On the point made below about the Islamists’ education being, often, western but non-humanist, I am drawing on Malise Ruthven, whose Fury for God (2002) really is excellent.
Ruthven rightly spends time exploring the writings of Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, a name that will be unfamiliar to most Americans, but as the leading modern exponent of the Wahabbist strain of militant Islam, he is as significant in that world as Lenin was to communism. Qutb visited the United States during the 1940s, a visit that Ruthven characterizes as “the defining moment or watershed from which ‘the Islamist war against America’ would flow.” Qutb, a fastidious man, was appalled by the overt sexuality of American women, the crowds of New York and even jazz. Returning to Egypt with an intense animus against the West, he joined the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and was eventually imprisoned in Nasser’s hellish jails. While in prison he wrote Signposts on the Road, a tract that Ruthven describes as “an operational manual” for later militant Islamists. Qutb argued that jihad was more than a defensive war against the enemies of Islam — and, by implication, that jihad had to be conducted offensively. Qutb’s disciples have since acted on that message with devastating results.
Those disciples have an ambivalent relationship to Western civilization, seeing in it only the bad, while taking from it only what they need. They know nothing of Dostoyevsky, Einstein or Monet; instead they master “only the instrumentalities of Western culture… how to operate machinery, mix chemicals, program computers, fly planes… The philosophical presuppositions behind the technicalities, the condition of epistemological doubt, is spurned, because it threatens the structure of an identity rooted in the received certainties of faith.” Ruthven notes that this tendency gets reinforced by the strong backgrounds that many Islamists have in scientific or technical education; this, he argues, makes them “more susceptible to monodimensional or literalist readings of scripture than their counterparts in the arts and humanities.” For Ruthven, the lead hijacker, Mohammad Atta, a student of architecture and town planning, is perhaps the apotheosis of that narrow world view.