Modernity’s best defence is liberal modernity itself

 

By Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado

 

In an article in New Security Learning, 5, entitled ‘We are the children of modernity’, I argue that the culture which we in the NSL forum seek to develop and defend is that of modernity. Modernity is there defined as a set of secular rationalist assumptions, values and principles, originally generated and developed in the West, but no longer limited to the West. Adopting modernity confers a comparative cultural advantage on societies that do so, because it helps them face challenges rationally and creatively, rather than on the basis of religious dogma, irrational emotion, or the unquestioned authority of tradition. My reason for arguing that we in this forum are the children of modernity, and seek to develop and defend it, is that the basic assumptions we make, namely, the primacy of knowledge, logic and reason over belief, emotion and tradition, are those of modernity.

 

In another article, in NSL, 6, ‘Culture in the learning and teaching of defence and security’, I distinguish two types of modernity: liberal and authoritarian. Liberal modernity is characterised by individualism, freedom, and civility; authoritarian modernity by collectivism, obedience and coercion. Most modern societies contain elements of both. Noting that NSL’s assumptions and values include freedom of opinion and expression, and civility in discourse and debate, I conclude that NSL’s modernity is liberal. I compare liberalism’s and authoritarianism’s strengths and weaknesses, with regard to modernity’s defence against its enemies, and ask which offers the better defence. I do not answer that question, but leave it to readers to ponder and answer for themselves.

 

In the present article I give my own answer to that question. Liberalism defends modernity better than authoritarianism. I also develop points raised in previous articles, and answer other questions asked there, thereby raising yet further points for discussion.

 

Let me begin by developing a point raised in my article in NSL, 6, regarding the distinction among, on the one hand, rivals, adversaries and enemies of the West, and, on the other, enemies of modernity as such. This means developing four sets of definitions and distinctions: (1) among rivalry, adversity and enmity; (2) between modernity as such and either of its forms; (3) between economic and ideological threats or conflict; and (4) between the West and modernity.

 

The distinction among rivalry, adversity and enmity is one of kind and degree of opposition. Rivalry may exist between friends or allies, as in sport, or in competition over economic and other categories of status, among friends or allies. In adversity, however, friendship or alliance is precluded, since benefit for one implies harm to the other. In enmity, one seeks to destroy or dominate the other to suit one’s own interests.

 

The distinction between modernity as such and either of its forms is also one of kind and degree. Modernity as such encompasses both liberal and authoritarian forms. The basic form of modernity, both historically and logically, is authoritarian, espousing rationalism, and sometimes secularism, though it may use religion to manipulate people. Historically, liberal modernity grows out of authoritarian modernity. To rationalism, liberal modernity adds secularism, freedom and civility. Liberal modernity is thus the more developed form.

 

Rivalry can be and is managed within commonalities, such as sport leagues and agreed standards to judge relative categorical status. Both adversity and enmity may generate conflict, and so call for defence. Adversity may be held in check by the balance of power, a form of commonality, possibly involving mutually agreed restraints and limitations. Enmity implies an absence of commonality, and almost by definition leads to conflict.

 

Conflict among peoples and nations and within them takes many forms. Here we must distinguish between economic and ideological conflict. Economic conflict arises between parties over control of resources, irrespective of whether they espouse modernity or not; likewise, if they do so, irrespective of which form, liberal or authoritarian, they espouse. Ideological conflict is conflict over ideas. What concerns us here is conflict between proponents and opponents of modernity as such, or of liberal and authoritarian modernity.

 

Martin Luthur King Jr. and Malcolm X discuss the Civil Rights movement, March 1964 - Photo by Marion S. Trikosko

The distinction between the West and modernity is categorical: the West is a place; modernity an idea. The relationship between them is historical. Modernity began and developed in the West, first in Western Europe, then in its colonies. It developed from authoritarianism into liberalism. Liberalism, after much violent conflict, now prevails. While liberal modernity now dominates the West, it is not unchallenged there. It is challenged not only by adherents of pre-modern ideologies, such as religions, but by anarchism, spiritualism, hooliganism, and other irrationalist movements.

 

Modernity as such has spread beyond the West and its ex-colonies, into several Asian and some African countries. Therefore, both because modernity is not unchallenged in the West, and because it is not limited to the West, the West is not identical or coterminous with modernity in any form.

 

Despite this, the West, including the EU, USA, and most of NATO, while not identical or coterminous with liberal modernity, is its oldest and principal adherent and supporter. Thus the fate of liberal modernity depends to some large degree on that of the West.

 

The most important factor determining that fate is liberal modernity’s appeal to people. This has made it spread beyond the West and its ex-colonies. That appeal is based on, and constitutes part of, its comparative advantage. Adopting modernity confers comparative advantage on societies that do so, in two main spheres: economics, and choice of lifestyle.

 

Economically, modernity as such, involving industrialisation and the ongoing evolution of capitalism, creates greater wealth than do its alternatives, pre-modern economies. Authoritarian modernity distributes wealth differently from how liberal modernity does. Thus each form appeals to different sorts of populations. But modernity as such, in either form, appeals to all people motivated by economic self-interest, and thus tends to spread.

