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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.