Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy is the new e-book from Andrew C. McCarthy, the prosecutor of the Blind Sheik and a National Review Online contributor. It’s meant to be “your antidote for the obsession that has become conventional American wisdom: the obdurate portrayal of the ‘Arab Spring’ as a triumph of freedom,” he writes. Andy talks with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the Fever.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is there anything positive to say about the “Arab Spring”?
ANDREW C. McCARTHY: It is a very clarifying chapter in the history of the Muslim Middle East. Given that the worst of the many bad problems we’ve had is making policy based on the region as we wish it were rather than as it is, anything that shakes the scales from people’s eyes is a positive.
LOPEZ: Is there anything positive to say about the Obama administration’s policies toward Muslim countries?
McCARTHY: Nothing positive springs to mind. But if we focus on violent jihadists operating within Muslim countries, then there are some positive things to say. As I maintained during the 2008 campaign, President Obama had a far superior position to John McCain on the question of attacking terrorist redoubts in countries that claim to be our allies but allow their territories to be used as platforms to launch attacks against us. My hesitation about Obama on that score lay in not believing he was serious — I figured he was just posing as a tough guy on Pakistan because he had been so weak on Iraq and so in favor of turning the clock back to the pre-9/11 criminal-justice paradigm of counterterrorism. But he proved me wrong: He can’t bring himself to say “jihadist,” but he certainly has attacked jihadist redoubts.
Still, his policy is ultimately a failure. Our forces now kill when they could capture and increase our intelligence base. Obama doesn’t want to capture terrorists overseas because he’d have to figure out what to do with them. All his demagoguery over Gitmo — the ideal, obvious place to detain and interrogate captured jihadists — has made a mess of combatant detention. Moreover, while the occasional drone strikes are a positive, they’re not enough to discourage and defeat the enemy, and, more significantly, they are overwhelmed by the negatives of his appeasement policies.
Obama’s “outreach” policy is based on a thoroughgoing fiction that imagines a sharp divide between “violent extremists” and “Islamists” — the former supposedly kill irrationally and wantonly; the latter are “moderates” committed to pursuing their agenda through regular politics. In reality, they are all Islamic supremacists. Terrorists — violent jihadists — kill very rationally. Their goal is exactly the same as that of other Islamists: They want sharia implemented because it is the necessary precondition to Islamizing a society. The “non-violent,” “moderate” Islamists are a figment of our bipartisan foreign-policy clerisy’s imagination: Their sharia agenda is extreme and they support terrorism strategically (e.g., Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian faction; Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s leading jurist, calls for terrorism against American troops operating in Muslim countries). Consequently, by empowering Islamists and effectively legitimizing their ideology, Obama empowers their terrorist factions. It’s ironic to think of all his carping about how Gitmo “causes” terrorist recruitment, because Obama’s embrace of Islamists has done more for terrorist recruitment than almost anything else our government could have done — I mean, we’re now funding the Brotherhood in Egypt and the Palestinian territories. We’re working with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, to which 57 Muslim states belong, to impose sharia speech-suppression standards and, in effect, to legitimize the theory that jihadist attacks against Israel are not terrorism but “resistance against an occupying power.”
If you couple the facilitation of Islamists with Obama’s policy of negotiating with terrorist organizations — with the Taliban, with the Iranian-backed terror networks that operate in Iraq, with the Blind Sheikh’s Islamic Group (whose operative was recently invited to the White House for consultations on the future of Egypt) — it more than undoes the good done by occasional drone strikes against jihadist targets.
LOPEZ: What does freedom mean anymore? Does this White House understand it differently than we have in the past? Are there different tiers of freedom depending on where you are or who you are?
McCARTHY: I’m glad you asked that because it is a big theme of Spring Fever. There are two divides here: Islam versus the West, and progressives versus the Constitution.
On the first, the Islamic concept of “freedom” is virtually the opposite of ours. For us, freedom is liberty, self-determination, the right of each individual to chart his own course and maximize his own potential without any more interference from the state than what is minimally necessary to ensure the order we need to flourish. In Islamist-supremacist ideology, which is the dominant Islam of the Middle East, “freedom” means complete submission to Allah’s law — what Islamic scholars over the centuries have called “perfect slavery.”