 

Modernity as such, in promoting rationalism over credulous obedience to tradition and authority, thereby promotes choice of lifestyle. Authoritarian modernity restricts the right to choose to relatively few people, and imposes their choice, usually by coercion, on the rest of society. Liberal modernity, while preserving limitations on choice in the rule of law, and seeking through a balance of powers to protect individuals and minorities from the tyranny of rulers and majorities, offers a much wider spectrum of choice to more people. In particular, it promotes the possibility of individualism. This constitutes its greatest appeal, and is also the cause of greatest enmity against it from authoritarians and believers in religious or other ideologies seeking to limit choice of lifestyle.

 

Having defined these terms, and made these distinctions, we may now consider examples.

 

The New York Stock Exchange Trading Floor - Photo by Ryan LawlerThe West faces economic rivalry or adversity from nations such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa. These, to varying degrees, espouse modernity, liberal or authoritarian. Liberal modernity, espoused in the West, plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and some Latin American countries, faces ideological adversity or enmity from authoritarian modernity, as practiced in China, Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Singapore, and other Latin American countries. Modernity as such, both liberal and authoritarian, so espousing secularism and rationalism, but not necessarily freedom or civility, is opposed by confessional states such as the Vatican, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and by religiously defined non-state actors, mostly now Hindu, Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Thus it emerges that most adversaries and enemies of modernity as such are defined as such by adherence to religion and tradition. Conversely, the defining difference between modernity and its adversaries and enemies lies in modernity’s embrace of rationalism and secularism, as opposed to religion or tradition.

 

Let me now identify some of modernity’s adversaries and enemies, and assess their threat. Threats may come from within or from without lands dominated by modernity. Threats from within may be direct ideological threats to the sway of modernity itself, or political and economic developments that threaten modernity indirectly. Threats from without may be: economic, aimed at controlling resources, so threatening modernity indirectly; strategic, aimed at conquering or subjecting territories dominated by modernity; or ideological, aimed at overthrowing modernity itself. First I shall consider ideological threats from within. Then I shall review external threats, both economic and strategic.

 

Hindu nationalism threatens modernity only in the Indian subcontinent, not elsewhere. While India’s fate is far from unimportant to modernity, given its huge and growing population, it is also far from having yet achieved modernity, though some of its elites seek to do so. And the state with which Hindu nationalism is likeliest to conflict, Pakistan, is also far from modern. So Hindu nationalism’s threat to modernity is locally contained.

 

Christian fundamentalism is a greater threat to modernity, both to modernity as such, and to liberal modernity, because it thrives in part of the heartland of modernity, the USA. Its threat to modernity as such is manifested in its opposition to physics and biology, where they challenge its cosmological and anthropological dogmas. Its threat to liberal modernity is manifested in its opposition to freedom of choice in lifestyle. But modernity, specifically liberal modernity, even more so than modernity as such, including tolerance of religious fundamentalism, is so firmly rooted in the USA, and so well protected there by law, that the threat to it from Christian fundamentalism, while real, seems manageable.

 

Jewish fundamentalism also threatens modernity, not in its Western heartland, but in a beleaguered outpost, Israel, because it threatens to undermine Israel’s claim to modernity, and so its comparative cultural advantage over its neighbours and enemies. While Israel, as an outpost of modernity, is not as strategically or economically important to the West, so to liberal modernity, as, for example Japan, another outpost, it has great symbolic value. Were Israel to be destroyed, as its enemies plan, its destruction would deal a serious blow to modernity’s morale, both in the West and elsewhere. Yet, as in the USA, because of its laws, and the will of at least some of its people, Israel’s modernity can arguably withstand the threat of Jewish fundamentalism, although the call is closer.

 

Islamism’s internal threat to modernity as such differs from that of Hindu, Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, historically, territorially and demographically.

 

Historically, modernity began and grew in the West, within, and often in opposition to, a Christian culture, with Jewish input. It triumphed there. Thus, territorially, modernity now thrives in and dominates the old Christian and Jewish world, Western Europe and Israel, plus ex-colonies in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have embraced modernity, giving it their own characteristics. Modernity has been adopted by elites in China, India the Philippines and South Africa, but does not yet thrive there. Nor does modernity thrive anywhere in the Muslim world. Although the elites of some Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia, have adopted modernity, mainly in authoritarian form, modernity has yet fully to penetrate the peoples and cultures of those countries. Demographically, Muslim populations in ex-colonial powers like Holland, France and Britain, and immigrants to their ex-colonies elsewhere, spawn Islamist threats to modernity inside its own heartland.

 

Islamism’s threat to modernity inside modernity’s own heartland is minimal, because of its lack of appeal to the relevant populations. While some offspring of Muslim immigrants and some indigenous youth may find in the call to jihad an exciting channel for their impulse to revolt against someone or something, usually parents and their values, far more Western youths channel that revolt into more indigenous activities, such as gang warfare, hooliganism, rowdiness, insubordination, creativity and independent endeavour.

