Article30 July 2002
The war against modernity
by David Kelley
Why do they hate us? How could they have done this? What were they
trying to achieve? Those questions about the terrorist attacks of
September 11 still haunt the minds of Americans unnerved by the
enormity of the crime.
We need to know what could have inspired someone to do such a
thing. It is bad enough to experience such a monstrous event; to feel it
is inexplicable, an act with no conceivable motive, only adds to the
sense of unreality.
The questions are also vital to understanding the ongoing war on
terrorism. The war is not a conflict with a single nation or league of
nations. Nor is it a police action against a random assortment of
criminals or criminal gangs. It is a war in defence of our way of life
against enemies who oppose that way of life, and who oppose it from
common cultural and religious motives. Whatever specific aims, hopes,
and delusions the al-Qaeda hijackers may have had, the organisation
could not have flourished - it could not have drawn so many recruits,
raised so much money, and found support and sanctuary throughout
the Middle East-unless it appealed to widespread values.
Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation is part of an extensive network of
terrorist groups such as Egypt's al-Jihad - which was responsible for the
assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the World Trade Centre
bombing in 1993 - and many others in Algeria, Sudan, Chechnya,
Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. These
organisations represent the violent extreme of a fundamentalist
movement known as Islamism that has been gaining ground among
Muslims since the 1970s.
In virtually every nation there are disaffected groups with bizarre goals
and the willingness to pursue them violently. The Islamists, however,
have an unusual degree of popular support in the Middle East. Bernard
Lewis, the eminent scholar of Islam, traces this support to a growing
resentment of the West, a resentment that 'goes beyond hostility to
specific interests or actions or policies or even countries and becomes
a rejection of Western civilisation as such, not only what it does but
what it is, and the principles and values that it practices and professes'
- an attitude, he warned, that lends support to the use of terror by
Islamic fundamentalists (1).
What is the source of this hostility? What ideas, values, and attitudes
give rise to it? Lewis's observation contains the seeds of the two
leading schools of thought about the answer to this question. Both
schools place Islamist hatred of the USA in a larger cultural and
historical context. Both are plausible, and in many respects they are
compatible. But they differ in what they see as the essential terms of the
ongoing conflict, and in their implications for the future.
One school holds that the war on terror reflects an underlying conflict
between Islam and the West as civilisations. Each is united, as a
civilisation, by the loyalty of its people to a narrative of their past, a
common religion, and shared ideas, values, and ways of life. The
current tensions between Islam and the West are only the latest of the
conflicts that have occurred over the centuries. The USA is a particular
object of hostility now because it is the most powerful Western country.
The second school holds that terrorists' hostility is directed at 'the
principles and values' of the West. On this view, what they hate is not
the West as a society or a civilisation per se, but rather the culture of
modernity. Modernity was born in the West, in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, but it is not inherently tied to the history or
customs of any one society. It is a constellation of universal values - the
secular culture of reason, science, individualism, progress, democracy,
and capitalism - that have spread worldwide in different forms and to
By the same token, those who reject modernity, who fear and wish to
destroy it, are to be found in every nation and civilisation. And
invariably they hate the USA as the fullest, most persuasive, and thus
most dangerous embodiment of that culture.
It is true that modernity has tended to spread in the wake of Western
contact and influence, and it may thus be resisted as a foreign
encroachment; hatred of modernity blends easily with resentment of the
actions and policies of Western nations. This is clearly the case with
the Middle Eastern terrorists today. Nevertheless, modernity is not
equivalent to Western civilisation, and the question remains: Do our
enemies hate modernity because it is Western, or hate the West
because it is modern?
The Clash of Civilisations?
Political scientist Samuel Huntington is the chief theorist for the first
school. In The Clash of Civilisations, he argues that the collapse of the
Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War will not bring peace and the
worldwide acceptance of liberal democracy. Instead, ideological conflict
will be replaced by conflicts among those with different religions,
values, ethnicities, and historical memories - the cultural factors that
define civilisations. Nations will increasingly form alliances based on
common civilisation rather than common ideology; and wars will tend to
occur along the fault lines between major civilisations.
Huntington cites examples like the violent breakup of Yugoslavia along
the lines dividing Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic regions; and the
decades-long fight between Muslims and Hindus over Kashmir. Since
11 September, his analysis has gained new credibility as a way of
understanding not only the event itself but the degree of popular
support for bin Laden in the Muslim world.
