A review of Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman

In the war against terrorism they also serve who only sit and write. Terror and Liberalism is all about knowing our enemy in that war. Paul Berman is not an Arabist or an academic or expert of any sort. He just reads the books of experts. He also goes to the trouble of reading Islamist literature in translation, and thanks to Saudi subventions, there's plenty of it available. His own prose is forceful and urgent.

Berman's thesis is simple, and all the more arresting for that. "The terror war is not an imperialist war. Nor is it a clash of civilizations. The terror war is a new phase of the war that broke out in Europe more than eighty years ago and has never come to an end." In the terror war we confront the new face of an old enemy, totalitarianism.

In Islamic terror we have met the enemy and he is us. And this is so not just because totalitarianism is no more an "Islamic" phenomenon than a "Christian" one, no more an "Eastern" phenomenon than a "Western" one, but because the origins of totalitarianism are entirely Western and Christian. The war with terror is not a clash of civilizations because terrorism/totalitarianism (which Berman, following Albert Camus, declares to be one and the same) first emerged from the bosom of our civilization, which exported it to Islam. 

Obviously, Berman is not alone in denying the claim of the terrorists that theirs is the authentic Islam, or in calling attention to the actual novelty of these supposedly pristine sects. Nor is he the first to remark the Western contribution to both the (nominally secularist) Ba'athist and the "fundamentalist" movements in Islam. What distinguishes him is his almost total assimilation of these movements to a certain strain in Western nihilism. 

Berman therefore offers a history of Western nihilism, or at least of its totalitarian strain. This account is lurid all right, but may strike the reader as more anecdotal than analytic. It also suffers from its dependence on Camus' The Rebel, a highly tendentious exercise. Berman lumps together seemingly quite diverse episodes, from the aesthetic dandyism of Victor Hugo, through the merciless colonial policy of Belgium in the Congo —all of a piece, in Berman's telling, with Russian and other anarchist movements in the nihilistic dedication to killing for killing's sake—to the carnage of World War I, again adduced as an example of the underlying pattern. Thereafter the cult of violence spins completely out of control in fascist and Marxist totalitarianism, in which boundless rebelliousness morphs into total submission. And then, at a certain point and by various means, the virus passes to Islam.

The question is whether we can follow Berman in casting every significant instance of European violence as an expression of a profound and primary love of annihilation, of a nihilism or boundless rebelliousness. Especially since Berman himself (again following Camus) muddies the waters by admitting to the lofty ideals animating many of these movements, which pretty much disqualifies them from being considered nihilistic. 

The plot thickens (or thins further?) when Berman takes up a somewhat different argument, this one owed to Norman Cohn and André Glucksmann. It is that all the apostles of mass violence, whether in foreign war or civil, whether on the Left or the Right, whether in Italy, Germany, Russia, or the Congo, were acting out a script borrowed from the Book of Revelation, a drama of purification through violence to achieve an earthly paradise reserved only for the elect. Thus did total rebellion pass over into total submission to the Apocalyptic Leader of what was ultimately a cult of death. This, apparently, is what you get for sending your kids to Sunday school.

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Just as Berman's rubric of violence for violence's sake is too broad, so this account of totalitarianism is not just simplistic but hokey. Yes, Christian millennialist expectations must play some role in the explanation of modern hopefulness. We don't need Cohn or Glucksmann to tell us that. But to blame totalitarianism primarily on archetypes furnished by the Apocalypse is more cartoonish than convincing. Or is Berman's argument actually that Christian eschatology merely expresses a universally powerful human archetype? The book provides no clear answer.

This is the weaker part of Berman's book. It is at odds with the strongest one, his riveting account of the metastasis of this European pathology of terror throughout the world of Islam. For if rebelliousness, as the Islamist intellectual Tariq Ramadan contends, is a Biblical or Western tendency to which nothing Islamic corresponds, it seems hard to explain the eagerness with which Muslims have embraced it, first of all in its Marxist version, subsequently in its Fascist (Ba'athist) and Islamist ones. (Or is it that Muslim totalitarians plunge into the stage of submission without having passed through that of rebellion?) Nor does Berman consider that the well-established (and often very bloody) Islamic traditions of renewal and jihad go some way to explaining the appeal of Islamism. (He does allude to the Koranic basis of Jew hatred.) In any case, "having exported everything else, why should Europe have been unable to export its spirit of self-destruction, too?"

Why not, indeed. Berman offers a fascinating account of the thought of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the greatest theorist of modern Islamism. While not exactly sympathetic, Berman certainly strives to be fair, and succeeds in conveying the immense power of Qutb's critique of Western ways and the threat they posed to Islam. Yet already in Qutb's works, with their discussions of freedom, dignity, and equality, we confront the genius of Islam for adapting and co-opting alien thought. Berman carries forward this theme in his treatment of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who borrowed from Western socialism to transform Shiite Islam into fanaticism for the dispossessed masses. Berman's account of Islamist and Ba'athist theory is followed by a truly horrific record of their practices, from one end of the Islamic world to the other. "The victims numbered in the millions. And yet…Muslim totalitarianism, both Islamist and Baathi, somehow remained invisible, relatively speaking, to the Western countries."

