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

Cover of "Al Qaeda and What it Means to b...
Cover of Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern

Let’s face it, I can be a lazy and discursive blogger/reviewer at times. I frequently start my reviews with some multiple paragraph explanation of how I came to read the book in question or some point only tangentially related to the review. And I often steal the plot summary or review from some other source.

I am afraid this is one of those times.

The reason I often steal book summaries is that I am jealous of their ability to capture something about a book in so few words.  A prime example is the Kirkus review of Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern:

A smart, learned, lucid, and alarming argument, occasionally overstated for rhetorical purposes.

A one sentence review that manages to capture my thoughts just about exactly. Yes, I am jealous.

As long as we are snipping snippets as it were, allow me to give you the publisher’s summary (minus the hyperbole):

Americans view the September 11th attacks as the act of an anachronistic and dangerous sect, one that championed medieval and outmoded ideals.But as John Gray demonstrates, the ideology of Al Qaeda is both Western and modern. Itself a byproduct of globalization’s transnational capital flows and open borders, Al Qaeda’s utopian zeal to remake the world descends from the same Enlightenment creed that informed both the disastrous Soviet experiment and the neo-liberal dream of a global free market.


Gray seems like a liberal who moved right and then, still unhappy, became a reactionary of sorts – a pox on both your houses. He doesn’t buy the utopian schemes and the ideological optimist of the left but also rejects the universal tendencies of the right – particularly in its “establishment” or DC based form.

The hook for this particular book and/or collection of essays is the following:

Western societies are governed by the belief that modernity is a single condition, everywhere the same and always benign. As societies become more modern, so they become more alike. At the same time they become better. Being modern means realizing our values – the values of the Enlightenment, as we like to think of them.

Gray goes on to argue that 1) this is a fundamentally mistaken belief 2) Al Qaeda is modern and 3) the events of 9/11 means the – or should mean – the end of this illusion.

On Al Qaeda as “modern”:

It is the fact that radical Islam rejects reason that show it is a modern movement. The medieval world may have been unified by faith but it did not scorn reason.


The Romantic belief that the world can be reshaped by an act of will is as much a part of the modern world as the Enlighten-ment ideal of a universal civilization based on reason. The one arose as a reaction against the other. Both are myths.

On the danger of the universalists approach to economics or the global free market:

Capitalism grows in many varieties. Economic activity is not a freestanding form of social life.  It is an outgrowth of the religious beliefs, family relationships and national traditions in which it is embedded.


America’s neo-liberal missionaries embraced the weakest aspects of Marx’s thought. They emulated his historical determinism, but lacked his Homeric vision of historical conflict. Marx knew that capitalism was destroying bourgeois life. His American disciples were confident that bourgeois life would soon be universal.

On the science as a all encompassing worldview:

In the modern myth, science is a type of gnosis, a higher form of knowledge through which humanity can resolve dilemmas that throughout its history have resisted any solution. Looked at through the lens of science itself, science is a tool devised by a highly intelligent animal to exploit its environment. It cannot dispel mystery, or conjure away tragedy.


I am in much agreement with this thesis and the points he makes along the way. There has always been a strand of conservatism that rejects the temptation to universalize the application of values outside of historical circumstances. There always seem to be those who, for fear of rejecting values or being seen as relativist, insist on universalism and the direct application of American ideas across the globe.

It seems clear to me that the second Bush administration in fact fell into this trap both ideologically and rhetorically with sometimes disastrous results.  And Gray’s target is pretty clearly the sort of centrist neo-liberal establishment that has held power in Europe and America in the post-war years. Those holding to the Breton Woods system in economics and the promotion of democracy abroad as a foreign policy ideal.

Gray rightly castigates the influence of positivism and a “scientist” view of history and foreign policy; the belief that one can manage and direct countries and the economies using rules and laws and models.

What he is less good at is putting his finger on those who do not fit neatly into his caricatures or sometimes heated rhetoric. He frequently uses the terms free market and free trade but always connects them to international organizations like the UN and IMF ignoring those that might prefer free markets and free trade and yet not see either of those organizations as ideal structures to promote these policies; or seem globalization as an unalloyed good.

But I am not sure you really read a book like this for policy prescriptions or fine tuned philosophical analysis. Instead, you want to have Gray get on his soap box and rant; which he does in interesting and entertaining fashion.

And as he does so he provides plenty of food for thought even if not always lots of agreement.  Gray brings up issues worth thinking about even if he gets a little carried away in the process.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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