Huntington rejects the view, popularized by Francis Fukuyama, that the
defeat of communism means the 'end of history': that Western
civilisation is destined to spread as people elsewhere seek the benefits
of technology, wealth, and personal freedom it offers. Huntington
acknowledges that they are likely to modernize in the material sense,
embracing industrial production, technical education, urbanisation, and
trade. But that does not mean they will embrace the culture of the West.
On the contrary, he argues, economic growth is likely to increase the
desire for cultural autonomy, breeding a new commitment to the values,
customs, traditions, and religions of their own cultures.
It is certainly plausible to see Muslim resentment of the West in this
light, given the history of Islam. Fourteen centuries ago, armies inspired
by the prophet Muhammad swept out of Arabia and, with astonishing
speed, created an Islamic empire stretching from Spain and Morocco in
the west to Afghanistan in the east, and north into the steppes of
Russia and the deserts of eastern China. Along the frontier of this
immense empire, Christendom was its only enduring enemy and rival.
Geographically, the two civilisations faced each other across the
Mediterranean and constantly engaged in border wars. Spiritually, both
Islam and Christianity were monotheistic religions claiming universal
validity, and each had the missionary goal of expanding the faith.
For most of this period, Islam was the stronger of the two. It was the
more advanced civilisation, with greater wealth and a higher level of
culture. Islamic scholars preserved the texts of the ancient Greek
philosophers and scientists; they made advances in mathematics,
astronomy, and medicine, among other fields. Islam was also more
powerful militarily. It conquered most of the territory of the Orthodox
Byzantine Empire and took Spain in the west.
Muslims saw military success as a mark of Allah's favour. As Seyyed
Hossein Nasr, a prominent Iranian philosopher and historian, observes,
'During the first twelve centuries of its historic existence, Islam lived
with the full awareness of the truth and realisation of God's promise to
Muslims that they would be victorious if they followed His religion. Such
verses as "There is no victor but God", which adorns the walls of the
Alhambra, also adorned the soul and mind of Muslims' (2).
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, the tide turned.
The scientific and industrial revolutions vastly increased the wealth and
the military power of the West. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire
in World War I, the Middle East was taken over by European nations
and broken up into colonies and protectorates. Today, despite
decolonisation, the countries of this region remain poor and backward
by comparison not only with the West but also with the booming
economies of East Asia. Oil revenue has showered wealth on the
region, but economic growth has been held back by layers of
regulations, wasteful government enterprises and investments, not to
Because of their strategic location, Middle Eastern countries were
pawns of the Cold War but were rarely true partners or friends of either
power. Now, Muslims feel they are at the mercy of a global economy
driven by Western capitalism. They feel invaded by Western popular
culture, which they regard as morally decadent. Israel is the salt in all
these wounds - a nation of people who came from the West, tore a
patch of land from Islam, turned it into a vibrant, wealthy economy, and
acquired the military prowess to defeat its Arab neighbours.
The result of all this, says Bernard Lewis, is 'a feeling of humiliation - a
growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long-
dominant civilisation, of having been overtaken, overborne, and
overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors'. Having
tried to take on Western ways, with dismal results, they are increasingly
drawn to the idea that the solution is a return to the pure Islamic faith
that reigned in the days of their former greatness.
Hence the appeal of Islamism. Its spokesmen, including terrorists, claim
to be defending Islam not merely as a religious doctrine but as a
civilisation with a glorious past and embattled present. Bin Laden and
his lieutenants have invoked the memory of Saladin, the general who
drove the Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187, and compared the
creation of Israel to the 'Andalusian tragedy', the reconquest of Spain
by Christian powers in 1492, among many other historical allusions that
they expect their listeners to be familiar with.
The clash-of-civilisations school doubtless represents part of the truth
of the matter. But it is not the whole truth, and not the fundamental truth.
Its chief shortcoming is that it exaggerates the extent of agreement in
outlook, values, ideas, and loyalties among people who share the
common history and culture that define a civilisation. In fact, there are
as many battles over these issues within civilisations as between them -
especially in the West.
Huntington views the West as a continuous, ongoing civilisation over
the past millennium. In his view, both the classical legacy of Greece
and Rome and the Christian religion were and still are essential parts of
our civilisation, with modernisation as simply the most recent phase.
'The West was the West long before it was modern', says Huntington.
'The central characteristics of the West, those which distinguish it from
other civilisations, antedate the modernisation of the West.'
At the level of fundamental philosophical principles, however, the
Enlightenment period was much more important as a turning point in the
West, and in a way created a new civilisation.
