A review of Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003, 214 pp)
Imagine, if you will, a café somewhere between Amsterdam and Cairo circa 1964. Amidst the coffee and smoke, the backgammon and chess games, two men sit, oblivious to their surroundings, engaged in a frank discussion about how to structure a society so that it reflects the will of God in all its particulars. Let’s call those men Herman and Sayyid, Herman Dooyeweerd and Sayyid Qutb.
Alas, such a conversation could never have taken place even if the proposed date fits within the narrow window of time Qutb was not behind bars in an Egyptian prison, where he was hanged by Nasser for his theological-political crimes in 1966. Dooyeweerd had probably not heard of Qutb—who in the West had in the 1960s?—and Qutb’s suspicions about the fruits of Western ideas and hypocritical churchmen were so deep after his years of studying in America that it is doubtful he would have wanted to meet a Christian philosopher.
However, if they had met, who knows what future misunderstandings between the “Christian” West and Muslim East might have been undercut. After all, the two men shared a similar conviction that God rules every square inch of the universe, as Dooyeweerd’s precursor, Abraham Kuyper, put it so aptly.
If Qutb could have met Dooyeweerd, he might have had second thoughts about his indictment that Western thought led so inevitably to the “hideous schizophrenia” exhibited by the sacred/secular split of modernity, God confined to Sunday church and people free to do what they want in all the rest of the time and space of public life. A Christian thinker critiquing that wicked world from within it might have provided common ground from which to work with the Muslim thinker in exposing this fatal flaw of the Enlightenment project.
In Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman, who is neither a Christian philosopher nor a Muslim theologian but rather a secular Jewish journalist, a person who lives within the framework of the benefits of the Enlightenment, does a great service to his readers by providing an accessible portrait of Sayyid Qutb, whom many, today at least, know as Osama bin Laden’s ideological grandfather in jihad. Berman’s book is broader in scope and purpose than introducing us to Qutb, but the two chapters that trace his thought as it appears in voluminous volumes of commentary on the Qur’an clearly summarize Qutb’s scriptural interpretations. Considering the fact that Berman abhors the terrorist conclusions to which Qutb and, more particularly, his disciples arrived, this sympathetic rendering is a remarkable feat.
(Roxanne Eubanks wrote a much more academic and admittedly postmodern political analysis of Qutb in Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism: A Work of Comparative Political Theory, Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 1999. Another more popular post-9/11 analysis can be found in Malise Ruthven’s A Fury for God, London: Granta Books, 2002.)
The Qutb who emerges on these pages is a person with whom evangelicals might find much in common as we too deplore the many fruits of modern freedoms, the tawdry commercialism, the blatant sexuality, the inherent inequalities, the death-inducing “morality” of our society. Listen to his comments on the Qur’an’s Surah 5:
We must not be deluded by false appearances when we see that nations which do not believe or implement the Divine method [Shari’a law] are enjoying abundance and affluence. It is all a temporary prosperity which lasts until the natural laws have produced their effects, allowing the consequences of the miserable split between material excellence and spiritual fulfillment [which, in other places, Qutb labels as the “hideous schizophrenia”] to appear in full.
In Milestones, Qutb laments (and who of us would disagree?) that in liberal societies, even among religious people, “God’s existence is not denied, but His domain is restricted to the heavens and His rule on earth is suspended.” This is the sin of Western thought that so offends Qutb. It is one that we, as sinners and as products of our culture, ought sadly to recognize because we fall into its trap all the time.
According to Berman, Qutb traces the source of this split, not to the intellectual and moral failings of individual Christians or to the secularization that accompanied the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, but back further in Christian history to Paul himself. He believes that, by his emphasis on spirituality and love, Paul preached a perversion of Jesus’ religion, which was meant only to restore Israel to the Mosaic code of behaviour (in this prophetic role, Jesus parallelled Muhammad, who had also called a culture back to the true worship of the one God).
Armed only with this feeble message, later Christians had no intellectual and spiritual resources with which to withstand the pagan debaucheries that came with Constantine’s acceptance of the church. All some could do in reaction was withdraw to the monasteries and renounce their flesh. In Qutb’s understanding, the church/world, sacred/secular, spiritual/physical split manifested itself early and disastrously.
In contrast, for Qutb, a true reading of the Qur’an reveals that there is one God, one correct worship, one morality for all of life, one system of communal living for all peoples. It is this wholeness of vision, this “every square inch” mentality that has lead Islamism, as with other totalitarian movements before it, to its absolutist adoption of the tactics of terrorism. Totalitarianism is the larger context of Berman’s argument. He asserts that if we can figure out what explains European totalitarians of the last century, we can figure out the Islamic terrorists of our day because many Muslim thinkers and politicians had read their European philosophy well.
