The Two Islamic Intellectuals Who Inspired the Extremists

tags: Sayyid Qutub, Abu Bakr Naji



William R. Polk was a professor of history at the University of Chicago. During the Kennedy and part of the Johnson administrations, he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Among his books is Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran

Sayyid Qutub

The inspiration for the current version of Islamic salafiyah, and particularly for its militant wing,has come mainly from the Egyptian, partly-American-educated polemicist religiously learned man (Arabic: alim), Sayyid Qutub.

Born in an Egyptian village in 1906, Sayyid Qutub got his early education in a primary school in the village and then in a secular school in Cairo, During his twenties and thirties, he wrote a charming memoir on village life and a not very successful novel but gained a reputation as a literary critic in Egyptian periodicals. Then, just before the Second World War, he became a minor official in the Egyptian Ministry of Education. From that post, he received a scholarship to study the American educational system. He spent two years mainly in Colorado and California, but traveled widely throughout the country.

Everywhere he went in America, Qutub was appalled by what he saw. In his eyes, America was a cesspool of wasteful consumption, exaggerated sex and crass materialism. Putting together all he found to detest about America, he placed American civilization in an Arabian context: it was like the pre-Islamic Arabian period of “ignorance [of God’s way],” the Jahaliyah, which was reformed through the actions of God’s Messenger, Muhammad. In this way, he categorized the West, not Islam, as the retrograde society.

Today’s Muslims, he argued, must reinstate the pattern and practices of the order announced by Muhammad in the Seventh Century. That is, Muslims must go back to the original pattern, Muhammad’s community, in order to correct today’s excesses. Only then can they move ahead. This is the true meaning of salafiyah.

Salafiyah in practice even when not designated by that word has a long history in Islam. We see it first in the great Eighth-Ninth century Muslim scholar Ahmad bin Hanbal of Baghdad who preached a strict interpretation of the Islamic heritage and sought to prevent innovation (Arabic: bidac). Running contrary to the trends of his time and criticizing the ruling authorities, he was imprisoned. That was to become the fate of some of his successors, notably the uncompromising jurist of the Mongol period of invasions, Ibn Taimiyah, who died in prison in Damascus in 1328 AD. These were the Muslim thinkers who laid the basis for the thought of Sayyid Qutub and today’s Muslim Fundamentalists.

For such men as Hanbal, Taimiyah and Qutub, Islam was a coherent system in which the distinctions we draw between the secular and the religious were themselves travesties. They viewed life in society in holistic terms with Islam all-encompassing.

Hanbal and Taimiyah were not so challenged as Qutub by non-Muslim material superiority – “the coming of the West to Asia and Africa -- and so did not need to explain or counter demands for innovation. Qutub did. And while he did not use these words, I read his works to be motivated by much the same judgment as made by secular nationalists: Muslim societies are now weak and must find their way to dignity and strength. He differed from the secularists in believing that they could find it only by returning to first principles whereas the secularists wanted to forget the past and rush into Western-style modernity. Thus, he believed and many Muslims came to agree with him that ventures into nationalism and socialism, the main currents of thoughts in the 1950s and 1960s, were bound to fail to bring strength and dignity. They did. And as we shall see their failure opened the way for the return of Muslim Fundamentalism.

Qutub understood the nationalists’ and Socialists’ Westernizing program and partly, only partly, was prepared to accommodate it. It was his willingness to work with the nationalists that made him acceptable to the men who led the first of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts, the 1952 Egyptian coup d’état. Like the secular nationalists, he admitted that the West was materially strong and agreed that the East must also become materially strong. Doing so is justified, he pointed out, because God appointed mankind to be his agents to control and exploit the Earth. But, he argued, Westernized Muslim and secular Arab nationalists had perverted God’s intent. They copied the wrong things in Western society. Instead of simply using the material benefits, they traded for them the essence of their own culture.

