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Paul Berman’s error

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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This recent posting about Paul Berman’s alleged ‘persuasiveness’ prompted a painful memory — the time I spent struggling though Berman’s Terror and Liberalism back in 2003 so I could write this review.  I wanted to engage with Berman to sharpen my own thinking, but I found his writing simply awful: Leon Wieseltier’s pretention without any of Wieseltier’s undeniable style and occasional insight.

I argued that Berman’s greatest error, once you stagger through his pretention, is that he grossly exaggerated the strength of Islamic extremism.  I pointed out:

"In the Middle East, the great mass of people have rejected violent Islamism and the attacks on civilians. Berman says he has “greatly relied” on Gilles Kepel, the French authority on Islamism (who is one of his pitiful handful of sources). But he utterly disregards the conclusion of Kepel’s masterwork, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Kepel sums up decades of firsthand experience: ‘In spite of what many commentators contended in its immediate aftermath, the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might.’

I continued:

"What is remarkable about the Middle East is the rejection of indiscriminate violence. A key event took place on November 17, 1997, in Egypt, whose 71 million people form the largest Arab state. A small band, apparently attached to the Islamic Group, attacked tourists in the courtyard of the Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor, killing 62 people. Widespread revulsion among the Egyptian public forced the Group to declare a cease-fire, and tourism has long since revived."

Even after seven more years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, I stand by this statement, although the minority of violent jihadists across the region has surely increased in size. 

If you asked Berman how he wrote this book, I suspect he would say that he:

Looked calmly at reality,

Courageously saw what soft-hearted liberals missed, and

Issued a stern intellectual warning about the entire region.

I would argue that in fact he, mostly unconsciously:

Looked emotionally at Israel, and

Recognized that the exaggerated Islamo-fascism argument would help Israel’s defense, so he

Looked for evidence to support his argument.

James North
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