Following Camus’ analysis in The Rebel, he demonstrates that “a modern impulse to rebel, which had come out of the French Revolution and the nineteenth century . . . very quickly, in the name of an ideal, mutated into a cult of death. . . . It was the ideal of submission . . . of the one, instead of the many . . . of something godlike. The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement.”
In the name of freedom and wealth and progress, these totalitarians intended to destroy the liberal impulse to freedom and wealth and ever more progress because it hadn’t been actualized in their locale. It was not hard for them to identify some evil that prevented the realization of their utopia—the Jews for the Nazis, the capitalists for the Bolshevists, the Freemasons for the Fascists. With the “ur-myth of Armaggedon” ever in mind, they took the battle between good and evil into their own hands, bloodying the European continent beyond recognition, in order to bring in a future reign of purity. They proved on the reality of the historical stage, from World War I onward, what the romantic European poets had exalted on paper—that unfettered freedom inevitably leads to death. Berman’s conclusion is that although they are dressed in Arab robes, the Muslim terrorists who take Qutb’s analysis of the spiritual crisis of the world so seriously that they are ready to crash airplanes into skyscrapers are nothing more than the Brownshirts of Hitler or the Redshirts of Stalin reincarnated.
(Berman’s misunderstanding of Armageddon deserves analysis that is beyond the scope of this essay. He is most likely right that utopian groups have drawn on its powerful images; I am not qualified to judge. Central to the message of the images in Revelation, however, is the conviction that God is the one who engages in battle with Babylon. Humans show their faithfulness to their Sovereign by enduring persecution as well as by living and witnessing with Sermon on the Mount ethics, not by taking up arms to bring in the Kingdom of God by their own power.)
Another of Berman’s keen insights, parallelling his first, is that Islamist theology is not just abstract ideas. He comments that for Qutb, “a proper understanding of the Koran can be achieved only in an atmosphere of serious struggle, and only by someone who is engaged in a ferocious campaign for Islam, not by someone at ease in his chair. . . . The Koran offers a way to live. Understanding its truth therefore requires an active engagement with life—perhaps a painful engagement.” He traces how this understanding of the Qur’an intersected with transplanted European totalitarian thought to produce a secular Baathist regime, a Khomeini theocracy, and a millennial al Qaeda movement, the latter struggling to restore the Caliphate renounced by Turkey when it set up a secular state in 1924.
The quandary then, for liberal democrats, is how to counteract these terrorists. Being true to a liberal vision of society, with freedom of thought and action, privacy, and tolerance, will only exacerbate the Islamist rage.
Berman’s third significant contribution to an adequate understanding of our present condition is his analysis of the current liberal response to Islamic terrorism. He is not too kind to liberals, even though he is one himself.
Again, he compares what he sees today with liberals’ response to European totalitarianism. He finds that in the name of freedom, in the name of rationality, they (we) have endorsed what they should have ideologically opposed.
The anti-Second World War Socialists of France provide his case study. He concludes that they “had begun as defenders of liberal values and human rights, and they evolved into defenders of bigotry, tyranny, superstition, and mass murder. They were democratic leftists who, through the miraculous workings of the slippery slope and a naive faith in the rationalism of all things, ended as fascists.”
He sees similarities in today’s liberals (Noam Chomsky his case in point here) who, despising Bush more than anything, cannot understand that fighting Muslim totalitarian-terrorists is an urgent priority. Because their deepest presupposition is that people are first of all rational, they refuse to understand that masses can be led irrationally (what he describes as irrational behaviour we would explain more deeply as sinful) to die for the greater cause of Islam. Hence, the talk show airwaves and op-ed pages filled with their conviction that 9/11 represented a rational response by oppressed peoples to the overwhelming oppression of the West.
Berman himself is an unabashed liberal. He rejoices in a worldview that can produce democracies, guarantee human rights, strengthen freedom of thought and speech and action, and keep God in his religious place. He points to the freedom of girls to go to school in Afghanistan after the war there as proof of the validity of the liberal project, an outcome of fighting terror about which liberals such as Chomsky are strangely silent.
As a good liberal, he must hold his nose while he supports Bush’s anti-terrorist agenda, even the war against Saddam Hussein, although he is strongly critical of Bush’s methods to accomplish it. Therefore, understanding the fatal flaws of the liberal ideology and yet longing for a truly liberal world, he struggles in his book to articulate a consistent position from which to defend liberalism against terrorism.
