Discussion Topics

Post 9/11

The Philosopher of Islamic Terror
by Paul Berman

With God On His Side
by Gary Wills

I am Iraq
by Michael Ignatieff

Regarding the Pain of Others: Sontag Changes Lenses
By John Leonard


The Philosopher of Islamic Terror

As published in New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2003

I. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, many people anticipated a quick and satisfying American victory over Al Qaeda. The terrorist army was thought to be no bigger than a pirate ship, and the newly vigilant police forces of the entire world were going to sink the ship with swift arrests and dark maneuvers. Al Qaeda was driven from its bases in Afghanistan. Arrests and maneuvers duly occurred and are still occurring. Just this month, one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants was nabbed in Pakistan. Police agents, as I write, seem to be hot on the trail of bin Laden himself, or so reports suggest.

Yet Al Qaeda has seemed unfazed. Its popularity, which was hard to imagine at first, has turned out to be large and genuine in more than a few countries. Al Qaeda upholds a paranoid and apocalyptic worldview, according to which ''Crusaders and Zionists'' have been conspiring for centuries to destroy Islam. And this worldview turns out to be widely accepted in many places -- a worldview that allowed many millions of people to regard the Sept. 11 attacks as an Israeli conspiracy, or perhaps a C.I.A. conspiracy, to undo Islam. Bin Laden's soulful, bearded face peers out from T-shirts and posters in a number of countries, quite as if he were the new Che Guevara, the mythic righter of cosmic wrongs.

The vigilant police in many countries, applying themselves at last, have raided a number of Muslim charities and Islamic banks, which stand accused of subsidizing the terrorists. These raids have advanced the war on still another front, which has been good to see. But the raids have also shown that Al Qaeda is not only popular; it is also institutionally solid, with a worldwide network of clandestine resources. This is not the Symbionese Liberation Army. This is an organization with ties to the ruling elites in a number of countries; an organization that, were it given the chance to strike up an alliance with Saddam Hussein's Baath movement, would be doubly terrifying; an organization that, in any case, will surely survive the outcome in Iraq.

To anyone who has looked closely enough, Al Qaeda and its sister organizations plainly enjoy yet another strength, arguably the greatest strength of all, something truly imposing -- though in the Western press this final strength has received very little attention. Bin Laden is a Saudi plutocrat with Yemeni ancestors, and most of the suicide warriors of Sept. 11 were likewise Saudis, and the provenance of those people has focused everyone's attention on the Arabian peninsula. But Al Qaeda has broader roots. The organization was created in the late 1980's by an affiliation of three armed factions -- bin Laden's circle of ''Afghan'' Arabs, together with two factions from Egypt, the Islamic Group and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the latter led by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's top theoretician. The Egyptian factions emerged from an older current, a school of thought from within Egypt's fundamentalist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the 1950's and 60's. And at the heart of that single school of thought stood, until his execution in 1966, a philosopher named Sayyid Qutb -- the intellectual hero of every one of the groups that eventually went into Al Qaeda, their Karl Marx (to put it that way), their guide.

Qutb (pronounced KUH-tahb) wrote a book called ''Milestones,'' and that book was cited at his trial, which gave it immense publicity, especially after its author was hanged. ''Milestones'' became a classic manifesto of the terrorist wing of Islamic fundamentalism. A number of journalists have dutifully turned the pages of ''Milestones,'' trying to decipher the otherwise inscrutable terrorist point of view.

I have been reading some of Qutb's other books, and I think that ''Milestones'' may have misled the journalists. ''Milestones'' is a fairly shallow book, judged in isolation. But ''Milestones'' was drawn from his vast commentary on the Koran called ''In the Shade of the Qur'an.'' One of the many volumes of this giant work was translated into English in the 1970's and published by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, an organization later widely suspected of participation in terrorist attacks -- and an organization whose Washington office was run by a brother of bin Laden's. In the last four years a big effort has been mounted by another organization, the Islamic Foundation in England, to bring out the rest, in what will eventually be an edition of 15 fat English-language volumes, handsomely ornamented with Arabic script from the Koran. Just in these past few weeks a number of new volumes in this edition have made their way into the Arab bookshops of Brooklyn, and I have gobbled them up. By now I have made my way through a little less than half of ''In the Shade of the Qur'an,'' which I think is all that exists so far in English, together with three other books by Qutb. And I have something to report.

Qutb is not shallow. Qutb is deep. ''In the Shade of the Qur'an'' is, in its fashion, a masterwork. Al Qaeda and its sister organizations are not merely popular, wealthy, global, well connected and institutionally sophisticated. These groups stand on a set of ideas too, and some of those ideas may be pathological, which is an old story in modern politics; yet even so, the ideas are powerful. We should have known that, of course. But we should have known many things.

II. Qutb's special ability as a writer came from the fact that, as a young boy, he received a traditional Muslim education -- he committed the Koran to memory by the age of 10 -- yet he went on, at a college in Cairo, to receive a modern, secular education. He was born in 1906, and in the 1920's and 30's he took up socialism and literature. He wrote novels, poems and a book that is still said to be well regarded called ''Literary Criticism: Its Principles and Methodology.'' His writings reflected -- here I quote one of his admirers and translators, Hamid Algar of the University of California at Berkeley -- a ''Western-tinged outlook on cultural and literary questions.'' Qutb displayed ''traces of individualism and existentialism.'' He even traveled to the United States in the late 1940's, enrolled at the Colorado State College of Education and earned a master's degree. In some of the accounts of Qutb's life, this trip to America is pictured as a ghastly trauma, mostly because of America's sexual freedoms, which sent him reeling back to Egypt in a mood of hatred and fear.

I am skeptical of that interpretation, though. His book from the 1940's, ''Social Justice and Islam,'' shows that, even before his voyage to America, he was pretty well set in his Islamic fundamentalism. It is true that, after his return to Egypt, he veered into ever more radical directions. But in the early 1950's, everyone in Egypt was veering in radical directions. Gamal Abdel Nasser and a group of nationalist army officers overthrew the old king in 1952 and launched a nationalist revolution on Pan-Arabist grounds. And, as the Pan-Arabists went about promoting their revolution, Sayyid Qutb went about promoting his own, somewhat different revolution. His idea was ''Islamist.'' He wanted to turn Islam into a political movement to create a new society, to be based on ancient Koranic principles. Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, became the editor of its journal and established himself right away as Islamism's principal theoretician in the Arab world.

The Islamists and the Pan-Arabists tried to cooperate with one another in Egypt in those days, and there was some basis for doing so. Both movements dreamed of rescuing the Arab world from the legacies of European imperialism. Both groups dreamed of crushing Zionism and the brand-new Jewish state. Both groups dreamed of fashioning a new kind of modernity, which was not going to be liberal and freethinking in the Western style but, even so, was going to be up-to-date on economic and scientific issues. And both movements dreamed of doing all this by returning in some fashion to the glories of the Arab past. Both movements wanted to resurrect, in a modern version, the ancient Islamic caliphate of the seventh century, when the Arabs were conquering the world.

The Islamists and the Pan-Arabists could be compared, in these ambitions, with the Italian Fascists of Mussolini's time, who wanted to resurrect the Roman Empire, and to the Nazis, who likewise wanted to resurrect ancient Rome, except in a German version. The most radical of the Pan-Arabists openly admired the Nazis and pictured their proposed new caliphate as a racial victory of the Arabs over all other ethnic groups. Qutb and the Islamists, by way of contrast, pictured the resurrected caliphate as a theocracy, strictly enforcing shariah, the legal code of the Koran. The Islamists and the Pan-Arabists had their similarities then, and their differences. (And today those two movements still have their similarities and differences -- as shown by bin Laden's Qaeda, which represents the most violent wing of Islamism, and Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, which represents the most violent wing of Pan-Arabism.)