Modernity was born in the West in a radical transformation of its past.
The world of the Middle Ages, built around the world-view of Christian
Scholasticism, was a society of religious philosophy, feudal law, and an
agricultural economy. Out of this soil, the Renaissance and
Enlightenment produced a substantially new society of science,
individualism, and industrial capitalism. When we examine the wider
context of Islamic terrorism, it is clear that a hatred of modernity is its
The cultural foundation of this new society, if we state it as a set of
explicit theses, was the view that reason, not revelation, is the
instrument of knowledge and arbiter of truth; that science, not religion,
gives us the truth about nature; that the pursuit of happiness in this life,
not suffering in preparation for the next, is the cardinal value; that
reason can and should be used to increase human wellbeing through
economic and technological progress; that the individual person is an
end in himself with the capacity to direct his own life, not a slave or a
child to be ruled by others; that individuals have equal rights to freedom
of thought, speech, and action; that religious belief should be a private
affair, tolerance a social virtue, and church and state kept separate; and
that we should replace command economies with markets, warfare with
trade, and rule by king or commissar with democracy.
It is therefore misleading to call our civilisation Christian, even though
that remains the largest religion in terms of adherents. The West may
still be a culture of Christians, by and large, but it is not a Christian
culture anymore. It is a secular culture. And that is what the Islamists
hate most about us.
The al-Qaeda hijackers did not target the Vatican, the capital of
Western Christianity whose leaders launched the Crusades. They did
not attack the British Foreign Office, which directed colonial policy in
the Middle East after World War I. They attacked the World Trade
Centre, the proud symbol of engineering audacity and global
commerce, where businesses from scores of countries (including many
Muslim countries) worked in freedom and peace, creating wealth and
investing in material progress. Their target, in short, was a temple of
But we need not rely on symbolism. Islamist writers are explicit in their
opposition to the West. Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), a leader of the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt and a prolific writer who has had enormous
influence, insisted that 'an all-out offensive, a jihad, should be waged
against modernity so that…moral rearmament could take place. The
ultimate objective is to re-establish the Kingdom of Allah upon earth'.
Al-Qaeda spokesman Abu Ghaith, in a videotaped statement aired on
Al-Jazeera TV after September 11, said, 'This battle is a decisive battle
between atheism and faith'. On an al-Qaeda recruiting tape, bin Laden
told budding terrorists that 'the love of this world is wrong. You should
love the other world...die in the right cause and go to the other world'.
Qutb attributed his fundamentalism to the two years he spent in
America, which seemed to him 'a disastrous combination of avid
materialism and egoistic individualism'. Mawlana Abu'l-A`la Mawdudi
(1903-79), the founder of the fundamentalist Jama`at-i Islami in India
and Pakistan, was also militantly opposed to individualism. In an Islamic
state, he wrote, 'no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal
and private. Considered from this aspect the Islamic state bears a kind
of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states'.
In Iran after Khomeini's coup, notes Iranian scholar and diplomat
Fereydoun Hoveyda, universities were purged, and many were closed
for three years, with non-Islamic faculty dismissed, jailed, or executed.
According to Yossef Bodansky's Bin Laden, 'What [Islamism] primarily
contests is the Western democratic and secular ideology. It wants to
appropriate Western technology without embracing its ethos'. In sum,
Islamist hatred of the West is not directed at Christianity as a rival
religion but at modernism as an alternative to religion as such.
Anti-modernism is not unique to the Islamic world. On the contrary, it
arose in the West in the middle of the eighteenth century, just as the
Enlightenment was coming to full flower. Jean-Jacques Rousseau held
that feeling, not reason, is the essential human capacity and civilisation
the chief cause of human woe. Since we cannot return to our former
innocence, people should be forced to submerge their individuality in
collective life. Rousseau's ideas were a source of inspiration for the
French Revolution, especially the Terror, and have shaped the thinking
of subsequent collectivist theorists.
Anti-modernism flourished in myriad forms throughout the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries. The Romantic movement elevated feeling over
reason and 'unspoiled' nature over the new industrial economy.
Socialists wanted to restore a communal society, as did many
conservatives. Religious revivals swept through Europe and America
periodically. And everyone - aristocrats, bohemians, and philosophers
alike - denounced the bourgeoisie as selfish money-grubbers. Anti-
modernists laid the intellectual and cultural ground for the rise of
totalitarian societies in the twentieth century.
