Commentary Magazine

Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman; The Crisis of Islam by Bernard Lewis

Terror and Liberalism
by Paul Berman
Norton. 214 pp. $21.00

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
by Bernard Lewis
Modern Library. 184 pp. $19.95

Paul Berman is a man of the Left who wrote nostalgically about the generation of 1968 in A Tale of Two Utopias (1996) and has contributed essays on cultural and political themes to Dissent, the New Republic, the American Prospect, and the Village Voice. Unlike many of his fellow leftists, he is not reflexively antiwar; he has cultivated a unique activist voice on U.S. foreign policy, almost expansionist in his demand that America make good on its ideals.

From his rooftop in Brooklyn, Berman was an eyewitness to events on the morning of September 11, 2001, and he acted. After a lifetime of desultory reading on the totalitarian movements of the West—Communists and fascists and fellow travelers of many stripes—he began trawling in the Islamic bookstores of Brooklyn to learn what he could about this latest deadly challenge to decency and the liberal order. His new book, Terror and Liberalism, is the very personal outgrowth of this expedition, extending the thesis of a long magazine essay under the same title that he contributed to the American Prospect soon after the Twin Towers came down.

In the book’s early pages, Berman sets down his political credentials. He was in favor of the Gulf war in 1991, and wanted Saddam Hussein removed from power at that time. But, he is at pains to show, his reasoning owed nothing to the “realist” school of former President Richard Nixon, who wrote a justification of the war on the op-ed page of the New York Times that Berman found cynical and shortsighted. Taking the first President Bush as a disciple of the Nixon school, Berman nevertheless supported him (if only nominally) in the first Gulf war because he passionately believed what he thought the then-President said without believing: that Saddam was a Hitler. But he still continues to relegate foreign-policy “realism” to the dustbin of 19th-century relics.

To the same category Berman also, more respectfully, consigns Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, with its belief in unalterable national characteristics and permanent frontiers between warring cultural spheres. Germany, Italy, Spain, and even Japan, Berman writes, were able to throw off dark legacies and embrace liberal ideals. Why not the world of Islam?

Of course, Islamism is something else again. In Terror and Liberalism, Berman digs at length into the works of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian hanged for sedition by Nasser in 1966. In particular, he explores those parts of Qutb’s vast, 30-volume commentary, In the Shade of the Qur’an, that he could find in English translation, as well as shorter, more tract-like works like Islam: The Religion of the Future. Berman presents Qutb as the central thinker in the 20th-century development of Islamism. He finds his works “fascinating,” and struggles to get imaginatively inside a worldview in which he finds many brilliant insights and an exhilarating critique of Western modernity.

But what he also finds is a fanatical myth. And not just any myth, but another version of the Mr-myth lurking behind all Western totalitarianisms of both Left and Right. This is the apocalyptic notion of a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy the blessings of human existence but who have been traduced and undermined by a diabolical infestation, itself aided by external agents. Both the infestation and the agents must be rooted out, exterminated.

This, in Berman’s depiction, is the essential nihilist myth that has kept presenting itself, under ever new cultural guises, as the chief rival and nemesis to the pluralist, tolerant, meliorative ethos of modem liberalism. It first surfaced in the 19th century in the romantic cult of murder and suicide that Berman dates all the way back beyond Nietzsche to Victor Hugo’s play Hernani. Staged in 1830, this tale of an attempted assassination of the Spanish king by a romantic outlaw ends in a revolutionary suicide pact. When the play was banned (on the first night), Hugo organized a bunch of badge-wearing young bloods to parade against the bourgeois liberal censors. They called themselves the “Romantic Army.” Among their descendants, Berman implies, were the Brownshirts, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and the Saddam fedayeen.

In short, secular Baathism and religious Islamism are but two more versions of the same apocalyptic fantasy that has manifested itself in such outwardly different but inwardly similar movements as Nazism, fascism, Francoism, Sovietism, Maoism, and the rest. The drummers change, the lyrics change, the costumes change, but in the end the enemies of liberalism all sing the same song.

With the help of Dostoevsky, Camus, and others, Berman also traces the degeneration of whatever was once still cautious or barely civilized in this myth. Anarchists, for instance, were known to call off assassinations for fear of accidentally killing innocent women and children. But by the time the airliners were flown into the World Trade Center, there had been plenty of precedents for indiscriminate slaughter. Nor are Islamists uniquely bloodthirsty. Even suicide bombings are not a Muslim innovation. Indeed, Westerners had already thought of everything; adapting the nihilist murder-suicide cult to the needs of a fanatic, postmodern Islamism did not require much imagination.

