Terror and Liberalism

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Terror and Liberalism
Author Paul Berman
Country United States
Language English
Subject Islamism, Liberal internationalism, Totalitarianism
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher W. W. Norton & Company

Terror and Liberalism is a non-fiction book by American political philosopher and writer Paul Berman. He published the work through W. W. Norton & Company in April 2003.[1] Berman asserts that modern Islamist groups such as al Qaeda share fundamental ideological elements with fascism and other 20th century Western totalitarian movements, and he defends an assertive approach to root out this extremist thinking across the world.[2] He details the appeal of violent terror, going back to Albert Camus’ seminal work The Rebel, first published in 1951. Berman hypothesizes that the spread of democracy in the Arab world, while highly difficult and involving a long struggle, is a fundamentally just cause, and he writes in support of the George W. Bush administration's foreign policies while also faulting the President for credibility problems and incompetence.[3]

Perhaps not surprising given the intense subject matter, the book received a wide variety of reviews. Salon.com ran a review that described the work as "an important entry in the debate over the meaning of 9/11 and after".[3] Author Sam Harris praised the work in Harris' own book The End of Faith, which also discussed jihadist terrorism.[4] Washington Monthly journalist Joshua Micah Marshall particularly remarked that "Berman's book is by turns penetrating, insightful, honest, sloppy, erudite, superficial, hot-blooded, serious, and florid."[2]


Berman begins the book with a discussion of the September 11 attacks of 2001. He then details the ideology of Sayyid Qutb, an influential figure behind the development of Islamism, before moving on to a general overview of suicidal Islamic extremist violence that preceded the World Trade Center attacks. Berman argues against the two popular views that the success of groups such as al Qaeda are either, first, the lashing out of the socially oppressed or, second, an alien, distant product of a Muslim people with fundamentally anti-Western religious beliefs and values.[2]

Berman discusses the socio-cultural origins of fascism in modern Europe as well as the culmination of its ideals in the Holocaust and the Second World War. He also details the growth of Islamic extremist thinking, comparing and contrasting it with early 20th century revolutionary movements, and he states that the Islamic extremist struggle with liberal, pluralistic democracies is an outgrowth of that past trend. He uses the term "Muslim totalitarianism" as a shorthand summary of his thinking.[2]

In terms of individual Islamic terrorists and their cells, Berman draws upon the writings of Albert Camus and concurs with Camus' musing that "the sinister excites" and the "transgressions of suicide or murder arouse a thrill that sometimes takes an overtly sexual form." He discusses militant attacks as a kind of emotional anti-rationalism that is both primal and very difficult for normal, modern people to comprehend.[3] He additionally stresses the importance of staying strong against authoritarian extremists, arguing in support of assertive, preemptive war as well as active police efforts to root out the radicals within Muslim states themselves as well as in Western countries.[2]

He praises the decisions to launch the invasion of Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq.[2] Berman, describing his overall view of the present danger, writes,

The whole of the Muslim world has been overwhelmed by German philosophies from long ago, the philosophies of revolutionary nationalism and totalitarianism, cannily translated into Muslim dialects. Let the Germans go door to door throughout the region, issuing a product recall.[5]

As mentioned before, Berman hypothesizes that the spread of democracy in the Arab world, while highly difficult and involving a long struggle, is a fundamentally just cause. He writes in support of the George W. Bush administration's foreign policies, but he also condemns the President for credibility problems and incompetence, particularly how Berman thinks the Christian religious fundamentalism of Bush's domestic agenda undermines Bush's claims to support liberal democracy against militant Islamic fundamentalism. Berman argues in broad terms, though, "Freedom for others means safety for ourselves".[3]

Reviews and responses

American author and neuroscientist Sam Harris cited Berman's book in his own work The End of Faith, which explored the same themes regarding jihadist terrorism and the nature of modern liberal democracy. Harris praised Berman's writing as providing a "beautiful primer on totalitarianism".[4] Journalist and author Michael J. Totten has approvingly quoted from Berman's arguments and praised the work as a "brilliant book".[6]

