Review: Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern
by Rebecca Sharp


John Gray is currently professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and one of the leading intellectual figures in Britain today; he is a staunch critic of modern orthodoxies especially liberal secular humanism. Liberal humanism according to Gray, writing elsewhere, is “Very obviously a religion, a shoddy replica of Christian faith marked by more irrationality than the original article.”
He makes no claim to be Christian but he offers a critique which many Christians and honest observers of modern society, politics and ideology should welcome. Readers with a sensitivity to the Christian doctrine of the fall will find an echo of this teaching in some of his other works notably Straw Dogs, where he states his conviction that “The human animal is flawed and no amount of education or technology will change that”.
The publicity preceding the publication of this book summarised it as follows: “It gives a scathing account of the real sources of conflict in the world, of American power and its illusions, and of ways in which cultures will resist the reshaping we might wish on them.”
And so it is with three themes in particular that this book is concerned: Positivism as a form of secular religion, which Gray sees as the philosophical linch-pin of globalisation; the illusion of a Pax Americana; and the nature of its current arch-enemy, Al Qaeda.
True to form Gray exudes a patrician-like ease of reference to literature, philosophy and politics. It is refreshingly beyond cliché but it is a short book and his superficial treatment of these fields may disappoint some readers.
Figures of fun or prophets of the modern age?
The book charts the rise and development of the positivist creed and argues that positivism became a religion in itself. He discusses the bizarre lifestyle and eventual fate of its founding fathers Count Henri de Saint Simon (1760- 1825), the first ‘modern socialist’, and Auguste Comte (1798 -1857). Both of these figures did literally attempt to construct a whole new religion out of positivism, creating a clergy, building temples and even attempting to develop its own esoteric sacramental system. T.H. Huxley famously referred to the positivist religion as Catholicism without Christianity.
One of the basic tenets of positivism is the ‘mythical’ belief that progress in science will lead on inevitably to progress in ethics and politics which in turn will bring an end to scarcity, poverty and an end to war. Positivism supposes that science is the foundation of modern civilisation and Gray sees this as a dangerous myth, even though it is accepted by nearly everyone today. Gray notes that human beings have always needed myths even though this one tethers us to a “hope of unity, when we should be learning to live with conflict.”
He draws a clear line of connection between the championing of positivist thought to the triumph of the free market.
Positivists are seen by Gray as false prophets. Their ideas, he notes, inspired all the communist regimes of the last century. He also sees their ideas standing among the foundations of modern attempts to impose a global free market upon the world community. Marxism and neoliberalism share a central tenet that scientific knowledge applied correctly inevitably leads onto progress and can end the evils of contemporary life. He sees the adherents of this creed as being similar in their outlook to the Gnostics of a previous age; they claim to espouse a higher knowledge holding out the prospect that one day they will resolve all dilemmas.
Even though positivism proposes that as societies become more modern they will become more alike the author is keen to remind us that “there is no one kind of modern society…”. He proposes that instead of looking to an illusory future we would do better to turn to the past.
Al Qaeda
According to Gray, National Socialism, Soviet Communism and Al Qaeda all have one thing in common: a desire to destroy and reinvent an ideal of modern society. For Al Qaeda the goal is the destruction of western society. In this sense one may suppose Al Qaeda is a reaction against the modern age, yet as Gray points out, its conception of the struggle against the west is “an attempt to realise a modern European ideal.” (p.5).
Gray summarises with ease the somewhat tangled skein of Al Qaeda evolution. He traces its origins back to the cold war years and the struggle of the Mujjahadin in Afghanistan with the USSR. He places Osama Bin Laden in the shadow of two other key figures in the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism, the intellectual Muhammed Qutub and Bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam. All three protagonists base their views and actions around the belief that the west is in the throes of a severe spiritual famine. Allegedly out of contempt towards western hedonism Bin Laden, the erstwhile playboy, deepened his nominal Islamic faith and formulated the view that the battle against the west could only be won through military means.
Gray constantly reminds the reader that although Al Qaeda sees itself as an alternative to the modern world its ideas are essentially modern, (p26). He points out that its followers have interpreted Islam through the lens of western thought, noting the roots of radical Islam in the European counter-enlightenment, (p.25). As a result it has become a curious hybrid ideology, with elements of bolshevism and anarchy mixed in for good measure.
