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Islamism and Modernity; Lou Dobbs is Right

Islamism and Modernity; Lou Dobbs is Right

4 Mins
June 10, 2002

CNN’s Lou Dobbs has come in for criticism for saying something sensible and insightful. It is too vague and too politically correct to call America’s post-September 11th conflict a “war against terrorism.” He observes that “the enemies in this war are radical Islamists who argue all non-believers in their faith must be killed. They are called Islamists.” He emphasizes that “this is not a war against Muslims or Islam. It is a war against Islamists and all who support them.”

“Islam” is the name of the religion founded by Mohammad, and believers are called “Muslims,” but “Islamism” is the name for the political-religious ideology of Osama bin Laden and others like him in many countries.

What are the goals of the Islamist jihad? Some commentators maintain that the conflict is between Islam and the West as civilizations, each of them united by a shared history, religion, and way of life.

Fourteen centuries ago, armies inspired by Mohammad created an Islamic empire stretching from Spain to Afghanistan. Christendom was its only enduring enemy and rival. For nearly a millennium, Islam was the stronger civilization: wealthier, more powerful, and more advanced culturally.

"a jihad…should be waged against modernity..."  —Sayyid Qutb

By the seventeenth century, 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. The result, say many observers, is a feeling of humiliation at the rise of what many Muslims see as an inferior culture.

This certainly represents part of the truth, but not the fundamental truth. The current war is not against the United States or even the West per se but against the culture of modernity. Modernity was born in the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the West but it is not inherently tied to any one society. Modernity is based on the theses 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, and thus deserves rights to freedom of thought, speech, and action; and that religious belief should be a private affair, tolerance a social virtue, and church and state kept separate.

Islamists are clear that they hate this worldview. Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, insisted that “a jihad…should be waged against modernity…The ultimate objective is to re-establish the Kingdom of Allah upon earth.” Bin Laden himself says, "The love of this world is wrong. You should love the other world...die in the right cause and go to the other world." Islamist Mawlana Abu'l-A’la Mawdudi 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."

Anti-modernism is not unique to the Islamic world. In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau held that feeling, not reason, is the essential human capacity, that civilization is the chief cause of human woe, and that people should be forced to submerge their individuality in collective life. In the nineteenth century, 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. On the other hand, many leaders in Islamic lands have sought to bring the benefits of modernity to their own countries—most notably Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder modern Turkey.

At the deepest level, the war on terrorism is the latest phase of a continuing struggle to achieve the promise of modern civilization. The threat posed by the Islamists comes not from their Islamic background but from their anti-modernist creed. 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—wherever those ideas are put forward.

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.

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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
Values and Morals
Religion and Atheism
History of Philosophy