Armageddon myths. Suicide bombing is the weapon of the weak. Killing from the air is the approach of the rich and powerful. Mary Kaldor on why the disaffected of the earth will never be suppressed by war

Terror and Liberalism

Paul Berman <em>Norton, 216pp, £14.95</em>

ISBN 0393057755

In his first video message after the attacks of 11 September 2001, Osama Bin Laden referred to "80 years of humiliation and disgrace". This resulted in much speculation about what precisely happened 80 years ago, although anyone who has followed the ideological statements of al-Qaeda or the writings of Sayyid Qutb, one of the most important influences on the movement, would know that Bin Laden was referring to the abolition of the Muslim caliphate by Kemal Ataturk. Paul Berman has a different interpretation: he suggests that what really happened 80 years ago was the First World War and the origin of what he calls the "totalitarian cult of death".

Berman is critical of "realist" foreign policy assumptions based on simplistic calculations of national interest and believes that the US needs a more idealistic policy aimed at defeating totalitarianism. For him, terror and totalitarianism are one and the same phenomenon. They are nihilistic reactions to modernity involving an obsession with death and violence. "Murder and suicide," as Camus put it, "are two sides of the same system." Communism and fascism were movements of the "new type" in Lenin's own words, combining the ideas of late 19th-century revolutionaries and romantics with the experience of mass slaughter in the First World War. Murder and suicide are pathological conditions based on violence. Their ideologies are based on a retelling of the myth of Armageddon: that the children of God (proletariat, Aryans, Muslims) are threatened by corrupt enemies (capitalists, Jews, Crusaders) and that a swift destructive war will herald the new reign of God.

Berman believes that the commanding threat of today is Muslim totalitarianism. He criticises the notion of the "short 20th century", beginning in 1914 and ending in 1989, because it implicitly downplays the dangers of Muslim totalitarianism. Berman analyses the writings of Sayyid Qutb and shows how his ideas, which he thinks are as ambitious and grandiose as Marxist ideas, have spawned the Iranian revolution, the Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah. He draws attention to the mass murders and brutal repression, especially against women, for which these movements have been responsible. In particular, he calls the Iran-Iraq war, in which "human waves" of young Iranians spurred on by notions of sacrifice were met by poison gas attacks, "one of the most macabre events that has ever occurred".

There is much to commend in this well written polemic, not least its analysis of Islamic fundamentalism and its concern about the myopia of many left-liberal thinkers in the west. But there is also much that is contradictory and therefore seductively dangerous.

The first problem is the equation of terror and totalitarianism. Totalitarianism was based on terror and both Stalinism and fascism were movements of terror. But not all movements of terror are totalitarian. Totalitarianism was linked to state power; indeed it can be argued that the modern state, which was created through war, has an inner tendency towards totalitarianism and that the 20th-century totalitarian states represented the apex of state development. It is no accident that Stalinism and fascism emerged from the wreckage of the First World War. Indeed, the two world wars provided the model for totalitarianism - centralised administration, total surveillance, apocalyptic ideology, militaristic culture. It can be argued, too, that the military industrial complex and the apocalyptic idea of nuclear war were to cast a shadow on the functioning of liberal democratic states.

The main failure of this book is that Berman has taken no account of globalisation, or what is sometimes known as the second phase of modernity, and what this means for totalitarianism and war. One of the benefits of globalisation is that it is much more difficult to sustain closed states based on terror. That was the lesson of the uprisings of 1989; it was the opening up to the rest of the world through trade, travel, television and the opportunities offered by new international legislation like the Helsinki Agreement that created holes in the totalitarian system and allowed for, as Berman puts it, a new kind of "freelance liberal internationalism". Since 1989, there has been a new wave of terror movements, not just Islamist but also orthodox Christian (Serbs), Jewish (Gush Emunim), Protestant (Timothy McVeigh), even Buddhist (Aum Shinrikyo). They all share the Armageddon myth. They are obsessed with the potential of extreme violence to shock, with ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom, and with hatred and fear of enemies. These new terrorists are often linked to parts of the state apparatus, as in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, but, more often, they flourish best in failing states rather than in powerful, self-sufficient administrative frameworks. Their ideologies are absolutist and fundamentalist. But they are not totalitarian in the true sense. Rather, they are transnational networks of fanatics, adventurers, criminals, bits of armies and marginalised romantics. They have what Paul Berman so nicely calls "hyphenated personalities". By which he means they are suspended uneasily between east and west. Where they do capture state control, they are much more vulnerable to outside political and economic pressure than was the case for the mid-20th century movements. And unlike the totalitarian movements of the past, the defeat of governments does not mean the defeat of movements. I am not saying that not being totalitarian makes these movements any better. More that we cannot understand these movements in the same way and we cannot use the same tactics. The analogy with totalitarianism is misleading.

