Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, by John Gray; <br></br>Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman

When we lived in modern times
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The Independent Culture

To be modern is to be progressive and chic. To be liberal is to be open-minded and tolerant. At least, that's what you thought. What you did not know is that your bedfellows are terrorists and torturers, and people who believe morality is defined by American might.

According to John Gray, modernity has been the defining myth of the West. It espouses the values of the Enlightenment: reason, positivism, knowledge, wealth and human happiness. It is supposed to be an irreversible historical condition ushering all societies toward a liberal utopia. But modernity also generated the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. And now it is responsible for bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Gray contends that 11 September 2001 has shattered the myth of modernity. Al-Qaeda operatives who destroyed the twin towers were not products of a medieval world-view but children of modern, Western values. They were educated, technologically competent and media savvy. They could fly aeroplanes and hack into computers with surprising ease. They sought a modern revenge for the West's new "political religion" of globalisation.

This is an unoriginal and simplistic thesis. On Gray's analysis, every lunatic and millenarian group able to use the internet is modern! There is a modern component in bin Laden's thought. But Gray has no idea where it is located.

Bin Laden's modernity is his idea of "nation state". Theoretically, Islam is uncompromisingly universal; it rejects nationalism, including a religious nation-state. Bin Laden and all varieties of Muslim fundamentalists have replaced community, the cornerstone of traditional Islam, with the nation-state as the basic unit of Islamic polity. The modern nation-state is fundamental to the fundamentalist vision of Islam. What al-Qaeda and its like seek is an "Islamic state". Anyone who stands against this vision, including the vast majority of Muslims, is seen as an enemy.

The conflation of state and religion makes Islamic fundamentalism an authoritarian enterprise. It does not make al-Qaeda modern. Unlike modern totalitarianism of the Bolsheviks and Nazis, they totally reject Enlightenment values. They are deeply traditionalist, with a romanticised, fossilised notion of tradition. They pick and choose from tradition and modernity and are avid consumers of globalisation, as anyone who visits Saudi Arabia or Iran can see. Fundamentalist movements like al-Qaeda, therefore, are more postmodern than modern.

Gray sees Western modernity as deeply flawed and unjust. He is generous enough to concede non-Western cultures can shape their own viable modernities, according to their own needs and aspirations. Paul Berman, on the other hand, is anything but charitable. It's all-out war between the "people of God" and the "city dwellers of Babylon", he screams. There's no time for wishy-washy liberalism: liberals must defend civilisation from the barbarians at the gate.

Terror and Liberalism paints everything with the same brush. Every authoritarian creed is a product of modern liberal attitudes whether the secular Ba'athists of Iraq, the theocrats of Iran, or the fascists of the Third Reich. The Palestinian suicide bombers, motivated by a deep sense of injustice, are on par with torturers inspired by Hitler's racist ideology.

Berman correctly identifies an authoritarian strain in the thought of Syed Qutb, theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the realisation that Qutb was motivated by a deep sense of injustice, occasioned largely by America and emerging after his own torture and imprisonment, eludes him. Berman's answer to this radicalism is a new kind of "liberal radicalism" based on an aggressive "liberal American interventionism".

There is an irony here which Berman lacks the ability to grasp. Qutb's philosophy, which inspired al-Qaeda and countless other fundamentalist groups, is based on the assumption that Islamic values are superior to values of all other cultures. As such, they can legitimately be imposed on the rest of the world. Berman's call for American intervention is based on exactly the same ideology: American liberalism is superior to all other modes of existence, which gives Americans the right to impose it on all and sundry. The arrogance, and often ignorance, of Berman would put the self-righteousness of the most obscurantist Muslim fundamentalists to shame.

Terror and Liberalism clearly demonstrates that radical American liberals have gone pathological. Some even argue it is legitimate to assassinate potential terrorists and use torture to elicit information. But, like Berman, most argue for a return to the Monroe Doctrine, first advocated at the beginning of the 19th century, but now expanded from its original sphere, where it was used to justify "liberal American intervention" in Latin America on the basis of "security threats". The new Monroe Doctrine will operate on the global stage dominated by the world's sole hyperpower. This time round, the Doctrine will not be indulgent of localism. Now it will be a full-blown civilising mission, pre-emptively remaking all localities in the image of the central place of power.

Clearly, liberalism has ceased to be a meaningful label. Modernity, as a concept explaining anything, has also passed its sell-by date. It is time to find a new language of humane sanity. We are now too complicated, too hybridised, too globalised, to be described by a single philosophy. We are neither liberal nor conservative; neither traditional nor modern nor postmodern. So let us take hold of all that is life-enhancing from everywhere: let us become transmodern.

'Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar reader' is published by Pluto Press