Now, that will be called “Islamophobic” because I’m the one mentioning “submission” and “slavery.” But such things are commonly said by Muslim jurists — and it is more accurate for us to call them jurists than clerics. The supremacist interpretation of Islam aspires to be more than a set of spiritual principles; it’s a complete framework for how human life is to be lived, down to the minute details. Obviously, the jurists don’t mean their assertions as an insult, and neither do I. My disagreements with Islamists are intense, but they are substantive. I have enough respect for them to try to understand their point of view rather than pretend they are something they are not. Their point is that Allah has been beneficent enough to give mankind the gift of sharia, his “path” or prescription for how life is to be lived. To thumb one’s nose at this gift once one is aware of it is a profound affront. That is how they see it.
That is why Western democracy — real democracy, the culture of liberty, not mere procedures like voting — cannot mesh with their construction of sharia. Our fundamental premise is that the governed have a right to make law for themselves, irrespective of any belief system. Islamic supremacists deny the right to make law that contradicts sharia in any way. That divide cannot be bridged; it’s too basic.
On progressives versus the Constitution, Spring Fever explicates the concept of “totalitarian democracy,” which was developed by the much underappreciated political scientist Jacob Leib Talmon. Very much like Islamists, progressives believe they possess an exclusive truth and that the task of the state is to socialize citizens to accept that truth. Freedom, nonsensically, lies in accepting that truth — i.e., you can, as Rousseau put it, be “forced to be free” by the state. Meaning, capitulate and all will be well. Again, this is antithetical to the Constitution’s conception of freedom as the necessary requirement of individual liberty that the Constitution safeguards by limiting, not empowering, government. The Framers understood that government was necessary in some ways but had a propensity to devour liberty; the Left is seduced by this propensity, which rationalizes its seizure of your liberty as being for your own good.
LOPEZ: Did anything that happened over the last couple of weeks — the attacks on our diplomatic missions and the violent protests across the Muslim world — surprise you?
McCARTHY: No. As the book explains, this was inevitable. The point of being an Islamic supremacist is to achieve supremacy.
LOPEZ: Is the anti-Islamic YouTube video that supposedly provoked the violence just an excuse?
McCARTHY: Yes. So are the cartoons, the burning Korans, the teddy bears, Gitmo, our incarceration of the Blind Sheikh, Israeli “occupation,” and whatever they’ll be marauding about tomorrow. These are all just pretexts. The proximate cause is Islamic supremacist ideology. If you really want to find another material cause, it is American appeasement and fecklessness. When your main adversary, the obstacle to your ambitions, is desperate for you to love him rather than determined to show that there are red lines that can’t be crossed, you cause mayhem. We now have mayhem.
LOPEZ: Why is Turkey’s Erdogan such a bad actor by your account?
McCARTHY: Because I am a pro-democracy — real democracy — Westerner and he is a highly effective Islamist enemy of the West. Using the Muslim Brotherhood’s ingenious, duplicitous tactics, he has — under the guise of democracy — taken a country that was a reasonably democratic ally of the West and flipped it back into the Islamist column, which is already having dire consequences for us.
LOPEZ: How is Erdogan the “power-politics soulmate” of Barack Obama?
McCARTHY: Well, as far as “soulmate” is concerned, that’s based on the two men’s expressed affection for each other — Obama says they find themselves in agreement on most things, which Americans ought to find frightening. On power politics, Obama and Erdogan are extraordinarily similar — and so, as Spring Fever observes, are Alinskyites and the Brotherhood. They are both seeking “to fundamentally transform” their societies, to borrow Obama’s famous phrase, and they seek to do it by acquiring, using, and maintaining power in a very raw and often lawless way — “direct action,” as the community organizers put it. They use benign rhetoric and sleight-of-hand to appear unthreatening, to keep themselves politically viable, and to camouflage the radical nature of their agendas. Once in command of the levers of power, particularly the metastasizing bureaucracy, which is where the state’s real power in a society is brought to bear, they aggressively advance their ideologies in a way that ignores constitutions, statutes, and courts — it’s basically “I’ve got more power than you do, just try to stop me.” And, sadly, it works.
