During my formative years, the United States and the West in general was said to be locked in a “clash of civilizations” with the Islamic world, or at least radicals within it. Groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and later ISIS dominated the news. There was always a bombing, beheading, stoning, or other act of barbaric terror somewhere in the world to draw our attention.

I became very curious about cultures within the Muslim world and distinctions between the various groups and belief systems. I tried to learn Arabic and read some books that likely put me on an FBI watchlist or two.

One of those books was Milestones by Sayyid Qutb, considered the equivalent of the Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf for radical Sunni Muslims. Qutb was an Egyptian revolutionary in the mid 20th century who was executed for his part in a plot to kill Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. He was the lead propagandist for the Muslim Brotherhood, but his writings are also the inspiration for the even-more-extreme Salafi movement, which includes groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The “salaf” were the founding fathers of Islam, and Salafis believed all those before and most of those after the salaf lived in ignorance. The only solution was to force them to live under an Islamic state with strict Shariah law.

I wanted to know what these groups thought and why, and reading Milestones was the easiest way to get a first-hand account. Interestingly, Qutb’s rage was sparked after traveling to the United States in 1948 to study our education system, not unlike how Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the early U.S. to study our prison system. And like de Tocqueville, he came away with observations on many other subjects. The trip greatly shocked Qutb, as his stay in Colorado exposed him to the free mixing of men and women, alcohol use, skimpy female bathing suits, and what he saw as a generally shallow and individualistic culture.

As I read, some of his observations actually seemed reasonable, like on our superficiality and pleasure-seeking commercialism, but his drastic conclusions about the need for a violent global jihad obviously were over the top. I had a similar experience reading Karl Marx. He made some fair observations on poverty and exploitation, but then mixed in very bad anthropology and economics, which were the cause of his horrible conclusions (and the disastrous results when anyone tried to apply them).

In Roger Scruton’s “How to be a Conservative,” he lays out the book with this in mind. Chapters have titles like, “The truth in socialism,” “The truth in nationalism,” and “The truth in environmentalism.” He gives the devil his due, pulling in the nugget of truth from rival political movements, even if he is mostly in disagreement with them.

As ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu taught, if you are going to win a battle, you must know yourself and know your enemy. I never felt like I was in any danger of converting to radical Islam or starting a communist revolution because of picking up those books.

Quoting dictators

Not everybody agrees with this though. In fact, many on today’s progressive left think if you read controversial books, or quote words from them, even if your reasoning is clearly to say, “This is bad,” then that makes you by default a fan of the book and its author.

This dynamic has burst onto the stage of our state’s gubernatorial race, as the presumptive Democrat nominee, Attorney General Josh Stein, posted a clip from a speech given by the likely Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

In the clip, Robinson can be heard encouraging people to research more about “despots” like Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Castro. Stein insinuated Robinson did this nefariously so that teachers would “feed students quotes from dictators.”

Even in the conveniently edited clip, it’s clear Robinson is saying that these are bad men who did bad things, and that students should learn from them to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. In a longer clip of the comments, that context is made even more explicit, as he said, “It’s time for us to start teaching our children about the dirty, despicable, awful things that those communist and socialist despots did in our history.”

Now, Robinson does have a habit of saying things in a bombastic way and has been accused of lacking tact or nuance in how he delivers messages. One should definitely be careful when quoting any evil dictator to make clear whose side you’re on.

Notably, Robinson’s remarks were in the context of defending the conservative grassroots group Moms for Liberty, as they had also found themselves receiving bad press for quoting Hitler.

For those arguing in good faith, even those who disagree with the moms, it is clear that they oppose what they see as indoctrination and propaganda in government-run schools, and were using quotes from big-government authoritarians in a cautionary way. The fact that the left is calling them Nazis and not communists, despite them quoting dictators from both the far-left and far-right, gives away the disingenuous nature of the attacks.

Many Moms for Liberty chapters pushed back, saying they quote dictators to warn of their ideas, not support them. But for those who are looking for an excuse to view them as literal Nazis, these appeals likely won’t make much of a difference.

Quoting Adolf Hitler as a regular practice is probably not a good idea, and should only be done when a very direct analogy can be made. One can be easily misunderstood (or more likely, like in this case, your political enemies will know exactly what you mean but choose to feign ignorance to score points). Your political rivals are also most likely not comparable to actual Nazis.

But to the greater point, both students in school and adults seeking a full knowledge of the world should absolutely read about Sayyid Qutb, Osama Bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Maximilien Robespierre, Joseph Stalin, and any other tyrannical historical figure that caused death and mayhem. Go ahead and quote them (carefully) too. Knowing your enemy and knowing your history helps you understand the world around you, including what kinds of ideas and movements need to be opposed at all costs.