Terror and Liberalism
by Paul Berman
Of books produced in the West after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this may be the most eccentric. It offers the thesis that Islamic extremism represents an updated form of an undifferentiated totalitarianism previously seen in communism and fascism, which, as in the past, seeks to exterminate a vague liberalism that has become the essence of Western politics. Further, Paul Berman argues that liberals are dangerously unprepared to fight such a war.
But this is an extraordinarily pretentious and self-contradictory soliloquy, in which historical accuracy has been sacrificed for the author's irrelevant hypotheses. Absurdities abound, and the assembling of "facts" is so unreliable that, in the universe of scolding the book presents, little may be trusted. It may be summarized as a farrago of misinformation, misinterpretation and just plain mischief.
Berman's tone combines overweening self-regard, spurious improvisation and, here and there, a seemingly unique talent for the microscopic, but also for the erroneous. The book opens with a reverie in which Berman, a political essayist, describes writing an op-ed for The New York Times, in which he defended the Gulf War of 1991 as a radical, democratizing effort. Of course, it is understandable that few people saw an antifascist struggle in the military defence of the Kuwaiti aristocracy and their oil wealth. Yet for Berman, access to the most widely read newspaper in the United States, with millions of educated readers, is less significant than the following: "Rumor brought me the news that, somewhere in America, an ex-Trotskyist Arab-American likewise favored the war."
There you have it: the preciosity of the esoteric thinker, preening his membership in an invisible elite. Thus we are routinely informed, throughout these pages, of such superfluous matters as the contributions of Albert Camus to La Revolution Proletarienne, a periodical of the Parisian extreme left, of which it is doubtful more than 20 people alive today have ever heard. Elsewhere, and inexplicably, Berman drags in (and casually defames) the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario. He also credits the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa with "an invasion of Texas" -- actually, a one-night border raid in New Mexico, but, as Berman himself remarks, "never mind." These are only three examples out of numerous gratuitous bits of information; the last is the most characteristic.
Berman is considered by many to be the successor to the American socialist writer Irving Howe, but although Howe had many faults, an addiction to padding and hot air was not among them. In addition, Howe's writing on the radical left was historically sound, even when wrong in its interpretation. By contrast, fact checking is foreign to Berman, who is so busy tossing off clever remarks that he has left major holes in his arguments. He cannot even get the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914, which set off the First World War, right: The victim was Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, not, pace Berman, "the Grand Duke of Serbia."
Berman recalls the names of obscure French radical magazines accurately, but mangles historical events known to every literate person. He is at his worst when argument sweeps away fact altogether. Near the beginning of this book, he declares, with his habitual insouciance, that in Somalia in 1993, the U.S. intervention "which was intended to feed the Muslim masses, was also intended to crush the Muslim few who stood in the way."
Such allegations are not only heartless, they are slanderous. They also draw on faulty research; toward the book's end, he places Mogadishu in Sudan, rather than Somalia. But they sound clever. Berman's devotion to superficially convincing rhetoric persists. He reproduces Camus's tired cliches about rebellion and extremism as if they were novelties, equating all forms of protest, throughout modern history, with terrorism. For all his reading, he apparently knows nothing of a fundamental, if deeply flawed work in this area, The Sociology and Psychology of Communism, by Jules Monnerot, which offers an explicit comparison of communism with Islam.
While it is certainly true that the Wahhabi and neo-Wahhabi varieties of Islamic extremism, as well as the ideology of the Ba'ath party, have a totalitarian nature in common with the ideologies of the 20th-century dictators, Berman fudges any understanding that, no matter how much we should hate Bolsheviks and Nazis, they may not, as he claims, be reduced to "tentacles of a single, larger monster." A valuable recent study of the Soviet regime, Stalin's Last Crime, by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, points out an issue widely overlooked by political theorists: Stalin, like Mao after him, did not protect the Marxist state, but systematically attacked and undermined it by massive bloodlettings among its cadres. Thus, Stalin did not, as Berman would have it, "whimsically" liquidate Communists. There was an undeniable gap between the humanist claims of the Communist regimes and the reality of their rule; Stalin and Mao subverted the former to reinforce the latter. By contrast, the brutalities of Hitler and Mussolini were clearly intended to guard their state apparatus, founded on an open ideology of brutalization.