 

Threats to modernity from without tend to be economic, strategic, or both. Modernity’s fate partly depends on the world economy, to the extent that its comparative advantage lies in the appeal generated by its economic success, as compared to its alternatives. Modernity’s strategic fate depends on controlling its heartlands’ and outposts’ territory.

 

Christian and Jewish fundamentalisms abide within modernity’s heartland and an outpost, not outside its territory, and are thus irrelevant to this stage of our discussion. Neither do they pose an economic or strategic threat, from within or from without. Their threat is ideological. Likewise, Hindu nationalism does not threaten modernity outside the Indian subcontinent, economically or strategically, any more than it does so ideologically. India, while increasingly important in the world economy, does not control a major share of any resource vital to the world economy. So, even were Hindu nationalism to take control of India, it would not pose a major external economic threat to modernity worldwide.

The public execution of Zarmina in the Ghazi Sports Stadium, Kabul, November 16, 1999. She had been found guilty of killing her husband in his sleep, after he had beaten her - Photo by RAWA

Islamism, however, does pose a major external economic threat worldwide to modernity, because of the world economy’s dependence on oil, much of which is located inside the Near and Middle East, part of the Muslim world it inhabits. It also poses a strategic threat, since one Muslim country, Pakistan, vulnerable to Islamist attack and eventual control, has nuclear weapons, while another, of a different stripe, Iran, seeks to acquire them. Let me first discuss the economic threat, then the strategic.

 

To the extent that Islamism seeks to control the Near and Middle East, and so its oil fields, it threatens liberal modernity. It does so because liberal modernity’s appeal partly depends on its ability to deliver relatively greater prosperity than its alternatives. That ability is threatened because of liberal modernity’s dependence on the West for support, and because of the West’s dependence on foreign oil for energy to fuel its economy.

 

Let me clarify the nature of that threat, and of that dependence, since imprecise rhetoric often obscures the real issues. Imprecise rhetoric speaks of the West coveting foreign oil, as if the West were able to seize direct control of oil fields and pump the oil for itself without paying for it. That is not the case. The West’s interest is not to seize direct control of oil fields and steal their production, but rather to ensure that indigenous controllers of those fields and their production sell the oil to the West at market prices, and do not use oil as a political weapon. That it can be so used is amply illustrated by the history of manipulation of production, price and delivery of energy products both from the Near and Middle East, and more recently from Russia. Thus the West’s interest in who controls oil fields forms part of its interest in maintaining a global market economy.

 

Some oil fields have already fallen, in Iran, under the control of Islamic fundamentalists hostile to the West and to modernity. Saudi Arabia is a country equally or more, but very differently, fundamentalist, and equally hostile to modernity. Despite this, it is in tactical alliance with the West against Iran, and therefore friendly to Western interests. Saudi oil fields have not fallen under Islamists hostile to the West. But they could, were internal events in Saudi Arabia to develop adversely to Western interests. The oil fields of Iraq, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, are presently controlled by an unstable government, whose friendliness to Western interests is questionable, and which is threatened internally by pro-Iranian Islamists. Were more oil fields to fall under Islamist control, the modern world would face grave economic challenges. Thus, to the extent that Islamism poses a threat to the world economy, and so to modernity, it must be confronted.

 

To do so means understanding Islamism’s aims. That means understanding Islam, or at least one aspect of it relevant to this discussion. Islam does not limit its ambitions to the religious sphere. It aims to dominate and regulate both the religious and secular spheres. Moreover Islam, not fundamentalist, terrorist Islamism, but Islam tout court, has at its root, in its foundational documents, an explicit goal of global domination. Muslims would call it global enlightenment, but it comes down to much the same thing. Whether by the sword, or by force of example, or even by fiscal incentive, it is the stated goal of Islam to conquer the world. No part, once conquered, may ever be relinquished. That is why, as a Spaniard, I must take its pretensions more seriously than most.

 

Fortunately, most of Islam’s adherents do not. But those who do, such as Al Qa’ida, Hezbollah, Hamas, Djamaa-Islamiya, Taliban, and the Iranian mullahs, together with their President, can and do pose a threat to modernity. For Islamism, the aggressive promotion of fundamentalist Islam, is not only religious, but political; not only cultural, but economic. It aims to eliminate the influence of modernity, particularly liberal modernity, which it considers Western, hence alien, from the Muslim world, and to impose on it a totalitarian Islamic state encompassing all aspects of life: public and private; religious, political, cultural and economic. Some forms of Islamism do not limit their aims to the Muslim world, but seek to impose Islam on the whole world, eliminating all other religions, polities, cultures, economies and peoples.

 

In pursuit of its aims, Islamism resorts to terrorism. Terrorism not only threatens, attacks, kills and maims people, but also threatens, attacks and destroys cultural and economic artefacts and institutions. Al-Qa’ida’s attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist statues in Bamian, Lashkar-e-Toiba’s assault on the Taj Hotel and a Jewish centre in Mumbai, and the stated intentions and actual attempts of Hizb-ut-Tahrir to Islamise Britain by force are examples.