In fact, as he had concluded from his trip to America, the West had little to offer. In its blind race toward materialism, Qutub held, Western society had lost sight of what wellbeing really means. In his view it is precisely the turn away from spirituality that is the great failing of Western culture. It is not just that a life without spirituality is barren – which he believed – but that it loses the coherence of the whole Divinely-created and God-mandated system. The attempt to make up for this loss by adopting such ideologies as nationalism or such constructs as participatory democracy or Socialism are, he argued, wholly inadequate and, worse, they are a false trail leading away from true religion. True religious life, a spiritual life, in which God’s commands determine man’s fate, was to be found in in a pure form only in early Islam.

As a historian, I have to say that Qutub’s reading of Muhammad’s new order is not quite what I and other scholars believe the years immediately following the establishment of Muhammad’s community to have been. There was a great deal of dissidence, infighting and greed evident in those years. Moreover, the time of the four “Rightly Guided Caliphs” lasted only a short time. However, not only for Qutub but also for virtually all Muslims, those few years were the Golden Age. It is for this reason that the more extreme of today’s Syrian jihadis speak of their aim as reestablishing a caliphate. In that age, Fundamentalists believe, “pure” Islam was coherent, all-embracing, just, available and God-given.

From the short and simple beginning of the Arabian caliphate, Islam spread across the world from Indonesia to Morocco and from sub-Saharan Africa far into Central Asia and grew into a complex civilization that was widely admired and to an extent copied in contemporary Europe. Its astronomers, physicians, philosophers and other learned men were taken as exemplars throughout the West.

Even among the illiterate, Islam exercised a powerful appeal. In part this was because its creed was both attractive and easy to understand: affirmation of the unity of God (tawhid) and denial of any sharing (shirk) of His majesty; men are not to exploit one another so taking of interest (riba) is forbidden; Muslims are enjoined to help one another so everyone must pay a welfare tax, (zakat); all must abide by the law (shariah) where explicitly laid out in the Quran or exemplified by the actions and sayings (hadith) of the Prophet; Muslims are forbidden to kill one another because they are brothers (ikhwan); they should perform the pilgrimage (hajj) in which as many Muslims as possible from all over the world assemble to express their faith, exemplify their unity and draw strength from one another; and Muslims are commanded to struggle (perform jihad) in the cause of God (fi sabili’llah) to create the community (ummah) He had ordered.

Since Islam had been announced among a tribal people, and its mores had been influenced by their traditional practices, it easily adapted to other tribal peoples and incorporated their practices. So, in Afghanistan for example, Muslims lived both by Quranic precepts and Pushtun, Turcoman, Hazara or Tajik customs. The division between Sunnis and Shiis can be explained in part by the diversity of ethnic cultures. And since conversion was easy, peoples with even more distant ethnic backgrounds eagerly joined its community. Its emphasis on equality and its lack of racism made Islam attractive, for example, to millions of downtrodden untouchables (dalits) of India for whom Hinduism meant perpetual slavery. Such conversions also brought ideas and habits alien to the Quran and Hadith into Islamic practice. These “intrusions” were often easily accepted but from time to time, they and those who followed them were the subject of bitter reproach or violence. We see this today, as for example in the Syrian Sunni Muslim hostility to the deviant Shia Muslim sect of the Alawis.

What so infuriated the Orthodox Muslims about the Alawis was that they were “almost Muslims.” That is, heretics in the Islamic family. This is or should be understandable to us. Historically, we see that reaction of religions to heresy has often been more violent than intolerance of a different religion. That is, I think, because heretics are considered more dangerous than true outsiders. The Inquisition, as we know, spent most of its energy sniffing out Christian deviation, crypto-Jews, Judaizing Christians and Muslims who only pretended to be Christians (Marranos and Conversos) .

The modern Syrian experience was more pointed, as I explained in my first essay, because heresy became associated with political power. No one paid much attention to the Alawis or Christians or other minorities when power was in the hands of Muslims, as it was under the Ottoman empire and under the early Syrian Republican regimes. But when Hafez al-Assad changed the Constitution to omit the requirement that the president be a Muslim and himself took power, he provoked a civil war. Muslims were prepared to tolerate deviants but not deviant overlords.

Yet, it has to be said in fairness that over the centuries Islam has been far more tolerant of difference than most other religions. Non-Muslim and such quasi-Muslim communities as Alawis, Druze, Ismailis and Yazidis were allowed to live by their own rules and under their own authorities. (Such toleration was rare in contemporary Europe.) Islamic rules were mandatory, but mandatory only for Muslims. People who did not profess to be Muslim have generally been accepted as protected neighbors [Arabic: jar].