LOPEZ: How is freedom regressing in Turkey?
McCARTHY: Erdogan has systematically eroded the military and internal security apparatus, which was Ataturk’s guardian of the secular order, and he has seeded the courts and the bureaucracy with Islamist appointees. That has given Islamist supremacists a green light to impose sharia standards over large areas without Erdogan’s having to impose those standards formally. There was a big controversy over women’s wearing the veil, for example, which the Kemalists did not permit in the public square. The matter is still moving through the courts, but the legal outcome doesn’t matter any longer — women are wearing the veil in great numbers, some because they wish to, others because they are afraid not to. It’s a terrible time for women in Turkey: Employment is way down, while violence (including “honor killings”), sexual abuse, and illiteracy surge. Business people and government bureaucrats are adopting Islamist modes of dress and behavior because they know that, in Erdogan’s Turkey, if you want to advance, that’s what you must do. Increasingly, there is violence against religious minorities. And most obviously, Erdogan has exploited the executive’s police and prosecution powers to persecute dissenters, particularly in the press and the military.
LOPEZ: What’s the “democracy fetish” you refer to?
McCARTHY: My contention is that the Islamic democracy project, which has been a feature of the last three presidential administrations even though it is popularly associated with Bush 43, has not so much promoted as fetishized democracy. It substitutes procedural aspects of democracy — most notably, elections — for real democratic culture. If we really wanted to promote democracy, we’d cut off assistance and minimize relations with the Saudis until they repealed repressive sharia; halted persecution of women, homosexuals, and religious minorities; stopped making it criminal to practice religions other than Islam; opened Mecca and Medina, which are generally closed to non-Muslims; and ceased the proselytism of Wahhabism and the funding of Islamists, particularly violent Islamists. That would be democracy promotion worth having, and if we had it, I’d be its biggest supporter. But instead, we consider the mere holding of elections and writing of constitutions to be democracy — even when the elections install anti-liberty Islamists and terrorists in power, and even when the constitutions enshrine sharia as fundamental law.
LOPEZ: Who is Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi?
McCARTHY: Mohamed Morsi is an interesting character. For one thing, he is a testimony to the Muslim Brotherhood’s American infrastructure: He joined the organization while attending college in the United States — his gateway was the Muslim Students Association, as it is for many Islamists, including some notorious terrorists. He is a dyed-in-the-wool sharia activist who rose through the Brotherhood’s ranks because he believes in both supremacist ideology and the Brotherhood’s rigorous discipline and respect for hierarchy. He did brief stints in jail under Mubarak, was reliably anti-Western as a legislator, and despises Israel. He is not a charismatic figure; he has long been regarded as the smart, steady guy in the retinue of Khairat el-Shater, who is the dynamic leader of the Brotherhood. Shater would have been president if the military junta had not manufactured a bogus reason to take him off the ballot. Morsi was “Plan B” — the alternative if something happened to Shater. But Shater’s removal happened so late in the race, few gave Morsi a chance. His victory speaks volumes about the Brotherhood’s influence and political operation in Egyptian society.
LOPEZ: How bad has the Obama administration’s treatment of Israel been, and why should it matter to the American voter?
McCARTHY: Obama’s treatment of Israel has been deplorable. He has seemingly gone out of his way to provoke the Israelis, most recently by excluding them from the State Department’s Counterterrorism Forum — in which we “partner” with Turkey (which now funds Hamas) and other Islamist countries — even though Israel is the world’s leading target of terrorism. He has implicitly endorsed the Islamist claim that violent attacks against Israel are “resistance,” not terrorism. He has colluded with Turkey and the Brotherhood despite their explicitly anti-Israeli posture. It should matter to voters because when it becomes dangerous to be America’s friend and advantageous to be an Islamist (Islamists by nature are anti-Western), the world is a lot less safe for Americans. We’ve seen a good deal of that in the last couple of weeks.
LOPEZ: You have a chapter titled “Culture Is Everything.” Didn’t that get Mitt Romney in trouble?
