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Terror and Liberalism

© 2003, Paul Berman, published by W.W. Norton & Company, Ltd. ISBN 0-393-05775-5

Paul Berman is a leading liberal thinker, but in this book he almost completely avoids politics to think deeply and philosophically about the rise of Islamic terror and the way that the rest of the world has responded to it.

He starts by examining the rise of both far-right (Mussolini, Hitler) and far-left (Stalin) movements during the twentieth century.

During the whole of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, a great many enlightened and progressive thinkers had supposed that a main danger, perhaps the principal danger, to modern civilization came from a single political tendency, which was the extreme right, and mostly from a single country, which was Germany, the sworn foe of the French Revolution. But that sort of outlook seemed hopelessly antique by 1950. In the new era, no one doubted that political movements on the extreme right could still make you worry. No one felt much confidence in Germany and its political traditions. But the midcentury writers saw all too plainly that a danger to civilization had meanwhile cropped up in Russia and among the hard-bitten Stalinists, and among other people too.
In examining these various movements, he notes common a common theme, "the rebellion that begins with freedom and ends with crime". Digging deeper and turning as well to literature from Camus, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire and others, he discovers the underlying myth that drives each: a myth taken directly from the Book Of Revelations:
The people of God are under attack. The attack comes from within. It is a subversive attack mounted by the city dwellers of Babylon, who are wealthy and have access to things from around the world, which they trade ... These city dwellers have sunk into abominations. They have been polluted by the whore of Babylon. The pollution is spreading to the people of God. Such is the attack from within. There is also an attack from without - conducted from afar by the forces of Satan, who is worshiped at the synagogue of Satan. But these attacks, from within and without, will be violently resisted. The war of Armageddon will take place. The subversive and polluted city dwellers of Babylon will be exterminated, together with all their abominations. The Satanic forces from the mystic beyond will be fended off. The destruction will by horrifying. Yet there is nothing to fear: the destruction will last only an hour. Afterward, when the extermination is complete, the reign of Christ will be established and will endure a thousand years. And the people of God will live in purity, submissive to God.
For the Bolsheviks and Stalinists, the Satanic force was capitalism; for the Nazi's the forces were American and Russian technology threatening from both sides and Jews from within. The Bolsheviks and Stalinists looked forward to the Age of the Proletariat after the battle, while the Fascists looked for the resurrected Roman Empire, the Spanish Phalange promised the Reign of Christ the King and Hitler had his Thousand Year Reich. In all cases, the new reign would be perfectly pure and last a thousand years. Each of the movements had at its center a single charismatic individual who was the living symbol of the cause; an individual so powerful as to be godlike and above morality. All of these movements, then, used the same underlying myth, appropriately modified for the circumstances, to sell the revolution to the people.

Each of these promised an all-exterminating bloodbath. Stalin had his Class War, the Fascists had their Crusade and Hitler had his race war. Each promised to make things better, perfect even, for the people... eventually. For the immediate present, there was going to be slaughter.

Berman next takes a deep look at the intellectual underpinning of the Islamist movement. Interestingly, they have western roots. Many of the Islamic thinkers and leaders have been educated in the west, particularly in Paris.

Baath Socialism is a branch of the larger Pan-Arab movement, founded by Satia al-Husri in the years after the First World War on the basis of his philosophical studies. These studies were in Fichte and the German Romantics - the philosophers of national destiny, of race, and of the integrity of national churches.
... in Egypt during those years {the formative years of the Muslim Brotherhood}, a sympathy for the European extreme right and even for Nazism was fairly common. The militants of the Young Egypt Society, the "Greenshirts" were openly pro-Nazi. The Muslim Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al-Banna, expressed "considerable admiration for the Nazi Brownshirts". His organization did choose to designate its organizational units as kata'ib or phalanges, in the Franco style.
After these superficial similarities between what was becoming Muslim totalitarianism and European movements and philosophies, Berman turns to a single intellectual whose writings have inspired a generation of Islamist scholars and leaders: Sayyid Qutb.

Qutb was born in 1906 and grew up in Egypt receiving a proper religious education. As a young man Qutb had a passing interest in socialism, but then took up literature, writing books that had a "Western-tinged outlook on cultural and literary questions." He traveled in the United States and got a master's in education from the University of Northern Colorado. He then returned to Egypt and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood eventually parted ways and Nasser went on to jail Qutb as a danger to Egypt. From jail, Qutb wrote a series of profound works that explained his view of the world.

