Osama bin Laden and the Idea of Progress

  • Share
  • Read Later
Early in the last century, the greatest thinkers of the age predicted that three dominant historical ideas would die out by the beginning of this century.

Marx foresaw the end of ethnic nationalism, asserting that people would realize they were linked by economic interests rather than birth or blood. Freud prophesized the end of religious fundamentalism, claiming that belief in a literal God would fall away with the understanding of psychology. And, finally, Einstein's theory of relativity overthrew the concept that time and space were fixed and unvarying, undermining the idea that there was such a thing as absolute truth and pure objectivity.

None of those gentlemen could foresee the rise of an historical figure like Osama bin Laden, who seems in himself to personify the continued existence — and perversion — of all those ideas. Ethnic nationalism is as passionate a cause today as any time since World War I. Religious fundamentalism is not only on the rise in the Islamic world, but among Christians and Jews as well. And there is no dearth of extremists like bin Laden who believe they are the last word in absolute truth.

None of those ideas, nationalism, fundamentalism, or the belief in absolute truth, is good or bad in and of itself. Like Aristotle's view of rhetoric as a tool that could be used for good or ill, they're neutral concepts that are open to abuse, and only become dangerous when pressed too far.

We support ethnic nationalism in places like East Timor, but in Serbia that same emotion turned murderous. Religious fundamentalism is fine for, say, Mormons, but when it metastasizes into terrorism, it is noxious. Certainty is fine when the right people are certain, but things get dicey when, as Yeats wrote, "the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity."

But what is so disturbing to us in the West about the rise of terrorism linked to religious extremism is that it subverts perhaps our greatest article of faith: our belief in the idea of progress. Because it is our faith in the idea of progress, in the idea that the human race is somehow evolving, that allows us to view nationalism, religion, and moral certainty as benign.

The American faith in progress as inevitable and inexorable is one of the things that defines us as Americans. America was founded on the Enlightenment idea that the expansion of knowledge — scientific, political, even moral — would inevitably make life better and better for all of us.

But somehow the rise of Osama bin Laden and terrorist extremism seems to call progress into question. Bin Laden and his followers embrace a medieval notion of religion and society (except of course when it comes to weapons, when they'd like to be scientifically up-to the minute). They missed out completely on the Enlightenment notion that the sacred and the secular should be kept separate as well as the 18th century notion that mankind had finally entered the age of reason.

Instead, bin Laden divides the world into believers and non-believers, that is, Muslims and infidels. He believes Islam needs to be purified and turned back a thousand years. He has identified himself and his followers as adoring death. He told a Pakistani interviewer after 9/11: "We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us."

Yes, it is. The world is indeed divided into two groups, those who believe in the idea of progress, and those who don't.