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.
No cliche is more stupefying than that which describes Al Qaeda as a throwback to medieval times. It is a by-product 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. Al Qaeda’s closest precursors are the revolutionary anarchists of late 19th century Europe.
Anyone who doubts that revolutionary terror is a modern invention has contrived to forget recent history. The Soviet Union was an attempt to embody the Enlightenment ideal of a world without power or conflict. In pursuit of this ideal it killed and enslaved tens of millions of human beings. Nazi Germany committed the worst act of genocide in history. It did so with the aim of breeding a new type of human being. No previous age harbored such projects. The gas chambers and the gulags are modern.
There are many ways of being modern, some of them monstrous. Yet the belief that there is only one way and that it is always good has deep roots. From the 18th century onwards, it came to be believed that the growth of scientific knowledge and the emancipation of mankind marched hand in hand. This Enlightenment faith—for it soon acquired the trappings of religion—was most clearly expressed in an exotic, sometimes grotesque but vastly and enduringly influential early 19h century intellectual movement called Positivism.
The Positivists believed that as societies came to be based on science they were bound to become more alike. Scientific knowledge would engender a universal morality in which the aim of society was as much production as possible. Through the use of technology, humanity would extend its power over the Earth’s resources and overcome the worst forms of natural scarcity. Poverty and war could be abolished. Through the power given it by science, humanity would be able to create a new world.
There has always been disagreement about the nature of this new world. For Marx and Lenin, it would be a classless egalitarian anarchy, for Fukuyama and the neo-liberals a universal free market. These views of a future founded on science are very different; but that has in no way weakened the hold of the faith they express.
Through their deep influence on Marx, Positivist ideas inspired the disastrous Soviet experiment in central economic planning. When the Soviet system collapsed, they re-emerged in the cult of the free market. It came to be believed that only American-style ‘democratic capitalism’ is truly modern, and that it is destined to spread everywhere. As it does, a universal civilization will come into being, and history will come to an end.
This may seem a fantastical creed, and so it is. What is more fantastic is that it is still widely believed. It shapes the programs of mainstream political parties throughout the world. It guides the policies of agencies such as the International Monetary Fund. it animates the “war on terror,” in which Al Qaeda is viewed as a relic of the past.
This view is simply wrong. Like communism and Nazism, radical Islam is modern. Though it claims to be anti-western, it is shaped as much by western ideology as by Islamic traditions. Like Marxists and neo-liberals, radical Islamists see history as a prelude to a new world. All are convinced they can remake the human condition. If there is a uniquely modern myth, this is it.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).