A French Catholic Pioneer for Radical Islamists

The French doctor Alexis Carrel received the Nobel Prize in 1912. But even more important than his medical research was the estrange philosophy of the conservative Catholic Alexis Carrel – especially for Sajjid Qutb. The Egyptian school teacher and writer, who published a multi-volume commentary on the Quran and was executed by the Nasser regime in 1966, is now considered by many to be the spiritual father of the al-Qaida warriors and the ideologist of Islamic fanatics. Carrel and Qutb – an extreme case that shows once again what Goethe already wrote: “Orient and Occident can no longer be separated.” Neither for good nor bad.

The biographies of the two men could not be more different – one comes from an Egyptian village and ends up as a riot on the gallows, the other, a Frenchman, made a career in the US and received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1912. They never met, the school inspector and literary critic Sajjid Qutb, seen by many as the father of radical Islamism, and the strictly Catholic medical doctor Alexis Carrel – and yet both are united by a spiritual path that leads to the horrors of the present.

Qutb was born in 1906 in the central Egyptian village of Musha, studied in Cairo and joined the Ministry of Education as school inspector in 1933 for 15 years. He also worked as a journalist and literary critic. From 1948 on he spent three years in the US, discovered Islam for himself and said on his return: “I was born in 1951.” He joined the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ihwan al-Muslim), founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928 and quickly rose to become their head of propaganda.

The Muslim Brotherhood did not see itself as a political party, but as a religious and charitable organization. On June 23, 1952, Colonel Gschamal Abdel Nasser and the “Committee of Liberated Officers” overthrew the corrupt regime of King Faruk. Initially, the Muslim Brotherhood allied with them, but after Nasser had banned all parties and founded a state party in January 1953, the MB was ruthlessly persecuted (although a third of the officers themselves belonged to them). In December 1954, Nasser hanged seven Muslim Brothers, and six months later Qutb was sentenced to 25 years of forced labor. He spent the rest of his life in prison, except for a few months when he was provisionally released. On August 29, 1966 he died on the gallows, tortured after a short court farce.

Alexis Carrel, who was born near Lyon in 1873, passed away peacefully and well cared for on November 5, 1944 in his bed in Paris. After attending school with the Jesuits and studying medicine in Lyon, he was about to embark on a brilliant career when, after a visit to Lourdes in May 1902, he publicly defended the miraculous healing of a terminally ill girl. The miracle had converted Carrel: “My greatest wish and the highest goal of my endeavors is to believe, to believe deeply and blindly and never again neither to discuss nor criticize.”

1902 was also a key year in recent French history – the beginning of the term of office of the radical Prime Minister Émile Combes. He had made it one of his goals to completely separate church and state from one another in legal terms. His opponents soon stylized him as an antichrist in person. In the heated mood surrounding the Dreyfus affair and the bitter dispute between the Catholic Church and the state, clericals and laicists, Carrel had to cause considerable sensation with his defense of a miracle cure. His real chances of becoming head of the surgical clinic in Lyon came to nothing overnight.

Carrel went to Canada, from there via Chicago to New York, where he did research at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. He received the Nobel Prize in 1912 for his pioneering work in the field of vascular surgery. When the World War I broke out, he returned to France and took part in the development of new methods of wound treatment to prevent infections and amputations.

Back in the US, he wrote a philosophical book, “The Man”. Translated into 19 languages, the book was to become a world best seller with a total circulation of one million copies. The last chapter of this work deals with “the restoration of man”, in which “voluntary eugenics” play a decisive role. Because with it, “the increase of the mentally ill and feeble-minded” can be prevented, a task, the solution of which decides “the fate of the white peoples”. It is therefore not surprising that in the foreword to the US edition in 1939, Carrel praised “the faith” of German and Italian youth who are again ready to “sacrifice themselves for an ideal”.

At the beginning of World War II, he returned home again; in Vichy, Marshal Pétain made him head of a Foundation (with 40 million francs and 150 employees) for the study of human problems in 1941. In the vision of the strictly ascetic medical doctor, the research institute formed a “scientific monastery” in which “the scientific basis of mystical life” was to be studied and the “contrast between science and religion” to be overcome. For Carrel, capitalism, fascism, socialism and communism belonged equally to the “period of obscurantism”. He wanted to replace democracy with a “biocracy”, which should restore the physical, intellectual and spiritual abilities of people – “people in their totality”.

Carrel was long dead by the time Qutb sat in the Egyptian prison during the 1950s and wrote his extensive commentary on the Quran, in the end 4016 pages. The book allows for many readings, pious Muslims can refer to it as well as religious terrorists. The waymarks are a radical theological treatise that is easy to use politically.

