Monday, September 27, 2004

Book review: "Terror and liberalism", by Paul Berman

As a regular reader of Michael Totten's blog, I have come to read many endorsements of Paul Berman's book "Terror and Liberalism". So I finally seized a copy of the book and read it with great gusto.

Let me say that this book is a fantastic read and I recommend it to anyone regardless of their political or historical knowledge.

I found the book to be extremely appealing and Paul Berman portrays the great conflicts of the 20th century, not in terms of left/right, or religious/secular, or even warring nation states, but in terms of liberalism and democracy versus anti-liberal ideologies.

Nazism, communism, fascism all fit neatly into the anti-liberal basket. And as this book commences with its brilliant introduction, Paul Berman suggests that Western intellectuals have done very little in the last 30 years to pay any attention to the Arab countries. He then poses the idea that both religious Islamic fundamentalism and secular pan-Arabist Ba'athism belong in the same basket, and should be opposed by all liberal democracies.

A great portion of the book examines the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, calling for nothing less than the restoration of the caliphate and the application of Islamic law in all lands.

Berman suggests that these ideas were revived by the encyclopaedic writings of Sayyid Qutb which took seed within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1970's. These ideas soon spread to Saudi Arabia, and were the inspiration for the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the mujahadin-led assault against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Berman then returns his attention to Western leaders and intellectuals who ignored or appeased the rise and spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Wherever it spread, misery, violence and terrorism soon followed. 1 million people were killed between both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. Women were oppressed and disenfranchised. Slavery and ethnic cleansing spread to parts of Africa. Wild propaganda and anti-semitic conspiracies were spread through the mosques and state-run media.

This book takes a hard swing at the left, as Berman highlights how some Western "sophisticated" thinkers appeased or invented excuses for the anti-liberal ideology, no matter how atrocious or violent the outcomes were, and drew comparisons with the French intellectuals who excused or even supported Nazi aggression in WW2.

Paul Berman didn't only identify excusers or appeasers of the anti-liberal ideology on the left. He also attacks people on the right who pursued realist foreign policies. Berman discussed how in 1991, Nixon wrote an op-ed in the NYT supporting the first gulf war, to remove Saddam's forces from Kuwait, for realist reasons. These basically amount to strategic reaons to prevent Saddam from controlling a massive share of the world's oil supply and amassing wealth to pursue weapons. Berman then attacks the coalition that the US formed for the first gulf war, labelling it a collection of monarchs, dictators, tyrants and thugs, namely the UN security council. And despite the first war being explicitly supported by the Saudi monarchy, it did very little as the 1990's were full of Saudi-funded terrorist attacks on American targets.


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