Terror And Liberalism by Paul Berman
Terror And Liberalism by Paul Berman

Terror and Liberalism

Apr 15, 2003

Paul Berman discusses the common ideological underpinnings of totalitarian movements, from fascism and communism to the radical Islamist movement. He observes that in every case it is liberal naïveté that allows totalitarianism to progress.


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome members and guests to our Author in the Afternoon program.

Today we are delighted to have Paul Berman, a writer who has been especially recognized for his penetrating philosophical perspectives on a vast array of social and cultural topics. His latest work, Terror and Liberalism, focuses on a subject that is generating a great deal of interest, as it is the first book to address the political/philosophical dimensions of the current conflict found in Islamic fundamentalism and on the War on Terror.

I have asked Jack Diggins to introduce Mr. Berman. Jack is a Distinguished Professor of American History at the City University of New York. He has also taught at Princeton, Cambridge, and the University of London. Jack has published a number of books dealing with American politics and history, including Up From Communism: The Liberal Persuasion; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and the Challenge of the American Past; The Promise of Pragmatism; The Rise and Fall of the American Left, and The Proud Decades, America in War and Peace, 1941-1960. Just by listening to these titles you can easily conclude that Jack has concerned himself with, among other things, American intellectual history, liberalism, pragmatism, and the American past and its influence on the present, which makes him the ideal person to introduce our guest today.

JACK DIGGINS: Thank you. I am very pleased to be here and to introduce my old friend, Paul Berman.

I came to know Paul many years ago when I was living on the West Coast and there was an essay in the Village Voice on the philosopher Sidney Hook. I thought I was the only person in the United States who admired Sidney Hook, but there was one other, Paul Berman. Hook was a leading philosopher of pragmatism and Marxism and became an ardent anti-communist, which in the 1960s was not politically correct, at least on the campuses.

And then, watching television, the Iraq war, the aftermath of the war, and seeing the scenes of fists in the air and anti-American statements and rumors of Baath police being lynched and the scenes of looting, I said to myself, “This is not going to bother Paul.”

Many years ago Paul was with me in California and said, “I’m going to take a trip to Tijuana.” At that time, if you went to Tijuana and parked your car for ten minutes, the tires were gone. But Paul came back just smiling and praising it as a land of moral solidarity and all the people with hearts of gold. I couldn’t help remember the last time I was there I was taken to the police station because I refused to pay a cop a $50 bribe for crossing the street the wrong way. But Paul is so much more optimistic than I am, and maybe he is right.

With the fall of Communism, he and I would debate every day, and I would side with Gorbachev and he would side with Yeltsin or anyone who let the whole system come down. Paul describes himself as a democratic socialist, but deep down he has an anarchist impulse and he does think that out of chaos will come freedom. I am a little bit more cautious.

But the fall of Communism was, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, the greatest peaceful transfer of power in modern history, and Paul was right about it, and perhaps he will be right about his position on the Iraq war.

Some people will be curious why I dedicated a book that is about the great prudent conservative President-statesman John Adams to a radical activist from the 1960s. People wonder if there is an incongruence there. But I would like to read you the last sentence of my acknowledgement: “In the 1790s John Adams reflected on events in France, in the 1980s Paul Berman on events in Nicaragua. Both faced the wrath of some of their own friends for telling us that a revolution without representation is destined to devour itself. Truth dared to speak before its time.”


PAUL BERMAN: I’d like to thank the Carnegie Council for inviting me to speak and my dear friend, the slyly brilliant Professor Diggins, for this introduction.

I would like to offer ten propositions with which our present crisis could be observed.

1) In the nineteenth century, the belief arose that the secret of human progress had been discovered and had been proved to be correct. This secret was thought to be a belief in the many instead of the one, a belief that each aspect of life should be allowed to remain in its own sphere—the public and the private, the state and society, the religious and the civil. There was a belief that society ought to govern itself through rational analysis.

Many different philosophies and political movements expressed this idea. None of them, none of the large ones, expressed it fully consistently. Marx had some aspects of this idea. The French Revolution stood for some aspects and could not quite get the other aspects right. Thomas Jefferson stood for a very pure version of this idea and yet couldn’t quite straighten out the part regarding human slavery. Each separate movement in the nineteenth century, or in the early eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, had some aspect of it and some contradiction which was yet to be worked out.