 

Despite such global aims and terrorist tactics, I do not think that Islamism poses an existential economic threat to modernity from without, because of modernity’s creativity. If Islamism should seize control of yet more oil fields, while it would gravely inconvenience the West, and hence modernity, it could thereby force modernity to use its invention and creativeness to lessen the West’s dependence on oil, foreign or domestic. This suggests one of the strategies I shall propose to counter Islamist threats to modernity.

 

Let me now turn to Islamism’s strategic threat to modernity. Again, as in the case of economics, this is predicated on modernity’s strategic dependence on support from the West, and, to a lesser degree from its outpost, Israel, to control its own territory. Let me first address the question of Israel, since it is central to the strategic issue.

 

Israel is an outpost of liberal modernity surrounded on three sides by hostile Muslim neighbours, some of whom are Islamic fundamentalists, others authoritarian modernists. All are undergoing change as a result of the so-called ‘Arab spring’, now summer, and of the development of long-standing processes, which may alter their internal constitutions and their foreign policies. As an outpost in such hostile and unstable territory, Israel presents both opportunities and risks. Strategically speaking, these are asymmetrical. While Israel has no territorial ambitions beyond the occupied territories bounded by the Golan Heights and the Jordan river, or beyond its current borders with Egypt and Lebanon, Islamists covet all of Israel’s territory. Israel is thus potentially a forward staging-post in any war between the West and Islamism. But it is also a potential casus belli, making such war likelier. Although two of its neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, have, at least on paper, recognised Israel’s right to exist, Syria and Lebanon have not. And potential changes inside all Israel’s neighbours could change that situation radically.

 

Israel’s most vociferous and declared enemy is Iran under its current leaders, who openly proclaim their intention to destroy Israel. Iran, espousing Shia Muslim fundamentalism, also seeks to dominate its Sunni Muslim neighbours. Thus while enemies of Israel, Sunni states are also adversaries or enemies of Iran. Since they need not fear Israeli territorial ambitions beyond the present lines of demarcation, they fear Iran more than Israel. This partly explains why Sunni Saudi Arabia is in tactical alliance with the West against Iran.

 

Iran seeks nuclear weapons, despite disclaimers to the contrary. If it acquires them, as looks likely, war in the region is likely or inevitable. While the outcome of a nuclear war between Iran and Israel, possibly involving the West, is unpredictable, the balance of forces is in favour of the West, though Israel is very vulnerable. So, to a lesser extent, is Europe, as Iran acquires advanced rocket technology. That is why steps are now being taken to protect Europe from Iranian nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

 

Iran’s hostility to Israel, and to the West, is not based on economic or political considerations, but on religious ideology. Such hostility is not in Iran’s long-term economic or political interests. If Iran were to conduct its foreign policy on real-political principles, based on its economic and political self-interest, it would not be hostile to the West or Israel. The evidence for this is that the previous Iranian regime, under the Shah, was friendly to both, and prospered, though failing to share wealth with its people, and making other mistakes, leading to its downfall and the rise of the current regime. This suggests another one of my proposals for defending the interests of the West, and hence modernity: cause Iran to conduct its foreign policy in its own economic and political self-interest, not on the basis of religious ideology. This will probably involve regime change. I shall come to this, and other such proposals, presently. First let me finish discussing the strategic threat from Islamism.

 

If Islamism were to seize control of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country, India, another, could conceivably hold it in check, assuming adversarial commonality, in the form of the balance of power, were to prevail. But this, while possible between modernist adversaries, as we know from the Cold War, is far from certain when one or both are motivated by religious fundamentalism. Balance of power adversarial commonality is rational. Religious fundamentalism is irrational, thus highly unpredictable.

 

Although the consequences of nuclear war in the Indian subcontinent are highly undesirable, they do not necessarily pose an existential threat to modernity, except insofar as they do so to the world as a whole. That threat is real. Nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or between Iran and the West, could potentially threaten the whole world with nuclear winter, depending on the size and scope of the engagement.

 

Again, as in the case of Iran, the policy likeliest to prevent nuclear war in the Indian sub-continent is one that promotes the rational pursuit of enlightened economic and political self-interest, rather than irrational, emotional pursuit of the aims of religion and tradition. Thus it emerges that the best defence of modernity against its enemies is to promote the spread of modernity itself, insofar as this implies the triumph of logic and reason over emotion and religion. And given that the nature of the quarrel between Islamism and the West, chief defender of modernity, is one of emotion and religion, rather than of enlightened self-interest, and given that liberal modernity knows how to reconcile religious and emotional differences through toleration, moderation and accommodation, it is by promoting liberal modernity that modernity as such stands the best chance of prevailing against its ideological enemies.

 

If we can avoid or limit nuclear war and other forms of global catastrophe, including pollution and related climate change, modernity is likely to survive in its own heartland and even, eventually, to prevail elsewhere, because of its greater appeal to more people. This is not to say that people living in modernity are safe from Islamism’s enmity or from that of modernity’s other enemies. Recent developments in the Muslim world, the so called ‘Arab spring’, might lead some to believe that the threat from Islamism has receded. Its relative absence from protest movements currently shaking the Muslim world, and the elimination of Osama bin Laden, may suggest that one may relax one’s guard.

