George Orwell
Writer George Orwell, author of "1984." (AP Photo, File)

May you live, as the Chinese curse has it, in interesting times. For the last 18 months, we’ve all been living in “interesting times”—often frightfully so. Yet for intellectuals there is always a craving that times would be … well, just a little more interesting.

That’s been especially true for the last half century because a shadow has hung over political intellectuals in the English- speaking world, and in some respects throughout the West. It is the shadow of the ideological wars (and the blood-and iron wars) that grew out of World War I—from communism, to fascism, appeasement, vital-center liberalism, and the rest of it. Even as these struggles congeal into history, their magnitude and seriousness hardly diminish. Understanding fascism, understanding that it could be neither accommodated nor appeased, understanding that Soviet communism was really rather like fascism—these were much more than examples of getting things right or of demonstrating intellectual courage and moral seriousness. These insights, decisions, and moments of action came to define those qualities.

Since then, things have never been quite the same. Like doctors who want to treat the most challenging patients or cops who want to take down the worst criminals, it’s only natural for people who think seriously about political and moral issues to seek out the most challenging and morally vexing questions to ponder and confront. Yet, since the Cold War hit its middle period in the late 1950s, nothing has really quite compared. For a time, the struggles of the 1960s came to rival those heady days from earlier in the century. But the tenor was too antic, the stakes too meager, and the legacy too mixed to ever quite match up. And while momentous, the collapse of communism in the late 1980s was bittersweet for intellectuals. In his essay “The End of History,” Francis Fukuyama even posited that history had “ended” with the collapse of communism, ushering in an era in which there would be no more great debates or challenges, but rather a bourgeois millennium of endlessly growing investment funds, a brave new world of consumer appliances. Later, the Balkans provided a crisis of moral weight sufficient to rival those earlier times–especially for those writers and journalists, mostly on the center-left, who had the courage and intrepidity to go there. But Yugoslavia’s collapse was essentially a local affair, with no clear connections to the world beyond the mangled and rancid history of the region.

September 11 changed all that. Al Qaeda’s war on America and America’s war on terrorism provided just such a vast field for thought and action. In the months after the attacks, especially on the right, writers began identifying th radical Islamist menace with fascism–Islamo-fascism, as the catch phrase had it. The idea that the war on terror should be seen as the latter-day equivalent or extension of the battles against last century’s totalitarianisms has been bandied about in opinion columns and magazine articles for more than a year with varying degrees of seriousness. Paul Berman’s new book Terror and Liberalism aims to give it intellectual ballast, a moral seriousness, and analytic grounding. Berman is well suited to the task. Though this way of thinking about Islamist fanaticism has largely been the province of the right, Berman is a man of the left–and, just as important, the right part of the left. He is a member of the board of Dissent magazine, and though he came of age with the New Left of the 1960s, he is part of the dissident, post-socialist, libertarian left, its most rigorous, morally serious branch.

Berman’s book is by turns penetrating, insightful, honest, sloppy, erudite, superficial, hot-blooded, serious, and florid. But it is always intense. It begins with a discussion of September 11, moves into a long analysis of Sayyid Qutb–a seminal ideologue of Islamism–and proceeds through a discussion of the gathering storm clouds of suicidal Islamist violence that brought us to the current crisis. The book’s entire second half has the feel of being written in a single sitting; that’s not a comment on the quality of the writing so much as a sense that the prose could only be the product of a mad dash through so much history, from fascism to Egyptian Islamism to Lincoln, and then doubling back to explorations of mid-20th century theories of totalitarianism. 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.

The heart of Berman’s argument is that the violence of al Qaeda is neither simply the extreme response of an oppressed group nor the alien and unknowable product of a religion and culture fundamentally different from our own. Much of the book’s first half is taken up with an effort to show that Islamism is ideologically and historically tied to the extremisms that rocked Europe and most of the rest of the world through much of the 20th century. Berman’s most powerful passages are those that show the deep similarities between radical, martyrdom-obsessed Islam and the nihilist, irrationalist totalitarian movements of the early and middle 20th century. (In arguing that Baathist Arab nationalism is a latter-day variant of fascism, he seems on considerably weaker ground.)

