Saturday, April 15, 2006

Terror and Liberalism, 7/7

It’s time to bring these ruminations to a close. I see that I’ve already written five thousand words, and that ought to be quite enough with which to discuss a short book like Terror and Liberalism. Still, there’s a lot more I could talk about. While reading Berman’s hymn of praise to the other Abraham in this book, Abraham Lincoln (pp.169-171), partly because his Gettysburg Address was “about death” but was “not a speech about martyrdom”, those words from the greatest Civil War song of them all, Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic ran through my head, “As He died to make men holy let us die to make men free”, which come a bit closer to the celebration of religious martyrdom than Berman might like. And it’s blackly comic to read Berman’s thoughts about the supposed absence of a “cult of death” among liberals of his persuasion at a time when fellow muscular Christopher Hitchens’ astonishing call for new “killing fields” in the Middle East has not quite yet faded from memory. But, as I say, I’ve written enough already.

All in all, Terror and Liberalism has to be reckoned a disappointing book. It’s sometimes right, sometimes intelligent and usually interesting, and Berman writes fluently, with a seemingly impressive range of intellectual, historical and political reference and in a way that makes the reader feel smart, which is always a pleasant experience. But surfaces deceive. Berman’s persistent refusal to treat his important subject matter with the patience and accuracy that it deserves is frustrating. A number of the complaints that I’ve set out above may look like quibbles, and with regard to a different book, they might very well have been. But beginning the work of assembling the carelessnesses and the misreadings and the inaccuracies and the confusions in one place does, I think, help to show the extent to which they are, if not deliberate, then, as an older kind of left-winger might have said, “not accidental, comrade”. The errors in the book aren’t random, but systematically skewed in order to provide support for an implausible view of the world, and for some very dangerous politics. And if we aren’t alert to the ways in which Berman manipulates his often rather good source material in order to construct his tendentious argument then we might very well find ourselves seduced.

It’s a good thing we took precautions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some final responses.

I think Berman would be much better off in Terror and Liberalism if he could take the position that he's describing a series of "family resemblances" among a series of commonly-descended postures towards the state and modernity. Instead, he commits what I think is generally a methodological sin in intellectual history, but particularly so here, in that he wants to insist that he is describing a very tight "lineal" descent, especially when he gets to the relation between facism and pan-Islamic ideology styled after Qutb.

To sustain a "this father begat this son" argument, he's forced, as you noted, to cut many limbs off to fit a Procrustian bed, to move around time and space in a way that just doesn't hold up when you get into the details. But if he loosened that scheme up, I'm quite convinced that he's traced a "family tree" of relations and readings between various episodes.

This relation is important in reading pan-Islamic political projects and thinkers after Qutb in order to avoid buying into their anti-modernity stance, or accepting that posture at face value. Berman's intellectual history is one important way to avoid that trap; there are others (such as sensitive ethnographic work on such movements). However you get there, it's an important place to arrive, to understand that many post-1950 pan-Islamic movements do not aspire to the anti-modernity they claim at points to revere, but instead to a "capture" of civil society and the state in a fashion that at least has a cousin-resemblance to other 20th Century authoritarianisms. Berman offers a suggestion that I'm inclined to take somewhat seriously that this isn't an accidental resemblance, but is based in part on the readings of Qutb, Khomeini and other leaders of European thinkers and histories. Ultimately, that's a pretty intuitive suggestion once it's made--it connects pan-Islamists with very parallel histories of prewar connection, travel, education, knowledge production and training that you find among postcolonial secular nationalists like Nasser, Nkrumah, Nehru and so on.

I also think it's right to rain scorn down on Berman for his "blindspot" when it comes to liberal complicity in imperialism (19th Century liberals were often far more enthusiastic proponents of imperial conquest than their conservative or highly nationalist brethren) and the ways that manifests here and now. At the same time, though, the man is not responsible for some of the dumber uses of his more nuanced intellectual history: the book is vastly smarter and more useful than the shorthand of "Islamofacism" so beloved of the warbloggers.

Finally, I think Berman's final charge to contemporary liberals is a pretty strong one: that they will have to defend liberalism in terms that resonate with the mass of modern populations, not just the relatively austere, cold and often elitist defense of civil society that most liberals settle for. I thought this was the strongest part of the book, and an interesting lesson for Berman to arrive at from the history he recounts. The pity is that he then lent his name to a political project whose planners had little interest in or facility for connecting to the ordinary people who were at ground zero of the conflict they created. In many ways, I would think that an honest reading of Terror and Liberalism would require Berman to oppose the Iraq War in its "real" form.

4/18/2006 04:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To echo what the above anonymous commenter siad, I found that the most interesting part of Terror and Liberalism was the discussion of Qutb. It's not something that you actually address in your review.

Compare with the awful brain-dead discussion of Qutb in "Age of Sacred Terror", Berman's circumspect analysis of Qutb is excellent.

On Berman's contention of Abraham's struggle with God, there is, in the Old Testament, Abraham's bargaining with God over the minimum number of righteous found in Sodom for God to stay his hand. Don't know if this is found in the Koran or Hadith.

4/18/2006 06:43:00 PM  
Blogger L.R.A. Laurent said...

I think Berman's good on literary and linguistic analysis, but perhaps TOO good. He analyses even the title of Qutb's "In The Shade of the Qur'an", without realising that it has been translated as other things, such as "Under the Aegis of the Qur'an". He also imagines that understanding Islamism is purely a matter of reading Sayyid Qutb, as though he wrote in a vacuum (despite being influenced by Mawdudi) and as though all Islamists all over the world read Qutb and only Qutb.

I think Berman's book is incredibly misleading and shallow, but because it is short, well-written and more seductive than the giant tomes on Islam, all the journalists and chatterati have swallowed it whole.

6/16/2006 11:03:00 AM  

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