And yet, in spite of the contradictions, there was consensus about general principles which were seen to be working in some of the societies that we think of as the West and which were regarded by some people in all regions around the world as the secret of human progress universally, not just in the places where they were seen to be prospering at that moment.

There was among a very large number of people, a general feeling of underlying optimism, which you can see in many of the writers of the nineteenth century, in many of the doctrines that came to dominate political movements.

2) At the same time, there was reason to be suspicious of these doctrines. There was a whole series of criticisms about hypocrisies or inconsistencies or lies that were concealed within it. Marx was the great prophet of this.

But beyond these doctrines of suspicion, there were also some elements that not even Marx discussed, something that went beyond exploitation and hypocrisy. This could be seen by the late-nineteenth century in King Leopold’s war in the Congo or in German Southwest Africa at the turn of the century, where the very countries, Germany and Belgium, who were among the principal exemplars of the doctrine of human progress, were in some other aspect of their national activity somehow engaged in the most grotesque genocide. The combination of the sense of optimism and the genocidal atrocities, seemed to be beyond the capability of the liberal imagination to conceive.

In the First World War, these darkest aspects, which had already been visible in the Congo and in Southwest Africa, finally rolled back across Europe. What had been unimaginable throughout the nineteenth century finally took place in Europe itself, which was mass death on the most colossal scale, nine or ten million people killed for reasons that were ultimately unintelligible. Each country went into the war with a logical set of reasons instead of treaties and alliances. The final outcome was a catastrophe beyond that which anyone would have or did predict.

3) From the nineteenth century and onward, a series of rebellions against this prevailing liberal optimism arose. Some of these rebellions are particularly worth observing.

First, there was a rebellion within the romantic literary tradition, in romantic poetry. An important sign of this was Victor Hugo’s verse play Hernani in 1830, which already broached certain themes. The play ends with the attempted assassination of the King of Spain and a triple suicide. The theme of murder and suicide in the context of rebellion had already been broached.

Baudelaire picks up the same theme. In the second edition of The Flowers of Evil, the inscription mentions enrolling in the rhetorical school of Satan.

And, in fact, there is a religious subtext that underlies this notion of rebellion, which is the romantic cult of Satan, which, within the literary tradition, begins to mean a cult of murder and suicide as literary postures.

Later in the nineteenth century among the poets, the religious aspect of this rebellion, of this notion of transgressive rebellion against the existing order, takes a new form. You can see it in Rimbaud and in a marvelous version in the greatest of the turn-of-the-century Spanish-language poets, Ruben Dario.

This new version is not the cult of Satan. It is a series of images that come out of the Book of Revelation. There is a Millenarian idea, of an impending calamity, that something unspeakable is about to occur. You can see it in Yeats. This idea emerges as the new religious underpinning.

There is something self-ironic about the writers who were writing about Satan but there is nothing ironic or self-ironic about the writers who were drawing on images from the Book of Revelation.

At the end of the First World War, these currents in poetry, from the romantic to the symbolist poets at the end of the century and the beginning of the new century, finally convert themselves into a series of political movements, which are mass movements against the idea of liberalism. They are movements of rebellion against the belief in the many instead of the one, against the idea that life should be divided into a series of spheres—the public and the private, the state and society, the civil and the religious—and at some level, in different ways, they are movements of rebellion against the idea of rational analysis. Instead, they are movements in favor of the one, the solid, the granite, of authority, as opposed to rational analysis—sometimes of mysticism, but in any case of authority.

These movements were founded by Lenin, Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, the leaders of the Iron Guard in Romania, various figures from the extreme right in France, and through every single country in Europe in some version or another—the Bolshevik movement on the Left, all of the other movements on the Right.

The movements were utterly different one from the other, and the Left and the Right hated each other, and sometimes the Right and the Right hated each other. But what I am struck by is the similarities.

4) In all of these cases, the similarities consisted of a belief in a deep myth, the Ur myth of the twentieth century and into our own time. The name of this myth is the Book of Revelation.

It is a variation on the themes of the symbolist poets. It takes the idea of transgressive rebellion, which the earlier Romantics had already come up with, of murder and rebellion as satanic acts of rebellion against liberal society, the conversion of this idea into the mythology that you see in the Book of Revelation, and then finally these political movements convert that same notion into political doctrines in this way.