Berman forces his readers to see the irrationalism of the extremist branch of political Islam, recognizing that the movement is not just anti-American or violent or dangerous but, in fact, deeply pathological. Like every extremist movement that posits a sufficiently transcendent utopia, it is capable of rationalizing almost any degree of brutality and butchery in achieving that goal. In radical Islamism, as in the totalitarianisms of the past, one sees the same mixture of ancient, seemingly immutable, and thus reassuring beliefs coming into vexed confrontation with modernity–and producing some hideous amalgam that combines the worst of the two. One is reminded of Churchill’s warning that Nazism might cast the world into “a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science.”

Through Berman’s book runs a constant note of overstatement in how liberals or “the left” allegedly try to rationalize or explain the excesses of the various branches of what Berman calls “Muslim totalitarianism.” Yet there is a temptation for liberals, who watch the Bush administration launch out onto repeated military forays that mix military aggression with democratic idealism, to reach for the odd comforts of foreign policy realism. When faced with the prospect of one or more–probably more–foreign wars, it’s easier to fall back on concerns about stability and prudence, rather than confront the fact that many of the regimes in our crosshairs are hideously repressive and brutal, the sort liberals and progressives have long rallied and supported wars against. As much as right-wingers overstate the matter, there is an element of truth to the charge that contemporary liberals see oppression most clearly when it shines through the prism of racial or religious oppression.

When Baghdad finally fell, reaction in the Arab world took many forms, each intense and ambiguous. But one unmistakable variety was a sort of chagrin over the fact that it had taken the tanks of a Western power to rid Iraq of what was an unmistakably hideous regime. Antiwar liberals, if they were frank with themselves, couldn’t help but feel a parallel moral unease. As much as President Bush had acted as a bully on the international stage, as much as the lead-up to war had been destructive, clumsy, and dishonest, by early April the war he started had brought down a regime of death squads and secret police, foreign aggression, and internal oppression. Those are things liberals are supposed to oppose, and usually do. Yet those who opposed Bush’s war–even with good reason–had to concede that their preferred course would have left the torture chambers running indefinitely.

Berman strives to raise that moral discomfort to the level of acute pain, as a means of setting his readers to a greater challenge: to recognize radical Islam and Baathism–the two variants of Berman’s Muslim totalitarianism–for what he sees them to be, not just dangerous movements but the latest incarnations of the totalitarian scourges of the 20th century. But there’s a catch: Refusing to see the threat as a both a mirror and a continuation of those historic struggles doesn’t just connote a difference of opinion; in Berman’s view it equates to assuming the role of that era’s most discredited figures–to becoming the modern-day equivalent of the interwar Europeans who wouldn’t recognize Hitler’s evil, then attempted to explain it away, and finally embraced it.

Berman, in other words, seeks to lay the template of fascism and anti-fascist commitment onto the current reality of fanatical Islamic terrorism and Arab nationalist authoritarianism. Yet reading his book one cannot help but feel that the equation never quite works. There are similarities both meaningful and suggestive. But the analogy is not only incomplete, it is fundamentally wrong. One can recognize the grave dangers posed by radical Islamism without forcing it into a mold in which it does not fit.

One of the book’s shortcomings is Berman’s argument that the world of Islam and its fanaticisms are really not so exotic or distinct from the intellectual and ideological history of Europe. When one considers the long relationship between Christianity and Islam, as well as the more recent interpenetrations brought about by Western colonialism, there is much to be said for this argument. But Berman would have to be much more thoroughly grounded in Islamic theology and history to make that argument credible, and he is quite candid with readers that this is a depth of expertise he lacks. A deeper shortcoming crops up when Berman begins to chart the course we must take to do battle against the Muslim totalitarian menace. Though the battle may sometimes require bullets and bombs, it is also a battle of ideas. That battle, Berman argues, will be principally fought in London and Paris, Jersey City and Lackawanna, the Buffalo suburb where six Yemeni immigrants recently pled guilty to visiting a bin Laden training camp in Afghanistan in 2001.

