This, in brief, is Qutb's defense of Islamic theocracy. Islamic societies may be poor, Qutb admitted, but at least they are seeking to implement the will of God. Even if they are failing at this, Qutb said, at least they are trying. And that — he concluded — makes Islamic society superior to Western society.
How should we in America evaluate, and answer, Qutb's critique? We need to take Qutb's views seriously, partly because they are taken seriously in the Islamic world, and partly because for all his vehemence, Qutb is raising deep and fundamental questions. Indeed in some respects the Islamic critique as exemplified by Qutb is similar to the critique that the classical philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, made of freedom. The classical thinkers would have agreed with Qutb that virtue, not freedom, is the ultimate goal of a good society. And in saying this they would be quite right. How, then, can the Islamic argument against America be answered on its own terms?
Let us concede at the outset that in a free society freedom will often be used badly. The Islamic critics have a point when they deplore our high crime and illegitimacy rates and the triviality and vulgarity of our popular culture. Indeed some Americans may be tempted to say, "The Muslims have a point about Jerry Springer and Howard Stern. If they will agree to stop bombing our buildings, in exchange for us sending them Springer and Stern to do with as they wish, why not make the deal? We could even throw in some of Springer's guests."
But on a less facetious note, we should not be surprised that there is a considerable amount of vice, license, and vulgarity in a free society. Freedom by definition includes freedom to do good or evil, to act nobly or basely. Given the warped timber of humanity, freedom becomes the forum for the expression of human flaws and weaknesses. On this point Qutb and his fundamentalist followers are quite correct.
But if freedom brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the best. The millions of Americans who live decent, praiseworthy lives deserve our highest admiration because they have opted for the good when the good is not the only available option. Even amid the temptations that a rich and free society offers, they have remained on the straight path. Their virtue has special luster because it is freely chosen. The free society does not guarantee virtue any more than it guarantees happiness. But it allows for the pursuit of both — a pursuit rendered all the more meaningful and profound because success is not guaranteed but has to be won through personal striving.
By contrast, the theocratic and authoritarian society that Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. If the supply of virtue of insufficient in free societies, it is almost nonexistent in Islamic societies, because coerced virtues are not virtues at all. Consider the woman in Afghanistan or Iran who is required to wear the veil. There is no real modesty in this, because the woman is being compelled. Compulsion cannot produce virtue; it can only produce the outward semblance of virtue.
Indeed, once the reins of coercion are released, as they were for the 9/11 terrorists, the worst impulses of human nature break loose. Sure enough, the deeply religious terrorists spent their last days in gambling dens, bars, and strip clubs, sampling the licentious lifestyle they were about to strike out against. In this respect they were like the Spartans who, Plutarch tells us, were abstemious in public but privately coveted wealth and luxury. In theocratic societies such as Afghanistan under the Taliban or Iran today, the absence of freedom signals the absence of virtue.