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9/11 and The War Against Modernity

9/11 and The War Against Modernity

10 Mins
May 1, 2002

Why do they hate us? How could they have done this? What were they trying to achieve?

Those questions about the terrorist attacks of September 11 still haunt the minds of Americans unnerved by the enormity of the crime. It was a profoundly shocking act of destruction—probably the most shocking thing any of us will ever experience. The two largest buildings in New York, in the heart of the financial district—all gone, with 3,000 deaths. We need to know what could have inspired someone to do such a thing. It is bad enough to experience such a monstrous event; to feel it is inexplicable, an act with no conceivable motive, only adds to the sense of unreality.

The questions are also vital to understanding—and winning—the ongoing war on terrorism. The war is not a conflict with a single nation or league of nations. Nor is it a police action against a random assortment of criminals or criminal gangs. It is a war in defense of our way of life against enemies who oppose that way of life, and who oppose it from common cultural and religious motives. Whatever specific aims, hopes, and delusions the al-Qaeda hijackers may have had, the organization could not have flourished—it could not have drawn so many recruits, raised so much money, and found support and sanctuary throughout the Middle East—unless it appealed to widespread values.

What is the source of this hostility?

Unlike the Cold War, however, the battle lines are not drawn in ideologically explicit terms. Had we asked in the 1950s, "Why do the communists hate us? What are they after?" the answers would have been clear: Their Marxist ideology of socialism, dictatorship, and world conquest calls for the elimination of our free capitalist system, and endorses the use of any means to achieve that end. It's all spelled out in The Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, and an endless stream of Communist Party propaganda. But when the same questions arose about the terrorists of September 11, there were only the rambling diatribes of Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization is part of an extensive network of terrorist groups such as Egypt's al-Jihad—which was responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the World Trade Center bombing in 1993—and many others in Algeria, Sudan, Chechnya, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. These organizations represent the violent extreme of a fundamentalist movement known as Islamism that has been gaining ground among Muslims since the 1970s. The goals of the movement are fairly clear: One goal is to drive the Western powers out of the Middle East, removing Western military, economic, and cultural presence from the region. Bin Laden's three immediate demands, repeated in virtually every statement, are to stop American support for Israel, lift sanctions against Iraq, and remove American troops from Saudi Arabia. But Islamists really want our complete removal from that part of the world. In regard to Israel, for example, they seek its destruction or departure—a goal stated explicitly on the Web site of Hezbollah , the Lebanese terrorist organization. [Editor's note: The hyperlink in the preceding sentence goes to an archived version of the cited web page, which was taken down some time after the initial publication of this article.]

A second goal is to unify the Islamic world and rally it in opposition to the West. "This war is fundamentally religious," bin Laden said last November, in one of his statements broadcast by al-Jazeera TV.

"The people of the East are Muslims. They sympathized with Muslims against the people of the West, who are the crusaders. Under no circumstances should we forget this enmity between us and the infidels. For, the enmity is based on creed. Muslims must stand together. We must be loyal to the believers and those who believe that there is no God but Allah."

This is why troops in Saudi Arabia are such an important issue to bin Laden: they are stationed in the land of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

The terrorists have attacked civilization as such.

A third goal of the Islamists is to create a strict form of Islamic society, based on application of Islamic law, the shari'a. In this respect, the fundamentalists and their terrorist wing have mounted an often-violent campaign against governments in their own countries, whom they accuse of failing to rule in accordance with the Koran. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1929, demanded the abolition of all political parties in Egypt and the creation of a single Islamic party. The Brotherhood was a vehement opponent of Gamal Abdel Nasser until he crushed it in the 1960s; the contemporary terrorist group al-Jihad is a descendent of the Brotherhood's earlier terrorist wing. And of course al-Qaeda helped sustain and enforce the Taliban's particularly brutal efforts to create a fundamentalist society in Afghanistan.