McCARTHY: Well, if Romney is in trouble — and I happen to think the latest kerfuffle is way overblown — it will end up being because our culture has changed much more than we realized. I hope that’s not the case, but as I wrote in my weekend column a couple of weeks ago, we have lost about a third of the country from the culture of liberty that was the defining element of the American character. That’s an awful lot of people. My point about culture’s being everything is that we fixate on law and process. The Brotherhood homes in on culture — the Brothers grasp that once you control the culture, the law comes around in your favor, too.
LOPEZ: How quickly should we have gotten out of Afghanistan?
McCARTHY: Probably as soon as we decimated al-Qaeda and toppled the Taliban. We should obviously maintain a presence (or a number of “presences”) in the region to be ready to strike at jihadist safe havens. But we were always ambivalent about the Taliban. After 9/11, Bush originally offered to let them be if they’d hand over al-Qaeda, and now, of course, we’re negotiating their return. We shouldn’t commit our forces unless we are committed to defeating our enemies. As it happens, the government was never clear on whether the Taliban was our enemy, and the public never had any interest in having our people in Afghanistan in order to construct a new Afghan society. So the mission is a mess — an ever more perilous one in which we are irresponsibly putting our men and women in grave danger toward no good end.
LOPEZ: Who is sharia a threat to? Have we helped lessen its threat at all?
McCARTHY: Sharia is a threat to liberty. We can’t lessen its threat, because it is what it is. There are ways of interpreting it moderately, and many Muslims in the West do that. But the strong intellectual current in Islamic circles favors classical sharia, which is repressive. Don’t take my word for it. As I argue in Spring Fever, just read Reliance of the Traveller. It’s eye-poppingly repressive, and it bears the endorsements of the faculty at al-Azhar University and the Muslim Brotherhood’s American think tank, the International Institute of Islamic Thought.
LOPEZ: Is there reason to believe Mitt Romney would be an improvement?
McCARTHY: Obama is affirmatively advancing the position of our enemies. This is not willful blindness anymore, it’s being on the wrong side. He is making Israel’s position ever more perilous. He is telling the world that it’s better to be America’s enemy than America’s friend. He is helping the Islamists try to force their sharia speech-suppression standards into our law, against our Constitution. He makes policy in accordance with his sense of global interests (as the Left sees them), not American interests. Just getting Obama out would be an enormous improvement in the addition-by-subtraction sense. But I think Romney would be a positive improvement. He is an American first. Do I worry that he’ll fall into the trap of seeing our enemies as our friends, which is a failing of the Republican establishment? Sure — although he did say on that tape that the Palestinians don’t want peace with Israel, which was a refreshing bit of truth. In any event, I think he’s smart enough to have learned from some of the missteps of the last decade, and I’m also confident that he knows who our actual friends are, particularly Israel. That would be a vast improvement.
LOPEZ: Are there any good, realistic solutions for the Middle East and our relationship to it?
McCARTHY: The Middle East is a very complex, difficult region, and anyone who pretends to have silver-bullet answers to what we should do is deluding himself and the rest of us. The best solution for us is to be realistic, not pretend enemies are friends, and forget about being loved, admired, or emulated because it’s not going to happen — not any time soon. I’m not an isolationist, and it is impractical to withdraw from a region where America has important interests. But we do not need to be nearly as involved as we are. We need to act forcefully, to lead, and, when it is necessary, to act. But when it is not in our interests to act, and particularly when, in acting, we may empower our enemies, we should stay our hand.
LOPEZ: Is there a way to support real democratic elements abroad?
McCARTHY: Yes. Support our American principles of liberty and equality of opportunity, and unambiguously condemn sharia’s attempted suppression of speech. Real democratic elements are negligible now, and they are never going to thrive while we are empowering our enemies. No one in Egypt is more disappointed in the United States than real democrats who cannot believe that, under the guise of “democracy,” the U.S. has embraced the Muslim Brotherhood, which — if we’re talking about a culture of liberty — is about as undemocratic as it gets.
LOPEZ: What do you hope for this e-book?
McCARTHY: I hope it will be an antidote to the “Arab Spring” narrative. And I hope it makes a contribution to the discussion about American national security and what a desirable “democracy project” would look like. Those are crucial issues, and discussion about them in the presidential campaign has been scant. I think that will change, though. In the end, national security is the reason we have a federal government, and the world has a way of reminding us of that fact.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.