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Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman

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Terror and Liberalism

Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman

Defenses of the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq has typically come from conservatives in America while the criticisms have generally come from liberals, but this doesn’t mean that there is no liberal case for combatting Islamic extremism — on the contrary, it is arguable that a more powerful liberal case can be made in defense of basic liberal freedoms in opposition to the totalitarian nature of the Islamic vision.

Summary

Title: Terror and Liberalism
Author: Paul Berman
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393057755

Pro:
•  Offers a good alternative to conservative defenses of the war on terrorism

Con:
•  No index
•  No footnotes
•  Few direct quotes of the liberals he criticizes

Description:
•  Liberal analysis of the war on terrorism and the need to combat totalitarian Islamism

 

Book Review

To find a liberal case for making war against Islamic terrorists, one should probably start with Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, written as a rebuttal to the many liberal critiques of the Bush administration’s foreign policy choices (not that he agrees with those choices at every point). Berman’s leftist credentials are unassailable, but that doesn’t mean his arguments are as well. Although he makes a good case for the need of liberal democracies to stand firmly against the enemies of modernity, he manages at times to undermine his own case through a failure to understand the complexities that exist on both sides, modernist and Islamist.

On the positive side, Berman makes it clear that the leading intellectual figures behind the Islamic extremism of the 20th century (particularly Sayyid Qutb) have inspired an ordering of society that is fundamentally opposed to the modern, liberal state. In this way they are more similar to the totalitarian experiments of 20th century Europe than they are to the Islamic caliphate. Because the challenges they pose are so similar, Berman believes that the western response should be similar as well. It is, in effect, in liberalism’s best interests to oppose the Muslim fundamentalist assault on the foundations of liberalism.

Disappointing, though, is Berman’s characterization of western intentions as wholly good and Islamist intentions as wholly evil. A good example of this is his analysis of messianic tendencies in religious systems like that of the Islamists: on the one side are the chosen people of God, fighting for purity and righteousness, and on the other side are the minions of Satan. The chosen of God are charged with combatting the forces of evil in order to create a “society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations.”

The obvious implication is that the Islamists see themselves as the “chosen of God,” but Berman fails to acknowledge that this sort of ideology plays a significant role for many in America as well. The Islamists are not too far away from certain segments of the American population in this regard, although there might be differences in their attitudes towards the use of force in order to realize their visions. Qutb’s critique of American culture reads very similarly to the critiques offered by conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists today.

In addition to ignoring the variety of perspectives in the West, Berman also tend to lump Islamists into too neat of a group and with too little diversity. Not all Islamists seeking a more theocratic society also advocate the use of violence and terrorism to achieve it — and not all Islamists who seek a greater integration of Muslim values into the political system want to see that system transformed into a theocracy.

A further mistake lies in describing suicide bombers as a wholly irrational force. Berman is simply one of many who seems to assume that anyone making a rational choice for how to order society will necessarily choose the American system

Terror and Liberalism

Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman

Thus, anyone who chooses differently must be not only irrational, but is in fact openly opting for irrationality over rationality.

Berman complains mightily about the impulse of many to insist that the “pathology” of suicide bombers must “really” stem from a rational system rather than (according to Berman and others) from irrationality. If this is an error, then Berman commits a similar one when he insists that a the list of rational choices is so short — basically consisting of western-style liberal democracies.

This is not to say that there is no connection between European fascism and Islamic fundamentalism, but the connections are counterbalanced by important differences. Liberal democracies must indeed stand up to totalitarian forces that seek to undermine them. The fact that some reject liberal democratic systems, even to the point of being willing to kill and die for it, doesn’t mean that they are irrational or pathological. Trying to understand their reasoning is not the same as trying to find excuses for them.

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