 

That would be mistaken. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that the threat is over. While unlikely to achieve its aims in the long run, Islamism is still a potent force that can cause great destruction and suffering. So, to the extent that it creates a nuisance for modernity, and poses a real threat to the physical integrity and cultural artefacts of people living in modernity, Islamism must be confronted. Here I consider how to do so. As it happens, the strategy I shall propose is also calculated to confront the threats to liberal modernity from other sources, such as Jewish and Christian fundamentalism or Hindu nationalism, as well as authoritarianism.

 

So how can liberal modernity best defend itself against its enemies? To answer this, first I shall discuss its defence against Islamism, as Islamism poses the most publicised threat to liberal modernity. I shall consider how to defend liberal modernity against it, and warn how not to do so. In the process, I shall discuss how liberal modernity has prevailed against other adversaries, including tradition, religion and authoritarian modernity. Drawing lessons from that struggle, I shall make some proposals to defend liberal modernity against Islamism. Then I shall show how my proposals also defend modernity from other enemies: all forms of religious fundamentalism, and authoritarianism.

 

First let me say what not to do. One must not confuse Islamism with Islam, or Islamists with Muslims. Bernard Lewis, a scholar of Islam, discussing Islamic fundamentalism some years ago, identifies it as the source of a form of terrorism that we now call Islamism. In his words, ‘most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and most fundamentalists are not terrorists’. Nevertheless, ‘most present-day terrorists are Muslims, and proudly identify themselves as such’ So, to combat Islamism, modernists, both in the Muslim world and elsewhere, might seek to ally with non-Islamist Muslims. Such an alliance might be based on the principle that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, if non-Islamist Muslims could be persuaded that Islamism is their enemy, as well as modernity’s.

 

But one must take care in choosing one’s friends from among one’s enemies’ enemies. While Jewish and Christian fundamentalists, and Hindu nationalists, are all Islamism’s enemies, they are also modernism’s enemies. The disastrous consequences of seeking to ally with some of one’s own enemies against others among one’s enemies or adversaries can be observed in Afghanistan. There, the West’s attempt to marshal Islam, in the form of the Mujaheddin, to combat the Soviet Union, led, by permitting the rise of the Taliban, and its alliance with Al-Qa’ida, to far worse consequences for the West, involving attacks on its own soil, than any the Cold War with the Soviet Union ever brought. The West’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, though predating the current Islamist insurgency, and based on mutual economic interests, may yet become the source of similar ‘blowback’, to use a term currently fashionable for unintended consequences.

 

U.S. backed Mujahideen in Kunar, Afghanistan, 1987 - Photo by Erwin Lux

So in choosing one’s friends, whether from among one’s enemies’ enemies or otherwise, the chief consideration should not be short-term tactical advantage, as in the case of the West and the Mujaheddin, but long-term strategic interests. These are ultimately bound up with culture. Cultural affinity, as in the case of the USA with the EU, is a firmer basis for alliance on the basis of common interests than territorial, ethnic or economic factors.

 

By culture, I do not mean merely high culture, scholarship, literature, and the arts, though these matter at higher levels of interaction. I mean culture in the anthropological sense: an activity pervading and shaping all human life. It involves the use, as tools or weapons, both of materials and ideas, for the purpose of preserving, perpetuating, and enhancing human life. Thus culture may be studied as a human science, including biology, and so, evolution. Individual cultures may be seen as strategies in an ongoing struggle, involving the tactical use of materials and ideas, for the preservation, perpetuation, and enhancement of the lives of the peoples who develop and implement such strategies. The struggle is waged on two fronts at once: with nature, and with other people. Thus, invoking and adapting evolutionary theory of competition among species, one may compare different cultures, according to their relative success or failure in preserving, perpetuating, and enhancing the lives of people adopting, developing and implementing them. Therefore one can discuss cultural security in terms of comparative culture.

 

Some cultures do better than others. The criterion for success or failure differs according to time, place, and observer. It is also affected by changes in material and ideal culture. The discovery or invention of new tools, weapons, and techniques, or the rise of new ways of thinking – so-called paradigm shifts – alter the nature of the struggle for survival for all cultures, and confer advantage on their practitioners. I have argued, in my article ‘We are the children of modernity’ in NSL, 5, that the triumph of modernity, first in the West, and now elsewhere, involving rationalism, secularism, freedom and civility, leading to the rapid advance of science and technology, has done precisely that. It has altered the nature of the struggle among nations and peoples for survival and advantage.

 

The criterion for success or failure among cultures is now their relative ability to respond creatively to the challenge of modernity. Modernity originates in the West, from what was once a dissident minority: rationalists. Rationalism’s principal opponent was usually religion, insisting on an erroneous cosmology, upholding political tyranny, and presuming to dictate our personal behaviour and restrain our intellectual curiosity. The triumph of rationalism in its struggle with religion leads to secularism. Modernity’s further evolution, so I argue here, leads to the triumph of liberalism over authoritarianism.