The story in the Book of Revelation says: There is a people of God; the people of God are being afflicted and polluted by forces from within their own society, who worship at the synagogue of Satan. At the same time, the people of God are being afflicted by cosmic foes from abroad.

The people of God who are oppressed rise up in rebellion against these polluting forces from within and against the cosmic forces from abroad. The name of this war is Armageddon, and it lasts, according to St. John, the author of Revelation, one hour.

And at the end of the war, with all of those foes dispatched, the reign of Christ is established and lasts a thousand years. It is a perfect, stable society with no polluting elements. It is the millennium.

Each of the movements that arose in the period after World War I found a new way to tell this story. There was always a people of God. The people of God were proletariat. The people of God were the children of the Roman wolf, the Italian people. The people of God were the Catholic warriors of Christ, according to the King in Spain. The people of God were the Aryan race.

There were always polluting elements from within society, such as the bourgeoisie, or the Trotskyite wreckers, or the Jews, or the Masons, or the Communists.

There were always external foes from abroad. These were the forces of capitalist encirclement, or Anglo-American imperialism, or what Heidegger described as the “pincer pressure” of the United States and the Soviet Union pressing on the people of Germany.

There was always going to be a war, which would be a war of extermination against these external and internal foes. This war would be the class war, or the crusade in Franco’s version, or the biological war in the Nazi version.

At the end was always the perfect society, which was pictured either as a sci-fi leap into the future or as a return to the golden age of the past, usually as some version of both.

The Communist version was a leap into the future, though if you read your Marx carefully, you understand that this is also a leap into the primitive Communism of the past. And in the Soviet version there are many references to the primitive Communist traditions of the Russian peasants.

All of the right-wing versions were variations of a slightly different sort.

Mussolini was going to recreate the Roman Empire, and when he marched on Rome in 1922, he organized his followers into legions. They were centurions marching on Rome. The Roman Empire was going to be recreated in a modern version. They weren’t going to go back to the ancient version. It was would be a modern version of the Roman Empire.

Franco was going to recreate the medieval Crusades of Spain at its greatest. He would do this in a modern version.

Hitler was also going to recreate the Roman Empire. The Third Reich meant the new Reich after the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. He would recreate the Roman Empire, but in an Aryan version instead of an Italian version.

And likewise, this cult of the ancient, the reestablishing of the ancient, was a leap into the future at the same time, a modernism.

The symbolist cult of the Book of Revelation is also a cult of ancient myth, which is a cult of modernism at the same time. If you want to see that artistically, picture some of Picasso, where he is evoking the ancient myths of the Mediterranean but in the most modern of ways.

5) All of these movements proposed impractical programs which were unachievable except in one way, which was through mass death. Mass death showed that these were movements of transgressive rebellion, not movements of reform, not conservative movements of reform or social democratic movements of reform, Left or Right, but movements that would break through the ordinary morality of behavior, thus would break through the existing world view.

The reassuring demonstration that one had really gone beyond the ordinary was a commitment to mass death. All of these movements failed completely in achieving what they stated to be their worldly aims, and in achieving mass death.

6) The liberal society which in its weaknesses and contradictions and inability to conceive of the dark in human nature, the liberal society which in some way had inspired these movements and against which these movements now arose in rebellion, also had a great deal of trouble in identifying what these movements were.

We are all too familiar with the failures of the left-wing Fellow Travelers, who could not understand Stalinism and could only understand it as an exceptionally advanced form of social democracy. But you can take examples of this kind of error across the spectrum.

I write about the French socialists of the 1930s, who were a deeply democratic and liberal, in my sense of the word, movement with an impeccable record of liberal democratic credentials going back into the nineteenth century, without any of the aspects of Bolshevism, Marxism, or Leninism. One has to remember that in the 1930s, the French socialists were the enemies of Nazism and of the Right.

And yet, the majority of the French socialists finally voted for Marshall Pétain because they could not get themselves to understand the nature of Nazism. They managed to tell themselves that Nazism was a legitimate movement, that the Germans did have grievances, that the Treaty of Versailles had been unjust, that Hitler might be raving but he was stating truths.

