Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern by John Gray, 2003

what it means to be modern.pngLike communism and Nazism, radical Islam is modern.  Though it claims to be anti-western, it is shaped as much by western ideology as by Islamic traditions.  Like Marxists and neo-liberals, radical Islamists see history as a prelude to a new world.  All are convinced they can remake the human condition.  If there is a uniquely modern myth, this is it.  pp. 3

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Gray expands on the thesis of his previous book, Straw Dogs, arguing that while technological and scientific progress are cumulative and irreversible, ethical and political progress is contingent and vulnerable.

Modern ideologies—including Christianity, radical Islam, Nazism, communism, and free-marketism—all share the underlying belief that the human condition can be permanently fixed, through divine salvation, jihad, eugenics, the dissolution of property rights and government, or the inevitable spread of free market democracy, respectively.

These seemingly opposed ideologies share the core belief that the human condition can be forever changed.  Gray believes that ancients were right to see our situation and our human problems as eternal and inescapable.

For me, Straw Dogs remains Gray’s best work on this theme, but each comes at the argument from a slightly different angle and provides greater context for his claims.

Here, he discusses the philosophical roots of Al Qaeda, and traces their ideology to European roots.  There are some historical periods and political movements he uses as evidence for this claim that I have no knowledge of.  Nevertheless, I still trust that he’s drawing logical inferences and makes a convincing case.

Ideas per Page:1 8/10 (high)

Related Books: Straw Dogs, The Soul of the Marionette, The Silence of Animals, all by John Gray 

Recommend to Others: start with Straw Dogs

Reread Personally: No


22 [quoting Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent] Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it by threats, persuasion, or bribes.

24  Similarly the revolutionary vanguard Qutb advocates does not have an Islamic pedigree… The vanguard is a concept imported from Europe, through a lineage that also stretches back to the Jacobins, through the Bolsheviks, and latter-day Marxist guerrillas…

27 The Positivist catechism had three main tenets.  First, history is driven by the power of science…. Second, science will enable natural scarcity to be overcome… Third, progress in science and progress in ethics and politics go together…

41 Certainly the free market is highly productive.  But as Saint-Simon and Comte understood very well, that does not mean it is humanly fulfilling.

42 Technology—the practical application of scientific knowledge—produces a convergence in values.  This is the central modern myth, which the Positivists propagated and everyone today accepts as fact.

53 By doing all they could to project the free market throughout the world, American policy-makers ensured that its inherent instabilities became global in scope.

76 Al Qaeda resembles less the centralized command structures of twentieth-century revolutionary parties than the cellular structures of drug cartels and the flattened networks of virtual business corporations.  Without fixed abode and with active members from practically every part of the world, Al Qaeda is “a global multinational”.

83 The relationships of trust on which its organization can rely, and the willingness of its operatives to go to certain death, give it a powerful advantage.  Liberal societies cannot replicate this solidarity.  Values of personal choice and self-realization are too deeply encrypted in them.

93 Exporting American institutions makes sense only on the premise that at bottom everyone shares American values.  That could prove a costly conceit.

103 In the polytheistic cults of the Greek and Romans, it was accepted that humans will always live different ways.  Where there are many gods no way of life is binding on all.  Worshipping one god, Christians have always believed that only one way of life can be right.

107 Quoting A. C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: The scientific revolution appears as a unique and complex event, depending on a variety of social and other conditions, including a confluence of discoveries (Greek, Indian, Chinese, Arabic, scarcely ever Roman) centered on the combining of Indian numerals and algebra with Greek logic and geometry.

108 The rise of science is not inevitable.  There are many plausible historical scenarios in which it need never have happened; but once it did it engendered the world in which we live today.

110 As Wittgenstein wrote: “When all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”

110 Once it has been acquired and disseminated, scientific knowledge cannot now be lost; but there is no ethical or political advance that cannot be reversed.

113 The modern myth is that with the advance of science one set of values will be accepted everywhere.  Can we not accept that human beings have divergent and conflicting values, and learn to live with this fact?

115 There cannot be tolerance so long as terrorism is unchecked.  Dealing with it is a precondition of civilized existence, and requires courage, skill and—at times—ruthlessness.  Yet in the new kind of unconventional war that is now being fought there is no prospect of victory.

115 Rather than seeking solutions for the dilemmas created by the advance of knowledge, we should accept them as framing the world in which we must live.

116 Tyranny is bad, but so is anarchy.  The state is necessary to protect us against violence, but it easily turn violent itself.

116-7, The Enlightenment idea of a universal civilization, 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 though.  Each of the protagonists in the current conflict is driven by beliefs that are opaque to it.

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


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