In choosing a title for his latest book, “Al Qaeda and
What It Means to Be Modern,” John Gray has employed a clever
marketing flourish. Gray, a professor of European thought at the
London School of Economics, proposes the unconventional thesis that
al-Qaida’s political Islam is the twisted progeny of the
European Enlightenment. The majority of his book is spent on
analysis of modern politics against this historical backdrop, and
it’s only within the context of modernism that Gray spends a
few pages discussing the organization for which the book is

Janna Hutz

Gray’s polemic is a welcome blast of wind against the
overflowing stacks of scrawl that attribute al-Qaida’s
peculiar style of proselytizing to medieval atavism. Gray is quick
to note that al-Qaida’s operating principle, “the
belief that a new world can be hastened by spectacular acts of
destruction,” was first promulgated by European anarchists of
the late 19th century.

Gray, however, is not satisfied with leaving the history of
radical violence to its origins in practice and delves into its
theoretical sources. He emphatically argues that the violent
pursuit of utopia is a doctrine owing itself to the positivists,
the early 19th century’s “original profits of
modernity.” Positivism, the philosophy-cum-religion founded
by Count Henri de Saint-Simon, holds that world progress is
attained through scientific advance. Gray provides a captivating
historical narrative of this philosophy, following it through its
successor, Augustus Comte, who synthesized Saint-Simon’s
Positivism with Marquis de Condorcet’s “Enlightenment
faith” of man’s perfectibility.

Through presenting a history of Positivism’s development,
Gray provides a foundation for his idea that al-Qaida is among the
tradition’s inheritors. The terror group, he argues,
represents the paradoxical fusion of the rationalism of Voltaire
and the reactionary religiosity of Joseph-Marie de Maistre that
Saint-Simon envisioned.

Unfortunately, Gray’s knowledge of al-Qaida is quite
limited. While he briefly mentions the roots of its theology,
it’s clear that he hasn’t spent a great deal of time
analyzing them. Gray’s brief forays into al-Qaida’s
ethos lack the insight and expansiveness of earlier work by his

The sacred shibboleths of the modern economic order, Gray
argues, rely on the same positivist utopianism as Osama bin
Laden’s organization. Gray maintains that whether Allah,
science or the free market are held as instruments, the belief in a
perfectible man has led to a series of projects, including Nazism
and communism, with atrocious costs to humanity.

It is the jarring contradiction at positivism’s heart that
Gray so effectively reveals; in its myriad efforts at effacing its
faults, humanity has made them ever more glaring.

Rating: 3.5 stars.





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