The old man of the mountains. Frederic Raphael takes issue with the argument that, far from being a reactionary cult, al-Qaeda is a by-product of globalisation and a force of modernity

Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern

John Gray <em>Faber and Faber, 145pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0

Who wants to be a millenarian? The species is identified by an immutable conviction that mankind is on the road to some predestined end. The Final Days will bring condign destruction, often involving adamantine chains and penal fire for those who fail to see the light in time. "Love Me or Else" is the standard slogan of prophets of the One True God, whoever He may be.

Happiness here below figured in no millenarian manifesto until the Enlightenment dismissed the idea of original sin. Positivism soon substituted faith in science for trust in God. Revolution replaced revelation. Under the Terror, whether Jacobin or Stalinist, intolerance was secularised. With Marxism and Nazism, pseudo-religions re-plated the old faith: left and right, their ideologies admitted only the elect to salvation. Modernity was the common mark of totalitarianism: industry and technology would reshape the world, and give rise to the socialised superman.

It is central to John Gray's case that al-Qaeda, and the radical Islam of which it affects to be the vanguard, is not some vestige of medieval, tribalistic thinking, but a metastasised emanation of modern western ideas. Al-Qaeda is our illegitimate baby equipped with our electronic toys and our methods of propaganda, our undercover operations and millenarian vindictiveness. Osama Bin Laden, educated (and, it is hinted, created) by what he now detests, is the CIA's apprentice.

Here is Gray's opening salvo in his campaign to pull down our vanity: "The suicide warriors who attacked Washington and New York on 11 September 2001, did more than kill thousands of civilians and demolish the World Trade Center. They destroyed the west's ruling myth."

The terseness encapsulates the verve and the nerve of this pamphlet-length encyclical. The term "warriors" implies muted admiration for the murderous hijackers. We are incited to perceive them as Islamic samurai, of a piece with the pious kamikazes who crashed explosive-laden planes into American warships in the Second World War (their emperor-worshipping Shintoism is later declared a sort of oriental Anglicanism). Is it an irrelevant detail that the Japanese pilots, albeit suicidal, refrained from taking civilian passengers with them and that their targets were staffed by armed sailors, not office workers?

How often are myths exploded by single catastrophic events? In Gray's eyes, the events of 11 September 2001 did to America what the sinking of the Titanic did to the conceit of Edwardian England. The twin towers pulled down by Samson Bin Laden stood for the myth of American economic and territorial invulnerability and now Nothing Can Ever Be the Same Again. Well, the 1940s Blitz on London dented the sanctity of John of Gaunt's sceptr'd isle, but it soon became incorporated in the revised version of the Britain-can-take-it myth.

Has America fallen apart since 9/11? It has fallen together. That its president reacted with promptness against those who declared themselves its enemies may be a tribute less to his character than to the institutions of a democratic society and its agents, from fire chiefs to high officials. Old Glory is still flying, guys.

Not a few of America's friends and allies bet - through cowardice, envy or hoping for the worst (which the French, who ought to know, call "la politique du pire") - that the US, and Tony Blair, would fail. In England, the new appeasers sang from the same hymn sheet as Neville Chamberlain. Wise anchorpersons - the super-cabinet of the mediatic world government - promised that anything that America did would Only Make Things Worse. The BBC and Jeremy Paxman, their eponymous man of peace, connived at the elected Prime Minister's televised humiliation. Robin Cook set a moral example.

In the event - which came after Gray's book went to press - Anglo-America's display of muscle did more to make its enemies think again than it is politically correct to say aloud: Syria's tyrant is now even politer than he was when taking tea with the Queen. Gray suggests that the Yanks would not be able to take it when - gloat, gloat - the body bags started being shipped home. Cast as General Custer come again, Tommy Franks managed to prevail with fewer deaths (on his own side) than usually occur on America's roads over the Labor Day holiday. There may have been nothing very chivalrous about cruise missiles, but nor was there about the use of the longbow at Agincourt: ce n'etait pas magnifique, mais c'etait de bonne guerre.