The French socialists in their majority faction certainly did not regard themselves as anti-Semites, and yet they asked themselves: “Every time somebody rails against the Jews, is it always an example of anti-Semitism?” The French socialists were, by definition, the enemy of financiers—“and weren’t some of the financiers Jewish?”

The French socialists finally thought that the great danger to France was represented not by Hitler and the Nazis but by the hawks in their own society. And who was the leading hawk? Unfortunately, it was their own leader, the leader of the minority faction, who had managed to get himself elected Prime Minister, Léon Blum, whose ethnic identity now became itself a source of much speculation.

With this kind of reasoning, the French socialists in the majority faction not only managed to vote for Pétain, but quite a few ended up joining his government, and in this way the impeccable liberal democrats of the French Left managed to convert themselves into fascists.

7) The progress of totalitarianism depends on and is inseparable from this kind of liberal naïveté. Without the cooperation of the Fellow Travelers with Stalin, without the French anti-war socialists in the case of Hitler, without the naïveté of any number of conservatives and democratic right-wingers in the case of a variety of fascists and Nazis, without the naïveté even of the United States with regard to Hitler straight through the 1930s, it would be inconceivable to imagine that these movements would have gotten very far.

So it is a mistake to think of the totalitarian movements as isolated. They existed in a dynamic, and part of the dynamic is the liberal naïve unwillingness to recognize them as what they are.

8) Totalitarianism arose in Europe in the fifteen years after the First World War. In the first twenty-five years, similar or identical movements arose on the other side of the Mediterranean too, in the Muslim world.

One of these movements was certainly Muslim Communism, which everyone forgets about. In the interpretation of the clash of civilizations, one would imagine that a Western movement like Communism would be inconceivable in what is called a non-Western society. In fact, Communism was a large and lasting movement.

But the totalitarian ideal also arose in two other versions, which were distinctly not European. The radical Islamist movement—that is, the notion of Islam as a revolutionary political movement, not just as a religion—was founded in 1928 with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Pan-Arabist movement in its most radical version, the Baath, was founded formally in 1943 in Damascus.

These movements are conventionally seen as opposites. If you turn on the TV, you will see any number of people automatically saying that these movements have nothing in common; one is religious, the other is secular; they despise each other. And it is true that they have despised each other and have committed mutual massacres on a gigantic scale.

It is useful to point out the ways in which these two movements resemble each other. The totalitarian movements in Europe also were different one from the other, and sometimes were at war with one another, and yet there were underlying similarities.

In the case of Baathism and Islamism, these similarities are easy to see. There is a people of God. The people of God should be described as the “true Muslims” in the case of the Islamists, or as the “true Arabs” in the case of the Baath. The people of God are afflicted by internal corruptors within Muslim society. These internal corruptors are the Jews or the Masons or the Muslim hypocrites.

The people of God are afflicted by sinister external foes, Western imperialists or the worldwide Zionist conspiracy. The people of God will resist these internal foes and external foes in a gigantic war of Armageddon. This war will be the liberation of Jerusalem or it will be the jihad.

Afterwards the reign of purity will be established and this reign of purity is described in the case of both of those movements in the same way: it is the re-resurrection of the Caliphate of the seventh century in the years after the Prophet Mohammed. The Caliphate is described by each of these movements in a slightly different way. For the Islamists, it means the reinstating of Shar’iah or Qur’anic law. For the Baathists the emphasis is secular; it is the recreating, the resurrecting, of the Arab empire when the Arab empire was on the march.

Finally, these two movements have lacked for nothing in the realm of practical achievement – killing millions. In the last twenty years, several million people have been killed in the course of the Iran-Iraq war, which pitted one of these movements against the other—the mass human wave suicide attacks on the part of the Iranian Islamists against the cult of cruelty, and of chemical weapons on the part of the Baathists. It is estimated that between one and a half million and two million people were killed in Sudan; 100,000 are thought killed in Algeria over the last several years.

It is conventionally said that in these movements today we face nothing like Hitler or Stalin, but statistically this is not true.

9) The success of Muslim totalitarianism has depended on liberal naïveté—in fact, blindness. The eyes of the world have not been on these millions who have been killed in the last twenty years.

Always the liberals all over the world have wanted to describe these movements as in some way rational and conventional, as movements based on grievances—“The movements are anti-Zionist, and isn’t it the case that Israel has often been at fault?” “The movements are anti-American, and isn’t it the case that the United States has often been at fault?”