You won't find a sharper critique anywhere of the Western apologists for terrorism, from Noam Chomsky and Jose Saramago on down. Chomsky obstinately refuses to get it. He clings to an ostrichlike rationalism by ascribing terrorism to "root causes": someone must be to blame for making terrorism a rational alternative, namely, America or the Jews. Here he has plenty of company, including those successive American administrations that simply could not grasp either the dimensions or the intransigence of the Islamist threat. "The rationalization of suicide terror sunk at last to levels that had been reached, long ago [sc. in 1939] by the anti-war faction of the old French Socialists, and the beautiful souls of the European literary class found themselves once again deposited willy-nilly on the rhetorical soil of the traditional extreme Right, fulminating about Judaism, its extreme hatefulness, its spirit of vengeance, …and its bloody crimes—all this, in a desperate attempt to show that mass pathological movements do not exist, except when conjured into being by sinister oppressors." Berman suspects even worse of the peace and anti-globalization movements (so called), namely, that terrorism thrills them. He chastely refrains from mentioning that so many of the "peace" marchers in Europe were themselves Muslims chanting death to Israel.

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In his final chapter, "Mental War," Berman rightly links the question of our response to terrorism with that of the future of liberal democracy. He recognizes the need for wars of the usual sort, strongly defending the first Gulf War, the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the Afghan campaign. He has his differences (numerous ones) with the second Bush Administration, but these are over how and why, rather than whether, the war should be brought to the terrorists. Addressing the recent war in Iraq (still imminent at the time of writing) he suggests that it should be fought not for dubious "realist" reasons but for ones best described as "Wilsonian—in a militant version." The goal should be "launching some sort of liberal revolution in the Middle East, …encouraging a new birth of freedom in places where the worst of the totalitarian plague had wreaked its damage." Nor is this the only place where Berman's rhetoric is Lincolnian. 

Real war Berman is content to leave to others (while fretting over their competence to conduct it). His own bent is for a "war of ideas"; "in [this] war, I'm happy to be a laptop general." A general needs an army, so Berman calls for the rise of an independent Left ("neither communist nor conservative") on the model of the "Third Force" of the late 1930s. He also evokes the battles of the early Cold War. "The strategy in those days was to take the Stalinists seriously—to argue with them, point by point. It was a war of the newsstands and the bookstores."

The question is whether all of this is more than nostalgic self-delusion. It presupposes an exceptionally robust liberalism (or left-of-liberalism, or whatever) but on the evidence that Berman supplies, today's liberalism is quite wan. Berman himself raises the question of Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis, and in particular its implication that liberalism might dwindle into the creed of Nietzsche's "last men." His own survey of Europe in the early '90s amply supports such misgivings: Europe showed itself for what it was in Bosnia, which was worse than nothing at all. Only American intervention saved Europe's bacon then and again in Kosovo, and Europe's intellectuals no more distinguished themselves for their firmness than did her armies. Matters have not improved since. Social democrat that he is, Berman defends Sweden and Switzerland for their social progressiveness, and today all of Western Europe is socially progressive. But fighting liberal that he is, must he not worry just a little about the human types that social progress produces? 

If not Europe, then how about America? A militantly Wilsonian American liberalism? Perhaps since Berman is not at a university, he's never taken a look at professors. Where to find allies in this war? Berman looks first to the trade unions (a nice touch of nostalgia, that). "Maybe the trade unions are no longer up to that task. All right, then, we have wealthy foundations today." Yes, we do. Let's issue their executives flak jackets. 

To his credit, Berman barely mentions the Democratic Party as a possible comrade in his struggle, and when he does his tone is defensive. "The Democratic Party has no Roosevelt, who knew how to wage a war of ideas even while waging the other kind of war. Still, the Democratic Party can be the party of Roosevelt." The party of Roosevelt, under Howard Dean? (Or fill in the blank with the name of any of the other candidates.)

Where, if anywhere, are the "militant Wilsonians" today? Perhaps in the Bush Defense Department. "We are anti-nihilists—we had better be, anyway…. In the anti-nihilist system, freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for the freedom of others." Wise words, ringing words—and as I understand it, Paul Wolfowitz's position exactly. Things have come to a pretty pass for Berman when the only fighting liberals are Republicans.

"We anti-nihilists" are indebted to Berman for his powerful and enlightening book. Yet a problem gnaws at it, as it does at us. Someone has to tell us anti-nihilists what we are for. The soldiers Berman needs just aren't the liberals we have, most of whom can say no more in defense of liberalism than that they are for what they are for, because they happen to be for it. If there are no relativists in foxholes, that may be because they're not attracted to them in the first place. Berman summons an army of liberals but may have trouble raising a platoon.