Today, the predominant forms are postmodernism among the
intellectuals, who attack reason, individualism, and capitalism as
Western aberrations; and fundamentalist movements in religion, which
have been on the rise for the past quarter century among Christians
and Jews as well as Muslims.
In all its forms, even on the avant-garde Left, anti-modernism aims to
restore pre-Enlightenment values and ways of life. And in all its forms,
even on the conservative Right, it is a reaction against the
Enlightenment and is thus essentially new. Fundamentalism, for
example, is not simply a revival of traditional Christianity, which was
much more intellectually sophisticated. Fundamentalism was created in
the early twentieth century by Protestants who opposed Darwin.
Islamist movements are of similarly recent origin. They were created not
by illiterate Egyptian peasants or nomads in the Arabian desert but by
educated people, most of whom were middle- or upper-class. Many of
the intellectuals, like Qutb, had lived and studied in the West.
Especially after World War II, they were deeply influenced by Western
anti-modernists like Martin Heidegger. They read the works of
historians like Oswald Spengler who predicted the decline of the West.
They read The Wretched of the Earth, by the French Marxist and
existentialist Franz Fanon, who urged Third World activists to use
Conversely, the postmodern Left has frequently embraced the Islamists.
Michel Foucault, the French thinker who attacked Western rationalism
as a mask for power, welcomed Khomeini's Islamic revolution in Iran as
a triumph of spirituality over capitalist materialism.
But modernism also has its defenders within the Islamic world. To cite a
few notable examples: Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist in Pakistan,
denounces the Islamist hostility toward reason and science:
'Muslims…will continue to suffer an undignified and degraded existence
if science, and particularly a rational approach to human problems, is
considered alien to Islamic culture.' Muhammad Charfi, a Tunisian
advocate of secular education, led a successful reform of Tunisia's
school system while serving as minister of education.
Abdou Filali-Ansary, a contemporary Moroccan philosopher, said in a
recent interview: 'Modernity meant people changing their relationship
with both the world and themselves. For the first time, through science,
they realised that many things, such as certain weather patterns or
illnesses, were not a matter of fate. The social order no longer seemed
impossible to change either. Revolutions could sweep away despots
and people could improve their living standards.... Democracy and
human rights are recent victories won by humanity. The values that the
fundamentalists and Huntington say are Western are in fact universal.
Democracy is like fire or Arabic numerals-the property of humankind.'
Civilisation and its enemies
The threat posed by the Islamist terrorists derives not from their Islamic
background but from the ideas, values, and motivations they share with
anti-modernists everywhere-including in the West. In that regard, they
have not merely assaulted our civilisation. They have attacked
civilisation as such.
Civilisation is the condition a society attains when it emerges from
prehistoric barbarism and begins to apply intelligence systematically to
the problems of human life, by creating technologies of production like
farming, technologies of cognition like writing, and technologies of
social order like cities and law.
When we speak of civilisations in the plural, we are referring to the
different ways in which the peoples of the world have done this
historically. Many of the differences among civilisations - like
personality differences among individuals - are matters of taste and
historical circumstance. Such diversity is to be welcomed. Among the
differences that matter, that represent issues of objective and enduring
human value, every civilisation has contributed something to human
The culture of modernity is one of these permanent contributions - the
most important. Though Western in origin, it is not a Western good but
a human good. It has vastly expanded our knowledge of the world;
brought a vast increase in wealth, comfort, safety, and health; and
created social institutions in which humans can flourish. It represents
an advance in civilisation as such. As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the
founder of modern Turkey, said in a 1924 speech to his nation,
'Countries may vary, but civilisation is one, and for a nation to progress,
it must take part in this one civilisation'.
Conversely, anti-modernism is not simply loyalty to pre-modern stages
of civilisation on the part of people who have not yet discovered reason
and individualism. It is a postmodern reaction by people who have seen
modernity and turned against it, who hate and wish to destroy it.
This is a profoundly anti-human outlook, and there can be no
compromise with it. As we take aim at the terrorists who have attacked
us, we must also take intellectual aim at the ideas that inspire them.
David Kelley is executive director of The Objectivist Center, a
philosophical and cultural research organisation founded on Ayn
Rand's Objectivist philosophy. This article is excerpted from the
Center's monthly journal, Navigator.
(1) The roots of Muslim rage, The Atlantic, September 1990
(2) Traditional Islam in the Modern World, Seyyed Hossein Nasr,
London and New York: Kegan Paul, 1987.
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