Berman spends a good deal of time with Qutb and it's all fascinating. His magnum opus, In the Shade of the Qur'an, gets the most attention, but other works are analyzed as well. Here, in a nutshell, is Qutb's story: When Jesus came, the Jews weren't interested in a new prophet. They had their own hierarchy and the ones at the top wanted to defend their position. As a result, Jesus' following was gentiles, who had their own problems with the Jews. As time went on, the two factions fought and the real words of Jesus were twisted in the process. The New Testament we read today is not really Jesus' word. When Mohammed came, he was also rejected by the Jews, which pushed them further into corruption - a corruption so bad they need to be removed from the present day world. Islam flowered, however, and quickly became a dominate force in the world; inventing the scientific method and benefiting from it. Soon, however, the Muslim world fell away from strict observance and, as a result, lost their dominance in world affairs. Science made its way to the west, where it was put to use against Islam. It extracted a price, however. The principles of science were consistent with Islam, but they conflicted with the Christian Church. As this split widened - the Church on one side with the physical world and natural sciences on the other - modern people of the west were locked into a kind of schizophrenia, with religion at constant conflict with science and reality. Not only did this drive westerners mad, but they were spreading the contagion through their power into Islamic lands. Ultimately, they would taint Islam itself. Thus the enemy of Islam was the separation of church and state and, to protect itself, Islam must fight a holy war on behalf of all peoples and bring the benefits of Islam to all.

Qutb's writings were very influential, and when the Muslim Brotherhood fled from Egypt, they took his writings and philosophies with them. One of the places they fled was Saudi Arabia. Qutb's own brother, Muhammad, helped shape Saudi Wahhabi Islam and spread it around the world. Another figure in this spread was Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, who had been a friend of Qutb's and had later taught in Saudi Arabia. His Office for Services, in Peshawar, Pakistan gathered Islamist fighters from around the world and sent them to fight in Pakistan. His office was also the birthplace of al Qaeda. One of his followers, Osama bin Laden, split off to found his own more radical faction, along with Egyptian Islamists, Sheikh Rahman and Dr. Zawahiri.

By this time the pattern should be clear. Islamism, in its radical, militant form, is just a Muslim version of the very tried and true formula that fuels all modern totalitarian movements. In this case, the debilitating external threat is the schizophrenia of western thought and the separation of church and state. Internally, there are those Muslims who allow themselves to be seduced by western culture; they must be rooted out (and the Jews, of course). A slaughter must begin of the enemies of Islam that will result in a thousand years of pure, Islamic state. At the head of the movements are various Leaders; with total power and above morality: Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and so on. Just another chapter in a book now full of eighty years of slaughter:

Benhadj said, "If a faith, a belief, is not watered and irrigated by blood, it does not grow. It does not live. Principles are reinforced by sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom for Allah. Faith is propagated by counting up deaths every day, by adding up massacres and charnel-houses. It hardly matters if the person who had been sacrificed is no longer there. He has won." I could go on quoting - but, enough. Surely this, you will say, cannot be Western - surely this kind of talk, at last, is exotic! But this is how the leaders of Germany used to speak, sixty years ago. Bolsheviks were not afraid to speak like that. Viva la muerte! said Franco's general. This is not exotic. This is the totalitarian cult of death. This is the terrible thing that got underway more than eighty years ago.

Berman next goes on to tackle the west's reaction, or lack thereof, to this totalitarian movement. Why didn't the west see this movement with alarm, even before 9/11? Why do many political liberals in the west still refuse to see Islamism as a totalitarian death cult? Because we, in our western culture have a deep belief in rationalism. We believe every madness can be understood and explained. The same beliefs, Berman says, kept the people of Europe from seeing Hitler in his true light until it was too late. The beliefs kept the French anti-war socialists in the dark so long during WW II that some of them found themselves in the Vichy government. In the 1990's it kept much of Europe from seeing the conflicts in Kosovo and Yugoslavia in their true light until it was too late.

Berman illustrates all of this with extensive reference to history and literature (particularly the modern rants of uber-liberal Noam Chomsky). It's not all on the political left, either:

