...it’s a study in Berman’s theme: the denial built into liberal rationalism and materialism. “Terror and Liberalism” contends that Islamic fundamentalism and Saddam Hussein’s Baath socialism are morally, ideologically and historically continuous with the totalitarian movements of the 20th century; that fascism and communism both fed on liberals’ resistance to comprehending the irrational nature of those movements; and that the same blindness is rampant today. The subject of Berman’s critique is liberalism in the broadly philosophical rather than specifically political sense, a worldview that underlies a range of political positions from the French socialists’ opposition to World War II and ultimate collaboration with the Nazis to the anti-interventionism that currently dominates the European and American left to the foreign policy “realism” embraced by European governments and our own diplomatic establishment.
Basic to this worldview, Berman notes, is the belief that people act rationally in their self-interest. It assumes that political conflict is about a clash of interests — about military power, or class struggle, or territory, or oil. When apocalyptic mass movements commit violence, it must be in response to grievances: exploitation by the rich, domination and humiliation by the powerful. Violence that makes no sense in those terms — if it’s aimed at random civilians, or Jews, or women who show their faces in the street; if it’s suicidal as well as murderous — only shows that its perpetrators are unhinged by oppression. In those circumstances, the irrational is rational. But totalitarian movements, Berman argues, do not fit this liberal calculus; they are wholly pathological, a nihilistic romance with death.
In tracing the origins of this pathology, Albert Camus’ “The Rebel,” published in 1951, is Berman’s touchstone. For Camus, the human impulse to rebel takes a sinister turn, beginning with the French Revolution and flowering with 19th century romanticism: “The love of freedom and progress” becomes “weirdly inseparable from a morbid obsession with murder and suicide.” This obsession finds its way into anarchist and socialist revolutionary movements in Russia, Europe, America. A variant of it crops up in European colonialists in Africa, with such insane events as the Belgian massacre of the Congolese. Ultimately it converges with mass movements of the right and the left. Somewhere along the way, the impulse to rebel has been harnessed to its seeming opposite, the ideal of submission to an all-embracing authority: “the total state, the total doctrine, the total movement.” (The word “totalitarianism” is Mussolini’s.) And this frenzy of absolutism is directed, above all, against liberal tolerance and pluralism. In this anti-liberal crusade Berman discerns a modern acting-out of the Armageddon myth: The people of God are under siege — from within by the corrupt city dwellers of Babylon, from without by the minions of Satan. After a war of extermination against the evil forces, the people of God, in their purity, will reign.
“Terror and Liberalism” challenges the notion that these are only Western stories, and that Islamic radicalism and Baathism have wholly indigenous roots. Berman documents the interpenetration of Western and Muslim identities and influences, the development of Islamic fundamentalism in response to liberalism, the incorporation of both fascist and Stalinist elements into the Baath movement. In the chapters that for me are the high point of the book, he analyzes the work of the late Islamist philosopher Sayyid Qutb, who wrote, among other things, an exhaustive commentary on the Quran. To Qutb, the world was a sinkhole of alienation, afflicted with a “hideous schizophrenia” that went back to the early Christians, with their separation of the sacred and secular realms, and that culminated in modern liberalism. The schizophrenia threatened to infiltrate and destroy Islam, not through conquest but through the spread of liberal ideas. This was the crisis that made jihad imperative: a theological, ideological crisis, not a geopolitical one....