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Tuesday, March 25, 2003

War of ideas.

Paul Berman's extremely provocative essay, "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror", makes me eager to read his new book, Terror and Liberalism. The subject of the essay is Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian religious scholar whose ideas are foundational not only for the radical Muslim Brotherhood but also for al Qaeda.

Some commentators on the left continue to talk as if the 9/11 terrorists were motivated primarily by rage at U.S. foreign policy. Surely U.S. behavior makes the situation more volatile, but Berman's close study of the ideas behind al Qaeda shows that foreign policy is a minor concern of these radicals. "American hypocrisy exercised him, but only slightly. His deepest quarrel was not with America's failure to uphold its principles. His quarrel was with the principles. He opposed the United States because it was a liberal society, not because the United States failed to be a liberal society."

Robert Worth introduced Qutb to many of us not long after 9/11, and Jonathan Raban also took a peek inside Qutb's oeuvres in a New Yorker essay. But Berman has plowed through volume after volume of Qutb's vast, brilliant commentary, In the Shade of the Qur'an, intent on showing that al Qaeda is not just rooted in the rage of poverty, or in political oppression, or in a personality cult. It's theological and intellectual — and deeply committed to a militant jihad — and it provides a vision that is winning converts among the well-educated and well-connected in the Muslim world.

The conclusion of the essay presents the basic challenge Berman finds in this vision:

It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas — it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries. The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.
But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society's every failure? President George W. Bush, in his speech to Congress a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, announced that he was going to wage a war of ideas. He has done no such thing. He is not the man for that.
Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding — one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.

Now that's a challenge, friends.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 25 March 2003 at 11:03 PM

Previous: Protest regress.
Next: Round up.

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