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War for the Terms of Modernity

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Last week's attack on Paris is the latest act of mass homicide and media grandstanding in the Islamist terrorists' long war for the terms of modernity.

That name frames the fight as a multigenerational struggle with very basic cultural, political and historical stakes. War acknowledges the military dimension; "terms of modernity" indicates that the cultural struggles may be determinative.


Paris is France's capital; France opposes the Islamic State in the Levant, ISIL, al-Qaida's latest avatar. It is also a global icon one type of modernity. It is a city of free inquiry, great wine, fabulous art and a cosmopolitan nightlife.

Islamic terrorist and self-proclaimed ISIL caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, despises this Paris of inquiry and fun. Baghdadi fights for a different global future, one of grim puritanism that would shut down The City of Light.

Baghdadi's terms of modernity differ sharply from those promoted by this random list of personalities: French President Francois Hollande, U.S. President Barack Obama, Kim Kardashian, Pope Francis, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

They all have differing opinions, philosophies and goals. And that's the point. They represent a modernity of options.

The phrase "War for the Terms of Modernity" appeared in a 2008 column of mine that drew on a November 2001 essay that framed al-Qaida's 9/11 attacks as operations in a "fight for the future."

Paris 2015 is another operation in that same fight.

The fall 2001 column portrayed Osama Bin Laden-type extremists as "imperial restorationists." Their terms of modernity fossilized in a utopian 11th Century or earlier. Restoring Islam's imperial past requires correcting history. If that entails decades of murdering Americans, infidels and Muslim apostates, so be it.

The terms of modernity in the free societies Bin Laden and his successors despise have historical roots; the Enlightenment and the Treaty of Westphalia are two significant examples. Enlightenment skepticism spurred scientific inquiry and technological success that spurred economic development.


After the disaster of the 30 Years War, Westphalia attempted to separate religion and politics. Catholic princes would tolerate Protestant subjects, and vice versa. It took a couple of centuries, but Europe and North America began producing societies that were experiments in "liberating reform"; they were political experiments permitting individual freedom of expression, which would include free expression of religious faith.

In contrast, violent Islamist utopian idealists only permit their expression of religious faith.

Democracy, as a vehicle for freedom, is never perfected. Because they hold regular and meaningful elections -- which produce peaceful changes in power -- democracies structurally deny the possibility of human perfection, at least on Earth. Like communists, violent Islamists are peculiar utopians, convinced they create a perfect society that, once created, will remain perfect. Shared utopianism is one reason al-Qaida -- and now ISIL -- find it useful to rework anti-U.S. and anti-democracy communist propaganda tropes. The Guantanamo Bay gnashing and wailing is revised communist Cold War-era agitprop.

Al-Bagdadhi shares Bin Laden' s goals of correcting history. He did Bin Laden one better by proclaiming himself caliph. History has been going wrong for Islamic expansionists since at least the 16th century, but really took a nosedive in 1924 when Turkey's reforming general and political genius, Kemal Ataturk, ended the caliphate.


In fall 2001, Bin Laden released a tape where he damned "80 years" of Muslim indignation. He was referring to Ataturk's decision. In 2001, Islamist terrorists attacked America, but the source of greatest Islamist pain was a Muslim modernizer's decision to dispense with it because it was a culturally and socially stultifying political institution.

The Paris tragedy gives the leaders our planet's free societies an opportunity to use military power to destroy ISIL. It needs to be destroyed. Yes, we may have to destroy ISIL 2.0 in 10 years. Free societies need very good soldiers. Paris is also an opportunity to stress the value of our modernity of options and address, with extreme frankness, the historical, cultural and psychological origins of ISIL's resentment and violent ignorance.

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