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FOR MODERNS, THERE IS ONLY TRYING

AL QAEDA AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE MODERN
By John Gray, Faber, £ 6.99

On the centenary of George Orwell’s birth, it is fitting that a book should remind one of that remarkable and unforgettable last paragraph of Animal Farm, of how pigs became men and vice versa. John Gray in this very provocative but extraordinarily lucid book argues that the phenomenon of Al Qaeda is derived from modernity. This is a startling observation since upholders of the modern see Al Qaeda as the embodiment of medieval darkness.

According to Gray, Al Qaeda is “a byproduct of globalization. Like the worldwide drug cartels and virtual business corporations that developed in the Nineties, it evolved at a time when financial deregulation had created vast pools of offshore wealth and organized crime had gone global. Its most distinctive feature — projecting a privatized form of organized violence worldwide — was impossible in the past. Equally, the belief that a new world can be hastened by spectacular acts of destruction is nowhere found in medieval times.’’

The instrumentalities of the terror that the Al Qaeda unleashed were indeed all modern. The use of modern technology and arms, the idea that the Al Qaeda had the monopoly of a universal truth and that the world can be changed by the dedication and sacrifice of a handful of people are all ideas that became dominant with the advent of modernity.

Gray’s position is that it is one of the enduring myths of the West that liberal democracy is the only form of modernity. Gray rightly observes that there are many ways of being modern, and some of these can be monstrous. It is important to remember that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia — two regimes that perpetrated the worst kinds of atrocities on people — were explicitly modern regimes aimed at changing the world and human beings. Similarly, radical Islam is also modern and derived and shaped by Western ideology as by Islamic traditions. Marxists, Nazis, radical Islamists and even neo-liberals, all share the conviction that human condition can be reshaped since they believe that there is one universal Truth. This, Gray says, is a uniquely modern myth.

The inclusion of neo-liberals in the list might raise a few eyebrows. But Gray argues that just as the communists believed in a classless egalitarian anarchy, Francis Fukuyama and his ilk believe in a universal free market. Gray is against all these manifestations of modernity since all these, in various ways share the conviction that humanity can take charge of its own destiny. Moreover, they act on this conviction through violence, revolution or social engineering. Gray does not accept the term humanity. There are only human beings who use the available knowledge to pursue their own conflicting ends. The view is oddly Hobbesian. Gray does not even address the issue of conflict and its resolution.

Conflict is thus seen as endemic to the human condition. To try and get rid of the conflict would be to reshape destiny and to fall into the trap of the modern. All that human beings can do is to live self-consciously without myths of any kind.

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