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

25 Feb

It took me a while to get around to finishing this book, even though it isn’t very long. It is however very provocative and sometimes almost elliptical in style, though not hard to read; I guess the problem is that it can pack so much content and allusion into a very small space, often with throwaway remarks that make you say “Hang on, run that by me again!” It really doesn’t say all that much about Al Qaeda either, aside from arguing that rather than “medieval” Al Qaeda (in the book a shorthand for Islamist extremism) is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. A review in The Observer rightly questions Gray’s depth of understanding here, though I still think Gray has a point. I do agree with The Observer reviewer on this though:

Gray is much stronger on what he refers to as ‘the West’s ruling myth’. His chapter on the Positivist movement argues that global capitalism and totalitarianism both have their origins in this secular religion of Saint-Simon and Comte, who believed that science would end all human ills. His conclusion is brilliantly mischievous: ‘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.’ Where Saint-Simon and Comte worshipped the railways and Lenin electricity, the high-priests of globalisation worship the Internet.

John Gray’s essay on the modern geo-political landscape is an immensely thought-provoking piece of work, not least for identifying the paradox at the heart of al-Qaeda, an organisation devoted to the destruction of the global civilisation that bore and nurtured it and without which it could not exist. He comes closest to a definition when he paraphrases Karl Kraus’s words on psychoanalysis: ‘Radical Islam is a symptom of the disease of which it is pretending to be the cure.’

Hugh S. Galford gives you a good idea of the book’s content in his review.

I treasure, given some other matters that are attracting my attention, a quotation on p. 43 from John Maynard Keynes:

…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly believed. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling the frenzy of some academic scribbler of a few years back.

You don’t have to look far in Canberra for evidence of that, do you?

My leftist friends may be disappointed that I share, generally speaking, Gray’s view of Marxism. I find it very hard not to admit the truth of what he argues on that score. Naturally, I also share his general thesis.

Gray shows that the Enlightenment idea of “humanity” is an empty myth. Rather, “there are only humans, using the growing knowledge given them by science to pursue their conflicting ends.” The best hope for the world, Gray argues, is the dismissal of the idea that there is one set of values that define modernity, and that those values must be accepted everywhere. He points to Buddhist India, the Ottoman Empire and Islamic Spain, and China as pre-modern societies where toleration of difference was practiced. Each country today, he argues, should be allowed to develop its own sense of “modernity,” with countries interacting on bilateral terms, respectful of each other’s difference.

“Can we not accept,” he writes, “that human beings have divergent and conflicting values, and learn to live with this fact? It is a strange notion that humanity is destined for a single way of living, when history is so rich in conflict and contrivance.”

— from Hugh S. Galford’s review.

This is not to say I would endorse everything Gray says. I have not read Straw Dogs, but would quarrel with much of it, I think, to judge merely from the Wikipedia account of John Gray. Nonetheless, to judge from Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, Gray is a useful revealer of bullsh*t, both on Left and Right, so I commend the book to you.

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Posted by on February 25, 2007 in Cultural and other, Current affairs, Faith and philosophy, Multiculturalism and diversity, Reading


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