., 327.

[11] Ibid., 369.

[12] Ibid., 439.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Positive Extremism

In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” dated April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the subject of extremism as it applied to the nonviolent direct action he was advocating in Birmingham. Specifically, he was responding to the fact that he had been labeled an extremist by “white moderates” and the Christian leadership of local churches. Rather than arguing against the label, King embraced it and justified it through a well thought out argument that both validated positive forms of extremism and equated the passivity of the white moderates to a form of extremism in itself, because their inaction resulted in a form of severe injustice. For King, extremism and the conception of extremism was a dynamic tool that he used to convey his message and advocate for the ending of segregation.

When the word extremism is used, the first thing that probably comes to mind are violent activities intended to create a political statement, including actions by groups like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or the Ku Klux Klan. One could even argue that some modern government policies are extremist. Certainly some people in the United States would consider the PATRIOT Act to be an extremist response to a problem, because it violates certain ideas that are held to be just and inviolable, like the right to privacy. Through his argument, King defended nonviolent direct action by establishing the concept of positive extremism. He defined it and presented it as a means of seeking justice which would result in brotherhood and understanding, or equal treatment for segregated people.

For King, the term extremism did not have one meaning. Extremism was dynamic and could be either a positive or a negative attribute. He described Jesus as an extremist for love, Amos as an extremist for justice, and Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel. He called Martin Luther an extremist for principles, John Bunyan an extremist for conscience, Abraham Lincoln an extremist for freedom and Thomas Jefferson an extremist for equality (King, 7). Using these examples, he tied extremism to historical figures that have gained widespread recognition as just and righteous men whose ideas and/or policies their contemporaries perceived as extremist. Doing this was King’s way of saying that what society may at first consider to be extreme, may on closer inspection be a positive change.

Extremism isn’t always a negative attribute. King redefined it as nothing more than a measuring stick to judge the level of passion a person has for a cause that they are engaged in. If someone has been labeled an extremist, that doesn’t necessarily mean their cause is wrong or unjust; it simply means that their goal contradicts prevailing societal norms. Considering the contributions to the world of the people King cited as being extremists, extremism can be greatly beneficial. It’s just a matter of how a person perceives what’s being done, so the key is to convince a person that they must engage with a topic, and then to get them to engage with the topic objectively. To do that, King advocated using nonviolent direct action. To be effective, King had to present nonviolent direct action in Birmingham as a form of positive extremism and, more importantly, defend the cause it supported as both universal and just.

Since King’s nonviolent direct action was termed extremism by the Christian leadership and white moderates, he created a case for nonviolent direct action being positive extremism. First, he defined nonviolent direct action as an attempt to create tension in society, but not violent tension. The point of the tension, he said, was to make an issue unavoidable, so that society would be forced to confront it, in much the same way that Socrates used his questioning to try to force a person to confront an idea directly (King, 2-3). He was criticized for pushing the issue, but King felt that this was necessary, since no problem will solve itself just by adding time (King, 3). The plight of Negroes in the United States had been actively ignored, even by the community he thought would be most ready to promote brotherhood and understanding: the white moderate and the leadership of the Christian church (King, 5 & 9). Change requires a catalyst and King intended nonviolent direct action to be that catalyst, not to harm anyone or specifically to cause violence, but to force the public to engage with the topic and examine it critically. When an issue is pushed to the side and isn’t in the limelight, it’s easy to forget about it, or to mentally gloss over the subject and continue accepting the status quo, an attitude that King was firmly against (King, 3).

To universalize the goal of the nonviolent direct action in Birmingham, desegregation, King equated it with the pursuit of justice. Since his audience was primarily Christian, he did this by appealing to Christian morality. He wrote that, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (King, 4). He went on to quote St. Thomas Aquinas, a notable Christian thinker as writing, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (King, 4). King then explained that since segregation distorted the soul and damaged the personality, it was inherently unjust, according to Christian thinking and conceptions of morality (King, 4). He also compared the segregation of society to the separation of man from God, which is a powerful image, considering the goal of Christianity is to reunite with God through righteous action. By appealing to Christian concepts of justice and unification, King legitimized the movement’s goal of desegregation to his audience.

Having defined the issue of segregation as morally wrong and unjust and nonviolent direct action as positive extremism, King was left with the task of engaging the moderate whites and Christians in a way that would imply that inaction was in itself a form of extremism. He did this by defining passivity in the face of an unjust situation as a form of extremism. King began by criticizing town leaders for not agreeing to engage in negotiations with Negro leaders. He also criticized shopkeepers for failing to adhere to previously made agreements regarding racially motivated signage (King, 2). To tackle this problem, King refers to the fact that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” (King, 5). This analogy equates the passivity of the white moderates in Birmingham with the (presumably) white moderates in Germany, drawing parallels between the status of Jews in Germany and the status of Negroes in Birmingham. While not a perfect analogy, it catches the attention and gives a very real and tangible example of what can happen when good people do not speak up in the face of oppression and injustice. And, certainly, contributing to the death of six million people through inaction could be interpreted as a passive extremism.

