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Terror and Liberalism Paperback – May 17, 2004
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About the Author
Paul Berman writes about politics and literature for The New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, and other magazines. His books have been translated into thirteen languages. He lives in New York City.
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The book provides a chilling description of how easy it is for liberals to fall under the sway of such movements by pointing out the ominous parallels between France's descent into supporting the Nazis during World War II and Europe's currenct descent into blaming Israel for the Islamist problem.
Whilst the book's analysis is first rate and is measured in tone and backed up by formidable research, I was left a bit dissatisfied. The vast majority of the book is taken up with the analysis but I would have liked to have seen, and expected, some sort of reasoned approach to a solution. And that, is sadly lacking in this book. There are a few paragraphs that airily talk about having a "third way" but not anywhere near the substance of how to create it to combat the current evil.
So, that is why I slightly downrated this book. However, it is a very thought-provoking read.
A great companion to Terror and Liberalism is Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, which, written 50 years ago, provides a thorough analysis--often in sharply polished epigrams--of those "true believers" who follow irrational mass movements.
One writer that Berman spends a lot of time talking about is Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist philosopher who was put to death in Egypt back in 1966. Qutb wrote about the erosion of Islam due to the influence of Western secularization. His desire was to see a pure Islamic state created with the reinstatement of shariah laws. He hated the Jewish Zionists and Christian Crusaders and his basic goals seemed to mirror the goals of Bin Laden and Khomeini as if perhaps they were influenced by his writings. Qutb saw the pure Islamic state as a liberal utopia which seems, to a western mind, incompatible with his desire for seventh century justice including public stonings, severed limbs and a totalitarian law that applies to all public and private behavior. These Islamists have sunk into a pathological state creating a `cult of death' where philosophers and leaders revel in killing for the sake of killing. They see blood as purification. The bombshell is that these kind of nihilistic views are nothing new. They are no more violent that the writings in France during the Terror or Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia or the British occupiers of Africa where blacks were killed for seemingly no purpose besides performing the act. Berman argues that this cult of death is very much influenced by western philosophy and the results of WW I and II.
The author spends some time showing his admiration for the Bush administrations desire to improve the lives of women in Afghanistan as well as spreading Democracy to the Middle East. I was a worried that Berman was being naïve but he redeems himself completely in the last chapter. Bush's talk of spreading freedom and democracy and women's rights is a very liberal stance so why are liberals not cheering? As Berman points out the problem is that this is diametrically opposite of Bush's past views. He was never concerned about women's rights and went on record stating that he was against nation building. He even implied that if given the choice he would have stayed out of the Balkans. So how does a man unmoved by genocide suddenly decide to spread liberalism to the Middle East particularly since he so enjoys denigrating liberals? This cuts to the heart of the matter. Bush is a realist masquerading as an idealist although I question whether his reality matches the reality of our planet. The Daily Show did a segment on Bush's 2004 acceptance speech and counted the incredibly high number of times Bush used the words freedom and liberty. Believing in freedom, democracy and liberty are all well and good but if you continue to support repressive regimes it shows you are working in bad faith. You can't support Saudi Arabia, a monarchy and one of the worst offenders of human rights in the world, and claim to be spreading freedom and democracy. Bush recognizes Pakistan as a Democracy despite the fact that General Pervez Musharraf took over in a military coup and has never had a legitimate election. Working with allies based on strategic interest is fine but it cuts against Bush's idealistic moral rhetoric. He's working in bad faith which may work with American's who suck up his glittering future but not so well with foreigners who recognize the hypocrisy of his words.
Ultimately the problem of terrorism needs to be addressed on both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals need to recognize that even with putting the violence aside for a moment the Islamist movement remains a racist, sexist, and bigoted movement with desires to create a theocratic totalitarian society. It is the opposite of liberal social ideals. Half a century ago many liberals made the mistake of defending Communism. The Islamist movement is undeserving of any liberal sympathy. The right needs to stop promoting unilateralism, preemptive strikes and excursions into fantastic nation building as in Iraq and start working in good faith.