Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, by John Gray; <br/>Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman

You've got to fight for your right to be fat and comfortable
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Two clichés have been heard across the world since 11 September 2001. The first is that New York City was attacked by strange cave-based foreigners whose fanatical motivations were entirely beyond our rational Western minds. The second platitude was that the West had not only been attacked from far away but also from long ago: al-Qa'ida are described constantly as "medieval". Two new books now illustrate comprehensively that the mass murder of 9/11 was far more familiar to the "Western" mind than many of us realised while Ground Zero was still smouldering.

Two clichés have been heard across the world since 11 September 2001. The first is that New York City was attacked by strange cave-based foreigners whose fanatical motivations were entirely beyond our rational Western minds. The second platitude was that the West had not only been attacked from far away but also from long ago: al-Qa'ida are described constantly as "medieval". Two new books now illustrate comprehensively that the mass murder of 9/11 was far more familiar to the "Western" mind than many of us realised while Ground Zero was still smouldering.

It is not hard to see why so many in the West concluded that al-Qa'ida was an entirely alien force. Osama bin Laden's jihadist network presents itself as "uncontaminated" by Western civilisation, and creates a myth that its sole political and intellectual influence is the Koran. Nor is it hard to understand why they are seen as artefacts of a distant past: they explicitly seek to recreate a pre-modern society, that of the umma (Muslim community) at the time of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century.

How, then, can al-Qa'ida be "modern", or Western-influenced? John Gray explains that it is "a by-product of globalisation ... Its most distinctive feature – projecting a privatised form of organised violence worldwide – was impossible in the past. Equally, the belief that a new world can be hastened by spectacular acts of destruction is nowhere found in medieval times. Al Qaeda's closest precursors are the revolutionary anarchists of late 19th-century Europe".

Gray continues, "Though it claims to be anti-Western, radical Islam is shaped as much by Western ideology as Islamic traditions. Like Marxists and neoliberals, radical Islamists see history as a prelude to a new world. All are convinced they can remake the human condition... [Soviet Communism, National Socialism and radical Islam] have all been described as assaults on the West. In reality, each of these three projects is best understood as an attempt to realise a modern European ideal" – that is, to use a central, state authority to reorder human societies according to knowable principles (no matter how insane they might be).

Many people on the left will take the news that al-Qa'ida and Arab dictatorships are Western-inspired as yet further evidence of the West's "hypocrisy", and a sign that we have no "right" to act to overthrow these dictatorships. If "we" inspired them (and in some cases backed them), who are we to intervene now? Wasn't it our decision to extend our empires to the Arab and Muslim world – to bring them the "benefits" of modernity – that created all this? Shouldn't we just butt out now?

We can only decide to do this if we ignore the most important insight of Paul Berman, author of the other book under review. He contends that not only are al-Qa'ida (and, importantly, most other Arab tyrannies, like Saddam's late, unlamented Baathist apparatus) modern and Western-inspired; but that they are inspired by the ugliest and most malignant strands of our 20th-century history. The founder of the Pan-Arab movement, Satia al-Husri, was a great admirer of Fichte and the German Romantics: philosophers of national destiny, of race, and of the integrity of national cultures. One of the early Baath leaders, Sami al-Jundi, explained, "We were racists, admiring Nazism and the source of its thought." Saddam Hussein made similar statements right up until what we can only hope was his death last month. Baath socialism, Berman explains, "told a myth about man and history, and this, too, was recognisable. In the Ba'athi myth, there was a people of God. They happened to be the Arab nation ... The philosophies and teachings that come from the West invade the Arab mind and steal his loyalty. The Arabs needed [therefore] to return to a direct relationship with their pure, original spirit" – and to purge any alien, evil influences, like Jews. Sound familiar?

The "cult of death" represented by al-Qa'ida – which seeks the slaughter of as many innocent civilians as possible – is, as we should hardly need reminding, not alien to our own culture. Beginning with King Leopold's horrific campaign of murder in the Belgian Congo, the West has systematically executed innocent people; indeed, "the cult of death was springing up among Western Europeans in positions of responsibility and power, the captains of civilisation," as Berman puts it.

Berman gives a brilliant analysis of Sayyid Qutb, the thinker who has most plainly influenced Bin Laden and his followers. (Qutb's writings are surprisingly clear and accessible, and can be found in translation in good Islamic bookshops.) He was the in-house philosopher of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who sought to overthrow Colonel Nasser and establish a "pure", ultra-fundamentalist Islamic state. He was eventually hanged for his agitation.