One of King’s main themes in his letter is that sometimes society must be disrupted so that people reach a better understanding of what processes are actually affecting society and how to change them for the better. Having quoted Socrates in his letter and incorporating the idea of risking social disruption in pursuit of the ‘good’, in this case desegregation, it is obvious that King was familiar with the themes of Plato’s work, specifically The Trial and Death of Socrates. One of the themes of The Trial and Death of Socrates is the conflict between maintaining the status quo versus risking social disruption in the pursuit of truth, or the ‘good’. Socrates does not intend to disrupt society to its detriment, but rather to call into question firmly held beliefs for the sake of the betterment of society through a deeper understanding of what justice is. In the same way, King does not intend to disrupt society to its detriment, but rather to call into question firmly held beliefs about segregation for the betterment of society through a deeper understanding of brotherhood.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a very well read and intelligent activist for desegregation. He incorporated successful arguments from historical sources (he also drew from Machiavelli’s philosophy) into his writing and added his own spin, the appeal to Christian values, in a way that blends them perfectly into a rational and convincing argument addressed to his specific audience. He justified his use of nonviolent direct action by redefining the idea of extremism and then identified his cause as just by associating it with Christian morality. Finally, he issued a call to action to the white moderates and Christian leadership by demonstrating that passivity is itself a form of extremist behavior when it leads to severe injustice. King was accused of extremism, so he turned extremism into a tool that could help him achieve his goals.

Works Cited

King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1963. “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Birmingham, April 16.

Islamism and “The Yacoubian Building”

The Yacoubian Building Book Cover
The Yacoubian Building Book Cover

The following is a short essay I wrote about The Yacoubian Building for an undergraduate history course.

In Alaa al Aswany’s book, The Yacoubian Building, Islamism and Islamists are primarily presented through the point of view of the character Taha El Shazli, the son of a doorman who lives on the roof of the Yacoubian building.  As the story progresses, the rise of Islamism in Egypt is presented as being directly related to socioeconomic background, the lack of adequate economic opportunities and corruption present in government and society.

Taha’s family was of very modest means.  Despite this, Taha was very intelligent and was able to excel at his studies because of his desire to become a police officer, which he believed would allow him to advance in life and gain the respect and dignity that he lacked while growing up in the Yacoubian building.  As the son of a doorman, he was often ridiculed and looked down on by the other residents, which he was forced to put up with because he had no other option.  Taha was sure that he would be able to succeed in his endeavor because he believed firmly in God, prayed regularly and avoided major sins (Aswany, 20).

Taha almost reached his goal, but his socioeconomic status caused his application to be rejected.  Before attending the character interview, he had spoken to officers in his district who told him that because he had no rich and influential family members he would have to pay a bribe of 20,000-pounds to guarantee his acceptance into the police academy.  Taha wasn’t financially capable of paying a bribe of that amount and given his religious devotion, he probably wouldn’t have done it anyway.  Instead, he believed firmly in his abilities and hoped that his devotion to God would enable him to overcome that obstacle.

Unfortunately, the board wasn’t interviewing for ability or the marks of a good police officer.  They were only interested in the corrupt practices of giving out government positions to family members or people with the right amount of money.  Even though they were impressed by Taha’s answers, when it was discovered that his father was a “property guard,” he was dismissed.  This was Taha’s first taste of corruption, another in a long line of blows to his dignity, and a serious threat to his chances of ever having a respectable life.

Taha’s next attempt to push past the boundaries set by his socioeconomic background was his enrollment in the Faculty of Economics at Cairo University.  In his new surroundings, however, he still felt the sting of class divisions and was drawn towards other people who, like himself, came from humble backgrounds.  These people were more religiously observant and Taha finally felt like he’d met people that would allow him the respect and dignity he was seeking.  The level of respect and the sense of belonging he finally felt with this new group of people, student Islamists, made him far more open to radicalization.  He felt that he was valued.  He was brought into an inner circle and introduced to an influential and charismatic leader, Sheikh Shakir, which validated his need for respect and purpose.

The event that crystallized Taha’s emergence as not just an Islmaist, but a jihadi Islamist, was the trauma he experienced when arrested after a demonstration protesting Egypt’s involvement in the Gulf War.  Already having spent most of his life being bullied and pushed around because of circumstances out of his control, he was bullied, tortured and raped by the very government entity that he had at one time hoped to work for.  The corruption that prevented him from serving his country as a police officer now served to facilitate his torture and radicalization.  When Taha was finally released from prison, his dignity as a man and a human being was shattered.  His faith was shaken.  Through coaxing from his Islamist mentors, however, he was convinced that he could best recover through renewed devotion and military-style training, which Taha readily agreed to out of an intense need for both healing and revenge.