At a couple of places, he reveals his liberal presuppositions underpinning the very ideology he has shown to be so faulty. In his discussion of the 1989 triumph of democracies that led thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama to declare “the end of history,” he claims that the “wars came to an end when the apocalyptic ideologues, in a fit of lucidity, gave up at last on their apocalypses” (emphasis mine). So people, at least some of the people some of the time, are rational after all.
Even more telling is his comment about Bush’s dreadful bumbling of his might-have-been noble fight against terrorism: “the great, frightening truth of all modern history, . . . that vast consequences flow from inconsequential-seeming causes, and that a systematic logic does not govern world events, and that chance occurrences frame the largest of phenomena: in this case, the chance occurrence that, at the moment of supreme crisis, the world’s most powerful person happened to be George W. Bush.” Like others who reject a theistic view of history, Berman is left with cold chance as the framework for life.
And so he is left, too, with absurdity, unease, suspicions, and frail hope. Terrorists must be fought, and who can amass armies except governments? He laments, “Oh, how I wish that the entire world would turn out to be rationally explicable, after all. . . . But no single logic rules the world, and no one is going to intervene in our behalf in order to impose one—not God, nor Hegel, nor FDR.”
He proposes instead that we, the ordinary (and rational?) people, take things into our own hands and wage a war of ideas through trade unions, through human rights organizations, and through foundations. In a speech at the college where I work, he challenged professors to take their classes explicating liberal ideas to Baghdad. Jointly, these efforts might create a loose “anti-nihilist” network of security through universal freedom.
Although Berman is suggesting a war of ideas, he follows Qutb’s Qur’anic lead (though he does not spell it out as such) in positioning these ideas into an active struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims. What, for example, do trade unions do but help to create just working conditions? There is nothing abstract about this task. However, such a task demands the intellect and commitment of Christian thinkers such as Dooyweerdians who can both critique both the Enlightenment Project and Islamism as well as provide a framework for the trade unionists, politicians, educators, and others that Berman cannot provide.
A contemporary Christian intellectual-activist has recently joined his voice to Berman’s to call for engaged dialogue with both liberalism and terrorism. (Rivers’ talk to the Calvin College January Series was titled “Christian Philosophy in an Age of Terror.” It is available by RealAudio from the January Series website, www.calvin.edu/january/2004/rivers.htm.) Rev. Eugene Rivers had discovered Qutb through Berman’s book and was disappointed to have found no Christian journal review of it (and, for that matter, no Christian students in the InterVarsity group at Harvard University aware of it).
At Calvin College’s 2004 Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, Rivers begged Christian academics to develop a sophisticated understanding of Qutb because radical Islamists are active in inner cities and prisons, recruiting poor and disillusioned young black men to their cause. He agrees with Qutb that our civilization is facing a spiritual crisis, and his evidence is the lives of those who barely exist on the underbelly of American wealth and power, both here and in the Third World. He castigated the Christian philosophers, those heirs of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd whose careers had begun at Calvin, for doing their philosophy in a scholastic vacuum disengaged from the greater moral problems of the world. (Conspicuously missing from River’s list of Calvin-based philosophers was Nicholas Wolterstorff, who has written extensively about justice and interpreted the cause of the Palestinians for both church and academic audiences. See his Until Justice and Peace Embrace, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983, a portion of which, “For Justice in Shalom,” is excerpted in From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.)
We need to be, Rivers challenged his audience, “watchmen on the wall to plead the cause of the poor and neglected,” presenting a “more compelling vision” of a just society, a society shaped by God’s desires, than the one offered by Islamists today. We need to live so that the Muslim world can see the Word enfleshed in their neighbourhoods.
Imagine, if you will, a neighbourhood café in Toronto, in Dearborn, in Los Angeles, in London, in Paris, in Casablanca, in Baghdad, in Kano, in Jakarta circa 2004, 2005, 2006. (Or it might instead be a jail or a factory lunchroom or doctor’s office waiting room.) Amidst the coffee and the smoke, the backgammon and chess games, two people sit, oblivious to their surroundings, engaged in a frank discussion about how to structure a society so that it reflects the will of God in all its particulars. Let’s call these people Brian and Mustafa, Phil and Rashid, or Samantha and Aisha. Let’s call them you and a Muslim friend of yours.
Paul Berman challenges us not to wait for our governments to do the right thing but as individuals in trade unions or universities or NGOs to fight for our own security through ensuring the freedom of others. Eugene Rivers challenges us to articulate an engaged Christian philosophical worldview that can present an alternative to Qutb’s, which is converting many of the dispossessed around the world to a radical Islamic vision of a just society. Jesus calls us to have His mind as we seek to dialogue with our Muslim neighbours in the deepest issues of life. Let us follow Him into the cafes of this world.