The Quran is explicit in its description of ours as a pluralistic world. Despite the widely held idea that Islam was spread by the sword, Qutub rightly points to the Quranic injunction that belief is both personal and free; each man is legally, according to the Shariah, allowed to chose his own way. Thus, the “People of the Book [the Bible],” Jews and Christians, and by later extension, Hindus, were to be accepted peacefully into the Islamic world as protected communities [Ottoman Turkish: millet]. Only if what an individual or a group does is deemed threatening to Islamic society are restrictions on their actions legal. Or, in extreme cases, is an attack on them justified.

This is an issue posed by the Syrian rebellion – have the Alawis harmed the Islamic community? The Syrian and foreign jihadis’ answer that it has. Therefore, suppressing it is legal. If the West supports them, it too is acting illegally and deserves to be fought. This is what the jihadis read the Quran as ordering (Surah II/190-193, my translation),

Fight in the cause of God those who fight against you [that is, defend yourselves], but do not initiate hostilities. Verily God does not love aggressors.

But [if such people are the aggressors] kill them wherever you encounter them and expel them from where they had expelled you, because tyranny is more insufferable than fighting…

And fight them to the death until subversion is no more and the religion of God is established. But if they surrender, do not attack any but the evil doers.

This battle cry is memorized, along with the rest of the Quran, in daily classes by millions of young students (Arabic: taliban) in tens of thousands of religious schools all over the Islamic world. We may take these words as essentially the marching orders of the jihadi. For him, the Alawis are the aggressors. And, by extension, the West, its local agents -- Westernized or perverted Muslim governments allied with the West -- and Israel are the true enemies of Islam. They are charged with having dispossessed Muslims from their homelands, oppressed them with tyrannies, stolen their wealth and attempted to corrupt their faith. So it is moral and legal to fight them. Only if they desist can peace come.

Sayyid Qutub was not, of course, a jihadi, but he was feared as a justifier of subversion of secular order. So, like his great predecessors, Hanbal and Taimiyah, he was often imprisoned. He spent about twelve years of his life in an Egyptian prison until at age sixty, he was convicted of sedition by a secular court and hanged. During his life, especially in prison, he wrote commentaries [Arabic: tafasir]i on the Quran as many clerics have done. But he also wrote widely on early Islamic society, Islamic law and what he saw as the foibles and failures of Western society. Some of his writings bear comparison to the Islamic legal classics. As a group, they have attracted a mass readership -- believed to be in the tens of millions -- throughout the Islamic world and have apparently influenced men as opposed to one another as the leaders of the Taliban, the Saudi Royal Establishment, al-Qaida, the Iranian and Iraqi clerics [Arabic: ulema]and now the various and competing groups of Syrian militants. Sayyid Qutub is the philosopher of the Islamic revolution.

Implicit in his writings was the idea that Islam is under attack and therefore must defend itself because failure to do so would be to contravene the intention of God. He does not explain how this is to be done. Defining the nature of the struggle, identifying the oppressors, justifying the tactics and predicting the outcome are the tasks taken up by several of Qutub’s successors. Here I will focus on the one most identified with current conflict in Syria, most influential among Fundamentalists and most candid in laying out the nature of the struggle.

Abu Bakr Naji, about whom -- or them, since some have suggested that “Naji” is not one man but a committee -- nothing is known for certain. Perhaps the name is only a nom de plume attached to a book called Idarah at-Tawhish (Management of Desolation).ii Naji picked up where Sayyid Qutub left off.iii He is the strategist of the politico-military and military doctrine of al-Qaida and such affiliates as Jabhat an-Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Naji begins with his interpretation of the post caliphal world (that is, what we call the “colonial” world): as he sees it, it began when the West took control and degraded the culture of the inhabitants and divided what had been societies and made them into states on a Western model. When the colonial powers withdrew, the states they had created “fell into the hands of…military governments or civil governments supported by military forces…Then the UN, the two superpowers and their acolytes took control of the world.” Acting alone or with the connivance of native agents [Arabic: wukal] , who were motivated by lust or the desire for riches, they overturned the order [Arabic: caqidaiv]of the societies. As the societies weakened and became corrupted, the foreign powers and their local allies “squandered and plundered the resources of those states and spread inequity among the people.” So, “since the fall of the caliphate…” their lives were conditioned by “no goodness, no justice and no [material benefits of] the world…”