In 1952, in the days before staging his coup d'etat, Colonel Nasser is said to have paid a visit to Qutb at his home, presumably to get his backing. Some people expected that, after taking power, Nasser would appoint Qutb to be the new revolutionary minister of education. But once the Pan-Arabists had thrown out the old king, the differences between the two movements began to overwhelm the similarities, and Qutb was not appointed. Instead, Nasser cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and after someone tried to assassinate him, he blamed the Brotherhood and cracked down even harder. Some of the Muslim Brotherhood's most distinguished intellectuals and theologians escaped into exile. Sayyid Qutb's brother, Muhammad Qutb, was one of those people. He fled to Saudi Arabia and ended up as a distinguished Saudi professor of Islamic Studies. Many years later, Osama bin Laden would be one of Muhammad Qutb's students.

But Sayyid Qutb stayed put and paid dearly for his stubbornness. Nasser jailed him in 1954, briefly released him, jailed him again for 10 years, released him for a few months and finally hanged him in 1966. Conditions during the first years of prison were especially bad. Qutb was tortured. Even in better times, according to his followers, he was locked in a ward with 40 people, most of them criminals, with a tape recorder broadcasting the speeches of Nasser 20 hours a day. Still, by smuggling papers in and out of jail, he managed to continue with his writings, no longer in the ''Western tinged'' vein of his early, literary days but now as a full-fledged Islamist revolutionary. And somehow, he produced his ''In the Shade of the Qur'an,'' this gigantic study, which must surely count as one of the most remarkable works of prison literature ever produced.

Readers without a Muslim education who try to make their way unaided through the Koran tend to find it, as I have, a little dry and forbidding. But Qutb's commentaries are not at all like that. He quotes passages from the chapters, or suras, of the Koran, and he pores over the quoted passages, observing the prosodic qualities of the text, the rhythm, tone and musicality of the words, sometimes the images. The suras lead him to discuss dietary regulations, the proper direction to pray, the rules of divorce, the question of when a man may propose marriage to a widow (four months and 10 days after the death of her husband, unless she is pregnant, in which case after delivery), the rules concerning a Muslim man who wishes to marry a Christian or a Jew (very complicated), the obligations of charity, the punishment for crimes and for breaking your word, the prohibition on liquor and intoxicants, the proper clothing to wear, the rules on usury, moneylending and a thousand other themes.

The Koran tells stories, and Qutb recounts some of these and remarks on their wisdom and significance. His tone is always lucid and plain. Yet the total effect of his writing is almost sensual in its measured pace. The very title ''In the Shade of the Qur'an'' conveys a vivid desert image, as if the Koran were a leafy palm tree, and we have only to open Qutb's pages to escape the hot sun and refresh ourselves in the shade. As he makes his way through the suras and proposes his other commentaries, he slowly constructs an enormous theological criticism of modern life, and not just in Egypt.

III. Qutb wrote that, all over the world, humans had reached a moment of unbearable crisis. The human race had lost touch with human nature. Man's inspiration, intelligence and morality were degenerating. Sexual relations were deteriorating ''to a level lower than the beasts.'' Man was miserable, anxious and skeptical, sinking into idiocy, insanity and crime. People were turning, in their unhappiness, to drugs, alcohol and existentialism. Qutb admired economic productivity and scientific knowledge. But he did not think that wealth and science were rescuing the human race. He figured that, on the contrary, the richest countries were the unhappiest of all. And what was the cause of this unhappiness -- this wretched split between man's truest nature and modern life?

A great many cultural critics in Europe and America asked this question in the middle years of the 20th century, and a great many of them, following Nietzsche and other philosophers, pointed to the origins of Western civilization in ancient Greece, where man was said to have made his fatal error. This error was philosophical. It consisted of placing an arrogant and deluded faith in the power of human reason -- an arrogant faith that, after many centuries, had created in modern times a tyranny of technology over life.

Qutb shared that analysis, somewhat. Only instead of locating the error in ancient Greece, he located it in ancient Jerusalem. In the Muslim fashion, Qutb looked on the teachings of Judaism as being divinely revealed by God to Moses and the other prophets. Judaism instructed man to worship one God and to forswear all others. Judaism instructed man on how to behave in every sphere of life -- how to live a worldly existence that was also a life at one with God. This could be done by obeying a system of divinely mandated laws, the code of Moses. In Qutb's view, however, Judaism withered into what he called ''a system of rigid and lifeless ritual.''

God sent another prophet, though. That prophet, in Qutb's Muslim way of thinking, was Jesus, who proposed a few useful reforms -- lifting some no-longer necessary restrictions in the Jewish dietary code, for example -- and also an admirable new spirituality. But something terrible occurred. The relation between Jesus' followers and the Jews took, in Qutb's view, ''a deplorable course.'' Jesus' followers squabbled with the old-line Jews, and amid the mutual recriminations, Jesus' message ended up being diluted and even perverted. Jesus' disciples and followers were persecuted, which meant that, in their sufferings, the disciples were never able to provide an adequate or systematic exposition of Jesus' message.

Who but Sayyid Qutb, from his miserable prison in Nasser's Egypt, could have zeroed in so plausibly on the difficulties encountered by Jesus' disciples in getting out the word? Qutb figured that, as a result, the Christian Gospels were badly garbled, and should not be regarded as accurate or reliable. The Gospels declared Jesus to be divine, but in Qutb's Muslim account, Jesus was a mere human -- a prophet of God, not a messiah. The larger catastrophe, however, was this: Jesus' disciples, owing to what Qutb called ''this unpleasant separation of the two parties,'' went too far in rejecting the Jewish teachings.

Jesus' disciples and followers, the Christians, emphasized Jesus' divine message of spirituality and love. But they rejected Judaism's legal system, the code of Moses, which regulated every jot and tittle of daily life. Instead, the early Christians imported into Christianity the philosophy of the Greeks -- the belief in a spiritual existence completely separate from physical life, a zone of pure spirit.

In the fourth century of the Christian era, Emperor Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. But Constantine, in Qutb's interpretation, did this in a spirit of pagan hypocrisy, dominated by scenes of wantonness, half-naked girls, gems and precious metals. Christianity, having abandoned the Mosaic code, could put up no defense. And so, in their horror at Roman morals, the Christians did as best they could and countered the imperial debaucheries with a cult of monastic asceticism.

But this was no good at all. Monastic asceticism stands at odds with the physical quality of human nature. In this manner, in Qutb's view, Christianity lost touch with the physical world. The old code of Moses, with its laws for diet, dress, marriage, sex and everything else, had enfolded the divine and the worldly into a single concept, which was the worship of God. But Christianity divided these things into two, the sacred and the secular. Christianity said, ''Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's.'' Christianity put the physical world in one corner and the spiritual world in another corner: Constantine's debauches over here, monastic renunciation over there. In Qutb's view there was a ''hideous schizophrenia'' in this approach to life. And things got worse.

A series of Christian religious councils adopted what Qutb thought to be irrational principles on Christianity's behalf -- principles regarding the nature of Jesus, the Eucharist, transubstantiation and other questions, all of which were, in Qutb's view, ''absolutely incomprehensible, inconceivable and incredible.'' Church teachings froze the irrational principles into dogma. And then the ultimate crisis struck.