But if we are wrong to think of Osama bin Laden as representing something new under the sun, we are also wrong to imagine that we ourselves—and here Berman takes aim at the most “progressive” among us—are immune to the appeal of this fundamental challenge to liberalism. When, he writes, liberals try to excuse fundamentally irrational acts by invoking the many sins of the democratic West, liberal rationalism becomes self-subverting. The liberal drum-roll of protest against Israeli oppression of Palestinian Arabs rose with the tide of Palestinian suicide-bombings; what this suggests is that the terror cult excites an irrationally sympathetic response just when it strikes most lethally.

So why does Berman not end up, as the logic of his thoughts would seem to indicate, in the camp of George W Bush and/or the neoconservatives? He does grant that the President has moved, or been carried, away from Nixon’s “realism” and into a sincere championship of various truly liberal propositions, chiefly of the humanitarian variety. But in the end, the President’s trumpet call is, for Berman, too uncertain. In particular, his failure to draw the European democracies into the fight against the latest nihilist enemy tells Berman more about the President’s native deficiencies and confusions than about the blindness and arrogance of those democracies.



Or something like that. At first glance, Paul Berman seems to be doing what “liberals” always do, namely, blaming the West for everything: even Islamism, as he presents it, must have a Western pedigree. But he also concedes quite a lot. While posturing against Nixon, Kissinger, and the world-weary State Department, he effectively aligns himself with the neo-Wilsonian idealism of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the Pentagon. While cultivating a professorial distaste for the Company of neoconservatives, he seems to want to fight the same wars, and possibly even some they would prefer to stay out of.

There is something a little better than cuteness in this. Berman is trying sincerely if rather clumsily to get himself into the same troop carrier with the likes of George Orwell, Sidney Hook, and Arthur Koestler: in effect, an old cold warrior, left-flank variety. He may think George W. Bush is an inarticulate moron, but does not disagree with him on any substantial point. He only wants to embed liberalism within the latest Republican triumphs, which as a ploy is infuriating and endearing at the same time.

As for his argument about what Islamism owes the West, I do not find it wildly bver-ingenious, and he tries not to push it too far. He admits that Osama, Saddam, the ayatollahs, and the rest are not quite “copy-cat killers” in the footsteps of Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin, and does his best to grant them the autonomy of nuance. The trouble is that his best is vitiated by his unfamiliarity with Islamic theology and tradition.

There are, for instance, embarrassing patches throughout his chapter on Sayyid Qutb. He does not seem to realize that the critical accounts Qutb gives of Moses, Jesus, the apostle Paul, and the early Church are not a brilliantly original exposition of history, as he claims, but conventional Muslim views. He has such curious notions as that, in Sura 5 of the Qur’an, Allah “transforms” the Jews of Medina “into apes and pigs,” which suggests the magic of Circe; the received view, I believe, is that the curse was intended figuratively.

This latter point is more important than it may first appear, for it helps to explain the tone of Qutb’s anti-Semitism: how, at one moment, he can allege the most improbably vast Jewish conspiracies—for instance, that the Turkish secularist Kemal Ataturk was working on Jewish instructions when he abolished the old Ottoman caliphate in 1924—and, at the next moment, forget such “facts” altogether and treat the Jews as of no consequence. This “flasher” approach to anti-Semitism goes right back to the Qur’an, and is endemic to many Muslim worldviews (note the plural). “Of course the Jews are pigs and monkeys, but it’s nothing personal,” might be a good way to caricature Qutb’s position, and that of many others.

This is different in kind from the anti-Semitism of Christendom, which could be murderously personal even when Jews were helpless. And it is likewise different in kind from the anti-Semitism of the post-Christian fanatics—the Nazis and others—who carried it into genocide. Even when Islamic anti-Semitism came into contact with the Nazi brand and became truly lethal, it did so in a very Islamic and unpredictable way. The Nazis murdered the Jews systematically; the Islamists work in fits.

Such quibbling is the more necessary because this book is shot through with glibness. There are any number of things Berman has not got quite right, and there are numerous small errors suggesting impatience with checking. More substantially, the text is crawling with remarks that seem very clever at first reading but fall apart when one returns to them. It is not just that Berman’s readings of Qutb and Tariq Ramadan (an Islamist who has mastered the Western multiculturalist idiom) are less than skin deep; even his account of French socialism between the wars, which seems to be one of his hobbies, has the simplisme of a morality play.