In the end, Taha became a “martyr,” dying in the process of taking revenge on the man who ordered his rape.  Because of Taha’s socioeconomic background, he had limited options to start with.  Because of the corruption in the police department (and the government office that denied his claim of unfairness) he was pushed down a path that led him to associate with Islamist oriented people of a similar background.  Further government corruption in the form of sanctioned torture and degradation in prison caused Taha to pass the tipping point.  While not all Egyptians may follow the same path to Islamism, Aswany’s message is clear:  the lack of opportunities open to people of all classes and the government’s enabling of and participation in corruption helped to create violent Islamists.

Islamist Political Thought in Egypt: al-Banna to Faraj

The following is a short essay I wrote for an undergraduate college class on the history of Islamist political thought:

On June 30th, 2012, Mohammed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, assumed office as the 5th president of Egypt.  In modern politics, the Muslim Brotherhood holds the highest offices of power in the state, but it began as a small movement in the port city of Suez with a membership of seven.  Today, the Muslim Brotherhood expresses the culmination of decades of Islamist thought and is a diverse movement with members who champion women’s rights and push for greater integration with Christians and other minorities, as well as more conservative, Salafist and Qutbist members.[i]

The shape and expression of Islamist thought has changed dramatically over the years, but the ideology expressed in the Muslim Brotherhood today has its foundation in the political writings of Hasan al-Banna, the man who founded the organization.  From an early age, Hasan al-Banna took a strident stance against the British presence in Egypt, Christian missionary activity, and behavior that was deemed un-Islamic.  Rather than pursue religious studies, al-Banna became a teacher and was posted at a school in the Suez Canal Zone, where he was appalled by what he saw as the dominance of materialism, secularism, and a trading of Islamic morals for Western decadence.  He was also repulsed by the sight of Egyptians being exploited for the economic benefit of foreign powers.[ii]

The problems Egyptian society faced in confronting Westernization and colonial exploitation weighed heavy on Hasan al-Banna’s mind and the only solution he felt was appropriate was a return to Islam.  In a letter al-Banna sent to heads of state and other influential people, he said, in regards to Islam: “If we take the nation along this path, we shall be able to obtain many benefits …  For then we will construct our lives on our own principles and fundamental assumptions, taking nothing from others.  Herein lie the highest ideals of social and existential independence, after political independence.”[iii]  From this, we can see that al-Banna rejected Westernization as a system of living, opting instead for Islam as a native, natural, superior and complete way of life.[iv]

Al-Banna left it to other thinkers to flesh out his ideas and focused instead on social welfare programs and expanding the Brotherhood’s membership.  However, al-Banna did firmly establish the concept of a dichotomy of Islam versus the “West,” attributing the decline of Muslim civilization to the wholesale adoption of Western values and social norms, and argued for a return to Islamic values as a solution to the social malaise being experienced in Egypt.  He presented Islam as an opportunity for Egyptians to throw off the shackles of second-class humanity and reclaim their former glory, the former glory of their Islamic heritage.  He also established the important concept of modernity and Islam not being mutually exclusive.  A civilization does not have to be “Westernized,” or secularized, in order to be modern.  A civilization can be Islamic and modern as well:  technologically advanced, socially progressive, but still retaining the values, beliefs, and social norms that make Muslims and Islamic civilization distinct.

While some of al-Banna’s writing emphasizes the rejection of pacific forms of jihad in favor of armed conflict with unbelievers, al-Banna was pragmatic, conciliatory and willing to compromise.  For example, while he disapproved of the Egyptian political system, he participated in elections.[v]  Other Islamists that followed al-Banna were less forgiving.  For example, Sayyid Qutb was decidedly more in favor of violent jihad, earning himself the nickname “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror.”[vi]

Sayyid Qutb was born in Upper Egypt in 1906 and, like al-Banna, began his career as a teacher.  He also adhered to al-Banna’s ideology of Islam being the correct path for Egyptians to follow in order to regain their power as a civilization and joined the Muslim Brotherhood.  Where Qutb differed was in his stridency and his message of Islam being the only correct lifestyle in any part of the world where Muslims live.  He was firmly against any system that gave legislative authority to man and, unlike al-Banna, did not compromise in his ideology.  He wrote that “submission to God alone is a universal message which all mankind must either accept or be at peace with.  It [a legal framework] must not place any impediment to this message, in the form of a political system or material power.”[vii]

He also believed that establishing this legal framework required more than “verbal advocacy of Islam,” because “the problem is that the people in power who have usurped God’s authority on earth will not relinquish their power at the mere explanation and advocacy of the true faith.”[viii]  Qutb did not believe in idly sitting by and hoping that Islam would become dominant in the world of its own accord.  He believed that Muslims have an obligation to actualize proper Islamic governance through action.  He wrote, “… knowledge is for action… the Qur’an was not revealed to be a book of intellectual enjoyment, or a book of literature or art, fables or history… Rather, it was revealed to be a way of life, a pure mode of being from Allah.”[ix]  Combined with Qutb’s idea of a single, true version of Islam, this concept of bringing about God’s law on earth through action contributed to the rise of violent jihad.

