After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent so-called war on terrorism, the American political Left was in an uncomfortable position. The United States had been attacked, and many people accepted that the nation had a right to strike back at its adversaries. The Left, however, long suspicious of what it saw as the imperialist tendencies of U.S. foreign policy, lined up with the small but vocal antiwar movement. It was a difficult and unpopular stance to take. One leading figure on the left, journalist Christopher Hitchens, publicly broke with his former colleagues and supported a war against what he called in the columns of The Nation “theocratic nihilists.” Hitchens also, almost alone on the left, supported the American war against Iraq.
Now another venerable voice from the left, Paul Berman, comes out in favor of a vigorous, military response from the Western liberal democracies to what he describes as Islamic totalitarianism, an ideology that he argues poses a grave threat to Western values and way of life. Terror and Liberalism is not a journalistic polemic, however. It is a scholarly, deeply knowledgeable analysis of the roots of Islamic suicide terrorism and the failure of the West to recognize its dangerous, irrational nature.
One of Berman’s main points is that many Islamic radicals—terrorists and suicide bombers included—live a kind of cultural double life. They are often as culturally Western, in terms of their education and day-to-day life, as they are Middle Eastern and Asian Islamic. Berman also explains at length that Islamic suicide terrorism, its worship of death and wholesale slaughter, has many roots in Western political and philosophical ideas and practices that began in the nineteenth century and flowered (if such a term may be permitted) in the totalitarian movements that dominated the twentieth century and produced so much misery for millions.
Using Albert Camus’s L’Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, 1956) for support, Berman argues that the origins of totalitarianism and its horrors lay in the perversion of the human need to reach for freedom through rebellion against conventional morality. This rebellion can be traced to, among other things, the morbid obsessions of Romantic poets such as Charles Baudelaire, which pointed toward a kind of nihilism in which senseless murder and suicide could be justified.
Through Russian nineteenth century terrorism, Western imperialist atrocities in Africa, and the wholesale slaughter of World War I, Berman traces this nihilistic impulse to its ultimate expression in Soviet Communism, Italian Fascism, and German Nazism. All these movements resembled one another and were perversions of the impulse to rebel. The rebellion was against the perceived inadequacies of liberal democracy, and it was done in the name of submission to one quasi-divine authority. The mythical structure on which such movements were based was always the same; they were variants of the vision of Saint John the Divine in the Book of Revelation: The people of God are being undermined by an insidious enemy, aided by Satanic forces. The enemy would be defeated in a final war of Armageddon, followed by a reign of the pure society in a one-party state under a superhuman leader. All these cults depended on mass death dealt out indiscriminately to those it considered enemies.
Berman then argues persuasively that this cult of destruction was exported by the West to other parts of the world, including the Islamic world. Baath Socialism, part of the pan-Arab movement, was heavily influenced by racist Nazi philosophy. Other founders of the Baath had communist leanings, and admired Joseph Stalin as an inspirational leader. Baath also embraced a myth that was similar in structure to Revelation’s ur-myth: The Arabs were the nation of God and had to battle their enemies—the Jews—who were corrupting them. In service of this holy war, Baath followers had to be absolutely obedient to the party and cast conventional morality aside. The result was the emergence in Iraq in the late 1960’s of a nihilistic totalitarianism resembling the totalitarian movements in the West in the 1930’s.
Berman also traces the influence of Western totalitarianism on influential thinkers in the Islamic world. For this he examines at length the writings of Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, who is acknowledged as the most influential writer in the recent Islamic tradition, at least among the Sunni Arabs. Qutb was imprisoned and then hanged in 1966 by Egypt’s military leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, for his prominent role in the Muslim Brotherhood. Much of Qutb’s philosophy is contained in his thirty-volume commentary on the Qurʿan, and Berman is one of few Western...
(The entire section is 1956 words.)