Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern

John Gray

Gray’s much-lauded Straw Dogs, an illusion-shredding collision of Darwinian theory and Taoist simplicity, didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. But after reading this little volume, billed as the development of a particular strand in Straw Dogs, I’ll have to revisit it. Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern has all the impact, shock of directness, and rhetorical bite I expected from its predecessor. Perhaps, as is often the case, the hype obscured the work itself.

This work is far from being a study of Al Qaeda. This radical Islamic network, and its epochal destruction of the World Trade Center, is taken as a symbolic (though nonetheless real) portal into a reframing of technological Western society. The reframing actually embraces Al Qaeda within the bounds of the modern West. Noting its lack of operational and philosophical grounding in traditional Islam, Gray emphasizes the influence of radical Western ideas, from Nietzsche to revolutionary anarchism. Just as Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares traced the hidden mutuality between the American neo-conservatives and the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East, Gray exposes the absolutist vision of a “clash of civilizations” as a dangerous misnomer. He acknowledges that the development of technology drives history, but dismisses the idea that the current “war on terror” is a battle between modernity, science and liberalism on the one hand, and barbarity, medievalism and totalitarianism on the other.

The conflict between Al Qaeda and the West is a war of religion. The Enlightement idea of a universal civilisation, which the West upholds against radical Islam, is an offspring of Christianity. Al Qaeda’s peculiar hybrid of theocracy and anarchy is a by-product of western radical thought. Each of the protagonists in the current conflict is driven by beliefs that are opaque to it.

p. 116

While complexifying our vision of the West by laying bare the religious roots of its secular hopes, and complexifying our vision of radical Islam by exposing it as a child of the West, Gray ends up making things seem much simpler. Gray’s simplicity—the defining characteristic of his style—isn’t that which ignores complexity, but that which observes it so keenly that succinct expression is achieved.

The heart of Gray’s assault is his analysis of the foundations of modern secular liberalism in Christian dogma. The “Christian hangover”, the potent and usually unconscious ongoing influence of Christian beliefs and attitudes on modern “secular” society, has long been a fascination of mine. This book has to stand alongside Mary Midgley’s Evolution as a Religion as a key text in documenting the abiding influence of religion despite—or, very often, in the midst of—the anti-religious protestations of science’s most fervent spokespeople. Darwinism is crucial in many ways to this. Midgley describes how the caution and subtlety of Darwin himself gradually got lost in the zeal of neo-Darwinian hubris. Gray extends this with the crucial observation of how science ignores its own teachings in its self-image:

Darwin teaches that ‘humanity’ is only an abstract term signifying a shifting current of genes. Humans are an animal species much like any other—more inventive and destructive, no doubt, but like other animals in using their resources to survive and reproduce.

Contemporary Darwinians are adamant that Darwin’s discovery leaves the future in human hands. Other species may be ruled by natural selection, but we are not. What humanity does with scientific knowledge is ‘up to us’. If Darwinism is true, this must be false. ‘We’ are few, feeble and animals like the rest.

p. 108

This split between human and animal is, of course, a Christian hangover, the tenacity of which shows just how ignorant science can be of its own conclusions.

While the basic premise of science being the unconscious inheritor of many Christian beliefs wasn’t news to me, the story of Positivism was. Arguably the dominant paradigm underlying Western secular society—and thus the hidden origin of much modern “common sense”—Positivism’s origins read like a bad satire on the “Christian hangover” hypothesis.

The Positivists did not aim merely to revolutionise society. Their aim was to found a new religion. [Count Henri de] Saint-Simon believed the ‘positive doctrine’ would become the basis for a new ‘church’ when all scientists united to form a permanent ‘clergy’. He envisaged an assembly of ‘the twenty-one elect of humanity’ to be called the Council of Newton. … Soon the Positivist cult acquired all the paraphernalia of the Church—hymns, altars, priests in their vestments and its own calendar, with the months named after Archimedes, Gutenberg, Descartes and other rationalist saints. … [Auguste Comte] laid down that the pious Positivist should … cross himself by tapping his head with his finger three times at the points where—according to the science of phrenology—the impulses of benevolence, order and progress were situated.

Shedding its more ridiculous aspects, Positivism became a crucial influence on both Marxism and neo-liberal “free market” ideology, both fully taking on board the idea that science (and thus, via technology, history) is cumulative, universal, and “the One Way” to truth. Thus the Christian doctrines of the redemptive direction of history, and the sole authority of Christian salvation were absorbed into the key drivers of 20th century politics.

It is this deluded overhang from Christianity that Gray sees 9/11 as destroying. The myths of universal emancipation and limitless growth stumble on, shells driven by a momentum that endangers the civilization they pretend to embody.

Gray is a skillful dispeller of modern myths, and it may be best to accept him in that role, with all its limitations. Because even though he’s clear-headed enough to recognise the true implications of Darwinism, and the delusory nature of the idea that we can remake human nature on rational foundations, his work as a whole leaves a vacuum where he has admitted one can’t be left. If myth and religion can only transmute, never be cast off, what might a better approach to this inheritance be? Something that avoids the silliness of Positivism and the unconsciousness of its “secular” children—that much Gray makes clear. His via negativa is perhaps wise. Maybe we should temper rash urges, to fill the vacuum it leaves, with the sobering historical lessons it imparts.

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