IV. Qutb's story now shifts to Arabia. In the seventh century, God delivered a new revelation to his prophet Muhammad, who established the correct, nondistorted relation to human nature that had always eluded the Christians. Muhammad dictated a strict new legal code, which put religion once more at ease in the physical world, except in a better way than ever before. Muhammad's prophecies, in the Koran, instructed man to be God's ''vice regent'' on earth -- to take charge of the physical world, and not simply to see it as something alien to spirituality or as a way station on the road to a Christian afterlife. Muslim scientists in the Middle Ages took this instruction seriously and went about inquiring into the nature of physical reality. And, in the Islamic universities of Andalusia and the East, the Muslim scientists, deepening their inquiry, hit upon the inductive or scientific method -- which opened the door to all further scientific and technological progress. In this and many other ways, Islam seized the leadership of mankind. Unfortunately, the Muslims came under attack from Crusaders, Mongols and other enemies. And, because the Muslims proved not faithful enough to Muhammad's revelations, they were unable to fend off these attacks. They were unable to capitalize on their brilliant discovery of the scientific method.

The Muslim discoveries were exported instead into Christian Europe. And there, in Europe in the 16th century, Islam's scientific method began to generate results, and modern science emerged. But Christianity, with its insistence on putting the physical world and the spiritual world in different corners, could not cope with scientific progress. And so Christianity's inability to acknowledge or respect the physical quality of daily life spread into the realm of culture and shaped society's attitude toward science.

As Qutb saw it, Europeans, under Christianity's influence, began to picture God on one side and science on the other. Religion over here; intellectual inquiry over there. On one side, the natural human yearning for God and for a divinely ordered life; on the other side, the natural human desire for knowledge of the physical universe. The church against science; the scientists against the church. Everything that Islam knew to be one, the Christian Church divided into two. And, under these terrible pressures, the European mind split finally asunder. The break became total. Christianity, over here; atheism, over there. It was the fateful divorce between the sacred and the secular.

Europe's scientific and technical achievements allowed the Europeans to dominate the world. And the Europeans inflicted their ''hideous schizophrenia'' on peoples and cultures in every corner of the globe. That was the origin of modern misery -- the anxiety in contemporary society, the sense of drift, the purposelessness, the craving for false pleasures. The crisis of modern life was felt by every thinking person in the Christian West. But then again, Europe's leadership of mankind inflicted that crisis on every thinking person in the Muslim world as well. Here Qutb was on to something original. The Christians of the West underwent the crisis of modern life as a consequence, he thought, of their own theological tradition -- a result of nearly 2,000 years of ecclesiastical error. But in Qutb's account, the Muslims had to undergo that same experience because it had been imposed on them by Christians from abroad, which could only make the experience doubly painful -- an alienation that was also a humiliation.

That was Qutb's analysis. In writing about modern life, he put his finger on something that every thinking person can recognize, if only vaguely -- the feeling that human nature and modern life are somehow at odds. But Qutb evoked this feeling in a specifically Muslim fashion. It is easy to imagine that, in expounding on these themes back in the 1950's and 60's, Qutb had already identified the kind of personal agony that Mohamed Atta and the suicide warriors of Sept. 11 must have experienced in our own time. It was the agony of inhabiting a modern world of liberal ideas and achievements while feeling that true life exists somewhere else. It was the agony of walking down a modern sidewalk while dreaming of a different universe altogether, located in the Koranic past -- the agony of being pulled this way and that. The present, the past. The secular, the sacred. The freely chosen, the religiously mandated -- a life of confusion unto madness brought on, Qutb ventured, by Christian error.

Sitting in a wretched Egyptian prison, surrounded by criminals and composing his Koranic commentaries with Nasser's speeches blaring in the background on the infuriating tape recorder, Qutb knew whom to blame. He blamed the early Christians. He blamed Christianity's modern legacy, which was the liberal idea that religion should stay in one corner and secular life in another corner. He blamed the Jews. In his interpretation, the Jews had shown themselves to be eternally ungrateful to God. Early in their history, during their Egyptian captivity (Qutb thought he knew a thing or two about Egyptian captivity), the Jews acquired a slavish character, he believed. As a result they became craven and unprincipled when powerless, and vicious and arrogant when powerful. And these traits were eternal. The Jews occupy huge portions of Qutb's Koranic commentary -- their perfidy, greed, hatefulness, diabolical impulses, never-ending conspiracies and plots against Muhammad and Islam. Qutb was relentless on these themes. He looked on Zionism as part of the eternal campaign by the Jews to destroy Islam.

And Qutb blamed one other party. He blamed the Muslims who had gone along with Christianity's errors -- the treacherous Muslims who had inflicted Christianity's ''schizophrenia'' on the world of Islam. And, because he was willing to blame, Qutb was able to recommend a course of action too -- a revolutionary program that was going to relieve the psychological pressure of modern life and was going to put man at ease with the natural world and with God.

V. Qutb's analysis was soulful and heartfelt. It was a theological analysis, but in its cultural emphases, it reflected the style of 20th-century philosophy. The analysis asked some genuinely perplexing questions -- about the division between mind and body in Western thought; about the difficulties in striking a balance between sensual experience and spiritual elevation; about the steely impersonality of modern power and technological innovation; about social injustice. But, though Qutb plainly followed some main trends of 20th-century Western social criticism and philosophy, he poured his ideas through a filter of Koranic commentary, and the filter gave his commentary a grainy new texture, authentically Muslim, which allowed him to make a series of points that no Western thinker was likely to propose.

One of those points had to do with women's role in society -- and these passages in his writings have been misinterpreted, I think, in some of the Western commentaries on Qutb. His attitude was prudish in the extreme, judged from a Western perspective of today. But prudishness was not his motivation. He understood quite clearly that, in a liberal society, women were free to consult their own hearts and to pursue careers in quest of material wealth. But from his point of view, this could only mean that women had shucked their responsibility to shape the human character, through child-rearing. The Western notion of women's freedom could only mean that God and the natural order of life had been set aside in favor of a belief in other sources of authority, like one's own heart.

But what did it mean to recognize the existence of more than one source of authority? It meant paganism -- a backward step, into the heathen primitivism of the past. It meant life without reference to God -- a life with no prospect of being satisfactory or fulfilling. And why had the liberal societies of the West lost sight of the natural harmony of gender roles and of women's place in the family and the home? This was because of the ''hideous schizophrenia'' of modern life -- the Western outlook that led people to picture God's domain in one place and the ordinary business of daily life in some other place.

Qutb wrote bitterly about European imperialism, which he regarded as nothing more than a continuation of the medieval Crusades against Islam. He denounced American foreign policy. He complained about America's decision in the time of Harry Truman to support the Zionists, a strange decision that he attributed, in part, to America's loss of moral values. But I must point out that, in Qutb's writings, at least in the many volumes that I have read, the complaints about American policy are relatively few and fleeting. International politics was simply not his main concern. Sometimes he complained about the hypocrisy in America's endless boasts about freedom and democracy. He mentioned America's extermination of its Indian population. He noted the racial prejudice against blacks. But those were not Qutb's themes, finally. 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.

The truly dangerous element in American life, in his estimation, was not capitalism or foreign policy or racism or the unfortunate cult of women's independence. The truly dangerous element lay in America's separation of church and state -- the modern political legacy of Christianity's ancient division between the sacred and the secular. This was not a political criticism. This was theological -- though Qutb, or perhaps his translators, preferred the word ''ideological.''

The conflict between the Western liberal countries and the world of Islam, he explained, ''remains in essence one of ideology, although over the years it has appeared in various guises and has grown more sophisticated and, at times, more insidious.'' The sophisticated and insidious disguises tended to be worldly -- a camouflage that was intended to make the conflict appear to be economic, political or military, and that was intended to make Muslims like himself who insisted on speaking about religion appear to be, in his words, ''fanatics'' and ''backward people.''

''But in reality,'' he explained, ''the confrontation is not over control of territory or economic resources, or for military domination. If we believed that, we would play into our enemies' hands and would have no one but ourselves to blame for the consequences.''

