Paul Berman
Terror and Liberalism
W. W. Norton & Co., 2003
214 pages, hardcover, $21.00
ISBN 0-393-05775-5
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2003 by Gary McGath

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand wrote that John Galt's enemies "did not want to live; they wanted him to die." But it's questionable whether she could have anticipated how explicitly killers acting in the name of Allah would adopt this mindset. Today an incredible distillation of evil keeps making headlines: people who are glad to die as long as they can take innocent lives, from the World Trade Center to Israeli shopping malls.

It's nearly impossible for people who have lived with liberal civilization -- here I'm using the term, as Berman's book does, to mean a civilization based on a relatively high level of freedom and tolerance, having nothing to do with left-wing politics -- to understanding how something this monstrous could arise. This lack of understanding works to the benefit of the terrorists, since people will try to fit terror's anti-rational mentality into a rational framework and thus give it an undeserved benefit of the doubt.

Terror and Liberalism helps us to understand Islamic terrorism by showing that it shares many characteristics with Western anti-liberal movements -- with Lenin, Hitler, and other totalitarian leaders of the twentieth century. It also reminds us that the terrorist emphasis on killing the innocent at random is a recent development. In raising these points, Berman may be understating the extent to which terrorism arises from the historical aggressiveness of the Islamic movement and the doctrines which underlie it; but he shows convincingly that it is akin to Western totalitarianism, and that it shares some of the same roots. He writes of the totalitarian movements of the early twentieth century:

[Camus] had noticed a modern impulse to rebel, which had come out of the French Revolution and had very quickly, in the name of an ideal, mutated into a cult of death. And the ideal was always the same, though each movement gave it a different name. It was not skepticism and doubt. It was the ideal of submission. It was submission to the kind of authority that liberal civilization had slowly undermined, and which the new movements wished to reestablish on a novel basis. It was the ideal of the one, instead of the many. The ideal of something godlike. The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement. "Totalitarian" was Mussolini's word; and Mussolini spoke for all.

The links from Western totalitarianism to Saddam Hussein's mostly secular totalitarianism aren't difficult to see. The Pan-Arab movement, according to Berman, allied with the Axis if only because they wanted to drive out the British and French; this movement gave rise to Ba'ath socialism. But there are deeper affinities; the word "Islam" itself means "submission," and Islamic doctrine holds that all of life should be unified by devotion to God.

Berman sees Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer executed in 1966, as one of the most important influences on the modern Islamic world. Qutb denounced the division between religion and secular government that was prevalent in the West and had influenced the Arab countries. He saw liberal culture as suffering from "schizophrenia," science set against faith, enlightenment against dogma. It may not be so hard to see how Qutb's philosophy of a unified life could attract people dissatisfied with the inconsistencies and divisions in the culture around them. With submission to God as proclaimed in the Koran being not just the first but the only standard by which to live, he makes death unimportant:

The Surah [No. 2] tells the Muslims that, in the fight to uphold God's universal Truth, lives will have to be sacrificed. Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God are honorable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.

Khomeini's military tactics were the practical implementation of Qutb's theories. "Khomeini," Berman writes, "whipped up ... a belief that to die on Khomeini's orders in a human wave attack was to achieve the highest and most beautiful of destinies." In turn, Iran inspired the Hezbollah guerillas to introduce suicide terrorism to the modern world.

It was the politics of slaughter -- slaughter for the sake of sacred devotion, slaughter conducted in a mood of spiritual loftiness, slaughter indistinguishable from charity, slaughter that led to suicide, slaughter for slaughter's sake. It was a flower of evil.

The book does not pull punches; it states that the Islamic suicide terror movement is as evil as anything that Hitler or Stalin created. It notes that just as intellectuals in free countries made excuses for the Nazi and Communist evils, some have made excuses for Islamic terror. The author cites applause at a 2002 New York City socialist conference for a defense of a suicide terrorist, excuses by a Nobel Prize-winning author for "'so-called' suicide terrorists," and other stomach-turning expressions of sympathy for mass murderers. He sees this as a sign of the inability of people who have lived with rational traditions to comprehend utter unreason. Here he may be too generous; there are intellectual strains in the Western world which are just as irrational and illiberal as those of Islamic fundamentalism.

The last chapter presents the important point that terrorism must be fought not just in conventional battles, but in what he calls a "mental war" -- a battle of ideas. He credits the Bush administration with attempting to wage such a battle, but charges that it has failed in many ways to follow through. A government, though, isn't equipped to counter argumentation on the level of Sayyad Qutb's. All that it can do is what the US government in fact did: offer propaganda on a simple level, through simple slogans or (too often) deception. The soldiers in the war of ideas have to be intellectuals, not politicians, and they are the ones who failed.

Berman calls his own position "left-wing," and his views result in an important omission. His view of a liberal society doesn't mention free trade and property rights as key characteristics, and as an antidote to totalitarianism. He expresses disappointment that Bush failed to call for "sacrifices for the common good." Nevertheless, as a dissection of the roots of the most important evil in the world today, Terror and Liberalism is an important work that should appeal to lovers of freedom who want to better understand what has happened in the Moslem world.

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