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THE CULTURE AND CONFLICT REVIEW Click for an RSS Feed for the Latest Articles

Book Review: Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman
CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, Reviewer, 4/1/2013

Published by W. W. Norton and Company, New York. 210 pages, 2003.

It has been my privilege to address hundreds of civilian and military Defense Department personnel on the topic of Militant Islamist ideology, Middle East political history, and the future of fighting the scourge of violent Militant Islamist groups. This has led me to ponder new tools in this 21st century conflict that must be developed and cultivated among our military leadership.

While we are proficient in the military technological aspects of warfare, there is a thirst to delve into the humanistic aspects of combating groups like al-Qaida. By humanistic, I do not mean humanitarian operations, but immersing ourselves in the new tools of war such as countering a philosophical, ideological, and narrow abuse of the Islamic faith to weave the pseudo-intellectual ideology of Militant Islamist Theory. These are theories in which fragments of Islam is pieced together with fragments of western philosophy, to justify violence in the accomplishment of political objectives.

Sayyid Qutb, considered the most influential theorist by militant Islamists, not only was versed in Islam from which to conduct his selective interpretation, he was heavily influenced by western philosophical thought on the nature of man, and the western critique of obsessive materialism. We must be better students of Qutb, Abdul-Wahab, Ibn Taymiyyah, Mawduddi, and much more to begin highlighting aspects of their work that inspire violence, but more importantly aspects of their work suppressed and marginalized in Militant Islamist websites and al-Qaida statements. Paul Berman has been described as liberal hawk, who advocated the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan on the basis of a concept called “liberal interventionism,” the promotion of liberal democratic freedoms. He is not without his critics; however his 2003 book “Terror and Liberalism” is a welcome immersion into the language of militant, revolutionary and radical thought.

Berman has done a marvelous job of bringing together the strands of current militant Islamist thought with the ideas of totalitarianism. His book highlights how Arab nationalism would be influenced by movements like fascism, Nazism, and Communism, while Militant Islamists would delve into these movements, is the nihilist strand of thought that reduces faith into the adding up of deaths and massacres.

In Qutb’s view the Quran can only be understood through serious struggle, and he ignores the Quranic injunctions of religion not being a burden to humankind. Qutb amalgamated the writings of John Foster Dulles, who wrote that communist criticism can be fended off by strengthening America’s religious values; Qutb also was intrigued by American debates on pragmatism, and its critics Charles Peirce and John Dewey who critiqued the concept of divinity as a materialistic loss and benefit analysis. To a pragmatist, belief in God, depended on a payoff.

These are aspects of Qutb completely ignored by militant Islamists who focus on a few sound bites from his 23 books, and massive 30 volume, “In the Shade of the Quran,” to create suicide bombers. Qutb is at once, egotistical, violent, calm, and jumble of emotions and ideas that led the 9-11 suicide operatives to view his writings as a remedy. Militant Islamist websites are silent about Qutb’s book Social Justice in Islam, in which he describes Islamic justice as containing such concepts as absolute freedom of conscience, and equality of man. Within Qutbist contradictions lay in part the tools for counter violent militant Islamist diatribe.

These new tools include a better understanding of theological argumentation, philosophic investigation, and the realization that by knowing these works better than our adversary, we can begin to deconstruct and reveal their narrow use of even their most radical of texts. More importantly you can begin to understand how militant Islamists have hijacked the religion of Islam, through the use of narrow and selective sound bites. The best challenges to al-Qaida’s ideology, have come from those who have used Islamic argumentation to deconstruct al-Qaida’s worldview and methodology, they include former Militant Islamist theoreticians Imam al-Sherief and even the use of Wahhabi argumentation in the Saudi owned al-Arabiyah TV network to deconstruct al-Qaida’s media campaign.

We must include healthy doses of introductions to Islam and disaggregating the religion from Islamist political theory, and those two from Militant Islamist ideology in our senior and intermediate war colleges. This requires a reintroduction to the humanism and philosophical dimensions of this conflict. Such volume as Berman’s helps to unlock the secret of attempts by al-Qaida to seize upon those with a simple sense of history versus a true knowledge of history. It forces America’s military planners to think about this conflict differently and to seriously tackle our correct identification of ideology as the adversary’s center of gravity.

Editor’s Note: CDR Aboul-Enein is a Senior Advisor on Militant Islamist Theory at the Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism. He has highlighted many works written by Militant Islamist leaders and al-Qaida in the pages of the U.S. Army Journal Infantry and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Aboul-Enein wrote this review while waiting to address the military and civilian personnel of US Army North located at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. This command provided me an excellent atmosphere to think, reflect, and write this review.