In virtually every nation there are disaffected groups with bizarre goals and the willingness to pursue them violently. The Islamists, however, have an unusual degree of popular support in the Middle East. Bernard Lewis, the eminent scholar of Islam, traces this support to a growing resentment of the West, a resentment that "goes beyond hostility to specific interests or actions or policies or even countries and becomes a rejection of Western civilization as such, not only what it does but what it is, and the principles and values that it practices and professes"—an attitude, he warned, that lends support to the use of terror by Islamic fundamentalists. ("The Roots of Muslim Rage," The Atlantic, September 1990.)

What is the source of this hostility? What ideas, values, and attitudes give rise to it? Lewis's observation contains the seeds of the two leading schools of thought about the answer to this question. Both schools place Islamist hatred of the United States in a larger cultural and historical context. Both are plausible, and in many respects they are compatible. But they differ in what they see as the essential terms of the ongoing conflict, and in their implications for the future.

One school holds that the war on terror reflects an underlying conflict between Islam and the West as civilizations. Each is united, as a civilization, by the loyalty of its people to a narrative of their past, a common religion, and shared ideas, values, and ways of life. The current tensions between Islam and the West are only the latest of the conflicts that have occurred over the centuries. The United States is a particular object of hostility now because it is the most powerful Western country.

The second school holds that terrorists' hostility is directed at "the principles and values" of the West. On this view, what they hate is not the West as a society or a civilization per se, but rather the culture of modernity. Modernity was born in the West, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it is not inherently tied to the history or customs of any one society. It is a constellation of universal values—the secular culture of reason, science, individualism, progress, democracy, and capitalism—that have spread worldwide in different forms and to varying degrees. By the same token, those who reject modernity, who fear and wish to destroy it, are to be found in every nation and civilization. And invariably they hate the United States as the fullest, most persuasive, and thus most dangerous embodiment of that culture.

It is true that modernity has tended to spread in the wake of Western contact and influence, and it may thus be resisted as a foreign encroachment; hatred of modernity blends easily with resentment of the actions and policies of Western nations. This is clearly the case with the Middle Eastern terrorists today. Nevertheless, modernity is not equivalent to Western civilization, and the question remains: Do our enemies hate modernity because it is Western, or hate the West because it is modern?


Political scientist Samuel Huntington is the chief theorist for the first school. In his book The Clash of Civilizations, he argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War will not bring peace and the worldwide acceptance of liberal democracy. Instead, ideological conflict will be replaced by conflicts among those with different religions, values, ethnicities, and historical memories—the cultural factors that define civilizations. Nations will increasingly form alliances based on common civilization rather than common ideology; and wars will tend to occur along the fault lines between major civilizations. Huntington cites examples like the violent breakup of Yugoslavia along the lines dividing Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic regions; and the decades-long fight between Muslims and Hindus over Kashmir. Since September 11, his analysis has gained new credibility as a way of understanding not only the event itself but the degree of popular support for bin Laden in the Muslim world.

Huntington rejects the view, popularized by Francis Fukuyama, that the defeat of communism means the "end of history": that Western civilization is destined to spread as people elsewhere seek the benefits of technology, wealth, and personal freedom it offers. Huntington acknowledges that they are likely to modernize in the material sense, embracing industrial production, technical education, urbanization, and trade. But that does not mean they will embrace the culture of the West. On the contrary, he argues, economic growth is likely to increase the desire for cultural autonomy, breeding a new commitment to the values, customs, traditions, and religions of their own cultures.

Islam is viewed by many as a civilization with a glorious past.

It is certainly plausible to see Muslim resentment of the West in this light, given the history of Islam. Fourteen centuries ago, armies inspired by the prophet Muhammad swept out of Arabia and, with astonishing speed, created an Islamic empire stretching from Spain and Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east, and north into the steppes of Russia and the deserts of eastern China. Along the frontier of this immense empire, Christendom was its only enduring enemy and rival. Geographically, the two civilizations faced each other across the Mediterranean and constantly engaged in border wars. Spiritually, both Islam and Christianity were monotheistic religions claiming universal validity, and each had the missionary goal of expanding the faith.

