Hawks v Reformists
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 05/26/2003
Category: Book Review
It is always a pleasure to read a book knowing that you have read at least some of the books that the author has also read, especially when one of them is Camus, and when he mentions, too, such idiosyncratic characters in history as Bakunin and Nechaev. It is interesting, up to a point, to run across reports on the enlightening discoveries presented by the writer Sayyid Qutb, whose prison years led to mein Kampfian style Islamic analysis.
On the other hand, there is much to take exception to in Berman’s book, major and minor. Perhaps that is what makes the book so intriguing. As a literary man and a leftist Hawk, he would have us believe he is some sort of neo-Orwell about to chase off to fight heroically against Fascism on the Ebro.
His central thesis is that liberals (in the USA) are too easy on the current waves of terror and Islamic terrorists; liberals should wake up and recognise what modern Islamic terrorism is, proponents of totalitarianism who at one moment are Nazis, at another Stalinists.
It may be that Berman feels happy with his terminology: liberals, liberalism, liberal democracy, totalitarianism and so on. There is a curious absence of the term socialism, though he does refer often to communism.
What is liberalism?
What is a liberal? In the USA the term is taken to mean someone who has some sort of left leaning but is not a socialist. The term refers to its original semantics and is related to a belief in freedom. However, what sort of freedom, and for whom, is somewhat vague. In the UK a liberal is a moderate social democrat or, even, is a capitalist, and therefore someone with rightist tendencies. The word is also used in relation to economics, liberal economics being a substitute term for capitalism. Liberal democracy, however, generally refers to representative democracy, parliamentary government and the rule of law; and is rather neutral as to right or left, but is used by those who have no time for alternative interpretations of the nature of the state, and tends therefore to be more a rightist than leftist since it refuses to accept any notion of base and superstructure. This may all be carping from an academic: after all, his is not an academic book despite its erudition. On the other hand, as the book title has the word “liberalism” in it, the author might be a bit clearer s to its meaning. I take it, he thinks he is a liberal, but not a socialist but that he is on the left of the political spectrum (or at least, was, until he wrote this book, which places him almost in a class of his own).
The most convincing part of his argument relates to the interesting historical parallel with the soft left in France in the thirties that advanced arguments for understanding, thereby accepting, the strange happenings in Nazi Germany. While Berman is against Bush and his supporters and his motivation, he does accept that terrorism is dangerously advancing and the USA should take a strong stand. Europe and the Europeans are no firmer than the USA: indeed, they are much weaker.
Heirs to the Counter-Reformation
Along the way he also provides some important insights into the Islamist movement(s), the crucial point being that they provide a total and collectivist world for their followers. Essentially Islam, he argues, is designed for a mass movement, which takes into account a total way of life governed by a whole system of laws. It does not countenance rebellion; quite the contrary it is about submission. Women submit to men and men submit to Allah.
This reviewer believes that Islam stands at the cross roads as Europe did at the reformation. At the crucial moment in history in the sixteenth and seventeen centuries, some nation states were for the Pope (Spain), some against (England), some willing to compromise (France). What was that struggle about? It was also about new ways of life. It was the struggle of commercial capitalism and infant industrialisation and modern science against the medieval clerics as well as for modern forms of nationalism.
The reformation was progressive. It removed the priest as a necessary intermediary between man and his God, it freed science, it challenged authority and the divine right of kings. It led to the freedom for Locke and Rousseau to write and publish in the interests of incipient democracy in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Islam in its present form is reactionary, and therefore, in its present form, doomed. It is doomed because it is not for “progress”. Berman does not discuss progress, nor does anyone else these days. It has gone out of fashion along with the term economic growth. But whether discussed or not “progress” and economic growth shows no sign of going away.