The Observer ran a mixed review by journalist Martin Bright. Bright supported some of the points made while also stating that, at times, "Berman trips over the ingenuity of his own argument". Bright also remarked, "Berman's description of a paranoid 'people of God' convinced of its own righteousness, prepared to kill its enemies and sacrifice its own in pursuit of a realm of pure truth might just as easily apply to the United States".[1]

Ellen Willis wrote for Salon.com that while Berman was correct in criticizing the repressive and inhumane policies of secular dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Islamic fundamentalist groups, Berman was deeply wrong in his praise for the Bush administration's foreign policies. More broadly, she stated that she saw the book as "an important entry in the debate over the meaning of 9/11 and after".[3]

Washington Monthly ran a mixed review by journalist Joshua Micah Marshall, who commented that "Berman's book is by turns penetrating, insightful, honest, sloppy, erudite, superficial, hot-blooded, serious, and florid." Marshall also wrote,

Though this is a serious book, it is shot through with an equally serious flaw: the desire to inflate the threat of Islamist violence— and particularly its intellectual stakes— to levels beyond what they merit and to force them into a template of an earlier era, for which Berman has an evident and understandable nostalgia. Over the course of the book, the disjointedness between what the radical Islamist menace is and what Berman wants to make it ranges from merely apparent to downright painful, and ends up obscuring as much as it clarifies. And, unfortunately, the obscuring elements may be the more important ones. Given the role intellectuals are playing in this war, these are mistakes that could have dire real-world costs.[2]

Political scientist Norman G. Finkelstein said of the book in an interview with Tablet Magazine:

Look, I’ve read his stuff, so I’m not speaking from ignorance. There’s a whole tradition on the left that basically goes back to Trotsky, who was a brilliant political actor and also was a brilliant political writer. And so there’s this whole tradition—I’ll speak now of the American left, of people who are good writers and also want to write about politics. But they don’t know anything about politics.

OK, this tradition had people who weren’t terrible, like Irving Howe, who knew literature, and knew something about politics because he grew up in the ’30s, during the Depression. In more recent years, it’s people who know nothing, like George Packer. He went to Yale, he got a degree in English, and so he thinks he’s qualified to write about politics. OK, it’s not badly written, but he doesn’t know anything about Iraq. I know it sounds odd, but a lot of politics is having good political instincts. Some people have it, some don’t. Chomsky has it. Trotsky of course had it. But of course you have to be deeply immersed in the subject matter. They’re not interested in the subject matter, they’re interested in a clever turn of phrase. Their model was someone like Christopher Hitchens, whose whole art was: You take three little arcane facts and spin a whole article or essay around it. He’d start an essay on Pakistan by saying, “Oh, Pakistan literally means LAND OF THE PURE!” And you’d think, Oh, he really knows something about Pakistan!

So, you come to Paul Berman, who writes Terror and Liberalism. He finds in the street two pirated volumes of [Sayyid] Qutb, and suddenly he becomes an expert on Islamic texts. Trotsky wrote Literature and Revolution when he was in the iron cart, going from front to front in the Russian civil war. Berman was walking along Atlantic Avenue and saw two pirated editions, and now he’s an expert in Qutb, whose collected works comes to 40 volumes, if memory serves. It’s just so silly. It’s so unserious.[7]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Martin Bright (20 April 2003). "From Left Bank to West Bank". The Observer. Retrieved 10 September 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Joshua Micah Marshall (May 2003). "The Orwell Temptation". Washington Monthly. Retrieved October 27, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Ellen Willis (March 25, 2003). "Terror and Liberalism" by Paul Berman". Salon.com. Retrieved October 27, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Sam Harris (2005). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 134.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Terror and Liberalism. p. 208.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/michael-j-totten/isis-wages-cultural-genocide-palmyra
  7. David Samuels (June 2012). "Q&A: Norman Finkelstein". Tablet Magazine. Retrieved March 13, 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links