For most of this period, Islam was the stronger of the two. It was the more advanced civilization, with greater wealth and a higher level of culture. Islamic scholars preserved the texts of the ancient Greek philosophers and scientists; they made advances in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, among other fields. Islam was also more powerful militarily. It conquered most of the territory of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and took Spain in the west.

Muslims saw military success as a mark of Allah's favor. As Seyyed Hussein Nasr, a prominent Iranian philosopher and historian, observes,

During the first twelve centuries of its historic existence, Islam lived with the full awareness of the truth and realization of God's promise to Muslims that they would be victorious if they followed His religion. Such verses as "There is no victor but God," which adorns the walls of the Alhambra, also adorned the soul and mind of Muslims. (Traditional Islam in the Modern World)

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, the tide turned. The scientific and industrial revolutions vastly increased the wealth and the military power of the West. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Middle East was taken over by European nations and broken up into colonies and protectorates. Today, despite decolonization, the countries of this region remain poor and backward by comparison not only with the West but also with the booming economies of East Asia.

Oil revenue has showered wealth on the region, but economic growth has been held back by layers of regulations, wasteful government enterprises and investments, not to mention corruption. Because of their strategic location, Middle Eastern countries were pawns of the Cold War but were rarely true partners or friends of either power. Now, Muslims feel they are at the mercy of a global economy driven by Western capitalism. They feel invaded by Western popular culture, which they regard as morally decadent. Israel is the salt in all these wounds—a nation of people who came from the West, tore a patch of land from Islam, turned it into a vibrant, wealthy economy, and acquired the military prowess to defeat its Arab neighbors.

The West is a secular culture. And that is what the Islamists hate most about us.

The result of all this, says Bernard Lewis, is "a feeling of humiliation—a growing awareness, among the heirs of an old, proud, and long-dominant civilization, of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors." Having tried to take on Western ways, with dismal results, they are increasingly drawn to the idea that the solution is a return to the pure Islamic faith that reigned in the days of their former greatness.

Hence the appeal of Islamism. Its spokesmen, including terrorists, claim to be defending Islam not merely as a religious doctrine but as a civilization with a glorious past and embattled present. Bin Laden and his lieutenants have invoked the memory of Saladin, the general who drove the Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187, and compared the creation of Israel to the "Andalusian tragedy," the reconquest of Spain by Christian powers in 1492, among many other historical allusions that they expect their listeners to be familiar with.

The clash-of-civilizations school doubtless represents part of the truth of the matter. But it is not the whole truth, and not the fundamental truth. Its chief shortcoming is that it exaggerates the extent of agreement in outlook, values, ideas, and loyalties among people who share the common history and culture that define a civilization. In fact, there are as many battles over these issues within civilizations as between them—especially in the case of the West.

Huntington views the West as a continuous, ongoing civilization over the past millennium. In his view, both the classical legacy of Greece and Rome and the Christian religion were and still are essential parts of our civilization, with modernization as simply the most recent phase. "The West was the West long before it was modern," says Huntington. "The central characteristics of the West, those which distinguish it from other civilizations, antedate the modernization of the West." At the level of fundamental philosophical principles, however, the Enlightenment period was much more important as a turning point in the West, and in a way created a new civilization.


Modernity was born in the West in a radical transformation of its past. The world of the Middle Ages, built around Christian Scholasticism world-view, was a society of religious philosophy, feudal law, and an agricultural economy. Out of this soil, the Renaissance and Enlightenment produced a substantially new society of science, individualism, and industrial capitalism. When we examine the wider context of Islamic terrorism, it is clear that a hatred of modernity is its driving force.

