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Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern by John Gray

December 23, 2016


This slim but dense book caught my eye at the public library. I was intrigued by the title and assumed the theme of the book would be that Al Qaeda is a backward, anti-modern group with the aim of creating a global, theocratic state based on a primitive interpretation of Islam. The scope is much broader, though, more about America’s ambitions than Al Qaeda’s. Published in 2005, this book sits in the unique time period post-9/11, in the midst of the second Iraq War, but before it was clear how disastrous that endeavor would be, before the Arab Spring, before the rise of ISIS. And John Gray, an English philosopher and economist, occupies a vantage point outside the hyper-polarized U.S. political system.

America is a nation founded on religious and pseudo-religious beliefs: Christianity, yes, but also a deep belief in democracy and free market capitalism. And as the great imperial power of the past century, Americans often see themselves in an exceptional light, as sure of our political and economic systems as we are of our Bible. In the scope of history, Gray points out, this is not unique. We are just the most current world power, exporting our values and systems in the same way Great Britain did in the nineteenth century, France in the eighteenth, Spain and Portugal in the seventeenth. All believed their systems of government and economy were not just the most advanced, but “the precursor to a universal civilization.” As Gray says, “There is nothing exceptional about American exceptionalism.”

The myth [Gray’s word] that many Americans subscribe to in our modern age of globalization is that global modernization will bring about a natural confluence of ideologies. That as other countries are exposed to American-style democracy and free-market economy, the natural evolution will be for them to adopt it as well, thus uniting the world.

Gray picks apart these Americentric assumptions piece by piece, starting with the foundational belief that the free-market economy can be fully understood, controlled and exported. He traces to Keynes, Saint-Simon, Comte and the Positivists the fallacy that economics is a science like metallurgy or physics, easily observed, with cause and effect understood. “The social engineers who labour to install free markets in every last corner of the globe see themselves as scientific rationalists, but they are actually disciples of a forgotten cult.” We believe our economic system to be bulletproof against all empirical evidence. Our models have been proven to be far from perfect (and remember that Gray was writing before the Great Recession).

America is the only country with any chance of being the light on the hill many imagine us to be. But to actually create a world in our image would take more than “technological primacy.” It would also require immense economic strength, the political will to sustain dominance and the willingness of the rest of the world to accept it. All three of these are questionable. We see a clear and violent rejection of American values in many parts of the world and we lack the will to sustain armed conflict in even regions where we bear part of the responsibility for the chaos (e.g. Syria, with Colin Powell’s famous “you break it, you bought it” line coming to mind). Furthermore, Americans like clear-cut narratives, and the “War on Terror” is anything but.

It’s unlikely the world will ever return to the simple political maps of a century ago, when ambitions aligned with borders. On the contrary, Gray sees Al Qaeda as just an early sign of what’s to come. States organized under nationalistic aims, united by treaties or global organizations will be subverted by groups united by ideology and technology. Whereas most terrorist groups are local in aim, Al Qaeda’s ambitions are global—a true network of interlinked but independent cells. It is an architectural shift one can see in modern corporations as well—the nimble startup running circles around the hierarchical behemoth. A-symmetrical warfare will be the norm.

And weaker states, particularly those bolstered by “a monopoly of organised violence,” will find themselves in chaos if they cannot impose and enforce order via their military strength. Again, written a decade ago, this is prescient. As we have seen chaos erupt in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, political organizations, irregular militias and international fundamentalist networks align to wage war and topple governments. Shared nationalism is not the uniting factor of these groups.

The outlook for defeating such an enemy is bleak. No civilized society can tolerate terrorism. The response must be swift and ruthless if necessary. But with no nation to sign an official surrender, with combatants living as part of local populations, and with terrorist groups bleeding across lines, how does one win? The U.S. is currently engaged in bombing campaigns in seven different countries. We have officially declared war with none of them. This is the new face of foreign affairs. Al Qaeda is Gray’s example, but written now it could as easily be ISIS. Or Al-Shabaab. Or Boko Haram.

The present day conflict with militant Islam is seen often as a battle of an advanced secular west with a primitive and barbaric theocracy. This is a misunderstanding of the enemy, and it is a misunderstanding of us. “Western thinkers rightly note that Islam has never grasped the need for a secular realm.” However, “they fail to note that what passes for secular belief in the West is a mutation of religious faith.” In other words, western culture is also directly rooted in an ancient belief system. The war between Al Qaeda and the West is a religious war. In The 10th Parallel, Eliza Griswold argues that the most consequential conflict of the modern world is between Christians and Muslims. To Gray, that ancient belief system includes democracy and the free-market economy.

Gray finishes with a note about dueling myths:

 Western societies are ruled by the myth that, as the rest of the world absorbs science and becomes modern, it is bound to become secular, enlightened and peaceful—as, contrary to all evidence, they imagine themselves to be…Al Qaeda is driven by the belief that the world can be transformed by spectacular acts of terror. This myth has also been repeatedly disproven; but it still persists.

I disagree with the second part of this statement. With the attacks of 9/11, Al Qaeda caused a shift in the greatest world power. The U.S. reacted as Al Qaeda wanted—we were spooked by the gruesomeness of the attack, provoked into military action that would have been appropriate against an existential threat. We became pre-emptive—arguably the new world requires it—and as a result have contributed to further instability. That is one of the goals of terrorism—to appear more dangerous than it actually is, to provoke an outsized response. I wonder what Gray would think about that statement now, able to see the effects of the Iraq War, the rise of ISIS, the dominoes in the middle east, the fact that Afghanistan is now the longest military engagement in the history of the United States. This certainly was a transformation.

This book is pretty heady. I found myself having to go back and re-read pages at a time to follow the argument. But the argument is important. Gray challenges some of our basic assumptions about modern conflicts. And as we witness a global reordering that may, in the end, rival the reordering that followed WWI, we would be wise to challenge our own assumptions.

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