Terror and Liberalism

In Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman has a few good ideas which either warranted a newspaper/magazine article or a much thicker book. Unfortunately, we got a 210 page book.

The premise of the book is reasonable. Berman tries to compare the Islamists with the totalitarian ideologues of the 20th century, i.e, the fascists and the communists. His contention is that there are lots of similarities between all these groups. For example, they all define both internal and external threats. This is fine as far as it goes but Berman does not really go beyond a somewhat superficial level in his comparison. I am sympathetic to his ideas and he enunciates them very forcefully, but in my opinion he does not make a case that could convince skeptics.

Berman also talks about Syed Qutb and his commentary on the Quran “In the Shade of the Quran” (last volume available online). But he is not the go-to guy if you want information on Qutb. That would be Ideofact’s series on Social Justice in Islam by Sayyid Qutb1.

Berman also seems to consider Qutb, Tariq Ramadan and Bin Laden etc. to be part of the Islamist totalitarian movement(s). I am not sure he really gets the Islamists.

Berman’s ideas about intellectual efforts against the extremist Islamists is a good one, but he destroys the good impression immediately afterwards by advocating retaliation by the US for credibility’s sake. Now, I am not a pacifist (too pragmatic for that principl) but attacking because that would make us a credible opponent sounds too much like bullies in schools.

Overall, the book is a mix. Parts of it are pretty good, but other ideas don’t seem to be well-developed or are just plain bad. I think Berman is hindered by his lack of detailed knowledge of political Islam. Also, it would have helped if he had worked to make it a bigger and more intellectual book than the popular read it is. However, it is not a bad book to read. It gives you some food for thought and is a quick read as well.

1 Here is Ideofact’s series on Social Justice in Islam by Sayyid Qutb: 1, 2:1, 2:2, 3:1, 3:2, 3:3, 4, 5, 6, 7:1, 7:2, 7:3, 7:4, 7:5, 7:6, 8:1, 8:2, 8:3, 8:4, 8:4:1, 8:5, 8:6, 9.

Categorized as Books

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. Zack,

    Wow, I’m at a loss for words. Thanks for the endorsement of my Qutb posts. In fairness to Berman, I think he wasn’t so much writing a book on radical Islam, as writing a polemic to argue that the war on terror is a cause in the grand liberal tradition. I think the most moving part of the book for me was the passages he wrote on Afghanistan, and the return of refugees after the Taliban was toppled.

    But speaking of Qutb, Thomas Nephew of NewsRack blog made an important contribution to the discussion — it can be found here. (Or http://pages.prodigy.net/thomasn528/blog/2003_08_17_newsarcv.html#106125889084239517 here, if your comments don’t support html…). Nephew writes, “It turns out that Qutb had a more direct connection to a variety of European mysticism and nascent totalitarianism in the writings and philosophy of one Alexis Carrel — Nobel Prize in Medicine winner for his work on circulatory surgery and transplants, arch-conservative Catholic, Vichy regime supporter, and, in the end, apologist for Nazi euthanasia and eugenics programs.” The whole thing is worth reading.

    Again, thanks for the kind words.

  2. Sulayman Stephen Schwartz (Muslim, Jew, NRO writer) had a scathing review of Berman’s book in the Globe and Mail. I found a copy here, at


    Apparently, there is some history between Schwartz and Berman back when Schwartz was a trotskyite. It is both stupid and bizarre that Islamic writings are beign looked at thru the lens of old cold-warriors obsessed with communism and fascism. If all lyou have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    (Wouldn’t it make more sense to examine Qutb et al in the context of Islamic writings. From Incoherence of the Intellectuals to Maulana Maududi.)

    Anyway, if you’re looking for quick read, try Noah Feldman’s After Jihad. He’s the hotshot who was dubbed ‘the writer of the Iraqi constitution’ a while ago.

  3. Typo: That should be Incoherence fo the Philosophers, a book which I personally found incomprehensible. I suppose I shouldn’t even bother with Incoherence of the Incoherence

  4. Bill: You are welcome.

    It’s not a bad book and some of Berman’s ideas do make sense. But you have to take a lot of stuff on faith. While the Islamists are a threat to liberalism (actually in the Muslim world, rather than in the US), how exactly is it similar to the fight against the communists? Berman never really does justice to this question. Plus he seems to know little about Islam and Muslims.

    Thanks for the Thomas Nephew link. It’s definitely very interesting.

    Ikram: Interesting review. Written in the typical Schwartz style.

    Looking at the Islamists in the framework of Muslim history might be too much to expect from anyone except a scholar.

    I think there is room for some discussion on how Europe has affected the Islamic world whether it be fascism, communism, demcracy, etc. But Berman’s book doesn’t cut it.

    After Jihad has very varying reviews on Amazon.

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