True Muslims, however, can take heart from the fact that the great states’ power is limited: unless, that is, the natives submit of their own accord. So a part of the task that must be undertaken is to show the people the evil results of the current state system. Of course, those now in power – whom he calls the Taghutv -- and their foreign allies realize this. To disguise their real objective and to win over the natives, these powers use deceptive media to portray their rule “as non-coercive and world-encompassing...[and to portray the native] people as subservient to it not only through fear, but also through love because it spreads freedom, justice, equality among humanity, and various other slogans.”

In assessing blame for this condition, Naji indicts not only foreign powers and their venal local henchmen -- although they are the major culprits -- but also to the mass of the people. Naji takes a dim view of them: “Notice that when we say that the masses are the difficult factor…We know that they not generally dependable on account of [how the foreign imperialists and native turncoats have shaped them and we realize that there will be] no improvement for the general public until there is victory. [Consequently, our strategy] is to gain their sympathy, or at the very least neutralize them.”

Naji sees the only effective way to stop the slide into iniquity which was begun in the colonial era to be a strategy of violence. It cannot be accomplished, he and Qutub agreed, by the creation of institutions, by a “theoretical model or by sparkling slogans.” What reformers offer is a snare for the youth that “prevents them from raising the slogan, ‘jihad is our path and death in the path of God is our noblest desire!’” So, what must be undertaken is a long-term campaign to destroy the power of the imperialists and cleanse Islamic society.

Such a violent policy, he continues, is justified by Islamic law. Moreover, Westerners are hypocrites to inveigh against it on moral grounds. Look at their record: “in the 20th century alone they committed massacres against themselves and against the Muslimsvi [on a scale} which had not been matched in all of human history. Even the most brutal peoples, like the Tatars [or Mongols], did not shed as much blood as they did. They frivolously spent the money of the Muslims and their own money—which is, in reality, the money of God—for spreading unbelief, moral depravity, and debauchery, while millions of humans died hungry, the number of which some rational minds would not believe even if it were recorded in a book.

““As for the [the Middle Eastern] nationalists, the Baathists, and the democrats, they have afflicted the Islamic community [Arabic: the Ummah] by corrupting religion and by the ghastly destruction of souls. That which Saddam [Husain], [Hafez al-] Asad, [Hosni] Mubarak, [Saudi King] Fahd, the Socialist Party in Yemen, and others did with regards to this destruction of souls alone surpasses those killed in all of the wars of the jihadis in this century...”

Since war is thus justified, it must be carefully planned and executed. It has several stages.

The first stage is “vexation” of the enemy aimed at creating chaos in which the forces of the foreign powers and their local proxies are distracted and exhausted and the Muslims learn that they have power and learn how to use it. Operations are of diverse kinds but should be dramatic. Thus, they should be on a small scale, carried out independently by autonomous groups. -- not like the elaborate attack on the World Trade Center which was premature. What needs to take place at this stage is “advancement of groups made capable of vexation through drilling and operational practice so that they will be prepared psychologically and practically for the stage of the management of savagery.”

The second stage is the spread of savagery. “Note here that we said that the goal is to dislodge these regions [which have been selected for attack] from the control of the regimes of apostasy. It is the goal we are publicly proclaiming and which we are determined to carry out, not [just] the outbreak of chaos.” This second stage appears in Naji’s order as guerrilla warfare. It is essentially what is now happening in Syria and Iraq. As he sees it, it is the transition from small scale and scattered terrorism to large-scale warfare, his third stage.

The third stage is the administration of savagery. The tasks that must be undertaken at this stage include “establishing a fighting society” with requisite means of self defense. Also necessary is the creation of an intelligence agency both to learn the plans of the enemy and to guard against internal subversion. And, a socio-political program aimed at “Uniting the hearts of the people” by means of money, food and medical services and by providing a functioning system of justice under Shariah governance. This implies the creation of an enclave or territory under the control of the movement. From this base it will become possible to create a rudimentary state. We can see the beginnings of this already in eastern Syria.vii From this base, it will become “possible to expand and attack the enemies in order to repel them, plunder their money, and place them in a constant state of apprehension and desire for reconciliation.”