The true confrontation, the deepest confrontation of all, was over Islam and nothing but Islam. Religion was the issue. Qutb could hardly be clearer on this topic. The confrontation arose from the effort by Crusaders and world Zionism to annihilate Islam. The Crusaders and Zionists knew that Christianity and Judaism were inferior to Islam and had led to lives of misery. They needed to annihilate Islam in order to rescue their own doctrines from extinction. And so the Crusaders and Zionists went on the attack.

But this attack was not, at bottom, military. At least Qutb did not devote his energies to warning against such a danger. Nor did he spend much time worrying about the ins and outs of Israel's struggle with the Palestinians. Border disputes did not concern him. He was focused on something cosmically larger. He worried, instead, that people with liberal ideas were mounting a gigantic campaign against Islam -- ''an effort to confine Islam to the emotional and ritual circles, and to bar it from participating in the activity of life, and to check its complete predominance over every human secular activity, a pre-eminence it earns by virtue of its nature and function.''

He trembled with rage at that effort. And he cited good historical evidence for his trembling rage. Turkey, an authentic Muslim country, had embraced secular ideas back in 1924. Turkey's revolutionary leader at that time, Kemal Ataturk, abolished the institutional remnants of the ancient caliphate -- the caliphate that Qutb so fervently wanted to resurrect. The Turks in this fashion had tried to abolish the very idea and memory of an Islamic state. Qutb worried that, if secular reformers in other Muslim countries had any success, Islam was going to be pushed into a corner, separate from the state. True Islam was going to end up as partial Islam. But partial Islam, in his view, did not exist.

The secular reformers were already at work, throughout the Muslim world. They were mounting their offensive -- ''a final offensive which is actually taking place now in all the Muslim countries. . . . It is an effort to exterminate this religion as even a basic creed and to replace it with secular conceptions having their own implications, values, institutions and organizations.''

''To exterminate'' -- that was Qutb's phrase. Hysteria cried out from every syllable. But he did not want to be hysterical. He wanted to respond. How?

VI. That one question dominated Qutb's life. It was a theological question, and he answered it with his volumes on the Koran. But he intended his theology to be practical too -- to offer a revolutionary program to save mankind. The first step was to open people's eyes. He wanted Muslims to recognize the nature of the danger -- to recognize that Islam had come under assault from outside the Muslim world and also from inside the Muslim world. The assault from outside was led by Crusaders and world Zionism (though sometimes he also mentioned Communism).

But the assault from inside was conducted by Muslims themselves -- that is, by people who called themselves Muslims but who polluted the Muslim world with incompatible ideas derived from elsewhere. These several enemies, internal and external, the false Muslims together with the Crusaders and Zionists, ruled the earth. But Qutb considered that Islam's strength was, even so, huger yet. ''We are certain,'' he wrote, ''that this religion of Islam is so intrinsically genuine, so colossal and deeply rooted that all such efforts and brutal concussions will avail nothing.''

Islam's apparent weakness was mere appearance. Islam's true champions seemed to be few, but numbers meant nothing. The few had to gather themselves together into what Qutb in ''Milestones'' called a vanguard -- a term that he must have borrowed from Lenin, though Qutb had in mind a tiny group animated by the spirit of Muhammad and his Companions from the dawn of Islam. This vanguard of true Muslims was going to undertake the renovation of Islam and of civilization all over the world. The vanguard was going to turn against the false Muslims and ''hypocrites'' and do as Muhammad had done, which was to found a new state, based on the Koran. And from there, the vanguard was going to resurrect the caliphate and take Islam to all the world, just as Muhammad had done.

Qutb's vanguard was going to reinstate shariah, the Muslim code, as the legal code for all of society. Shariah implied some fairly severe rules. Qutb cited the Koran on the punishments for killing or wounding: ''a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear.'' Fornication, too, was a serious crime because, in his words, ''it involves an attack on honor and a contempt for sanctity and an encouragement of profligacy in society.'' Shariah specified the punishments here as well. ''The penalty for this must be severe; for married men and women it is stoning to death; for unmarried men and women it is flogging, a hundred lashes, which in cases is fatal.'' False accusations were likewise serious. ''A punishment of 80 lashes is fixed for those who falsely accuse chaste women.'' As for those who threaten the general security of society, their punishment is to be put to death, to be crucified, to have their hands and feet cut off, or to be banished from the country.''

But Qutb refused to regard these punishments as barbarous or primitive. Shariah, in his view, meant liberation. Other societies, drawing on non-Koranic principles, forced people to obey haughty masters and man-made law. Those other societies forced people to worship their own rulers and to do as the rulers said -- even if the rulers were democratically chosen. Under shariah, no one was going to be forced to obey mere humans. Shariah, in Qutb's view, meant ''the abolition of man-made laws.'' In the resurrected caliphate, every person was going to be ''free from servitude to others.'' The true Islamic system meant ''the complete and true freedom of every person and the full dignity of every individual of the society. On the other hand, in a society in which some people are lords who legislate and some others are slaves who obey, then there is no freedom in the real sense, nor dignity for each and every individual.''

He insisted that shariah meant freedom of conscience -- though freedom of conscience, in his interpretation, meant freedom from false doctrines that failed to recognize God, freedom from the modern schizophrenia. Shariah, in a word, was utopia for Sayyid Qutb. It was perfection. It was the natural order in the universal. It was freedom, justice, humanity and divinity in a single system. It was a vision as grand or grander than Communism or any of the other totalitarian doctrines of the 20th century. It was, in his words, ''the total liberation of man from enslavement by others.'' It was an impossible vision -- a vision that was plainly going to require a total dictatorship in order to enforce: a vision that, by claiming not to rely on man-made laws, was going to have to rely, instead, on theocrats, who would interpret God's laws to the masses. The most extreme despotism was all too visible in Qutb's revolutionary program. That much should have been obvious to anyone who knew the history of the other grand totalitarian revolutionary projects of the 20th century, the projects of the Nazis, the Fascists and the Communists.

Still, for Qutb, utopia was not the main thing. Utopia was for the future, and Qutb was not a dreamer. Islam, in his interpretation, was a way of life. He wanted his Muslim vanguard to live according to pious Islamic principles in the here and now. He wanted the vanguard to observe the rules of Muslim charity and all the other rules of daily life. He wanted the true Muslims to engage in a lifelong study of the Koran -- the lifelong study that his own gigantic commentary was designed to enhance. But most of all, he wanted his vanguard to accept the obligations of ''jihad,'' which is to say, the struggle for Islam. And what would that mean, to engage in jihad in the present and not just in the sci-fi utopian future?

Qutb began Volume 1 of ''In the Shade of the Qur'an'' by saying: ''To live 'in the shade of the Qur'an' is a great blessing which can only be fully appreciated by those who experience it. It is a rich experience that gives meaning to life and makes it worth living. I am deeply thankful to God Almighty for blessing me with this uplifting experience for a considerable time, which was the happiest and most fruitful period of my life -- a privilege for which I am eternally grateful.''

He does not identify that happy and fruitful period of his life -- a period that lasted, as he says, a considerable time. Perhaps his brother and other intimates would have known exactly what he had in mind -- some very pleasant period, conceivably the childhood years when he was memorizing the Koran. But an ordinary reader who picks up Qutb's books can only imagine that he was writing about his years of torture and prison.

One of his Indian publishers has highlighted this point in a remarkably gruesome manner by attaching an unsigned preface to a 1998 edition of ''Milestones.'' The preface declares: ''The ultimate price for working to please God Almighty and to propagate his ways in this world is often one's own life. The author'' -- Qutb, that is -- ''tried to do it; he paid for it with his life. If you and I try to do it, there is every likelihood we will be called upon to do the same. But for those who truly believe in God, what other choice is there?''