The cultural foundation of this society, if we state it as a set of explicit theses, was the view that reason, not revelation, is the instrument of knowledge and arbiter of truth; that science, not religion, gives us the truth about nature; that the pursuit of happiness in this life, not suffering in preparation for the next, is the cardinal value; that reason can and should be used to increase human well-being through economic and technological progress; that the individual person is an end in himself with the capacity to direct his own life, not a slave or a child to be ruled by others; that individuals have equal rights to freedom of thought, speech, and action; that religious belief should be a private affair, tolerance a social virtue, and church and state kept separate; and that we should replace command economies with markets, warfare with trade, and rule by king or commissar with democracy.

It is therefore misleading to call our civilization Christian, even though that remains the largest religion in terms of adherents. The West may still be a culture of Christians, by and large, but it is not a Christian culture anymore. It is a secular culture. And that is what the Islamists hate most about us.

The 9/11 hijackers attacked a temple of modernity.

The al-Qaeda hijackers did not target the Vatican, the capital of Western Christianity whose leaders launched the Crusades. They did not attack the British Foreign Office, which directed colonial policy in the Middle East after World War I. They attacked the World Trade Center, the proud symbol of engineering audacity and global commerce, where businesses from scores of countries (including many Muslim countries) worked in freedom and peace, creating wealth and investing in material progress. Their target, in short, was a temple of modernity. Similarly, Hamas's suicide bombers usually attack Israeli pizza parlors, hotels, and nightclubs, not synagogues.

But we need not rely on symbolism. Islamist writers are explicit in their opposition to the West. Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a prolific writer who has had enormous influence, insisted that "an all-out offensive, a jihad, should be waged against modernity so that … moral rearmament could take place. The ultimate objective is to re-establish the Kingdom of Allah upon earth." Al-Qaeda spokesman Abu Ghaith, in a videotaped statement aired on Al-Jazeera TV after September 11, said, "This battle is a decisive battle between atheism and faith." On an al-Qaeda recruiting tape, bin Laden told budding terrorists that "the love of this world is wrong. You should love the other world...die in the right cause and go to the other world."

Qutb attributed his fundamentalism to the two years he spent in America, which seemed to him "a disastrous combination of avid materialism and egoistic individualism." Mawlana Abu'l-A`la Mawdudi (1903-79), the founder of the fundamentalist Jama`at-i Islami in India and Pakistan, was also militantly opposed to individualism. In an Islamic state, he wrote, "no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this aspect the Islamic state bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states."

In Iran after Khomeini's coup, notes Iranian scholar and diplomat Fereydoun Hoveyda, universities were purged, and many were closed for three years, with non-Islamic faculty dismissed, jailed, or executed. According to Yossef Bodansky's Bin Laden, "What [Islamism] primarily contests is the Western democratic and secular ideology. It wants to appropriate Western technology without embracing its ethos." In sum, Islamist hatred of the West is not directed at Christianity as a rival religion but at modernism as an alternative to religion as such.

Anti-modernism is not unique to the Islamic world. On the contrary, it arose in the West in the middle of the eighteenth century, just as the Enlightenment was coming to full flower. Jean-Jacques Rousseau held that feeling, not reason, is the essential human capacity and civilization the chief cause of human woe. Since we cannot return to our former innocence, people should be forced to submerge their individuality in collective life. Rousseau's ideas were a source of inspiration for the French Revolution, especially the Terror, and have shaped the thinking of subsequent collectivist theorists.

Anti-modernism is not unique to the Islamic world.

Anti-modernism flourished in myriad forms throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Romantic movement elevated feeling over reason and "unspoiled" nature over the new industrial economy. Socialists wanted to restore a communal society, as did many conservatives. Religious revivals swept through Europe and America periodically. And everyone—aristocrats, bohemians, and philosophers alike—denounced the bourgeoisie as selfish money-grubbers. Anti-modernists laid the intellectual and cultural ground for the rise of totalitarian societies in the twentieth century. Today, the predominant forms are postmodernism among the intellectuals, who attack reason, individualism, and capitalism as Western aberrations; and fundamentalist movements in religion, which have been on the rise for the past quarter century among Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.