The word “administration” leads Naji to a step beyond those acceptable to Qutub. Indeed, he advocates what seems perilously close to adopting the course of a business school: “We must make use of books on the subject of administration, especially the management studies and theories which have been recently published, since they are consonant with the nature of modern societies. There is more than one site on the Internet in which one can obtain management books. I believe that they can be downloaded from the website Mufakkirat al-Islam…Moreover, it is possible to obtain more management books and resources from other sites on the Internet or from libraries and publishing houses…”

But, he recognizes, this is a dangerous if necessary policy so while “ in our plan we open the door of management wide to those who have mastered its art , [we open] the door of leadership only to those who are reliable, even though there is a security apparatus which keeps watch over the two doors, monitoring the professionalism of the actions of the leaders and the managers in order to prevent infiltration.”

Management, he says, is not the aim. It is only the means. What is to be managed is power. Here Naji tries to draw lessons from the Russian campaign in Afghanistan. The Afghans could not defeat the Russians in formal battles because the Russians had overwhelming military capacity. What the Afghans had to do was to provoke them so that their forces over-extended themselves and were caught in wasting, unwinnable conflict, which bankrupted their economy and lost the support both of their own people and the government they sought to protect. America, he thought, will fall easily into this trap.

Driven by its own imperatives, “America will either seek revenge and the conflict will intensify or it will launch a limited war. In the case of the latter, its grudge will not be satisfied and it will not succeed in curbing this escalating expansion. America might have caused the downfall of the state of Afghanistan, which it had already planned for, or [the Taliban state] might have collapsed without the momentous events of September…[In any case America] will begin to confront the transformation of [its Afghan campaign]… into tens of thousands of groups…which will turn their strikes against it.”

As the campaign spread and as it seeks to retaliate, “America will not find a state on which it can take its revenge, because the remaining [states} are its clients. Thus, it will become clear to it that the regimes which support it cannot protect it from attacks and cannot preserve its strategic interests and the interests of its adopted daughter, Israel, in the region. It has no choice but to fall into the second trap [that is occupying] the region and set[ing] up military bases…[This will put it at] war with the population in the region. It is obvious at this very moment that it stirs up movements that increase the jihadi expansion and create legions among the youth who contemplate and plan for resistance…

“So [the correct tactic is to] diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible. For example: If a tourist resort that the Crusaders patronize in Indonesia is hit, all of the tourist resorts in all of the states of the world will have to be secured by the work of additional forces, which [will cause] a huge increase in spending. If a usurious bank belonging to the Crusaders is struck in Turkey, all of the banks belonging to the Crusaders will have to be secured in all of the countries and the (economic) draining will increase. If an oil interest is hit near the port of Aden, there will have to be intensive security measures put in place for all of the oil companies, and their tankers, and the oil pipelines in order to protect them and draining will increase. If two of the apostate authors are killed in a simultaneous operation in two different countries, they will have to secure thousands of writers in other Islamic countries. In this way, there is a diversification and widening of the circle of targets and vexation strikes which are accomplished by small, separate groups. Moreover, repeatedly (striking) the same kind of target two or three times will make it clear to them that this kind (of target) will continue to be vulnerable.” In short, Naji believes, violence is necessary. It weakens the enemy while it performs as the school – almost the social “hospital” – needed to transform corrupt societies into the pure Islam of tomorrow.

Those who adopt struggle must confront reality: “One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening (others), and massacring…”viii This beginning stage is fundamental. It must be conducted ruthlessly. So must the other stages be effected since jihad cannot be carried out with softness, “whether the softness is in the mode of inviting others to join (the jihad), taking up positions, or (undertaking) the operations, since the ingredient of softness is one of the ingredients of failure for any jihadi action…Regardless of whether we use harshness or softness, our enemies will not be merciful to us if they seize us. Thus, it behooves us to make them think one thousand times before attacking us…Consequently, there is nothing preventing us from spilling their blood; rather, we see that this is one of the most important obligations since they do not repent, undertake prayer, and give alms. All religion belongs to God.”