 

Rationalism’s struggle with religion, through Renaissance, Enlightenment, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, leads to paradigm shift, and rationalism’s triumph in the West. Rationalism and secularism form the basis of modernity. But rationalism’s struggle with religion continues, both where it has triumphed, and where it has not. It continues within Western culture against Christian fundamentalism; in Israel against Jewish; between modern cultures, Western or otherwise, and pre-modern cultures, where paradigm shift has not occurred; and within pre-modern cultures, where the ascendancy of rationalism and secularism over religion and tradition remains unachieved, or even unattempted.

 

The struggle between secular rationalism and religion, rather than ethnic, geographical or economic fault-lines, is where the deepest clash of cultures, most consequential for our own fate, occurs. It is universal and inevitable, and fraught with danger to life, limb, and cultural artefacts. At its most extreme, it could even pose an existential threat, not only to modernity, but to life on earth. For religious fanatics think in terms, not of comparative advantage, but of salvation and damnation. The logic of the suicide bomber leads to the logic of suicidal global extinction: not with nuclear weapons, expensive and difficult to use; but with biological agents, cheap, widely available, easy to use, and self-distributing. This is why we cannot afford to relax our guard, and must confront Islamism, and all forms of religious fundamentalism. Modernity’s enemies can become enemies of life.

 

Our best weapons in this clash of cultures are logic and reason. Culture clashes need not lead to Armageddon, if rationalism triumphs in cultures with conflicting interests. Rationalist cultures are unlikely to clash at a devastating level of Mutual Assured Destruction, because rationalism involves a cool calculation of one’s enlightened self-interest. That is a lesson of the Cold War, which pitted liberal against authoritarian modernity. Cool calculation of self-interest usually leads to negotiation and accommodation, or even to cooperation, rather than to devastation. This in itself is a comparative advantage for the preservation, perpetuation and enhancement of human life.

 

Having seen how liberal modernity has coped with authoritarian modernity, and has triumphed over its traditional enemy, religion, we can now consider whether and how modernity can find allies in the Muslim world, in particular among non-Islamist Muslims.

 

Here one must distinguish between Muslims and Islam. Muslims can develop and change. The same cannot necessarily be said of Islam. While it has obviously developed and changed in the past, and might arguably do so in the future, Islamism in its various forms now seeks to stop any such development or change, and return to diverse conceptions of what it sees as pure and fundamental Islam. That Islamism’s conceptions of Islam are diverse, and often lead to intra-Islamic communal violence or even warfare, on the one hand gives the lie to Islamism’s claim to Islam’s universal truth and natural right to world domination; on the other it also makes evolution of Islam towards some form of modernity more difficult.

 

Thiepval Memorial Loyal Orange Lodge march in Belfast, 2 July 2007 - Photo by Helen Robinson

Comparison with the history of Christendom illuminates this point. Christianity was once as violently divided as Islam is now. Indeed in places, such as Northern Ireland, in combination with ethnic, historical and economic factors, it still is. Likewise, Christianity once presumed to dictate to rulers and peoples what to do and when and how to do it. Their response was mixed, like that of people and rulers in the Muslim world. But there were once states in Christendom as subject to clergy as Iran, or as puritanical as Saudi Arabia, with legal and political systems just as bloodthirsty and lopsided.

 

Christendom underwent a process, in the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, that led to the subjection of religion to civil society and the rule of law: secularism. This led to the rise and triumph of modernity. Christianity, excepting fundamentalist minorities, largely accepts that dispensation. In the West, and in some parts of the East, peoples whose ancestors were largely believers in various forms of religion have embraced modernity, without necessarily renouncing religion. In the process, however, religion has been tamed and subordinated to rationalism. As such, one can live with it.

 

The Muslim world has not undergone any such process. Whether it will do so is still an open question. Thus, whether accommodation is possible between modernity and Islam is uncertain. Recent events suggest that something similar may be beginning to happen in the Muslim world, but its outcome is unclear. The best modernity can do is to foment logic and rationalism in the Muslim world, and hope that eventually it takes the initiative and gains ascendancy over religion and tradition. This suggests another proposal, relating to global education, that I shall make for the defence of modernity.

 

The ascendancy of rationalism over religion and tradition, and so, over fundamentalism and obscurantism, grants the culture of modernity competitive advantage. It allows the advance of science, and encourages creative response to the challenges of life. Therefore, all forms of fundamentalism and obscurantism, religious or other, are enemies of modernity. Embracing Japan, among other parts of the East, and other non-Western cultures, modernity is an idea whose time has come, and which still has a long time to run.

 

I have so far identified the enemies of modernity in terms of ideology. Let us now consider them in terms of ethnicity, history, and geography. The earliest extant history in a Western language, that of Herodotus, tells of the conflict between Greeks and Persians. The civilisation of the Greeks, with important contributions from Romans and Jews, among others, has developed into that of what we now call the West. And the West is still having trouble with the Persians, now called Iranians. It is interesting to note that both Greeks and Persians are Aryans, or Indo-Europeans, as are Romans. The Jews, however, are not. They are Semites, as are Arabs and Phoenicians. Now, just as in Herodotus’ history, Semites are being blamed for the confrontation between Iranians and the West. In Herodotus’ Histories, written from a Greek point of view, Phoenicians are blamed for starting the series of abductions of princesses that leads, eventually, to war between Greeks and Persians. Now Jews are blamed by Iranians, and by some Westerners, for all the trouble between the West and Islam. One might think that little has changed.