Building on Sayyid Qutb’s ideology, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj advocated the jihad of the sword as the only legitimate interpretation of jihad, dismissing the greater jihad of internal struggle against sin as a fabrication meant to pacify the Muslim masses.[x]  Like Qutb, Faraj saw (Western) modernity as a condition of moral bankruptcy, and as an infection that was destroying the ummah from within.[xi]  In 1981, using his reworked definition of jihad, Faraj published a collection of justifications for violent jihad against un-Islamic rulers in a pamphlet called al-Farida al-Gha’iba (The Absent Duty).  A few months later, the militant group that Faraj belonged to, Jama’at al-Jihad, planned and executed an assassination of President Anwar Sadat, a secular leader intent on rapid modernization.

The debate over Islam and how it relates to government in Egypt continued into the 1990s, with two opposing views being presented by Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Min fiqh al-dawla fi’l-Islam and ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman in The Present Rulers and Islam: Are They Muslim or Not?  Qaradawi argued that democracy is compatible with Islam and wrote that “A call for democracy does not necessitate a rejection of God’s sovereignty over human beings.”[xii]  He explains that Islam contains elements of democracy and uses role of an imam as an example.  He says that an undesirable prayer leader may be removed, which is a precedent for the removing of an undesirable governmental leader, which in turn is an expression of democracy.  The people select who will rule over them.  Qaradawi argues that democracy is the best form of government for Muslims and it shouldn’t be rejected simply because it originated outside of Islam.  It should be incorporated, with useful elements being retained and the rest being discarded.[xiii]

‘Abd al-Rahman, on the other hand, advocated the rejection of any ruler that was not in full compliance with the concept of Islamic governance as expressed by Sayyid Qutb, even to the point of causing civil war.  He wrote that fitna (civil war), though a serious issue in the Muslim ummah, is preferable to being ruled by an un-Islamic ruler, and that “We would not, in fact, consider the resulting social discord [from eliminating an un-Islamic ruler] to be fitna at all; rather we would regard it as a struggle for reform because its ultimate aim would be the elevation of the Truth, the uprooting of corruption, and the reaffirmation of Islam.”[xiv]  For al-Rahman, whether or not to use violence is not a question, but rather a necessity, against any form of rule that is not compliant with the shariah and places legislative authority in the hands of man.  The removal of the leader should be immediate, or the people will be just as guilty of shirk as the leader.

Islamist thought in Egypt has branched out into a number of different schools of thought, from extremists who advocate violent jihad and a return to the fundamentals to those who try to reconcile Islam with democracy.  The common thread that holds them all together is their belief that the future lies in the Quran and man’s obedience to Islam and God’s law as a way to reestablish the power and dignity of Muslims.  With the recent political upheaval in Egypt and the coming to power of a Muslim Brotherhood member, Islamists may finally have the opportunity to realize some of their ideals.  Mohammed Mursi’s ascension to Egypt’s presidency is a remarkable event and Hasan al-Banna’s surving brother, Gamal al-Banna, believes the election would have pleased his brother, because “it was God’s will.”[xv]

[i]. “How Muslim Brotherhood went from 7 members to Egypt’s presidency,” June 29, 2012, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/06/29/154443/how-muslim-brotherhood-went-from.html.

[ii]. Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 50.

[iii]. Euben and Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought, 58.

[iv]. Ibid.

[v]. Ibid., 52-53.

[vi]. Ibid., 129.

[vii]. Ibid., 146.

[viii]. Ibid., 147.

[ix]. Ibid., 141.

[x]. Ibid., 323.

[xi]. Ibid., 322.

[xii]. Ibid., 238.

[xiii]. Ibid., 230-245.

[xiv]. Ibid., 350.

[xv]. “How Muslim Brotherhood went from 7 members to Egypt’s presidency.”


Euben, Roxanne L., and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, . Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Youssef, Nancy A. “How Muslim Brotherhood went from 7 members to Egypt’s presidency.” McClatchy: Truth to Power. June 29, 2012. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/06/29/154443/how-muslim-brotherhood-went-from.html (accessed October 10, 2012).