You are meant to suppose that a true reader of Sayyid Qutb is someone who, in the degree that he properly digests Qutb's message, will act on what has been digested. And action may well bring on a martyr's death. To read is to glide forward toward death; and gliding toward death means you have understood what you are reading. Qutb's writings do vibrate to that morbid tone -- not always, but sometimes. The work that he left behind, his Koranic commentary, is vast, vividly written, wise, broad, indignant, sometimes demented, bristly with hatred, medieval, modern, tolerant, intolerant, paranoid, cruel, urgent, cranky, tranquil, grave, poetic, learned and analytic. Sometimes it is moving. It is a work large and solid enough to create its own shade, where Qutb's vanguard and other readers could repose and turn his pages, as he advised the students of the Koran to do, in the earnest spirit of loyal soldiers reading their daily bulletin. But there is, in this commentary, something otherworldly too -- an atmosphere of death. At the very least, it is impossible to read the work without remembering that, in 1966, Qutb, in the phrase of one of his biographers, ''kissed the gallows.''

Martyrdom was among his themes. He discusses passages in the Koran's sura ''The Cow,'' and he explains that death as a martyr is nothing to fear. Yes, some people will have to be sacrificed. ''Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God are honorable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.''

Qutb wrote: ''To all intents and purposes, those people may very well appear lifeless, but life and death are not judged by superficial physical means alone. Life is chiefly characterized by activity, growth and persistence, while death is a state of total loss of function, of complete inertia and lifelessness. But the death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood. Their influence on those they leave behind also grows and spreads. Thus after their death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction. It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life. . . .

''There is no real sense of loss in their death, since they continue to live.''

And so it was with Sayyid Qutb. In the period before his final arrest and execution, diplomats from Iraq and Libya offered him the chance to flee to safety in their countries. But he declined to go, on the ground that 3,000 young men and women in Egypt were his followers, and he did not want to undo a lifetime of teaching by refusing to give those 3,000 people an example of true martyrdom. And, in fact, some of those followers went on to form the Egyptian terrorist movement in the next decade, the 1970's -- the groups that massacred tourists and Coptic Christians and that assassinated Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, after he made peace with Israel; the groups that, in still later years, ended up merging with bin Laden's group and supplying Al Qaeda with its fundamental doctrines. The people in those groups were not stupid or lacking in education.

On the contrary, we keep learning how well educated these people are, how many of them come from the upper class, how wealthy they are. And there is no reason for us to be surprised. These people are in possession of a powerful philosophy, which is Sayyid Qutb's. They are in possession of a gigantic work of literature, which is his ''In the Shade of the Qur'an.'' These people feel that, by consulting their own doctrines, they can explain the unhappiness of the world. They feel that, with an intense study of the Koran, as directed by Qutb and his fellow thinkers, they can make sense of thousands of years of theological error. They feel that, in Qutb's notion of shariah, they command the principles of a perfect society.

These people believe that, in the entire world, they alone are preserving Islam from extinction. They feel they are benefiting the world, even if they are committing random massacres. They are certainly not worried about death. Qutb gave these people a reason to yearn for death. Wisdom, piety, death and immortality are, in his vision of the world, the same. For a pious life is a life of struggle or jihad for Islam, and struggle means martyrdom. We may think: those are creepy ideas. And yes, the ideas are creepy. But there is, in Qutb's presentation, a weird allure in those ideas.

VII. 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.

Paul Berman is the author of the coming ''Terror and Liberalism'' (W.W. Norton), from which this essay is adapted.

With God on His Side

As published in The New York Times Magazine, March 30, 2003

Religion in America is much like Nature in the famous saying of Horace: ''Nature, pitchfork it out how you may, keeps tumbling back in on you, slyly overbears your shying from it.'' In the same way, no matter how much Jefferson and Madison tried to pitchfork religion out of official governmental actions, it has kept sneaking back in, beating down attempts to contain it. Madison said that religion is ''not within the cognizance of civil government.'' He did not even want ministers of religion to list their profession in the government's census, since ''the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion, and it may be thought to do this in ascertaining who and who are not the ministers of the gospel.''

Madison would be surprised at how much religion gets ''cognized'' in, say, Karl Rove's Rolodex. The nation's executive mansion is currently honeycombed with prayer groups and Bible study cells, like a whited monastery. A sly dig there is ''Missed you at Bible study,'' as David Frum reported in ''The Right Man'' with a ''twitch,'' since ''Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory, either'' when he was in Bush's White House. Friends going to intimate dinners with the Bushes should be prepared to lead the prayer said before the meal.

The answer to Madison has implicitly been this: a nation with no cognizance of religion has no cognizance of God, and without national recognition of his authority, it will not come within his protection. That is not an advantage a country can do without, especially in times of peril. It is unpatriotic to expose the nation to its enemies without taking every measure possible to insure the divine blessing. In the minds of the devout, it is therefore a politically dangerous act to teach ''godless'' evolution in our schools rather than biblical ''creationism.'' It is tempting the divine wrath to let a ''massacre of the innocents'' go forward in abortion clinics. Pornography offends God and therefore forfeits his benevolence. Nor can we be safe from terrorists unless we see that a ''blessed country'' (to use the president's words) must extend God's will of liberty for other countries, by force if necessary.

These impulses are strongest in times of danger or uncertainty. It was during the gulf war that the current president's father rallied the nation to prayer, saying on Jan. 31, 1991:

''Across this nation the churches, the synagogues, the mosques are packed -- record attendance at services. In fact, the night the war began, Dr. [Billy] Graham was at the White House. And he spoke to us then of the importance of turning to God as a people of faith, turning to him in hope. And then the next morning, Dr. Graham went over to Fort Myer, where we had a lovely service leading our nation in a beautiful prayer service there, with special emphasis on the troops overseas. . . . One cannot be president of our country without faith in God -- and without knowing with certainty that we are one nation under God. . . . God is our rock and salvation, and we must trust him and keep faith in him. . . . Today, I'm asking and designating that Sunday, Feb. 3, be a national day of prayer.''

There is ample precedent for such official religiosity in time of war. It was in the period of the cold war with what President Truman always called ''godless Communism'' that ''under God'' was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. It was in World War II that ''God Bless America'' became the country's unofficial anthem. Of World War I, President Wilson said that it showed America marching to heights ''upon which there rests nothing but the pure light of the justice of God,'' reflecting the ''glimmer of light which came at Calvary, that first dawn which came with the Christian era.'' It was in the Civil War that ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' was composed, with its echoes of Isaiah 63:3 and Revelation 14:20: ''He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.'' It was in the War of 1812 that Francis Scott Key wrote the words of our official anthem: ''Praise the Pow'r that has made and preserv'd us a nation. Then conquer we must when our cause is just.'' It was during New England's conflict with Native Americans, culminating in King Philip's war, that the jeremiad became a popular sermon form. The sufferings of the colonists were seen as a punishment for sin, so preachers had to rise like Jeremiah to rebuke the people for their falling off from God.

The jeremiad was a sturdy plant, with a long life ahead of it. It is the form of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. The nation as a whole was complicit in the sin of slavery, so God is just exacting the penalty of that sin, proportioning blood spilt by soldiers' bayonets to that shed by slavemasters' whips. A solidarity in sin made the punishment communal, uniting the nation in the sufferings it had brought upon itself.

Lincoln sealed the argument by quoting Psalm 19: ''The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'' Lincoln did not take the next logical step, saying that solidarity in offending God could only be countered by solidarity in worshiping him, but others have been quick and resolute in taking that step. The dynamics of the jeremiad move from rebuke to reform, from communal taint to communal repristinization. The first masters of the jeremiad form said that the purity of worship had been lost. Membership in the churches had fallen off, and those who were members had become lukewarm. The only remedy was better recruitment of new members (by way of preaching and example) and greater zeal in those who were already members.