And these grievances do exist, but the effort to take them seriously tends often to distort their madness in such a way as to make it unrecognizable, for totalitarian doctrines are always mad. The Nazis thought they were engaged in a biological struggle. The Stalinists thought they were the proletariat and their enemies were the bourgeois exploiters. The Baathists and Islamists see a cosmic Zionist-Crusader conspiracy.

It is important to keep a sense of the madness in these ideas, even if it is true that in the years after World War I some Germans were oppressed outside of the borders of Germany, and Israel and the U.S. have done bad things.

10) All of the totalitarian movements were at bottom ideological movements, not based on a normal sense of grievances of political claims or expression of real-life interests, but movements based on ideological visions.

Each of these movements in the past was defeated not militarily but ideologically. World War II was violent and military, but although D-Day was important, de-Nazification was the actual victory. The defeat of Nazism militarily would not have been all that helpful if Germany, which is inherently an extremely wealthy and powerful society, had continued to remain a society of millions and millions of convinced Nazis.

The same is true now. The struggle we are involved in now has, had, and will continue to have a military aspect, but this aspect must be secondary to the ideological aspect, to the war of ideas.

The basic danger we are facing now is not weapons of mass destruction, per se, because we know very well that box cutters can be lethal weapons of the worst sort. The danger that we face is not inherently military; it’s not armies in the conventional sense. It is above all ideological. As long as millions of people are committed fanatically to doctrines that are ultimately mad and that follow in the tradition of the totalitarian madnesses of Europe in the twentieth century, the danger persists.

I maintain that the struggle we are involved in is, or ought to be, ultimately a war of ideas.

Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: A fascinating rendition of history. The problem underlying all of these movements that have done so much damage in the world is that they are the result of liberalism. Liberalism, therefore, because of its very nature of considering a wide spectrum of good and evil, as opposed to taking a position on one side, is very negative and probably should be considered unacceptable in the war of ideas. Liberals have fomented some of the major problems in the history of the world.

I’d like your comments.

PAUL BERMAN: I agree with you up until your final conclusion. Liberalism in the broadest sense, the notion of a liberal society, does in fact generate these movements.

I am not the first to make that observation. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Carl Popper explains at length, in a book written or completed in 1943, a very evocative date, that the notion of freedom itself, which he traces back to Greece, inspires a rebellion of fear against it.

There is a relation between liberal society and its enemies, and that liberalism does inspire these movements of rebellion, and has inherently a difficulty in coping with them. If that is what you are suggesting, I agree completely.

We must recognize, first, that liberalism itself does bear some responsibility for the rise of these movements, and then bears a responsibility for failing to recognize them and to engage with them.

At a time of war people want to wave a flag and say, “these are the totally good guys and those are the totally bad guys.” I am with you on saying “those are the totally bad guys.” But about saying “these are the totally good guys” I have a moment of reservation.

QUESTION: Have you been in touch with fellow intellectuals in Europe? How do they respond to your thesis, they who have suffered from Nazism and Franco and Communism, and yet seem so naïve when it comes to understanding what the United States is trying to do to combat the dangerous ideologies in the Islamic world?

How can we find again a common basis with the Europeans and others, and with Muslims all over the world, to transform this Armageddon- directed Islamism, militant Islamism, into a more open society?

PAUL BERMAN: I’m sorry to say that in the current issue of the New York Review of Books I’ve been hanged by Ian Buruma, who takes the occasion to observe that he is Dutch-born and expresses a lot of resentment at some implicit analyses of contemporary Europe that he finds in my book. So there are some tensions.

I was at a conference in Paris last summer where the tensions between some of the American and European intellectuals were in fact quite great.

At the same time, my book occupies a strange place in this debate because it has already been criticized for being anti-European and having a naïve American nationalism implicit in it.

The ideas that I have just expounded, come, insofar as they aren’t my own, from Popper in some degree, from Albert Camus, and especially André Glucksmann, the French philosopher, who in his hugely unappreciated book of 1991, Le Onzième Commandement, which is his answer to Francis Fukuyama, lays out some aspects of this notion of the Book of Revelation as an Ur myth underlying modern totalitarianism.