Like Carrel in his writings, Qutb also makes a black diagnosis of modernity: “In our day, mankind is on the brink of the abyss”, and not because of the threat of nuclear, ecological or social catastrophes, but “because it has lost its values.” For Qutb, the world is in a state of “barbarism” (jahilijja), falling back to the time before God revealed Islam and the utopia of the “Muslim community” to the people. Qutb stands in a long tradition of radical criticism of Islamic rule that has de facto anarchist consequences. Because “barbaric” is any society in which someone rules other than God and his “law” (Sharia). Sheikh Sibiki of the Cairo University al-Azhar reprimanded Qutb’s “rebellious style” in 1967 and condemned his theses as heresy.

But Qutb does not understand Islam as a theological doctrine at all, but as a literally all-encompassing universe – as “law and social order” – which is ruled by the absolute “sovereignty” (hakimijja) of God down to the last detail. In this utopian universe, earthly life becomes divine. In contrast to more recent Christianity, which Qutb sees as trapped in “harmful schizophrenia” because it separates faith and knowledge, church and politics, for him the Quran remains absolute revelation, which separates anything between “cold knowledge” and action: “a system for everyday human life in all its aspects”.

For Carrel, Western civilization contradicts human nature

The waymarks are about how to restore the “Muslim community”. For Qutb this only existed in the short time when the prophet and the first four caliphs from 622 to 661 led “the highest and purest community” in Medina, determined solely by an “all-embracing, mutual love”. They “rarely needed to resort to penalties and laws dictated by God”. Because “the control of action came from within, from the conscience. One only wanted to please God and receive his reward for it.” According to Qutb, the only way to achieve this goal is to return to the original faith. The community to be established is not a people, a nation or a state, but rather forms a generally universal whole and an indissoluble unity of rulers and rulers who live and work together in harmony according to the “divine law” and owe “obedience” only to God.

Initially, only a few embark on this path – “the avant-garde” (jama) or the “Islamic movement” (haraket al-islamijja), as Qutb calls them. But he is convinced that their “preaching and speeches” will quickly bear fruit: “Three become ten, ten hundred, one hundred thousand … and this is how the Muslim community emerges and consolidates.”

They are “avant-gardes of Islamic resurrection” that Qutb trusts and for whose activities he uses the multifaceted term “struggle” (jihad). A word that encompasses everything: from the internal struggle against desires and ambition to the struggle against social injustice and national interests to the uprising against “the usurpers of power” – dazzling passages that the Islamists would later make up as a legitimation for their terror . In contrast, Qutb (“we are preachers and not judges”) relied on an Islam that he understood as a “reverent emancipatory force”. For him the “fight”, which does not belong to the five pillars of Islam (creed, prayer, fasting, alms giving, pilgrimage), is “an act of highest devotion” and part of the spiritual education plan. However, it does not include target practice: “Faith” (aqidah) and “Islamic movement”, led by the “avant-garde”, fight for “God and God alone” (Qutb) and not for a people or a state – and certainly not at all with terror.

The external similarities between Carrel and Qutb are obvious: The elite in the “scientific monastery” of the medical doctor can be found again in Qutb as the “avant-garde”, and the “biological classes” Carrels are in Qutb “religious classes”. Whether “Western civilization” (Carrel) or “barbarism” (Qutb) – both are “not appropriate to us” because they contradict “our true nature” (Carrel) or Qutb’s “good, healthy nature”. In the aim of reconciling knowledge and belief, both are completely in agreement anyway.

No other author quotes Qutb as often as Carrel

The crucial affinities, however, are deeper. No other author, with the exception of the Quran itself, quotes Qutb as often and as extensively as Carrel. What fascinated Qutb about Carrel, and what he adopts from him in his studies and for his purposes, is, as the Islamic scholar Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi, who teaches in the United States, in 1996 in his book “Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence”, first of all, his image of man, “which he trusts more than the Quran”. Second, Qutb follows Carrel’s method. The pious doctor complains that “man, this whole”, this unique, complex being, is split up and torn apart in social reality as in science. Everything in modern science, from Darwin to Freud, disintegrates into spirit and matter. And the exclusive concentration on the material nature of man has the effect that his spiritual side remains suppressed.

According to Carrel, people can only find their original unity and harmony if they are ready to “recreate” the world according to the laws of life and the gospel. The paradox that people are “servants of God” and at the same time free, dissolves for Carrel because human nature, which serves as the highest standard, is always thought of as given by God. In order to advance to “total reality”, “the philosophical systems have to be abandoned” and replaced by “scientific concepts” – Carrel means biologically and theologically supported theories. According to Carrel, only “small groups of people” have the “universal knowledge” to design them: the avant-garde, the elite.