The jeremiad's call for purity posed a special difficulty for 17th-century Congregationalists. On the one hand, to be pure, a congregation had to admit only the visible saints, those who had been saved by a private conversion experience. On the other hand, if the community as a whole was responsible for sin and had to be called back to God, one had to deal with society at large as the relevant community. The only way to purify that society from sin would be to expel from the city those who were not saved, repentant or converted. The tug between these two positions is at the root of both our religious traditions, the communitarian and the individualist. Puritans took from Hebrew scripture the concept of ''God's people,'' an entity saved as a whole, so long as it could be called back from sinning as a whole. Yet the radical protestantism of the Puritans said that salvation was a private matter worked out by each soul with the Spirit. One had to go off to the wilderness of one's inner self to encounter God in a radically transformative and undelegatable conversion. Only then could one go to the church and present evidence of one's saved status, revealing the appropriate signs of this to connoisseurs of the act, people who could judge it only because they had undergone it themselves.

Since no one could undergo the saving experience for another, the children of church members were not included in the church just because their parents were saved. Until their separate conversions, they could not become part of the full ''covenant'' that bound together the saved members. Since this introduced an uncomfortable division between parents and children, liberal theologians invented a ''halfway covenant,'' which allowed members to partake of church life in varying degrees. But harsher pastors still insisted on the old ''full covenant,'' excluding the unsaved from communion. The partisans of these two positions fought fierce battles for the soul of the church.

No one felt these contradictions and counterstrains more than the most important religious leader in American history, Jonathan Edwards. He embodied all the main religious impulses in America, intellectual and emotional, and the most spectacular attempts to reconcile them with each other. He was the grandson of Pastor Solomon Stoddard, known as ''the Congregational pope,'' who freely admitted people to communion under the halfway covenant. But he was also the son of Pastor Timothy Edwards, who kept the strict rule of admitting only the visible saints. Jonathan succeeded to the pulpit of his grandfather and could not quickly change the revered man's regimen, though he felt a guilty loyalty to his father's stricter standards. He had struggled long and in great anxiety to reach his own conversion and could not diminish the experience for others. He solved the conflict between the communitarian and the individualist ideals ambulando -- or, rather, praedicando. He preached the mother of all jeremiads, the most famous sermon in our history, ''Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God'' (1741), using the same verse of Isaiah that Julia Ward Howe would in ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'': ''I will tread them in mine anger, and will trample them in my fury, and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.''

Edwards called not only on a people who were astray but on each individual facing the prospect of damnation. The result was a lightning jump of electrical energy from one pole to the other of the religious divide. Individuals underwent conversion in a joint experience, as psychologically intimate and reorienting as private conversion but melding a whole body of believers into a shared moment of Enlightenment. People were saved in reciprocally kindling fires. This awakening renewed the fervor of Edwards's first revival, of 1735, which he saw not simply as the solution to a church problem but as a harbinger of the world's salvation. Revivals are the characteristically American moments when the gap is closed between the communal and the individual in our religion.

The deep roots of these quintessentially American impulses are in our religious history. We believe, on the one hand, that the individual must save himself or herself. One of the people in Karl Rove's Rolodex, for instance, undoubtedly told him that help for people to get housing ''ran counter to compassionate conservatism'' because it undermines ''personal responsibility.'' So do affirmative action programs, which include people as part of a social group rather than in terms of individual merit. No Congregationalist church sent people out to struggle for their souls more stringently than do religious conservatives when it is a matter of state action to help people cope with their problems. They are their problems, their souls to save.

On the other hand, when it is a matter of recognizing God's authority, the state can impose uniform standards of prayer. It can quash pornography, forbid the choice of an abortion, dictate the way evolution is taught (if at all). At this point, the communitarian becomes the authoritarian. The people as a whole must be saved from the consequences of their own sin. They have souls we all have to save for them, to pay homage to the authority of God.

What makes religion so salient in time of war is that it acts the way revivals did for Edwards -- a spark leaps from pole to pole. Individuals merge in the joint peril and joint effort of facing an imminent menace. We all lie on the thin spider web that Edwards said alone keeps us sinners from dropping into the hell beneath us. Danger is the great equalizer, and all are expected to pull together. We must save one another, since the enemy would like to pick us off one by one. The odd euphoria of war resembles the jubilant confession of sinfulness at the Great Awakening. We are afraid and exhilarated. The multiple items of population are drawn together into a People, God's People.

This communal sense arose, most recently, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the president declared war on terrorism. His initial reaction was to call this a crusade, the war whose motto was ''God Wills It.'' The sense of peril was heightened by the loss of the Columbia, suggesting the fragility of our national efforts. Like the Sept. 11 event, that one led to prayer vigils and stronger expressions of national unity. At the memorial service held at the National Cathedral after the attack on the towers, ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' was sung as a closing anthem. It has been a perennial favorite in wartime, despite its odd lyrics: ''Let the Hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel.'' Religion can get bloody-minded when we go to war, with many serpents who need crushing.

The afflatus of becoming visible saints is intoxicating. It allows one to have great disdain for the manifest sinners who oppose our saintly will. This applies not only to outright enemies but to those (like the French) who do not join our crusade and even to those who dare criticize it. Rod Dreher, a senior writer at National Review, says that clergymen who oppose the war are spiritually disarming us and that military chaplains supporting the war should be heeded, not ''bishops in well-appointed chanceries and pastors sitting in suburban middle-class comfort.'' Dreher, a Catholic convert, must think the pope is one of those cushy bishops, as opposed to the hard-bitten military chaplains who know what God and the devil are up to. We should learn from the ''moral realism'' of soldier-priests, who are ''warriors for justice,'' and not heed ''the effete sentimentality you find among so many clergymen today.'' The priests who do not bow to the War God are, in a chaplain's words that Dreher quotes with approval, reinforcers of the notion that ''religion is for wimps, for prissy-pants, for frilly-suited morons.'' This is what used to be called ''muscular Christianity,'' and Dreher thinks it is the only authentic form of his faith:

''As men and women of faith deliberate the morality of war with Iraq, it is a travesty that more of them haven't had the perspective of military chaplains, that virtually the only religious voices heard in the public square are coming from the antiwar corner. The divide between military and civilian clergy over the Iraq war is philosophically very deep. It cuts to the core of one's belief in evil. . . . Some of the chaplains say the failure of contemporary American society to grasp the true nature of the evil we face means the country is spiritually unprepared for war and its sacrifices.''

Dreher has a view of military chaplains as moral mentors that is quite different from that of Madison, who wrote: ''Look thro' the armies and navies of the world, and say whether, in the appointment of their ministers of religion, the spiritual interests of the flocks or the temporal interests of the shepherds be most in view.'' Madison was aware that most nations have made an instrumental use of God (as the endorser of secular policy) and that this dishonors God rather than honors him. It recruits him to secular purpose and literally ''takes the Lord's name in vain.'' Madison would allow men in danger of death to have chaplains of their own denominations near them if financed by their own denominations. But that is different from putting ministers in government uniform, under government discipline. Dreher tells us, with approval, that the military controls the chaplains and must remove any who show doubt about the war as a danger to ''morale.'' Religion is harnessed to political purpose and is not freely exercised if it does not serve that purpose. That is just the ''cognizance'' of religion Madison called a usurpation by the state.