Naji goes on to assert that only the certainty of revenge will prevent the West and its native agents from harming Muslims. Revenge [Arabic: thar] is a very old and even pre-Islamic concept. Let us be clear: it is a concept we in the West understand. Retaliation is the policy we adopted in the “Delicate Balance of Terror” vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. It also is the policy we adopted in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. Naji proclaims its part in the modern Muslim Fundamentalist struggle. The tools and the geography are different, but the principle of making the aggressor “pay the price” is similar: As he says, “No harm comes to the Ummah or to us without (the enemy) paying a price.” Not quite an eye for an eye, but certainly a death for a death. That policy has the dual objective of deterring attacks on Muslims and of “spreading hopelessness in the hearts of the enemy.

Making the enemy “pay the price” can occur anywhere: “if the apostate Egyptian regime undertakes an action to kill or capture a group of mujahids, the youth of jihad in Algeria or Morocco can direct a strike against the Egyptian embassy and issue a statement of justification, or they can kidnap Egyptian diplomats as hostages until the group of mujahids is freed…The policy of violence must also be followed such that if the demands are not met, the hostages should be liquidated in a terrifying manner,ix which will send fear into the hearts of the enemy and his supporters.“

In conclusion, the politico-military doctrine Naji lays out can be described as a Muslim version of what Mao Zedong and Ho Chi-minh proclaimed as their kind of war: a combination of terrorism when that is the only means of operation, guerrilla warfare when that becomes possible as areas of operation are secured and ultimately, when the conflict “matures,” the creation of a warlike but independent state-society which he thinks of as a new caliphate. It is a sequence often played out in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries all over the world as I have reported in my book Violent Politics. It is ugly, brutal and costly, but it has nearly always eventually succeeded. Whatever may be the outcome now in Syria, Naji gives us a plan of how his followers intend to fight it there and perhaps throughout the world.x As he tells us, it “not an economic, political, or social battle“ with state-like opponents for territory but “a battle of the proclamation of the single God [Arabic: tawhid] against unbelief and faith against polytheism..”

Nothing quite like it has been on the world stage since the great wars of religion some four hundred years ago.

i A selection of his commentaries is translated by M.A. Salahi and A.A Shamis in The Shade of the Quran (MWH, London, 1979). His Social Justice in Islam was translated by John Hardie for the American Council of Learned Societies in 1953.

ii The Arabic word tawhish (from w-h-sh) has multiple evocative meanings. Used in pre-Islamic poetry, it is a place frequented only by wild animals; of a Bedouin raider, it takes on the meaning of “lightening his load” in order to escape or to become like a cornered wild animal driven to desperation. Perhaps the best way to think of it in Western terms is something like what Hobbes meant by “the state of nature,” that is, being outside the normal constraints of civilized society.

iii I have used the translation done by William McCants under the title The Management of Savagery, commissioned by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, in 2006. No publisher was indicated, but it available on the internet. I have not been able to secure a copy of the Arabic original.

iv From the development of his argument, it seems to me that by caqida he meant not only doctrine and the religious establishment but also something like the social contract .

v A Quranic term for evil-doers related to the idea of idol worshipers.

vi Foreign Policy, November 30, 2013, Stephen Walt, “Why do they hate us (II): How many Muslims has the U.S. killed in the past 30 years?” He estimates that the number is between about 300,000 and a million.

vii See The Guardian, July 12, 2013, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: "How Syria's mold-breaking al-Nusra Front is winning hearts and minds."

viii This description of the jihad as it has happened in Syria is documented by Human Rights Watch, “You Can Still See Their Blood,” a report on massacres in the Latakia area of Syria in October 2013.

ix The “terrifying manner” has been shown in a number of videos and photo stories all designed to capture maximum attention. American media have been reluctant to show them; for one gruesome event, see Paris Match, September 12-18, 2013 , “Surenchére dans l’Horreur.” (“The Extremes of Horror.”)

x A flood of reports from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Central Asia and parts of Africa bear this out.


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