In all its forms, even on the avant-garde Left, anti-modernism aims to restore pre-Enlightenment values and ways of life. And in all its forms, even on the conservative Right, it is a reaction against the Enlightenment and is thus essentially new. Fundamentalism, for example, is not simply a revival of traditional Christianity, which was much more intellectually sophisticated. Fundamentalism was created in the early twentieth century by Protestants who opposed Darwin.

Islamist movements are of similarly recent origin. They were created not by illiterate Egyptian peasants or nomads in the Arabian desert but by educated people, most of whom were middle- or upper-class. Many of the intellectuals, like Qutb, had lived and studied in the West. Especially after World War II, they were deeply influenced by Western anti-modernists like Martin Heidegger. They read the works of historians like Oswald Spengler who predicted the decline of the West. They read The Wretched of the Earth, by the French Marxist and existentialist Franz Fanon, who urged Third World activists to use revolutionary violence. Conversely, the postmodern Left has frequently embraced the Islamists. Michel Foucault, the French thinker who attacked Western rationalism as a mask for power, welcomed Khomeini's Islamic revolution in Iran as a triumph of spirituality over capitalist materialism.

But modernism also has its defenders within the Islamic world. To cite a few notable examples: Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist in Pakistan, denounces the Islamist hostility toward reason and science: "Muslims…will continue to suffer an undignified and degraded existence if science, and particularly a rational approach to human problems, is considered alien to Islamic culture." Muhammad Charfi, a Tunisian advocate of secular education, led a successful reform of Tunisia's school system while serving as minister of education. Abdou Filali-Ansary, a contemporary Moroccan philosopher, said in a recent interview:

Modernity meant people changing their relationship with both the world and themselves. For the first time, through science, they realized that many things, such as certain weather patterns or illnesses, were not a matter of fate. The social order no longer seemed impossible to change either. Revolutions could sweep away despots and people could improve their living standards.... Democracy and human rights are recent victories won by humanity. The values that the fundamentalists and Huntington say are Western are in fact universal. Democracy is like fire or Arabic numerals—the property of humankind.


At the deepest level, therefore, the war on terrorism is the latest phase of a long and continuing struggle to achieve the promise of modern civilization. The threat posed by the Islamist terrorists derives not from their Islamic background but from the ideas, values, and motivations they share with anti-modernists everywhere—including in the West. In that regard, they have not merely assaulted our civilization. They have attacked civilization as such.

Civilization is the condition a society attains when it emerges from prehistoric barbarism and begins to apply intelligence systematically to the problems of human life, by creating technologies of production like farming, technologies of cognition like writing, and technologies of social order like cities and law.

When we speak of civilizations in the plural, we are referring to the different ways in which the peoples of the world have done this historically. Many of the differences among civilizations—like personality differences among individuals—are matters of taste and historical circumstance. Such diversity is to be welcomed. Among the differences that matter, that represent issues of objective and enduring human value, every civilization has contributed something to human development. The culture of modernity is one of these permanent contributions—the most important. Though Western in origin, it is not a Western good per se but a human good. It has vastly expanded our knowledge of the world; brought a vast increase in wealth, comfort, safety, and health; and created social institutions in which humans can flourish. It represents an advance in civilization as such. As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, said in a 1924 speech to his nation, "Countries may vary, but civilization is one, and for a nation to progress, it must take part in this one civilization."

Conversely, anti-modernism is not simply loyalty to pre-modern stages of civilization on the part of people who have not yet discovered reason and individualism. It is a postmodern reaction by people who have seen modernity and turned against it, who hate and wish to destroy it. This is a profoundly anti-human outlook, and there can be no compromise with it. As we take aim at the terrorists who have attacked us, we must also take intellectual aim at the ideas that inspire them.

David Kelley


David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.

Ideas and Ideologies
Religion and Atheism