One gets the uneasy feeling, listening to the president, that the role military chaplains play in Dreher's life is provided for Bush by his evangelical counselors and consolers. Many have wondered how the president can so readily tear down whole structures of international cooperation at a time when, in the fight against terrorism, we need them most. His calm assurance that most of the world and much of his nation is wrong comes from an apparent certainty that is hard to justify in terms of geopolitical calculus. It helps, in making that leap, to be assured that God is on your side. One of the psychological benefits of this is that it makes one oppose with an easy conscience those who are not with us, therefore not on God's side. They are not mistaken, miscalculating, misguided or even just malevolent. They are evil. And all our opponents can be conflated under the heading of this same evil, since the devil is an equal opportunity employer of his agents.

Bush has been very good at fooling the American people into thinking that Saddam Hussein was behind the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington and that he is an ally and supplier of Al Qaeda, that eliminating him is the best way to keep terrorism from our shores. Whatever good reason there may be for ousting Saddam, those are not among them. The conviction that we might benefit by removing Saddam is not the same as believing that God wills it -- except in George Bush's mind. Those who oppose him are not, in his frame of thought, just making a political mistake. They are, as Ron Dreher's military chaplains believe, cutting ''to the core of one's belief in evil.'' Question the policy, and you no longer believe in evil -- which is the same, in this context, as not believing in God. That is the religious test on which our president is grading us.

In Madison's major statement on the relation of church to state, the ''Memorial and Remonstrance'' of 1785, Madison condemned the use of ''religion as an engine of civil policy.'' The results of this use are ''pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both superstition, bigotry, and persecution.'' Disestablishing religion, he argued, does not demote religion but protects it from exploitation by political authority, from ''an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.'' The separation of church and state, even though it is constantly being nibbled at, especially in time of war, has been important in keeping America the most religious country in the developed part of the w orld. As he put it, ''religion flourishes in greater purity without than with the aid of government.''

Madison wielded a pretty good pitchfork, even though religion keeps tumbling back in on us, especially in wartime. The result was measured by Mark Twain when Andrew Carnegie quoted the assertion that America is a Christian country: ''Why, Carnegie, so is hell . . . but we don't brag of this.'' Twain's tone deepened in bitterness as he watched America waging another of its pre-emptive wars, this one in the Philippines. He reminded us exactly what we are praying for when we ask God to take sides in war and accomplish the destruction of our foe. His ''War Prayer'' runs, in part:

''O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; . . . help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land. . . . We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love.''

Garry Wills is adjunct professor of history at Northwestern. His most recent book is ''Saint Augustine's Memory.''


I Am Iraq

As published in The New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2003

Back in the 60's, when I marched against the war in Vietnam, I learned that it is a mistake to judge a cause by the company it makes you keep. I slogged through the streets with Trotskyites who thought America was an evil empire, and I chanted slogans under banners that called for socialist revolution in Brooklyn. I stood arm in arm with pacifists, who made me wonder whether they would have fought Hitler. Since I was anti-Communist, I actually had more in common with the liberal hawks who thought they were defending South Vietnam against advancing Communist tyranny. But I believed nothing could save the weak and corrupt South Vietnamese government. This time, over Iraq, I don't like the company I am keeping, but I think they're right on the issue. I much prefer the company on the other side, but I believe they're mistaken.

I don't like the president's domestic policies. He should be helping state and local governments maintain jobs and services, especially for the poor. His attack on affirmative action turns back decades of racial progress. The tax breaks for the rich are unjust. His deficits are mortgaging the future. It's wrong to lock up so-called unlawful combatants on Guantanamo and in military brigs, denying them due process. The president's attorney general is dangerously cavalier about the civil liberties he is supposed to protect. The bullying tone the president adopted in his diplomacy at the United Nations diminished his chances of U.N. support. But I still think the president is right when he says that Iraq and the world will be better off with Saddam disarmed, even, if necessary, through force.

A lot of my friends think that supporting the president on this issue is naive. The company you keep, they argue, matters in politics. If you can't trust him on other issues, you have no reason to trust him on this one. If he treats freedom at home so lightly, what makes you believe that he will say what he means about staying the course to create freedom in Iraq?

My friends also imply that the company I am keeping on this war is a definition of what kind of person I am. So where we all stand has become a litmus test of our moral identities. But this shouldn't be the case. Opposing the war doesn't make you an antiglobalist, an anti-Semite or an anti-American, any more than supporting the war makes you a Cheney conservative or an apologist for American imperialism.

In fact, the debate over war is not so much a clash of competing moral identities as a battle within each of us to balance competing moral arguments. Sometimes it is easier to see this in the positions of the other side than in your own.

Recently, 14,000 ''writers, academics and other intellectuals'' -- many of them my friends -- published a petition against the war, at the same time condemning the Iraqi regime for its human rights violations and supporting ''efforts by the Iraqi opposition to create a democratic, multiethnic and multireligious Iraq.'' But since they say that ''the decision to wage war at this time is morally unacceptable,'' I wonder what their support for the Iraqi opposition amounts to. One colleague refused to sign the petition because he said it was guilty of confusion. The problem is not that overthrowing Saddam by force is ''morally unjustified.'' Who seriously believes 25 million Iraqis would not be better off if Saddam were overthrown? The issue is whether it is prudent to do so, whether the risks are worth running.

Evaluating risks is not the same thing as making moral choices. It is impossible to be certain that improving the human rights of 25 million people is worth the cost because no one knows what the cost will be. Besides, even if the cost could be known, what the philosophers call ''consequential'' justifications -- that 25 million people will live better -- run smack against ''deontological'' objections, namely that good consequences cannot justify killing people. I think the consequential justifications can override the deontological ones, but only if the gains in human freedom are large and the human costs are low. But let's admit it, the risks are large: the war may be bloody, the peace may be chaotic and what might be good in the long run for Iraqis might not be so good for Americans. Success in Iraq might win America friends or it might increase the anger much of the Muslim world feels toward this country.

It would be great if moral certainty made risk assessment easier, but it doesn't actually do so. What may be desirable from a moral point of view may be so risky that we would be foolish to try. So what do we do? Isaiah Berlin used to say that we just have to ''plump'' for one option or the other in the absence of moral certainty or perfect knowledge of the future. We should also try to decide for ourselves, regardless of the company we keep, and that may include our friends, our family and our loved ones.

During Vietnam, I marched with people who thought America was the incarnation of imperial wickedness, and I marched against people who thought America was the last best hope of mankind. Just as in Vietnam, the debate over Iraq has become a referendum on American power, and what you think about Saddam seems to matter much less than what you think about America. Such positions, now as then, seem hopelessly ideological and, at the same time, narcissistic. The fact is that America is neither the redeemer nation nor the evil empire. Ideology cannot help us here.

In the weeks and years ahead, the choices are not going to be about who we are or whose company we keep, or even about what we think America is or should be. The choices are about what risks are worth running when our safety depends on the answer. The real choices are going to be tougher than most of us could have ever imagined.


Regarding the Pain of Others': Sontag Changes Lenses

As published in The New York Times, March 23, 2003

Toward the end of ''Regarding the Pain of Others,'' her coruscating sermon on how we picture suffering, Susan Sontag loses her temper. As usual she's been playing a solitary hand, shuffling contradictions, dealing provocations, turning over anguished faces, numbing numerals, even a jumping jack (''we have lids on our eyes, we do not have doors on our ears''). But she seems personally offended by those ''citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk'' who ''will do anything to keep themselves from being moved.'' And she is all of a sudden ferocious:

''To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment. . . . It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify the world with those zones in the well-off countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people's pain . . . consumers of news, who know nothing at first hand about war and massive injustice and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.''