What Qutb calls “the Islamic method”, the integration of upbringing, ethics, economics and politics into a holistic system of “divine uniqueness”, resembles Carrel’s approach to “the unification of all abilities and their coordination towards a single belief” – the “super-science”. Qutb also follows Carrel in that belief, neither accessible nor in need of any scientific proof, since it comes from God and human reason fundamentally does not come close to him. Qutb sees the natural sciences as evidence of the universal connection between everything and of the divine will giving nature clear laws that serve people. In contrast, neither of them can do much with social sciences, which continually differentiate the image of the “whole person” or “human nature” historically and socially.

Every kind of differentiation or historicization, skepticism or agnosticism calls into question the idea of ​​holistic and God-given world designs. “The Islamic method” Qutbs clings closely to “the new science” of Carrel, who required it to be “complete and at the same time simple enough” to “serve as a basis for our practical actions”. As far as simplicity is concerned, the French doctor outbid the Egyptian interpreter of the Quran: Carrel wanted not only to kill murder and theft, but also to “forbid envy, avarice, arrogance and adultery”.

For Western commentators, Qutb is the embodiment of Islamic fanaticism. The long-standing Middle East correspondent for the NZZ, Arnold Hottinger, even the left-liberal New York journalist Paul Berman call him the “forefather of the militant Arab Islamists”. It turns out that Qutb’s interpretation of the Quran was deeply influenced by Carrel’s biological-Christian holistic thinking. Both are fundamentalist in the precise sense that they claim the view of the whole and want to return to scripture and see therein the foundations for the renewal of “the whole person”.

Holistic thinking, which means the attempt to merge everything into a whole, a comprehensive system, is – of course far beyond Carrel – an integral part of European philosophy. Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi has pointed out how close Qutb’s account of the relationship of religion is to Hegel’s practical philosophy. “In general,” writes Hegel, “religion and the foundation of the state are one and the same; they are in and for themselves identical”, just as “religion and philosophy coincide” because both always appear as manifestations of the absolute spirit.

Qutb follows Carrel in making “human nature” the prerequisite and standard for all thought and action. Because “human nature” is assumed to be given by God at the same time, both immunize “human nature” against criticism, because God does not respond to inquiries any more than “nature” to objections. At the core of Qutb’s supposedly oriental Islamism is a naturalistic fallacy that is deeply anchored in European philosophy. All philosophical attempts since antiquity to trace back “goodness” or “badness” in the ethical and moral sense to natural or natural properties are based on such naturalistic fallacies. Carrel writes: “The goal of life is to obey the laws of life. We read these laws from our body and soul and not from philosophical systems and conceptions.” In this way, ethical norms (“laws of life”) are derived directly from biological facts and psychological diagnoses. That means, translated into Qutb’s language, there can be no human freedom, and therefore no free, diverse society either, but only obedience to the law of God.

The Islamic movement, which quickly radicalized as a result of the Six Day War of 1967, martyred Qutb after his death; his works are eagerly studied all over the Muslim world.

Part of the history of the reception of Carrel’s writings in the West is that his book – without a preface, but otherwise unchanged – was distributed by the Munich publisher Paul List until the end of the 1950s. Not even the emphatic praise for the “energetic measures” of the Nazis “against the increase of the inferior, the mentally ill and the criminal” was erased. For occasional criminals, Carrel recommended “wholesome lessons with the whip”, for murderers, robbers and child kidnappers “small institutions for painless killing, where appropriate gases are available”. All that remained in 1957 (in the meantime the circulation had reached the 45th thousand) without comment. With the slogan “The basic work of the Nobel Prize winner”, the publisher continued to advertise a racist pamphlet in which there was little mention of “races” only for “reasons of a psychological nature” (Carrel).

In 1996 the medical faculty of the University of Lyon, which had previously been called “Alexis Carrel”, decided to rename itself, but three years later a young dentist in the German town of Münster received his doctorate from the venerable Westphalian Wilhelms University for a dissertation in which he belittled “voluntary eugenics” of the pious physician: “When dealing with serious criminals, Alexis Carrel is of the opinion that they should be transferred to painless killing in a humane and economical manner.” Not a word about the fact that Carrel saw himself as an “instrument of God’s grace” and sacrificed reason and ethics to his dubious “ultimate goal of helping ordinary people to their rights”.

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