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Terror and Liberalism Hardcover – April, 2003

3.9 out of 5 stars 64 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Berman puts his leftist credentials (he's a member of the editorial board of Dissent) on the line by critiquing the left while presenting a liberal rationale for the war on terror, joining a discourse that has been dominated by conservatives. The most original aspect of his analysis is to categorize Islamism as a totalitarian reaction against Western liberalism in a class with Nazism and communism; drawing on the ideas of Camus in The Rebel, Berman delineates how all three movements descended from utopian visions (in the case of Islamism, the restoration of a pure seventh-century Islam) into irrational cults of death. He illustrates this progression through a nuanced analysis of the writings of a leading Islamist thinker, Sayyid Qutb, ending with some chilling quotations from other Islamists, e.g., "History does not write its lines except with blood," the blood being that of Islam's martyrs (such as suicide bombers) as well as of their enemies, Zionists and Crusaders (i.e., Jews and Christians). Berman then launches into his most provocative chapter, and the one he will probably be most criticized for in politically correct journals: a scathing attack on leftist intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky, who have applauded terrorism and tried to explain it as a rational response to oppression. Berman exhorts readers to accept that, on the contrary, Islamism is a "pathological mass political movement" that is "drunk on the idea of slaughter." A former MacArthur fellow and a contributing editor to the New Republic, Berman offers an argument that will be welcomed by disaffected progressives looking for a new analysis of today's world.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

So new that at press time the publisher's sales reps had yet to hear about it, this work considers how liberals can respond to the threat of terrorism.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 214 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (April 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393057755
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393057751
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #766,738 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Paul Berman's *Terror and Liberalism* might very well be the first "great" book of the 21st Century, since it's probably the first book that really captures what the 20th Century was about, and what we have carried over into the 21st as unfinished business. But the book may not get the attention it deserves, because it isn't a very scholarly work. It manages to discuss totalitarianism without referencing Hannah Arendt even once, and it doesn't have so much as a minimal Index. What it has, instead, is a coherent thesis. Consider the following passage:
"He [Albert Camus] had noticed a modern impulse to rebel, which had come out of the French Revolution and the nineteenth century and had very quickly, in the name of an ideal, mutated into a cult of death. And the ideal was always the same, though each movement gave it a different name. It was not skepticism and doubt. It was the ideal of submission. (p. 46)"
This is an enormous insight, and to be frank it does not appear with such clarity in Arendt's work. Her explanation, that loneliness has become an "everyday experience," seems grossly inadequate. Surely the notion that it's all a matter of loneliness appeals to a sense of profound irony, but couldn't we all just get a puppy? This was the payoff for all that scholarly zeal and industry?
Moreover, Arendt never makes the connection between terror as an organizing principle for a 20th Century form of government, and terrorism as a strategy of totalitarian movements that are out of power. And so she did, in fact, miss something important.
And of course even if Arendt had not completely missed the seeding of the Middle East with the totalitarian ideas of the Nazis and the Stalinist,s she never would have guessed that Islam itself could become the excuse for such a movement.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Paul Berman's "Terror and Liberalism" is an excellent attempt at finding common ground between America's political Left and Right, at least when it comes to the current "War on Terror." Berman painstakingly shows Islamic fundamentalism for what it is, a mass political movement, actually the combining of two mass political movements - pan-Arabism (ie. the Baath party) and pan-Islamacism (ie. al Qaeda and the Islamic Jihad) that are both devoted to violence and diametrically opposed to the Western Liberal tradition.
Berman also argues that the Left in America has as much at stake in the "War on Terror" as do those on the Right.
Paul Berman's historical research is excellent, following the path of the modern pan-Islamic movement to its roots with Sayyid Qutb (ku-tab) author of "In the Shade of the Qur'an," "Social Justice in Islam" and other works. Qutb attended the Colorado State College of Education in the late 1940's and earned a Masters Degree, but came away thoroughly disgusted with what he saw as "the barbarous West." He was especially disgusted by what the West hailed as "the emancipation of women" and "sexual liberation."
At the same time that pan-Islamacism was growing, pan-Arabism was coming into political prominence behind such figures as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Though the differences between the two camps were subtle - pan-Arabists wanted a return of the old Ottoman Empire, while pan-Islamacists envisioned a world under shariah (the legal code of Islam) - they were also volatile. Berman describes the differences between the two groups as akin to the differences between the Italian fascists under Mussolini who sought to rebuild the Roman Empire and the German Nazis who sought a return to the Roman Empire in a Germanic form.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a wake-up call for liberals who would like to pretend that radical Islam does not present a serious threat to the West. There are many good things in this wonderfully well-written book. Berman's explication of the ur-myth of totalitarianism (left or right) is very good. His summary of Sayyid Qutb's thought is the best description of the fundamental ideas of Islam that I have ever read; the theological basis of Islamic antipathy to the idea of separation of religion and the state is very nicely conveyed. Berman's account of the failure of the French Socialists in the 1930s is merciless, and he dismantles Noam Chomsky's simple-minded worldview in three pages. That latter is worth the price of the book by itself.
On the negative side, Berman's orientation is a bit too literary for my tastes. For example, I think he forces his theme of irrationality where it really doesn't fit. The totalitarian programs he talks about seem to have two major characteristics, (1) an enormously ambitious goal (remaking society, conquering the world, etc.), and (2) utter amorality in selecting the means of achieving that goal (no compunctions about massive slaughter). However destructive such programs are, there is nothing necessarily irrational about them. The one movement he talks about that does seem to be truly irrational is the Palestinian suicide bombing murder spree, in which those actions have no apparent connection to any specific political goals. Berman can also be careless in selecting examples to buttress his argument. Athens and the Roman Republic were not fragile little republics surviving only in benign circumstances, until "popped like bubbles by marauding armies from afar".
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