So much, then, for Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard and their French-fried American fellows in the media studies programs, looking down on staged events as if from zeppelins, or like the kings of Burma on the backs of elephants, remote and twitchy among the pixels, with multiple views in slo-mo, intimate focus or broad scan, and an IV-feed of chitchat. When we think about the pictures we have seen from Bosnia, Rwanda and Chechnya, about the videotapes available to us of Rodney King being beaten and Daniel Pearl being murdered, media theory seems merely impudent.

Yet Sontag has no more use for the pure of heart and perpetually incredulous who are always shocked by the wounds of the world, by evidence of ''hands-on'' cruelty and proof ''that depravity exists.'' Where have they been? After a century and a half of photojournalistic witness, ''a vast repository'' of ''atrocious images'' already exists to remind us of what people can do to each other. At this late date, to be surprised is to be morally defective: ''No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.''

So there is suffering, and there are cameras, and it is possible to worry about the motives of the men and women behind the cameras, whether one may be too arty, another a bit mercenary, a third a violence junkie, as it is possible to worry about whether our looking at the pictures they bring back from the wound is voyeuristic or pornographic; whether such witness, competing for notice among so many other clamors, seems more authentic the more it's amateurish (accidental, like satellite surveillance); whether excess exposure to atrocity glossies dulls Jack and jades Jill; or whether. . . . But then again, maybe these worries are self-indulgent and beside the point, which should be to think our way past what happened to why. ''It is not a defect,'' Sontag says, ''that we do not suffer enough'' when we see these images:

''Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering it picks out and frames. Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers. Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged?''

Photographs ''haunt'' us; ''narratives can make us understand.'' As thinking people used to do, before what Sontag calls ''the era of shopping,'' we are invited to make distinctions and connections, and then maybe fix something. Or have all of us already sold, leased or leveraged our skepticism, our intellectual property rights and our firstborn child for a seat at the table and a shot at the trough?

Sontag of course has done our homework for us, her usual archaeology. She follows the trail of photojournalism from Roger Fenton in the Valley of Death after the charge of the Light Brigade, to Mathew Brady's illustrating of America's Civil War, to Robert Capa among Spanish Republicans, to the horrors of Buchenwald and Hiroshima, to famine in India and carnage in Biafra and napalm in Vietnam and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. After consulting Goya on what a victorious army does to a civilian population, she takes us to Tuol Sleng, near Phnom Penh, to look at the photographs the Khmer Rouge took of thousands of suspected ''intellectuals'' and ''counterrevolutionaries'' (meaning Cambodians who had gone to school, spoke a foreign language or wore glasses) after they were tortured but before they were murdered.

She reminds us of how hard it is for the image makers to keep up with improvements in the technology of torture and execution, from the stake, the wheel, the gallows tree and the strappado to smart bombs dreamed up on bitmaps in virtual realities. (Long-distance mayhem gets longer by the minute. The British who bombed Iraq in the 1920's and the Germans who bombed Spain in the 1930's could actually see their civilian targets, whereas the recent American bombings of Afghanistan were orchestrated at computer screens in Tampa, Fla.) She has shrewd things to say about colonial wars, memory museums, Christian iconography, lynching postcards, Virginia Woolf, Andy Warhol, Georges Bataille and St. Sebastian; about ''sentimentality,'' ''indecency'' and the ''overstimulation'' Wordsworth warned us would lead to to (lovely phrase!) ''savage torpor.'' And, as usual, she provokes. It probably isn't true that ''not even pacifists'' any longer believe war can be abolished, that photos have a ''deeper bite'' in the memory bank than movies or television, that ''the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked,'' and that ''most depictions of tormented, mutilated bodies do arouse a prurient interest.'' I don't know, and neither does she. On the other hand, when she revises her own conclusions from ''On Photography'' to say she's no longer so sure that shock has ''term limits,'' or that ''repeated exposure'' in ''our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities,'' I agree with her for no other reason than I want to. Her job is not to win a verdict from a jury, but to make us think.

And so she has for 40 years. Never mind that Cyndi Lauper reputation from those essays in ''Against Interpretation'' on happenings, camp and science fiction. Maybe in the early 60's girls just wanted to have fun. By the time of ''Styles of Radical Will,'' she was already Emma Goldman, if not Rosa Luxemburg, reviewing Vietnam as if it were a Godard film. But there was nothing playful about ''On Photography,'' which deserved all those prizes, or ''Illness as Metaphor,'' which actually saved lives, or ''Under the Sign of Saturn,'' where essays so admiring of Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti reminded us that she had always been the best student Kenneth Burke ever had, and could be relied upon to value Simone Weil over Jack Smith. ''If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky,'' she would write years later, ''then -- of course -- I'd choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?''

Yes, she had to, with the culture she cared about going down the tubes. Against that gurgle and flush, she sent up kites and caught the lightning bottled in ''Where the Stress Falls,'' asking us to think the prose of poets and the ''excruciations'' of everybody else, from Machado de Assis to Jorge Luis Borges to Adam Zagajewski to Robert Walser to Danilo Kis to Roland Barthes, before he was struck down by a laundry truck on his way to his mother's, not to mention side excursions to the dance of Lucinda Childs, the photography of Annie Leibovitz and the 15-hour version of Alfred Doblin's ''Berlin Alexanderplatz'' that Rainer Werner Fassbinder managed to make for German television. All this, plus what she found out about herself under the influence of morphine and chemotherapy, and an essay, hilarious in its very conception, on ''Wagner's Fluids.''

Then there were the novels. If the early ones, ''The Benefactor'' and ''Death Kit,'' smelled of the lab, the recent ones, ''The Volcano Lover'' and ''In America,'' are full of ocean and desert airs. It is an amazing, buoyant transformation, by a writer with as much staying power as intellectual wherewithal -- a writer, moreover, who went a dozen times to Sarajevo while the rest of us were watching the Weather Channel -- and still she's niggled at even by people she hasn't sued.

Late in the first act of ''Radiant Baby,'' the new musical about Keith Haring, they bring on a highfalutin critic. She is trousered and turtlenecked in black, with a white streak in her dark mane. She is, of course, a Susan Sontag doll, maybe even a bunraku puppet. You almost expect her to quote Kleist. How remarkable, when even the best-known critics in the history of Western culture pass among us as anonymously as serial killers, that this one should end up emblematic, a kind of avant-garde biker chick, and also be so envied and resented for it. From the political right, you'd expect vituperation, a punishment for her want of piety or bloodthirstiness about 9/11, as if all over hate radio, Fox News and the blogosphere, according to some mystical upgrade of the Domino Theory, every pip was caused to squeak. But in our aggrieved bohemias?

Who cares that her picture has been taken by Harry Hess, Peter Hujar, Irving Penn, Thomas Victor, Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz, not even counting Woody Allen for purposes of ''Zelig''? That she's shown up as a character in unkind novels by Judith Grossman, Alfred Chester, Edmund White, Philippe Sollers, Francis King and Sarah Schulman? The only Sontag who matters is the one who keeps on publishing her own books. ''One result of lavishing a good part of your one and only life on your books,'' she wrote in 1995, ''is that you come to feel that, as a person, you are faking it.'' I hope not, but I don't have time to find out because I have to look up, at her recommendation, another writer I've never read, Multatuli, who's written another novel I never heard of, ''Max Havelaar.'' Anyway, in the course of admiring so many serious thinkers, she became one.

If, however, we must plight some troth to the cult of Gaia, this is how I imagine her, as the poet Paul Claudel saw the ornamental sandstone dancing maiden in the jungles of Cambodia, one of those apsaras that Andre Malraux tried to steal -- smiling, writes Claudel, her ''Ethiopian smile, dancing a kind of sinister cancan over the ruins.'' She knows lots of things the rest of us only wish we did. Think of Susan Sontag as the Rose of Angkor Wat.