Paul Berman’s ‘Terror and Liberalism’ (Summer 2003)

Civilization has already gone over the precipice,” Paul Berman writes at the end of Terror and Liberalism. “That was the meaning of the twentieth century.”

By the precipice, Berman, long a chron­icler of left politics from a fiercely anti-ideological leftist point of view, means both the totalitarian drive into mass mur­der that shaped the century and the liberal or leftist will to justify the killings, or explain them away—and his book is a warning that we have not yet begun to leave the twentieth century. When Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States in 2001, many on the left immediately moved to grant rationality and legitimacy to the events, to seek the causes of which the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Flight 93 mass murders had to be the effects—just as, Berman insists, leftists rationalized Stalin’s atrocities in the 1920s and ’30s, antiwar French socialists accepted Nazism in the ‘3os, and figures like Noam Chomsky simultaneously excused and denied the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the ’70s. Islamism, the creed behind Al Qaeda, is, Berman says, “one more version of the European totalitarian idea,” and its enemy is liberal society, where institutions are open and unfinished, truth remains to be found, absolutes are false, and uncertainty is real.

This last is not an argument that can be made in a short book written over a short period of time. (“Totalitarian movements always, but always, rise up in rebellion against the liberal values of the West. That is their purpose,” Berman writes, which is more the way around an argument than into one.) But Terror and Liberalism does not have the skimming feel of a set of expanded magazine articles, as did Berman’s previous book, the 1996 Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968. It is much closer in spirit to “The Passion of Joschka Fischer,” his twenty-five-thousand-word 2001 New Republic essay on the German foreign minister who began his political life as a New Left militant. As with that essay, Terror and Liberalism breaks its bounds. The book inside this book is like Gar Anthony Haywood’s Fear of the Dark, a 1988 detective novel featuring a gang of right-wing terrorists called the Brothers of Volition and their rallying cry “Raising Justice from the Dead.” It is an intellectual horror story, taken seriously, plumbed to its depths, a story in which Al Qaeda’s terror war has both deep roots and a future to be made: a “cult of death” seeking dominion over the globe.

Berman follows the path of the Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb, born in Egypt in 1906. After studying in the United States, Qutb returned to Egypt in 1951 and joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist semisecret society founded in 1928; he was imprisoned as an enemy of Nasser’s secular state in 1954. Before he was hanged in 1966 he spent nearly the rest of his life in prison, where he wrote a thirty-volume commentary on the Koran, In the Shade of the Qur’an. Berman notes that he has read the three volumes of the work he has been able to find in English, along with another Qutb publication, Milestones, and the initial response of his readers is likely to be uniform: What? Only three volumes? In translation? You’re going to make an analysis of this man’s thought, make a case for its role in the world, based on that? But from the evidence of what Berman has found in the books—which draw from him the empathy, the intellectual engagement, of a deep dive—one can imagine that the whole of Qutb’s work must be in each of its parts. Islamic scholars may greet Berman’s reading as an intellectual crime; I was disarmed, and sucked in.
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Berman presents Qutb as a prophet in the steps of Amos and Jeremiah, pronouncing true Islam, the law of Allah, the teachings of Allah’s prophet, as everywhere under assault from enemies outside it and hypocrites within. The one true faith faced extermination across the earth, which would leave the earth as hell. A small vanguard, Qutb’s own readers, would have to lead a great war to save the faith and the world; the two were the same.

“The notion of Islam as totality” was, Berman says, “Qutb’s most important concept.” A totality cannot exist if anything can exist outside of it; in Islam as Qutb defined it there could be no such separation as church from state, religion from business, public from private. God is everywhere at all times or God is nowhere. And here, as a thinker, but even more as a writer, Berman begins to cast a spell. “Turning his pages,” he says of Qutb, “you are reminded… that Islam resembles one of its own gigantic and magnificent mosques, awesome in scale and in its details, grander by far than any mere doctrine or set of rituals—something that begins to seem as large as life itself, and even larger.” And what is larger than life, in Qutb’s prophecies, is death—or the ultimate Islamist totalism, the transcendence of the apparent separation of life from death.

For Qutb, pointing toward the recreation of Islam—first in one country, then throughout the Muslim world, then as the world—in the form of the reign of shariah, the absolutist seventh-century Islamic code, the struggle will demand martyrdom, and martyrdom is truth not apprehended but lived. “You are meant to suppose that a true reader of Sayyid Qutb is someone who, in the degree that he properly digests Qutb’s message, will act on what has been digested; and action may well bring on a martyr’s death. To read,” Berman writes, as if casting Qutb’s own spell, “is to glide forward toward death; and gliding toward death means you have understood what you are reading.”

Qutb explains: Those “who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead… The death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood… It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life.” And then Berman raises the tableau that not only follows intellectually but, as history, did follow the spread of Qutb’s ideas and of those like him: “The successes of the Islamist revolution were going to take place on the plane of the dead, or nowhere.”

Refusing the multiculturalist ideology that insists that the principles or even the vocabulary of one society cannot be employed to characterize the activities of another, Berman makes a drama: a drama in which that nowhere was the Muslim world, where under shariah, mandated by sects or by a state, hundreds of women were murdered for sexual sins; Iran, where hundreds of thousands of young men and their families embraced the martyrdom of human-wave attacks in the eight-year war against Iraq; Afghanistan, where massacres were staged in stadiums; Sudan, where an intellectual led an Arab Islamist regime that killed up to two million black Christians and animists; Algeria, where the Armed Islamic Group “excommunicated the whole of society and set about massacring the impious”; and among Palestinians, where “suicide terror against the Israelis was bound to succeed in one realm only, and this was the realm of death—the realm in which a perfect Palestinian state could luxuriate in the shade of a perfect Koranic tranquility, cleansed of every iniquitous thought and temptation and of every rival faith and eth­nic group… In the popular imagination, utopia and the morgue had blended.” As Berman shows over a suite of ugly pages, nearly the whole of the European intelligentsia rushed to bless the spectacle: “Palestinian terror… was the measure of Israeli guilt. The more grotesque the terror, the deeper the guilt.” No matter that there was no practical or tactical goal. It was, Berman says, a pathological cult of death, the opposite of the liberal, rational society—but as the liberal society contains the “fantasy of a strictly rational world,” everything must be explained, and explained away: justified.

In his microcosm of the present-day Intifada, Berman will lose and gain the most readers, because it is here that he refuses to flinch. But it is in that microcosm that the great tacticians of Al Qaeda have found their theater, their actors, and their critics, whose rave reviews appear on the front page.

Berman’s equation of Qutb’s absolutism with the absolutism of Hitler and Stalin is simplistic. His conviction that George W. Bush and his administration are, by classical definition, rather than in terms of their political project as they themselves define it, exemplars of liberal society, is in the words of a sympathetic reader of Terror and Liberalism a matter of “willful naivete” at best. But not everything Berman says counts for the same. When the book truly draws its breath he convinces you that you are in the midst of a new story, the beginnings of which are comprehensible and the ending of which is not.


Bookforum, Summer 2003


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