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Shalom Freedman on Terror and Liberalism

Filed under: Radical Islam, Terrorism
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)

This book was one of the most forceful initial intellectual responses to 9/11. It came as a wakeup call from a left-liberal about the nature of the new evil confronting humanity. Berman, like Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Friedman, is an observer from the Left who appreciates the dangers to liberal democracy that the extreme Left poses.

His attack on the Left involves undermining the illusion of the primal innocence of all forces opposing the democratic West, and especially the United States. Berman fiercely criticizes the Chomskyian thesis that the source of all evil is capitalistic and imperialistic America, which allegedly would leave a world of peace and prosperity if it disengaged from it.

If Berman faults the West and the United States for anything, it is the willingness over the years to support, for pragmatic purposes, regimes that violated human rights. Paradoxically, though, he points out that the United States has intervened more than once in the Islamic world, in such places as Somalia and Bosnia, to protect the rights of Muslims-while receiving only blame.


The War of Ideas

Berman distinguishes between the war on the ground and the war of ideas and opinions. His book is written out of his belief that without a clear understanding of what must be fought for, the cause will be lost.

In this regard, Joseph Wheatley in a review in the Journal of Homeland Security points out a major virtue of the book:

“Berman has spotted a trait common to liberalism’s adversaries across history. Disdainful of reason and liberal norms, these movements have metastasized into cults of death. They have alienated and marginalized legitimately aggrieved parties and hardened the opposition. As a result, these movements have achieved little more than carnage. Countless innocents have been but props in their indulgence of violence and destruction.[1]”

Most centrally, in analyzing the threat of terror Berman places the jihadist menace in the context of the two great totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, fascism and Communism. George Walden, in the Telegraph, outlines Berman’s principal thesis:

“The terrorist menace has its roots not so much in a clash as in a blend of cultures: a sinister amalgam of 20th-century European anarchism and totalitarianism with pan-Arabism and atavistic Islam. Their common goal was the annihilation of liberal societies, and their doctrines overlap. That is why Nazi theorists in post-war Egypt influenced the Muslim Brotherhood, ancestors of al-Qa’eda, why Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athists leant towards the Soviet Union, and why German ultra-leftists allied themselves with Palestinians in the Seventies to murder Jews.[2]”

What is basically in danger, Berman maintains, is the liberal democracy that is at the heart of Western civilization. Liberal democracy, as he understands it, with its emphasis on individual opinion and expression, freedom of the press, and respect for individual dignity is threatened by movements that share a closed, formulaic mindset, demanding universal obedience to a single way of thought.

Berman devotes several chapters to the Eygptian Sayeed Qutb, whom he considers the theoretician of the current jihadist mentality. He clearly admires the intellectual brilliance of Qutb while deploring the fundamental thrust of his thought. Qutb was obsessed by the idea that the West had corrupted mankind by splitting the spiritual and the material. His panacea was a revival of seventh-century Islam, which he believed would reshape the world in its image.


A Problematic Approach

Berman does not give prime emphasis to the role of Saudi Wahhabism, and hence does not relate to what has become the fundamental paradox and problem in the global war on terror. The main protagonist of the war, the Bush administration, continues to back terror-supporting regimes. The administration has shored up the Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia in return for only cosmetic reforms. It has promoted a state for the Palestinian Arabs even as they continue to use terror as their principal weapon in their effort to destroy Israel.

Moreover, Berman could not have foreseen the difficulties now faced by the war on terror in its Iraqi theater. To date, no effective response has been found to the Sunni insurgency with its seemingly endless procession of suicide bombers against Shiite targets. While the debate rages in America on whether or not to bring the forces home immediately, the realities on the ground are confusing. On the one hand, there is the seeming progress toward a democratic regime and constitution; on the other, the insurgency continues to take large numbers of lives.

The war in Afghanistan, too, remains highly problematic and thus far inconclusive. The invasion of Iraq has, however, provided a tremendous financial boon to the two largest state-supporters of terror, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The price of oil has increased with the uncertainty of Gulf supply, bringing increased revenues to Saudi Arabia and Iran. These have been used to shore up the regimes at home, and in Iran’s case for purchases of new conventional and nonconventional military supplies.

Berman correctly identified the totalitarian threat against liberal democracies and humanity as a whole. Since the publication of his analysis, however, the situation has deteriorated. His basic contribution has been to characterize the threat facing the West, though he was unable to prescribe an effective remedy.

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 [1]  Joseph Wheatley, review of Terror and Liberalism, in Journal of Homeland Security, 28 October 2004.

[2] George Walden, review of Terror and Liberalism, in The Telegraph, 5 April 2003.

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DR. SHALOM FREEDMAN is a freelance writer in Jerusalem who for the past two years has focused on the threat presented by a nuclear Iran.