Yet Berman is right, I think, when he says that many on the left have not taken these new movements seriously enough, and that they do represent a profound challenge to liberalism. The anti-war movement, for example, has not proposed serious ways of dealing with Saddam Hussein or the Taliban; Tony Benn, George Galloway and those others who visited Saddam Hussein before the conflict began were guilty of the naivety of which Berman accuses the left. But Berman falls into his own trap by suggesting that the answer to the challenge of the new terrorism is war. What he does not seem to have grasped is that it is not just terror and totalitarianism that are unacceptable today, but war itself.

There is a telling phrase when Berman talks about what happened in Jenin last year, when, according to figures from the United Nations, 26 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians died. For Berman, the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002 represented, "from a cold military point of view . . . a breakthrough in relatively civilised army tactics, an example of how to engage in house-to-house fighting without killing large numbers of people randomly and in error".

What may be "relatively civilised" from a military point of view is anything but civilised from, say, the standpoint of human rights. I share Berman's horror of suicide bombing, but it is worth considering how war is perceived by its victims. Many more Palestinians, including civilians and children, have been killed by the Israeli military during the second intifada, than Israeli civilians have been killed by suicide bombers. Why should we think that Israeli behaviour is justified because it is carried out by soldiers whereas suicide bombers are terrorists? The same argument can be made about the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were more discriminate than any of the wars of the 20th century; huge efforts were made to minimise civilian casualties. By the standards of the wars of the mid-20th century, the civilian casualties were relatively low. But they were not low by the standards of the typical terrorist attack.

And what about military casualties? Thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were killed from the air in Afghanistan. In Iraq, it was even worse. Young conscripts, deprived of cover from the air, were forced at gunpoint to go out into the open to defend Iraqi cities against the American attack and they were bombed from the air. No one has bothered to count the number of casualties. I am not suggesting that this is worse than what the Taliban or Saddam Hussein were responsible for, far from it, but I am trying to explain how it is perceived and how it feeds the myth of Armageddon. Suicide bombing is the weapon of the weak; killing from the air is the approach of the rich and powerful.

It was a good thing to get rid of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and the idea that our safety depends on the freedom of others is something with which I am entirely in accord. My problem is with the means. If I had more space, I would elaborate on the extension of international law, on the possibilities of liberal internationalist networks that could compete in the same space as the fundamentalist networks (something Berman is sceptical about), and even on the use of military force within the framework of international law. Like Berman, I think that ideas matter.

My fear is that the war advocated by Berman - the "war between liberalism and apocalyptical and phantasmagorical movements that have risen up against liberal civilisation ever since the calamities of the First World War" - is yet another Armageddon myth. It is a myth that feeds into the myths of the new fundamentalists, that spreads terror and does not control it. Indeed, Donald Rumsfeld himself talks about a struggle against terrorism that could last 50 years in terms reminiscent of the language of jihad.

Western liberal governments, as Berman reminds us, were responsible for many crimes beyond western borders, crimes of imperialism and crimes of war, which directly led to the totalitarianism of the 20th century. We now have a chance to extend liberalism globally, and indeed this is the only way to counter the new fundamentalists. But the extension of liberalism is not compatible with war; war only repeats the old mistakes.

Mary Kaldor's new book is Global Civil Society: an answer to war (Polity)