For all the criticism of the West by non-Westerners, Islamists and internal critics, the West can be proud of at least some of its conquests (however incomplete) of disease, poverty, and inequality. In the main infant mortality is low, abject poverty is atypical, educational opportunities are extensive, illiteracy is virtually non-existent, people live very long lives, the bulk of people have adequate housing, women are on the road to emancipation and so on. Distressingly and tragically, of course, there are many negatives too. But progress, as measured by these factors, has brought many benefits. The Islamic world simply has not “progressed” to the same degree and yet holds its value system and the benefits it brings to its followers as being superior. Terrorism to promote, let us say, replacing western ways with Islamic ways is unconvincing. On the other hand, if the Islamic world is (rightfully) fearful of corporate power, of growing inequalities in the midst of plenty, of the weaponry, of the collapse of the family, of geographical and occupational mobility, of drugs and alcoholism, and of profanity and secularism, then they need to fight these things in more fundamental ways than through reactionary terrorism. Islamists would need to show that their view of human rights, the rule of law, human security and welfare and so on can be supplied by methods other than those they have hitherto had to hand. The soviet style regimes failed to do these things too and history has removed them. Western countries will have to defend themselves against terror: that is true, but the West can demonstrate that its people benefit more than they suffer, while the calculus under Islam runs the other way.
Not the heirs to Totalitarianism
The core of my analytical disagreement with Berman, therefore, relates to the description of the Islamists as Nazis or Stalinists. Nazi-ism was about reviving industrial capitalism in the face of the failures of finance capitalism. (Hence the big industrialists backed Hitler against the “Jewish bankers”.) If it was a reactionary response it was not against progress. Quite the contrary, Hitlerism was for progress, in that it was trying to strengthen not weaken capitalism, through state intervention. (In the 1936 introduction to the German edition of his General Theory, Keynes refers to the fact that the new German government would no doubt not only approve his state interventionist policy prescriptions but would be able to implement them.[i][i]). Similarly, Stalinism, despite all the attendant horrors and millions of deaths, grew out of scientific socialism with an initial objective of placing human beings above machines in the order of things. At its ideological roots, it was a progressive not a reactionary movement. Indeed, it always aimed to progress beyond capitalism.
It is for this reason that Islamist states cannot be viewed as the heirs of totalitarianism. They represent a religious counter reformation generated by the growing secularisation and profanity of the West. As Berman reminds us Mohammed the prophet insisted the Koran should always be read as a continuation of both the Judaic and Christian bibles. Whereas initially Islam as expressed in the Koran might be seen as progressive in its origins, the Islamist movements are now the heirs of the counter-reformation. Theoretically, therefore, as a reactionary movement they cannot win: the world has a strong tendency to move “forward”, not backwards.
The West needs, for its own security, to contain terrorism until the time comes when the followers of Islam seek progress, and abandon the counter-reformation. The West for its part has a history of reformism (more apparent in Europe than the USA): it is for the democratic peoples of the West to ensure that this reform takes place. Reforming capitalism (liberal economies, liberal democracies) may be the best way of fighting terrorism.
This view is somewhat reinforced by another timely publication by Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, Amin Saikal, Islam and the West. In this even shorter book the author provides a succinct summary of the interaction between the so-called West and the Islamic world. He reminds us of the uneasy simplification of seeing either the West or the Muslim world as homogenous. Particularly useful is his differentiation of the Muslim world and one that enables us to see reasonably clearly the differences between those parts that might be regarded as modernising, modernist or reformist. Great differences exist as between say Indonesia and Turkey on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other. However, the key problem is that most Islamic countries are based on authoritarianism and major modernising trends in these tendencies in the immediate future does not seem likely. Despite seeing Islam as essentially authoritarian, his manifold set of prescriptions for the West demonstrates careful differentiation for dealing with Afghanistan, a separate prescription for Pakistan and Central Asia, another for Iran, another for Palestine and yet another for Iraq.
At the heart of the instability within the whole of the Islamic world lie authoritarian political structures and the slow growth of democratisation. On the other hand we have to admit, too, that Western democracies are not as democratic as they might be. The way that the war against Iraq was formulated and conducted against public opinion in most Western countries is an indication of how there is still thinly disguised authoritarian leadership in the West based on the concentration of political and economic power. An important policy prescription in Islam and the West relevant to this very day is the need for the West to tread carefully in its dealings with Iran and to ensure that the moderate gains of Khatami are preserved and extended. Threats to war against Iran will not promote modernisation in Iran nor reform in the West.
After reading this insightful book, and noting the news reports that indicate potential demands for regime change in Iran, we can only feel pessimistic about the future. Peace will come from fostering reform, modernisation and development in many parts of the Islamic world; but this can only happen if the West itself is reformist too.