But for Berman to have noted that aspect of modern totalitarianism would require, in general, greater care in the fashioning of his polemic. Early on, for instance, he alleges that "Germany, the sworn foe of the French Revolution," was viewed by "enlightened and progressive thinkers" in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the "principal danger to modern civilization." Such a view was not shared by a number of leading figures in the history of socialism: Marx and Engels in reality viewed Germany, and even German imperialism in Eastern Europe, as a liberating force in opposition to Russian reaction. Having made his anti-Germanic declaration, Berman seemingly reverses it by describing Marxism as a "cult of German philosophy."
On topic after topic, Berman betrays his affinity for the glib parallel. Close to the end of this book, he judges the faint-heartedness of 1930s French leftists and contemporary liberals regarding military action against dictatorships as a consequence of their "refusal to accept that, from time to time, political movements do get drunk on the idea of slaughter."
Before that, he describes, and then derides, the left reflex against war that embodied the traumatic effects of societies so drunk in the First World War. He has confected a false account of French socialism in the interwar period, and seems to have joined the company of those ex-leftists, few as they are, who now see the massacres of 1914-1918 (and, one might add, the insanities of Saigon) as unambiguous liberation struggles. But the righteous battles against Franco and Hitler, the defence of Korea and the Balkan Muslims and Kosovars, and the removal of Saddam Hussein cannot retrospectively legitimize the errors and horrors of Verdun and Vietnam.
Berman lashes the Europeans who failed to prevent the Balkan massacres of the 1990s, failing to grasp that his own polemics against Islam echo much of the propaganda used to justify the Serb assaults on Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo. He has gained high praise for his commentary on Sayyid Qutb, a leading modern Islamist theorist, which was published in the New York Times in advance of this book's appearance. But his simplistic analysis of totalitarianism is aggravated by his projection of an Islam completely without nuance.
While Qutb, an Egyptian lumpen intellectual, has had immense influence on young jihadists, he is not considered a serious religious commentator by the majority of traditional ulema, or established scholars within the faith. Forming an opinion about contemporary Islam after reading Qutb alone is rather like judging the whole history of the radical left by the writings of Noam Chomsky. Berman has made no effort to place Qutb in the context of the diverse intellectual trends and developments in Islamic history. Yet it is precisely the conflict between that pluralism and the extremist attempt to impose totalitarian uniformity on believers that makes radical Islamism illegitimate, and provides Western liberals with potential Muslim allies in the struggle against terror.
Berman uses Qutb to separate the question of extremism from Islam as a whole, in part because examination of the latter would take more work than he seems willing to expend. He is much more at home with the phenomenon of the nihilistic outsider than with a faith and culture that really differ from his own. Berman needs to convince himself and his readers that Islamist extremism is as much, or more, a product of Western antiliberalism than of historic aspects of Islamic culture; as he puts it, "Muslim totalitarianism" is "the Muslim variation on [a] European idea." But, again, such a claim would make little sense to Muslims who, like the millions who suffered through the recent Algerian civil war, lived through both the failures of revolutionary nationalism and socialism, imported from Europe, and of murderous neo-Wahhabism, exported from Saudi Arabia.
Berman seems not to care how to mobilize real Algerians, to whom he gives short shrift, or other believing Muslims to the West's side. His view is more polite, but not, in the end, very different, from that of the bigot, Oriana Fallaci. The moral of this production: Religion, Islam included, is like lovemaking. It may be wonderful or terrible, but it seldom lends itself to bluffing.
Like the Ba'athists, Berman is avid to reinvent himself, and reinvention leads some people to unpredictable places. This book embodies a breathtakingly reactionary and retrograde intention: a vast rewriting of history, to prove that the author is capable of renouncing everything liberals ever, in the past, defended, so that he may outdo other ex-leftists in self-justification. In other words, Paul Berman is part of the problem, not part of the solution.