But I see that, in taking note of ideological systems of denial that have been operating in the Western countries for the last sixty-five years or so, I have selected examples only from the political left, from the anti-war French Socialists of the 1930's to the days of Jose Saramago and Noam Chomsky. I don't mean to go after the left, however. My purpose is to identify a rationalist naivete that is shared by almost every part of modern liberal society - a spirit of the ingenuous that blossoms everywhere along the political spectrum, and even in the bureaucracies that are not supposed to be ideological. For what are we to think of the FBI and CIA and their failure, in the years before the 9/11 attack, to imagine the dangers facing the United States?
The 9/11 attacks revealed many unexpected and astonishing truths, but surely the most astonishing of all was that, in Arlington, Virginia, the Pentagon had no plan to defend the Pentagon. Everyone, unto the chiefest of Indian chiefs, turned out to be a simpleminded rationalist, expecting the world to act in sensible ways, without mystery, self-contradiction, murk, or madness. In this country, we are all Noam Chomsky.
Berman sees our inability to cope with these new totalitarian threats as the result of many, many different failures in world society (but not the ones you usually hear about with respect to terrorism):
Right now we are beset with terrorists from the Muslim totalitarian movements, who have already killed and astounding number of people, mostly in the Muslim countries, but not just there. What have we needed for these terrorists to prosper? We have needed immense failures of political courage and imagination within the Muslim world. We have needed an almost willful lack of curiosity about those failures by people in other parts of the world... We have needed handsome doses of wishful thinking... We have needed a political left that, in its anti-imperialist fervers, has lost the ability to stand up to fascism... We have needed a cynical application of "realist" or Nixonian doctrines over the decades - the doctrines that governed the Gulf War of 1991, the doctrines that even now lead to friendly ties with the most reactionary of feudal systems. We have needed and inability to cling to our own liberal and democratic principles, an inability even to articulate those principles. We have needed a provincial ignorance about intellectual currents in other parts of the world. We have needed foolish resentments in Europe, and a foolish arrogance in America. We have needed so many things!

We can now all work to fix these things. The totalitarians are on the march again and the bloodbath has already started. Berman's work here will be discussed for decades. It's solid scholarship, written well.


There are some whose response to Islamic terrorism is to go on a mission to figure out "why they hate us". I think this is misguided.

This is because this attitude immediatelty gives up all moral high ground and reduces all parties to equals. We should never concede that there is any excuse for intentionally murdering innocent bystanders (and, of course, there is a huge moral difference between intentional murder and accidental death by stray gunfire or misguided bombs - if you accidentally run over someone with your car, do you turn yourself into the police as a murderer?).

Lots of people, all around the world, have legitimate grievances against other people. No grievance, however, no matter how great, can be allowed as an excuse to murder. Ghandi's people had grievances as good as any ever presented, but he didn't set out to kill English children.

Would anyone support the Jews in a terror campaign against the Germans (and the rest of Europe)? After all, the Germans killed a few million Jews and the rest of Europe then proceeded to run the survivors off the continent and back to the homeland the Romans had run them off of before. And then thousands more died adapting to the new conditions. Pretty serious grievance, eh?

But no, of course we would never support such a campaign of terror, because it is so obviously wrong. We need to draw a firm line: no terror campaign is ever justified. No matter how bad you think you've been abused, you don't have the right to take it out on other innocent people.

Once you've even allowed the possibility that suicide bombing a school bus is an excusable way of seeking to right perceived wrongs, then you have given up any possible moral argument and have basically conceded that any grievance is worth murdering over. There's a certain bit of racism here too: if you're willing to let Muslims behave in ways you would never let other "civilized" people behave, you're not exactly paying them a compliment.

I'm not saying here that we shouldn't try to understand what grievances people have against us and deal with them fairly. I'm saying that terrorism should never be allowed any excuse. Any group who uses murder to terrorize another group should be stopped and should be condemned by all good people everywhere.

The failure of this condemnation to arise amongst so many of the progressives of the world in response to Islamic-fueled terrorism is a major them of Berman's book. Why should such ostensibly good and compassionate people be unwilling to condemn the murder of innocents?

I don't know the answer and I don't find most of Berman's answers compelling. If you're one of these progressives (liberals with a small "L", that is), you'll have to ask yourself.

When I came to finally read Berman's book in 2005, I found most of its ideas already familiar to me. After briefly heralding my own genius, it became apparent to me there is a more likely explanation: since this book was published in 2003 its ideas have become widely disseminated through the media and other literature. This book had a big impact, mainly because it helped to explain a fact that puzzled and frightened many Western observers - why those marching jihadists looked and sounded so much like Nazis and Bolsheviks.

That's the "Terror" part; but what about the "Liberalism" part? I found most fascinating Berman's look at how the left wing views terrorism. Not succumbing to the psychological need to protect his own against all criticism, he is nevertheless judicious and allows those he examines to retain their humanity. This is a courtesy that is becoming increasingly rare on both sides of the aisle, which is perhaps what makes such acts of self-reflection valuable in their insights. Berman penetrated to the heart of a problem that has plagued me since the planes hit those towers.