 

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David (1814)

But much has changed, although, to paraphrase The Leopard, it may be that everything has changed only so that everything can stay the same. First, and most obviously, the military balance of forces has shifted. Tiny, poor, fractious Greece once faced the mighty Persian empire. Now the West, still fractious, but rich and powerful, faces a bunch of zany zealots and petty tyrants. Some of them control nation states, such as Iran and North Korea. Most of them control only bands of terrorists, or merely inspire them. This does not mean that they are not dangerous. They are, not least because they are likely to lose, and may become desperate. The most dangerous are those with the least to lose: only their miserable lives. This leads to the logic of the suicide bomber. It is the Iranians whom I think most likely, once they finally know that they have lost, to attempt suicidal global extinction. If you doubt me, look into the eyes of their President, and listen to his words.

 

Let me leave further discussion of the military dimension of the threat to those more qualified than I in that field. Let me rather focus on another way in which everything has changed, yet somehow remains the same, in an area where I am better versed: that of culture, seen through the telescope of history. When Greece faced Persia, the material culture of Persia, like that of Egypt, vastly outshone that of Greece. Herodotus himself was amazed that the Greeks had been able to defeat the Persians, given the Greeks’ inferiority, not only in almost every aspect of material culture, but in the technologies underlying the fashioning and use of tools and weapons. He attributed the victory of the Greeks to their spirit: their love of independence. Other, more recent historians attribute it to much the same thing: to citizen armies defending their own turf. Essentially, all attribute it to a cultural ideal of the Greeks: individualism, and freedom from tyranny.

 

Now, the material culture of the West is richer and more advanced than any other. This, however, is not, in my view, its greatest advantage. Rather its advantage continues to be that same ideal, enshrined in its ideological culture: not only the rule of reason, but also freedom from tyranny, toleration of diversity, and promotion of individuality. No other culture in the world grants the individual the same rights, respect, and even honour, as does that of the West. This, I believe, is our secret weapon. It is of course an open secret.

 

However politically incorrect it may be, in certain circles, to say so, the culture of the West, because it has espoused modernity, is by far the most attractive on Earth. Literally so: it attracts huge numbers of people from other cultures to its lifestyle. And this is not merely because of its material arrangements, which can be, and are, sometimes equalled, and even surpassed, by elites in other cultures. Its attraction lies rather in its offer to the individual: that of a chance to discover and explore and fully realise him or herself.

 

Neither Nipponic, nor Sinitic, nor Indic, nor any of the other great cultures of the world, offers anything comparable. For this reason, there is little chance of any voluntary global mass conversion to Shinto, Taoism, Confucianism, or Hinduism, let alone Islam. Buddhism, not, at least in essence, a religion, but a philosophy, may be a more serious contender, but it is not, by nature, adversarial. Islam is. Yet while Islam may, perhaps for that very reason, appeal to the wretched of the Earth, it is unlikely to convert young, upwardly mobile professionals, or street smart, randy adolescents, in the West or elsewhere. Until recently this was a serious fear, but the events of this spring have shown that most such young elites in the Muslim world are not greatly attracted by Islamic fundamentalism, but rather by what their counterparts the world over are: freedom, autonomy, justice and respect. Therein lies hope that Islam too may be tamed.

 

As I near the end of this discussion, let me sum up its main conclusions so far. In terms of attraction or conversion, we have nothing to fear from Nipponic, Sinitic, Indic or even Islamic culture. Rather, we make a practice of incorporating elements of each into our own, enriching it, rather than undermining it. African culture, in particular its music, has deeply pervaded the popular culture of modernity, but poses no threat to our core values. I leave to others discussion of whether we have anything militarily to fear from China or India, but my suspicion is that both these nations are amenable to reason and diplomacy. The principal threat to the artefacts of our material culture, to our cathedrals, museums, theatres and libraries, and to the limbs and lives of participants in cultural events and performances, including those of popular culture, such as discothèques, comes from fundamentalist Islam, which sees them all as works of Satan.

 

Thus we are left with Lenin’s famous question: Shto delat’? What is to be done? It is time to offer my proposals for defending modernity and its adherents.

 

First and foremost I propose urgent action of the highest strategic priority to wean the world economy from its dependence on oil. Not only will this at a stroke neutralise much of Islamism’s threat to the West, but it will bring other great benefits, reducing pollution, and so the dangers of climate change. Paradoxically, a converse policy should also be adopted with respect to rare metals, currently monopolised by a potential adversary of the West: China. They exist elsewhere, and to reduce the global economy’s dependency on China for them, which has already been exploited by China as a political weapon against Japan, they should be prospected, mined, and marketed wherever they are found.

 

I leave to experts on physical security discussion of how best physically to protect material artefacts, events and performances. But I do have a material suggestion, relating to scholarship: an amplified Gutenberg project should be promoted, to scan and digitalise the entire contents of all the world’s great libraries. This would not only have the effect of protecting those contents from possible destruction, but would provide an immense boost to scholarship, since it would open the way to digital searching of those contents. Such a boost to scholarship would in turn be a boost to learning and to creativity, and so of itself promote modernity. Something of this nature is already underway, but must be expanded and made much more thorough and universally available.