But are these analogies really apt? Given the fact that the virus of murderous Islam seemed to blossom most fully in the Muslim emigrant enclaves of the West, it is probably true–at least partly–that the intellectual battle over Islamism will be hashed out there as much as in Cairo or Riyadh. But among whom exactly? Is there really anyone in the United States or Western Europe, besides emigrants from Muslim countries, for whom radical Islamism holds any attraction? Communism or fascism, by contrast, held a profound allure for many intellectuals in Europe and not a few in the United States; indeed, as the world spiraled toward catastrophe in the late 1930s, the ideological terrain became increasingly polarized until fascism seemed to many the only reliable check against communism, and vice versa. What today is even remotely comparable to this? Feckless losers like John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla are just the exceptions that prove the rule. Berman thinks that there are too many in the West who make excuses for Islamist barbarity, even justify it–perhaps are even secretly entranced by it. But his evidence consists primarily of comments from the likes of Noam Chomsky. No doubt Chomsky looms large in certain recesses of lower Manhattan and for a few undergraduates at elite universities. But is he really central to the political debate in the United States? Not even close.

When comparing “Muslim totalitarianism” to fascism, communism, or other totalitarian utopianisms, the most striking thing about radical Islamism, and the Muslim world generally, is not its strength but its weakness. Indeed, the weakness of the world of Islam–an ideology and culture that sees itself not only as superior to the West and the world’s other great civilizations but as properly in the vanguard of history–is the kernel of the threat it poses, the heart of violent Islamism’s toxicity. At the beginning of the 21st century most of the world is, for better or worse, rushing along the current of globalization. By any measure, the world of Islam lags far behind. With the exception of a few countries with vast amounts of wealth based on natural resources, it is impoverished and trailing the rest of the world on numerous fronts. Where is the great Muslim power? There is none. Where is the world of Islam’s advanced technology-driven economy? There is none.

The dissonance between the Islamic world’s historic self-conception and present-day reality is what produces so much of the rage in the Middle East, which grows cancerous when filtered into various extremist ideologies. Much of the rest is produced by Muslims who exist both in this world of Islam and in the very different world of the West, adding a further toxic blend to the mix–what historians once called “colonial rage.” Unlike fascism or communism, militant Islam isn’t a rising power, but a threat precisely because of its dysfunction and weakness.

If it weren’t for the fact that fanatical Islamist terrorists might get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, the sad fact is that few would even care. Of course, the fact that they could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction is a serious caveat. But it does place the issue in a certain context. It is a grave threat, but in a very specific, physical way–a threat to liberal societies but hardly the kind of ideological or political threat that great totalitarianisms posed a half a century ago. Islamist fanatics might destroy a whole city in the West, a catastrophic event. But they’ll never conquer or subvert a country. And this is the heart of the difference. To paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger, Islamism is a danger to the West but hardly a danger in the West–or China, or Latin America, or anywhere else where Islam is not already the dominant religion.

For intellectuals, however, there is always a temptation to take momentous, morally serious questions and make them out to be slightly more momentous and world-historical than they really are. Call it the Orwellian temptation. George Orwell not only epitomized what an intellectual can and should be. He has also become the symbol of the role the best intellectuals played in those critical mid-century years. Along the way, however, the image he cast–or rather his ghost, or his shade–has also become part of the pornography of intellectuals. Berman has given way to this craving.

Terror and Liberalism ends with an injunction to stamp out the bacillus of nihilism and totalitarianism in the Muslim world because our safety is incompatible with their continued existence. “In the anti-nihilist system,” Berman writes, “freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for the freedom of others.” Given the increasingly small, integrated world we now live in, this may well be correct; our safety and well-being, let alone the perpetuation of our values, are probably incompatible with abandoning a large swath of humanity to a field of poverty, fanaticism, and oppression that is a breeding ground for virulent extremism which can, in turn, lash out against the rest of the world.

Recalling those vivid images of the Twin Towers’ collapse, it is uncomfortable to have to argue that someone is overstating the danger of radical Islam. Nevertheless, to confront the very real threat we face, nothing is more important than seeing that danger for what it is–not through the distorting prism of our grandparents’ world. We have now toppled one of the worst regimes in the region. We have a foothold in the heartland of Islam. We have to decide how to proceed. Do we declare all-out war with much of the Muslim world or craft an approach more narrowly tailored to secure our safety and advance their freedom? Grandiose visions beget grandiose actions, which often end tragically. And grandiosity is a sin of intellectuals, too.

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Joshua Micah Marshall, author of the Talking Points Memo, is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.