“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.