Today ‘terrorism’ seems to be a term used routinely by those in power to refer to any form of armed resistance to policies or programmes. The Bush administration applies the term to defiant patriots in Iraq just as the Third Reich routinely called its opponents in France and Holland terrorists and insurgents.
Al Qaeda however is different from any of its historical and contemporary cousins. Although it has one principal strategic aim, the overthrow of the House of Saud, the ramifications of this are global in their outreach. “In pursuing that regional goal it has been drawn into a worldwide conflict with American power.”(p.75).
As well as having features that define it as ‘modern’, for us in the west it is in some ways outside our time. Al Qaeda is based on a model of extended kinship and clan structure eschewing individualism. In this respect Gray suggests it has a powerful advantage over and above its enemies. Its willing followers move within relations of trust and fidelity that transcend death. Liberal secular societies increasingly are unable to replicate these characteristics.
Pax Americana
The third and I think dominant theme in this book is Gray’s treatment of one of the defining features of our time: the attempt by the American corporate elite to establish a ‘Pax Americana’. Pax Americana is in short the working assumption of the Bush Administration that the world can be made safe and prosperous by the imposition of American values. Bush and his allies pursue this belief with Messianic enthusiasm. In this sense US foreign policy is fundamentalist and the struggle between Al Qaeda and the US is rightly seen as a war of religion.
Gray makes the point that Al Qaeda is only one among a long list of dissenters who resist American attempts to impose a single unitary model of economics, culture and values upon the wider world. Moreover it is a costly assumption to state that everywhere, everyone basically shares American values. Gray suggests the US has neither the long term political will nor the necessary economic resources to sustain this project.
It is an unachievable aim, Gray argues, for one other simple reason: beyond its own shores nobody accepts the US as a model of universal civilisation. Given that economic and political systems are profoundly shaped by, for example, the religious beliefs, the nature of the family relationships, the history and physical geography of each region, no two systems will ever be alike in every way. This hard fact of life makes a mockery of projects such as the IMF which aims to impose one form of capitalism everywhere from Latin America to Liberia. The current parlous state of Argentina, the debacle of Eastern Europe’s transition to western-style capitalism, and the Russian experience since 1989 are all examples of the failings of this belief.
He refers darkly to the possibility of a future conflict between China and the US. The author predicts that the gulf wars of recent decades are omens of what may lie further in the future. Patterns of global conflict will inevitably involve clashes with more radical traditional societies as the battle for scarce resources intensifies.
In Conclusion
Gray’s book is strong on sketching out some of the real sources of conflict in the world today. As a short book with a distinct brief it does not purport to provide the reader with detailed historical analysis of the phenomena it describes. It is a book that may certainly whet the appetite of readers who are becoming increasingly aware that in order to understand today’s world it is vital to explore the complexities that constitute cultural diversity and Islamic fundamentalism.
It is hard to categorize Gray. One might suggest he be seen as a utopian pessimist but for the fact that nowhere in this book does he outline how a future cooperative, harmonious world may appear. He is certainly a realist insofar as his underlying premise is a belief in flawed or ‘fallen’ human nature.
Perhaps there is wisdom in his reluctance to offer prescriptive remedies for today’s problems. His warning at any rate is clear: that unless we are prepared to tolerate diversity and uncomfortable levels of conflict, civilisation will not advance but go into reverse. “Can we not accept that human beings have divergent and conflicting values and learn to live with this fact?” he asks; and he concludes by quoting Wittgenstein: “When all possible scientific explanations have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched."(p.110).
The book is also far from being a critique of modern day capitalism. Given Gray’s scepticism towards anything touched by positivism it is not surprising that he avoids any reference to the merits of Marxist theory. In avoiding this essential hermeneutic he cuts off what could have proved to be a more persuasive exposure of the sources of conflict in the modern era. There is no reference to class conflict and, surprisingly, no suggestion at all at the end of the book about what is to be done.
The key to resolving the tensions between empire and diverse cultures and traditions can only be a project of international solidarity willing to revive the vision of a worldwide socialized economy. Yet Gray I suppose would only see this as another modern myth. As he says, almost anticipating this type of criticism: “It is a strange notion that humanity is destined for a single way of living, when history is so rich in conflict and contrivance.” (p114.)
(Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern by John Gray, Faber and Faber, ISBN: 0571219802. Gray's latest book, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, ISBN: 1862077185 was published earlier this year by Granta Books.)