I just had this same discussion with a reporter from Le Monde, who called to ask me if I wasn’t anti-European, based on what she had read about my book in the New York Review. I said, “I don’t think so because all my ideas are actually French, except that I have given them a different twist.”

The great chasm that has opened up between the United States and Western Europe, at least, is much more conjunctural, much more a matter of chance events, than it is anything deeper or structural. I disagree with Robert Kagan on this point. Much of it is the fault of George Bush and could have been avoided.

In France, before the Iraq war, a poll showed that 33 percent of the French supported the war. Of those 33 percent, most were on the Right, some were on the Left. But apart from the 33 percent, the polls showed consistently that the single most admired politician in France is Bernard Kouchner, who was a socialist, Mitterand’s Minister of Health, NATO Administrator in Kosovo, and long ago had been the founder of Doctors Without Borders. Kushner supported the war.

So if you figure that the most popular politician in France, who is a socialist, supported the war, 33 percent of the population supported the war, most of whom were on the Right, meaning that you could have got much support on the Left, all you had to do was convince 9 percent of the French to change their opinion and you would have had a majority of France in favor of the war. The popular support for the war in France is much above that in Spain, where Aznar did support the war.

If Bush had presented the arguments for the war along the lines that a Bernard Kouchner would have proposed, if he had argued for the war as a further extension of what NATO had done in the Balkans finally in the Kosovo war, he would have been able to carry that extra 9 percent in France, and if Chirac saw that even a small majority was leaning in favor of the war, he would have found a way to interpret the international situation rather differently.

World War II was an age of giants, of Roosevelt and Churchill. Today we have Churchill but we don’t have Roosevelt and we don’t have de Gaulle. I attribute the breach between the United States and Europe above all to these errors of Bush.

QUESTION: Would you give us your views on the modalities by which an ideological struggle can be conducted? It is difficult for outsiders to argue with or conduct an ideological debate with the Muslim world. An ideological debate must occur within a community.

PAUL BERMAN: First, it’s a mistake to regard Muslims as outsiders to the West. In many respects the intellectual capital of the Arab world is Paris and London, where you have the freest press and the most open debate. The leading philosopher of the most moderate, fairly reasonable wing of modern Islamism is a Swiss professor who is the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Second, the founders of the Muslim totalitarian movements, the most important theoreticians, like Sayyid Qutb in the case of radical Islamism, or Michel Aflaq in the case of Baathism, are Western-educated intellectuals.

A quarter of my book is devoted to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, born in 1906, hanged by Nassar in 1966. During his many years in prison he wrote a gigantic commentary of the Qur’an. It looks strictly Islamic and Qur’anic, but if you sit back and look at the ideas, it’s not hard to recognize a bit of Heidegger, of existentialism, all of the familiar doctrines of modern European philosophy.

And this guy knew what he was doing. He did not come up with totally modern ideas strictly out of the seventh-century Qur’an. He did succeed in finding a Qur’anic language to express these ideas, but this writer does not live on a different planet or come from a different universe than the intellectuals of New York or Paris or London.

If my analysis is correct, I don’t mean to deny a distinctly regional and denominational aspect of Muslim totalitarianism. I am happy to acknowledge the differences between Egypt and Italy, or for that matter Egypt and its immediate neighbors. But if the fundamentals of my analysis are correct, then all of these movements reflect the intellectual currents of the twentieth century coming out of the nineteenth century, and it is a great mistake on our part to think that the intellectuals behind these movements are coming from a different universe.

So we can argue with these people directly. And we shouldn’t assume that they are not reading us or would not be willing to read us. I came on the works of Qutb prowling the Islamic bookstores of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. There is every reason to think that the other people prowling those bookstores, who might have a different ethnic origin than my own, are nonetheless reading some of the same books that I am reading, and that the gap between us and them is not so great.

QUESTION: You describe the totalitarian forces as the people of God in their minds. Do you not think that this concept is slightly different in this context, because one could say that about an aspect of what is going on in this country? After all, there is a rather large segment of people in this country who have affected policy who call themselves the Christian Right. They believe in Armageddon, Revelation.

There is this aspect in what you would characterize as the liberalism force as also the people of God. Our President has said that God is on our side. This is slightly different from the analysis that you presented of all the other contexts.

PAUL BERMAN: An excellent question. I have two responses.