Gray insists that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was "an essentially western state whose closest affinities are with the former Soviet Union". Is that an argument in favour of leaving it as it was or of dismantling it as soon as might be? There is Delphic ambiguity in such outspokenness: whatever the outcome, the sagacity of the oracle remains intact. Or does the likeable John Gray agree with Eric Hobsbawm that procuring millions of deaths was a useful form of experiment? Surely not.

The cardinal point here is that we are wrong to see the backward-looking al-Qaeda as anything but "a by-product of globalisation". Never mind that Bin Laden and similar fanatics want to murder most of us and quite a lot of their fellow Muslims; the important thing is to recognise that his movement is "essentially modern". We are, it is implied, of a piece with our nemesis.

Sir, I have a question: would it be wildly inaccurate to describe al-Qaeda in the following way: "a politico-religious Islamic sect maintaining that the murder of its enemies is a religious duty (jihad) . . . commanding a network of strongholds and a corps of devoted agents in enemy cities . . . claiming many victims and owing allegiance to a Grand Master living in a remote mountain hideout"?

The quotation, with only a few insignificant glosses, is from the Encyclopaedia Britannica's article on the 11th- to 13th-century Assassins, a hashish-crazed sect that threatened the stability of the Islamic power structure until it was ruthlessly reduced to an impotent rump (and heresy).

Today's Old Man of the Mountains, whether alive or dead (it hardly matters), is more terribly equipped, but his ambitions are no less nihilistic. If he's modern not ancient, so be it: he still has to be neutralised before his people get hold of the weapons with which - as Providence no longer babysits us - he and his gang may indeed destroy us all. Saddam Hussein's lack of sympathy with their radical ideology in no way proves that he would not have been willing to supply them. Haven't we already been told that the CIA created the Taliban?

Auguste Comte, Saint-Simon, Condorcet and the other bien-pensants are here depicted as the neoliberal devils who expelled the good old Christian Devil and led to all our woes. Gray prefers the doctrine of original sin (with its assumption of man's incurably fallen state) to the delusion implicit in the positivist dream: Universal Man enjoying Universal Human Rights in a homogenised world order. He derides the cult of science holus-bolus, quite as if antibiotics, painkillers and laser surgery had poisoned the wells of civilisation.

Islam has a glorious past (I still think with fatuous nostalgia of 11th-century Cordoba, a triune city in which Muslim, Jew and Christian lived, maybe, in harmony and mutual respect), but some sclerotic flaw has damned its creativity and turned vitality to suicidal rancour. Is it all the fault of the west? Gray's cry of nostra maxima culpa is an expression of vanity to which V S Naipaul's Among the Believers delivered a quietly devastating antidote: whatever its provenance, today's Islamic communities are bastions of stultifying self-delusion. Modern as he may be, Bin Laden's gory nihilism is a function of his "culture" more than of ours. However many recruits the US may have drawn to his cause, a thousand times as many young Muslims would choose to live in the United States as in Talibanland.

The trouble with this wilfully, and often engagingly, provocative book is that it tries, within barely more than a hundred pages, to say all kinds of things in unargued succession. Picking quarrels with all manner of received ideas, it amounts to what the French call an amalgame: an accumulation of remarks and assertions with no coherent structure. Professor Gray has too frequent recourse to ex cathedra glosses, whether on the philosophy of Fichte or on ancient Greeks and Romans. Generalisations are rendered irrefutable by such portmanteau terms as "religion" and the ubiquitous "essentially".

The final message of Gray's anatomy of our present discontents is that "the chiliastic violence of radical Islam is not the product of any 'clash of civilisations'. The 20th century's grand experiments in revolutionary terror were not assaults on the west. They expressed ambitions that have been harboured only in the west." Maybe, but I still find an essential difference between our "modernism" and Osama Bin Laden's, and consider materialistic pluralism more appealing than dogmatic "spiritual" extremism. Doesn't Gray? Don't you?

Frederic Raphael's latest book is The Benefits of Doubt: essays (Carcanet)

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