 

Now I should like to turn from defence to attack, for attack is sometimes the best form of defence. Again, I do not mean here to propose a military attack, though I must admit that when the fate of the Buddhas of Bamian, which my father had shown me when I was a boy, still hung in the balance, and the West did nothing, I was heard to cry out in my sleep: “Neutron bomb, where are you now when we need you? Damn Jimmy Carter!” No, that is not what I mean to propose here and now; rather, something far more devastating.

 

I propose that we attack fundamentalism at its source, inside the human mind. To some extent, we are doing so already, merely by virtue of being who we are, and acting as we do. Perhaps unintentionally, or with commercial, rather than strategic aims in view, we are already undermining fundamentalism, merely by offering better alternatives. I propose we do so deliberately, strategically, with cultural weapons, tactics, and targets.

 

Our targets should be young upwardly mobile professionals, yuppies, or their nearest equivalent, as well as street-smart, randy adolescents, in societies now in the grip of tyrants and zealots. The young are the future of those societies. If they can be won over to reason, and to individualism, tyranny and fundamentalism will not long rule in their lands.

 

That this is so is suggested by the nature of the protesters in the so-called ‘Arab spring’. While people of all sorts take part, the vanguard is led by technologically savvy young people, often from relatively privileged backgrounds, whose desires and ambitions are frustrated by pre-modern societies. Although it has been feared that precisely such upwardly mobile professionals are most in danger of succumbing to the thrall of Islamism, this now appears not to be so. The vanguard of the ‘Arab spring’ seem to want what youth in Western and Eastern cultures that espouse modernity want: freedom, autonomy, justice and respect, and opportunities for self-realisation. These are precisely what modernity has to offer.

 

That is the strategy. As for tactics, I propose an attack on two levels: above the belt, and below. Above, we should appeal to Apollonian elements inside the human mind: to its thirst for truth and understanding; below, to Dionysiac impulses which drive the quest for instinctual satisfaction, individual self-fulfilment, and ecstasy: in other words, to Eros.

 

Schoolgirls in Afghanistan - Photo from USAID

We, undertaking this enterprise, must likewise be individuals, or voluntary associations of like-minded individuals, sincerely devoted to the discovery and spread of truth, and to the pursuit of individual satisfaction, fulfilment, and ecstasy. That rules governments out. Any contact with governments, given the nature of our strategy, tactics and targets – truth, ecstasy, the Teens of Tehran and the Yuppies of Pyongyang – spells the kiss of death.

 

In practical terms, at an Apollonian level, I propose the institution of a publishing enterprise – publishing in the widest sense of the word, including print, television, radio, the Internet and samizdat’ – dedicated to exposing the lies of zealots and tyrants, and to telling the truth about how things are, in the world inside and outside the lands they control. Again, something of the sort is already underway. We in NSL must enter the fray and seek to take advantage of its momentum.

 

Such an enterprise should, moreover, undertake or sponsor research into relevant and topical subjects. At this level, our aim should be both to awaken and to quench the thirst for knowledge and understanding. Once it is awakened, and quenched, it will give rise to an even more powerful thirst: for liberation from the zealotry and tyranny, which will have been shown to deny it. This being our aim, honesty must mark our enterprise. That is why governments must not be involved.

 

Finally, at an Apollonian level, we should undertake an enterprise in global education. Combining the fruits of our research and learning with technology’s ability to bring together people worlwide in virtual classrooms in cyberspace, we should launch an educational forum interacting with students of all ages and cultures. The practical problems of language and other skills will need not only technological, but human solutions. These can be trusted to arise spontaneously and interactively, in accordance with the educational theories of Ivan Illich, among others.

 

At a Dionysiac level, I propose that another, similar enterprise, expressly designed for the purpose, should sponsor, produce, and disseminate cultural products: artefacts, events, and performances, likely to awaken the desire for instinctual satisfaction, individual self-fulfilment, and for ecstasy, indeed for Eros, in the youth of the societies in question. Such products should be created, in their own idiom, by liberated members of those societies. They will understand what their oppressed brethren desire, or may be induced to desire.

 

Here, our aim is not to quench desire, but merely to awaken it; for no work of art can fully quench desire. The most art can do is to awaken, at the level of imagination, a desire, Eros, which can only properly be satisfied in real life. It is in the nature of Eros that, if sufficiently widespread and deeply felt, it will sweep all before it, and overcome even the most desperate attempts to repress it. Amor vincit omnia. This is what the mullahs most fear. This is why they hate sexual freedom. There lies the root of their hatred of modernity. Here also lies our greatest opportunity for regime change by cultural means.

 

Of these two tactics, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, while both are essential, I set more store by the latter. For while it may be that “The truth shall make you free”, the most powerful of all the gods I know is Eros. Eros, in the words of Hesiod, “unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all men and all gods within them.” If he can do that with gods and wise men, he can make short work of zealots and tyrants.

 

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