First, it is not true that everyone who calls himself a fundamentalist is the same. The mainstream of American Christian fundamentalism has, even if they allow themselves flights of fancy, political goals, such as prayer in schools, the end of the right to abortion, etc.

Maybe if they were given free rein, they would lose control of themselves and the goals would multiply. I don’t rule that out.

The mainstream of these people are not dreaming of abolishing the U.S. Constitution and replacing it with a theocracy. It’s a limited movement.

However, there are groups like the David Koresh cult and certain kinds of cults that arise on the fringe of the American Christian fundamentalist movement that have this idea. If you could picture one of those cults becoming a mass movement led by David Koresh, then you would have something much more like radical Islamism, or the Taliban.

One of Bush’s worst failures is that he is so locked into a conventional American understanding of Christianity and its role in American politics that he has no idea whatsoever how this plays in the rest of the world. He hasn’t the faintest idea that to European ears when he evokes God he sounds like a fascist. He knows he is not a fascist, and most Americans know that he is not a fascist, that he doesn’t want to overthrow the Constitution.

But the language he is using is not so different from a language that you can trace among American politicians way back into the nineteenth century and is well understood both on the Right and the Left.

So when we hear Bush invoking his Christian faith and saying “God bless America,” we shrug. But to many people around the world, in Europe especially, this is language that only a follower of Franco would use.

Bush has no idea how badly he has weakened the United States internationally by using this language and how badly he has weakened the struggle ideologically. After all, the most important thing that we want to do is persuade millions of people in the Muslim world that Islam is excellent but what they want to establish is a secular society which is not theocratic, which has the qualities of a liberal society, and that there is a fine and esteemed place for religion within it. Bush sounds like a Christian Crusader, exactly the worst fantasy of the Islamists and Baathists who are against the United States.

QUESTION: Paul, I would like to make a defense of liberalism. You’re conflating the failure of nerve of liberals in the 1930s to stand up against Hitler, and then later to see the treacheries of Stalin. But just because these movements identify themselves as opposition to liberalism is no discredit to liberalism.

How do you expect this next phase of our confrontation with the Islamic world to be a struggle of ideas? When has liberalism been able to persuade others to give up their ways? The liberal society of the North couldn’t even persuade the South to give up its ways. And in every encounter that liberalism has had in the twentieth century, it was a winning philosophy. Liberalism prevailed over fascism, over Communism, and what the Islamic world now faces is that they are isolated and in a state of desperation, backwardness and poverty.

Oscar Wilde said, “How do you reason someone out of what they have not reasoned into?”

PAUL BERMAN: They have not reasoned their way into it. When you read some of the theoreticians of these movements, you see that they are quite intelligent, and that people reasoned their way into fascism, Nazism, and Communism, and then they reasoned their way out of those movements.

In the case of Communism, the liberal world engaged in an excellent war of ideas, which, in Europe at least, meant that Communism collapsed, outside of Romania, in an entirely peaceful way, which is the ideal solution to the problem. And it was done largely through a war of ideas, that liberals of the Left and Right upheld their ideas. Liberal movements eventually began to spring up within the Communist societies, and some of the Communists themselves began to question their ideas in the face of these criticisms.

Communism has always contained something of a contradictory element, going back to Marx, who was partly wrong but partly right. The intellectual aspect of the Cold War in Europe was huge.

In the case of the Islamists and Baathists, again they are not so remote from us. Ultimately, they have to be reasoned with.

The whole history of totalitarian movements up to now has been one in which liberalism has finally triumphed, and so there is reason to feel some deep confidence about this. One actually has to go out and engage in this fight, which is largely intellectual.

There are two obstacles that exist, that make it difficult for us to engage in this fight.

One is a liberal naïveté, which has always been the case in regard to totalitarian movements, where one doesn’t want to believe that these movements are as bad as they are and one finds reasons for saying that they are reasonable and, therefore, not to take them seriously.

The other obstacle is the belief in the clash of civilizations, which attributes to the Muslim world an exoticism, that might lead us to suppose that we can’t argue with them because they come from another planet.

We must avoid the naïveté of failing to recognize what some of these movements represent and the dangers they pose and the crimes that they have already committed, and we must avoid the belief that there is no way we can speak to these people because they come from such a faraway place.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.

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