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A Plan for Universal Peace: Sayyid Qutb in the Shade of Immanuel Kant

Thursday Lecture Series

dateNovember 20, 2014 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
Antique map of Asia and illustration of two men with caption "Arabes"

“Before us today is the problem of universal peace,” Sayyid Qutb declares in the prologue to his much-neglected Universal Peace and Islam (1951). “Does Islam have an opinion on the matter? Does Islam have a solution?” Immanuel Kant’s construction of the political universe would foreclose any answer. After all, Kant’s arrangement of non-European peoples as lagging others implies that those of Qutb’s ilk only receive constitutions, states, and ultimately, universal peace; they do not design them, and any thought Islam might have on peace is irrelevant to history. In Perpetual Peace (1795), Kant specifically names the Arab as an antithesis of universal hospitality, which is a central tenet of his plan for peace. Kant’s ambivalence about Arabs, as well as his cartographic imagination, suggest that what he calls an “unjust enemy”—he whose will renders peace “impossible”—might indeed be epitomized by the Arab.

Albeit popularly considered the ideologue of “Islamic jihād,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading theorist also designed a plan for universal peace. This talk brings the two thinkers into mutual critique through their assumptions about geography, political economy, and secularism, treating each as a window into the other’s distortions. The two theorists peg the emergence of universal peace to an immanent organization of individual states with laws in common. They promise a peaceful world through the legal form of the state. This promise is embedded in an Enlightenment script that claims to correct unjust savagery through the state-form and law-form. However, this script constrains pacific imaginaries and authorizes hostility. Through Kant’s figure of “the Arab,” this talk unpacks a logic of interstate peace that remains current today; Qutb’s adaptations of this familiar logic unwittingly expose its limits, culminating with perpetual war against enemies whose laws and form are ‘wrong.’