In another time and place I might have called myself a "liberal". Labels don't really matter, but they do inasmuch as we all understand a particular meaning and set of beliefs to be behind them. There was a time when this label might plausibly have meant someone who believed in using state power (which is the most effective world-historical implement) to expand the realm of the world that enjoys human rights, freedom and the rule of law. Liberals are hardly shy about the use of state power to make the world a better place, and nor am I. Under such a definition, liberals would staunchly oppose movements that run counter to this goal - Nazism, Communism, and religious fundamentalism.

Liberalism since World War II has an uneven record in opposing totalitarianism. Sometimes its adherents were ciphers, sometimes - and this is Berman's thesis - they just didn't understand what they were up against. Liberalism speaks with the language of human rights, justice and freedom, and then betrays its highest goals with its sympathies. We are left with a situation where, as Berman points out, the largest demonstration in the history of the human race had the stated goal of keeping Saddam Hussein in power. The exact goal may have been phrased differently ("No American troops in Iraq"), but this would have been the effect of the demands. If the ten million people who protested on February 15, 2003 had their way, Saddam would still be in power.1 He would still be killing, shooting at American planes protecting the Kurds and Marsh Arabs, and seeking weapons of mass destruction.

A liberalism I could get excited about would see Islamofascism and gag. It would look at the death camps of North Korea and see that here lies the real evil of the world. I am not suggesting that the left wing nowadays views these things with pleasure. Rather, they appear not to view them at all. They focus almost entirely on faulting civilization. North Korea carries out forced abortions with coat-hangers on women in death camps, and Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq pretend to offer men jobs so they can attract a crowd to blow up. But in America, the PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to view phone records after weeks of paperwork and judicial warrants. So there are abuses on both sides.

This all bears a strange similarity to how genocide has usually been viewed in the United States - indeed, how the current tragedy of Darfur is playing out. Liberals were often the most immune to this problem, in the past. Genocide is usually met with a mixture of scepticism, denial, and scapegoating. It is clear that what is happening in Darfur now is a catastrophic slaughter directed from Khartoum. A civil war requires two sides that are fighting - this is a civil massacre. Yet, we are told of abuses on both sides. During the genocide in the Balkans, it sometimes happened that a group of Bosniaks would get around the arms embargo and get hold of some light weapons. They would strike out ineffectually at their tormentors, and the myth of atrocities "on all sides" would be perpetuated.

Herein lies that common criticism of modern liberalism - that it "blames America first". Modern liberalism looks at suicide terrorism, and it blames the victims - Israel and America. The incidence of an event like the Beslan massacre is viewed as almost inevitable when it comes, and people profess not to be surprised with each escalation of barbarity. They nod sagely at incidents which surely deserve to be labelled pure evil (if we are to admit this term has any validity) and think they understand. They think they have a simple explanation.

The explanation is simply to lump blame on the victim. Here is where Berman is most illuminating. He notes that at the height of the second intifada, after Yasser Arafat sold his people out at Camp David, support for the Palestinians and demonization of Israel were both at their height. Arafat walked away from the table at Camp David, fashioned his olive branch into a spear and launched it at Israeli civilians. As the depravity of the Islamic factions reached new heights, condemnation of Israel followed to the same giddy summits. Such barbarism by the Palestinians surely had to be the fault of their oppressors, who soon found themselves compared to the apartheid regime in South Africa and Adolf Hitler.

Witness Jenin. There was no massacre at Jenin. Yet all Israel's critics wanted to talk about as the bombs exploded in Jerusalem was the "war crimes" at the Jenin refugee camp. Such make-believe atrocities were all that could possibly justify the actions of the Palestinian terrorists, and so fairy land had to be trawled for such stories. The supposed depravity of Israel was the only thing that justified the all too apparent depravity of the Palestinian terrorists. Under such logic, the victim had to be responsible for every new wound inflicted on him.

As Berman implies but never directly says, when one is unable to recognize the true nature of reality and causality, one is prone not only to ineffectualness, but also to injustice. When faced with a totalitarian evil, it can either be assumed that the movement is what it appears to be, or that it is caused by a greater evil still. The increased ferocity of our enemy's attacks inspires renewed denunciation of the wrong group. And the injustice of liberalism's view of terror lies not in condoning it (for it does not), but in spending far too much time faulting civilization and not nearly enough confronting barbarism. Such a standpoint is not likely to expand the realm of freedom in the world.

1. Incredibly, Moscow, a city of over ten million people (Europe's largest), managed to muster a protest of only 300 people. Here is a city with real things to worry about.

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