And it is a very secular morality play at that, because Berman is insensitive, even insensate, to religion. There may be some truth in his own metaphor that, after fascism and Communism, Islamism is another tentacle of “a single, larger monster from the deep,” but not in any sense of the deep that he could mean; it is just a phrase for him. By touching on the Islamists’ sometimes unacknowledged debts to modern Western thinkers, he has clinched his own point yet missed the genuine inspiration within Qutb’s explosive politics. There is a little bit of St. Augustine in Qutb, of City of God versus City of Man, and Berman’s line does not dangle nearly deep enough to touch it. He flatters Qutb’s depth without sounding it.



To get a better idea of these matters, one turns instead to Bernard Lewis’s latest work, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. Lewis’s book is quite short—another stretching of a celebrated magazine article (the New Yorker, in this case), but not until it snaps. The book forms a companion to Lewis’s What Went Wrong? (2002), and continues his project of explaining authoritatively but briefly the background to current events for the intelligent general reader. It is no more ambitious than that—no grand Fukuyamesque visions attempted—and much of it summarizes relevant material from about twenty of the author’s own more scholarly and specialized works. But it is impressive in sweep, for Lewis is as acute about political developments in the last few decades as about the deeper history. His chapters on Soviet influence in the region, and on the marriage of Saudi power and Wahhabi teaching, are remarkable feats of concision.

Lewis is hardly blind to Western influences on militant Islam, as on Baathism and other forms of pan-Arabism. But he is more concerned to show how, precisely, such revolutionary ideas from the West interact with pre-existing ideas within Islam to produce often virulent combinations; and how they have bastardized Islam when they have come in contact with it. His book is unillusioned: it documents, for instance, how a genuine compassion among Muslims for the victims of Islamist terror, and genuine condemnation of the perpetrators, can co-exist with a mythic worldview that continues to hold the “Great Satan” of the U.S. and the “Little Satan” of Israel responsible for the evils that are done to them in the name of Islam.

It is especially instructive to read Lewis on Sayyid Qutb, for in five large-type pages he supplies almost everything Berman has missed in more than 40 closely spaced ones. Most usefully, he shows that even when Qutb is exclaiming about the degeneracy and debauchery he witnessed in his brief encounter with American life, he is addressing an internal audience, not an external one. America remains exotic to him, and also to his readers; they are not, contrary to Berman’s suggestion, quite the hyphenated individuals wittily depicted in the novels of Salman Rushdie. Berman, like most Westerners, forms his impressions from émigrés, from fish out of water.

As Lewis’s book reminds us, there is a deeper autochthony in Islamist terrorism. Both secular fascism and the Christian Crusades can be read as negations of Jesus’ otherworldly creed, but it is not so easy to dismiss the line that connects a religion founded in generalship and wars of conquest with modern conceptions of jihad. Lewis is decently cautious and scholarly in making these connections, and he is equally secure in assuring us that indiscriminate slaughter, or conversion at sword-point, were never part of any demonstrably Muslim doctrine, and that Islam has always taken a grim view of suicide. But he leaves us in no doubt that jihad has been, through the centuries, very seldom an expression of spiritual aspiration and very often the rationale for conquest.



By coincidence I had just finished reading The Crisis of Islam when Berman arrived, and so what struck me most immediately were differences of tone and style. Lewis keeps cutting to the chase; Berman keeps cutting away. Lewis captures realities; Berman makes concessions to them. Lewis is learned to his fingertips in Islamic history, society, politics, art, and thought; Berman has read this and that. Lewis exhibits; Berman parades. There is, between them, a real difference of sobriety.

But there is a difference of intention, too. Lewis is helping all men of goodwill to understand; Berman is engaging in a polemic. The polemic is admittedly a necessary one, especially on his side of the political spectrum, even though it may be fairly redundant, and perhaps even a little distracting, for people who were in no doubt to start with that fanatical Islamism and the terrorism it supports must be resisted and finally defeated. For such people, the question is not why, but how—the same question that posed itself to the firemen who rushed into the World Trade Center. They did not have time to discuss the obvious.

In the longer struggle, we, in America and the West, are compelled to learn a lot more than we ever cared to know about the ideals and ambitions that animate the Islamic polities; and, to be sure, we are also compelled to find common cause with the best in Islam wherever we can. But it does not hurt to remember why, with all their diverse flaws, many of them clarified, and others exemplified, by Paul Berman, the traditions of the West remain the most fertile and promising in the history of the planet.


About the Author

David Warren, a columnist and commentator for the Ottawa Citizen, reviewed Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi in the October 2006 COMMENTARY.

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