For all his claims to be free of Western pollution, Qutb's writings will be instantly familiar to anybody who has read Soviet revolutionaries, Nazi propaganda or any other anti-liberal Western thinkers writing from the 1920s onwards. His Islamism and the Baathists' socialism were, Berman writes, "two branches of a single impulse, which was Muslim totalitarianism – the Muslim variation on the European idea. Their dreams bore the mark of the Muslim world, but their dreams were not exotic."

The current division and confusion on the left over how to react to the liberation of Iraq has occurred because two of its most important motivating strands throughout the 20th-century have come into conflict. On the one hand there is the anti-colonial left, inspired by men as different as Mahatma Gandhi and Frantz Fanon and now best articulated by Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy. They argue that the primary political goal today for progressives and socialists must be to secure the freedom for individual societies to develop along their own paths, unhindered by external interference.

On the other hand, there is the anti-fascist left, inspired by the socialist fighters in the Spanish Civil War such as George Orwell and now represented best by Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair. They believe in a common vision for humanity (once it was socialism; now it has mutated into liberal democracy).

Cultural boundaries are far less important than ending oppression and genocide, whether it is committed by Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. They believe that this internationalist heritage of the left is being abandoned – would the anti-colonialists have said that socialists should not have "intervened" in Hitler's Germany to sway it in a particular direction? After all, many of them argued precisely that when Iraqis were suffering under an equally abhorrent, and equally fascist, dictator this year.

Demonstrating that several Arab regimes are inspired by European totalitarian movements helps to clarify the left's dilemma. Few now dispute that the left was right to challenge European totalitarianism, from Hitler to Franco to Stalin. Yet this is where Berman and Gray's arguments diverge wildly.

Gray, whose new-found political nihilism means he has become an LSE Eeyore, a Cassandra of the post-Enlightenment age, argues that it is al-Qa'ida's very modernity that dooms it. All modern political projects are based, Gray believes, on a simple flaw: the belief that human societies can be reordered and constructively rebuilt at all. Just as Soviet Communism, Nazism and capitalist neoliberalism have failed, so all political agendas will; life is too complex to be amenable to rational human manipulation of any kind.

The Enlightenment myth is dead; those who offer hope are deluded; we are probably all doomed. This really is not a caricature: Gray seems perfectly happy to contemplate the death of most humans on earth (it is grossly overpopulated, he claims) without a moment's passing concern. Al-Qa'ida and Arab tyrannies are just another bunch buying into Enlightenment illusions; they go the same way as their totalitarian heroes. We do not need to fight them: they will implode, as will we and just about everything else.

Berman offers a different and, to me, far more persuasive agenda. He defends liberal democracy as an imperfect political system, but the best we have, and one which holds great promise for the peoples of the world. The question now is: will liberal democracy act to defend itself, and to extend its great advantages to those who want and desperately need them? Anti-liberals of every stripe have always said that democratic liberalism's fatal flaw is that it offers nothing worth fighting and dying for. Hitler scoffed: who will give up their life to defend the right for everyone to disagree, the right to be fractured into many political parties, the right to be fat and live in meaningless privatised comfort without a bigger, national story to offer up one's life for?

Bin Laden asked the same. The Communists in Afghanistan were a challenge, he has boasted, because they believed in something; the Americans, in contrast, would be a push-over.

It has been demonstrated definitively in the past 18 months that liberal democracies do have the strength to defend themselves against totalitarians and fascists, and if Bush and Blair fulfil their promises to the people of Iraq, we will have shown that we are prepared to extend it too. Gray would say that this is naive Enlightenment optimism, but you do not have to be an absolutist to sup-port liberal democracy, nor do you have to think that liberal democracy is flawless or that it will inevitably spread across the world. You can accept, as I do, that life is random, that there is no higher meaning or natural law that imbues democracy with magical qualities, and still argue that, in this contingent universe, liberal democracy is the best political system, and that it has to be fought for.

The left was right to oppose the old imperialism of resource-stripping and "civilising" the natives, and the West is right to be forever alert to its dangers (who, for example, will control Iraq's oil?). But opposition to imperialism is blinding the left to the universalism that was central to the fight against European totalitarianism, and should be central to the fight against Arab dictators too. The left is about fighting against fascism irrespective of cultural or national boundaries, or it has forgotten its own core principles. Those who doubt this – especially those who opposed the second Gulf War – should urgently read Terror and Liberalism.