Paul Berman’s Terror And Liberalism

Terror And LiberalismDespite its meandering style, Terror And Liberalism has a very simple thesis: Islamic extremism is best understood as a fascistic political force, inspired by the great totalitarian movements of the 20th century, and much of the anti-war Left (the book was written in 2003, just as America began its invasion of Iraq) has been blinded to this fact, either out of an eagerness to view America in the worst possible terms, or more seriously, out of a fundamental flaw in the philosophy of liberalism. From where I stand, more than a decade removed from the book’s initial publication, with liberal politicians across Europe and North America demonstrating some combination of incompetence and cowardice at every opportunity, and the ascendance of far-right groups like Germany’s Pegida and France’s Golden Dawn, it is this latter point that is most interesting and most concerning.

In his Preface, Berman uses the example of the Washington anti-war demonstrations to illustrate his point:

[…] there were a thousand reasons to demonstrate against the invasion, and some of those reasons were quite respectable, in my eyes; and some of them, not. Yet all of those reasonings, in their splendid variety, led to the same spectacular fact. The largest mass demonstrations in the history of the world were aimed at preventing the overthrow of one of the worst tyrannies in the modern age.

Finding himself in a position now familiar to me, as a liberal alienated by the main currents of thought in liberalism, Berman begins by summarizing the case against Saddam, beginning with the First Gulf War, and the stubborn refusal of liberal intellectuals to acknowledge his particular brand of evil, or credit the United States for attempting to combat it. “And, sure enough, the 1991 war, which resembled the Vietnam War not at all, resembled the First World War quite a lot. A seeming victory that turned out to be a defeat. A victory that required a second round, graver and more dangerous than the first.”

The real war is an ideological one, and the only path to a lasting victory involves confronting this uncomfortable truth. It is to this end that Berman invokes the figure of Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim theologian executed by Egypt’s Gamal Nasser and perhaps the single most influential Islamic scholar of the 20th century. Qutb spent two years in the United States, appraising its moral and spiritual conditions, and found them hopelessly wanting. Echoes of his criticisms of America can be found in the screeds of ISIS, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Berman is adamant that we understand, as so few liberal Westerners have, that this is an attack not on some perversion or misapplication of our values, but the actual values themselves: “His [Qutb’s] deepest quarrel was not with America’s failure to uphold its principles. His quarrel was with the principles. He opposed the United States because it was a liberal society, and not because it failed to be a liberal society.” Qutb repurposed an old Islamic term, jahili, which described the benighted condition of Arabia prior to the arrival of Islam; this, he argued, in tracts such as “The America I Have Seen,” was the condition of the West, of liberal democracy. And so it was the mission of all Muslims to spread their faith, to make it the guiding light for all of society:

He wanted Muslims to remember that, in Islam, the divine is everything, or it is not divine. He wanted Muslims to understand that God cannot be shunted into a corner. He wanted Muslims to appreciate that, if God is the only God, God must rule over everything. Every one of Qutb’s cultural and social criticisms was meant to illustrate and augment that single, all-important fact.

Qutb, for all his theological fanaticism, does not argue for murder or religious warfare; his primary concerns are for Muslim societies, though his criticisms are equally levelled at Western ones. But his followers have not been so strict in their interpretation of his words, and the militant movements that now plague the Middle East and operate in the shadows of Western society do not share his scruples about violence. Here, for example, is Abdullah Azzam, an Islamic scholar and one of the founding members of al-Qaeda:

The extent to which the number of martyred scholars increases is the extent to which nations are delivered from their slumber, rescued from their decline and awoken from their sleep. […] History does not write its lines except with blood. Glory does not build its lofty edifice except with skulls. Honor and respect cannot be established except on a foundation of cripples and corpses.

Berman goes on to quote Ali Benhadj, another Islamic “scholar”:

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 has been sacrificed is no longer there. He has won.

This is a fanaticism the West has not seen since Hitler, Berman argues, and liberalism is ill-equipped to fight it for it cannot, at a fundamental level, understand it. For those governed by reason (or who believe themselves to be governed by reason, at any rate), fanaticism must be understood in rational terms or not at all. The possibility of an irrational hatred is never even considered. Here is Berman’s appraisal of the liberal mind as it grapples with, for example, suicide terror:

[…] let us suppose that, in some remote tropical backwater or untracked desert, a social or political movement does appear to be showing, in fact, signs of a pathological attachment to murder and suicide. In that case, there has got to be a rational explanation. Perhaps some unspeakable social condition has provoked the murderous impulse. Perhaps small groups of exploiters or imperialists, through their terrible deeds, have driven thousands or even millions of people out of their minds. Perhaps a population has been humiliated beyond human endurance. Unbearable social conditions might well breed irrational reactions – though, in such a case, the irrational reactions out not to be seen as irrational. For the human race does not generally act in irrational ways.

Thus the standard response after every act of unimaginable horror targeted at innocent civilians: a lone radical; an avenger of American imperialism or Western blasphemy; a reaction against Israel or support for Israel. Britain is targeted for its involvement in the Iraq war; France, which was not involved, for its history of colonialism; likewise Belgium. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, this is masochism offered to us by sadists.

I will quote Berman one last time, describing the failure of the United Nations to intervene in the 1995 Bosnian genocide:

The language of international accords, of human rights and humanitarianism, of “Europe,” of civilization and of the United Nations – this language, the modest rhetoric of 1989, turned out to be hopelessly ambiguous: a language of action that was all too easily converted into a language of inaction; a language that people could wear like an armband to show they were morally committed, when, in reality, they were thinking of dinner all along; an idealistic language that was also a cynical language.

Facebook has offered a new feature, to be activated in response to terrorism. When an attack occurs, you can add a filter to your profile photo, bathing your profile photo in the colors of the French, or British, or Belgian flag. This is our hollow gesture, our “cynical language,” and the pitiful measure of our resolve continues to embolden the new enemies of civilization.