Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, by Andrew C. McCarthy (Encounter, 184 pp., $21.50, Kindle edition $9.89)
Andrew C. McCarthy was once best known as the federal prosecutor who spearheaded the convictions of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, who were the unapologetic architects of the first World Trade Center bombing and the precursors of the mass murderers of 9/11. But since his retirement as a prosecutor, McCarthy has written two widely read books on the dangers of radical Islam. His long-held opposition to all forms of Islamist extremism in the West is also the dominant leitmotif of his hard-hitting journalism, which has likewise gained a wide audience.
A number of themes have characterized McCarthy’s work: He is deeply suspicious of Islamist clerics in the West who claim that their notions of sharia law are compatible with liberal North American and European constitutional government. He writes that “sharia in an Islamist society serves precisely the function that law serves in totalitarian democracy: It suppresses free expression, free will, and volition.” McCarthy is even more skeptical of nation-building in the Western Middle East, at least on the premise that American blood and treasure should be invested in overthrowing authoritarian governments to usher in democracies — on the suppositions, for example, that a one-time-elected, theocratic Muslim Brotherhood is much better than an authoritarian, secular Hosni Mubarak, or that the tribal chaos in Libya is preferable to the thuggish Muammar Qaddafi’s police state.
More controversially, McCarthy asserts that contemporary radical imams and theocrats are not so much apostates from mainstream Islamic orthodoxy as logical and honest representatives of fundamentalist Koranic doctrine — which provides plenty of both textual support for and historical examples of jihadism, religious intolerance, and narrow-minded prejudice against non-believers, women, and homosexuals. McCarthy quotes Samuel Huntington’s controversial, but prescient, observation that “the underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture.”
Note that the subtitle of McCarthy’s latest book refers not to the illusion of “Middle East” or “Arab” democracy, but rather to that of “Islamic” democracy. That expansive category might suggest that McCarthy reviews Islamic claims of democratic government across the Muslim world, from Pakistan to Indonesia. In fact, his book concentrates mostly on two regimes — the decade-long rule of Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey (“the principal focus of Spring Fever”) and the post-revolutionary Egypt that has seen the Arab Spring of 2011 lead to the election of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi in 2012. In the latter case, following the election, we have witnessed systematic oppression of the Coptic minority, the hounding of independent journalists and critics, and loud chest-thumping about whittling away past security agreements with Israel — all in just the first few months of the Morsi government.
For McCarthy, these two supposedly democratic nations best symbolize the fraud behind the entire notion that radical Muslims can operate peacefully and liberally within the framework of democracy — at least as we in the West commonly define rule by the people. To advance his pessimistic argument, McCarthy makes three additional key points.
First, contemporary Turkey and Egypt are more dangerous than other Muslim countries because they are big and powerful nations with historic grievances against a West just across the Mediterranean. Both have romanced the clueless Obama administration into naïvely investing in their experiments with “democracy,” and the two loudly claim to be the missionaries for things to come across the Middle East. Under the cloak of NATO membership and much-publicized wishes to join the European Union, Erdogan over the past decade has systematically dismantled the old secular Ataturk state. Indeed, his insidious efforts are more illiberal than past secular authoritarianism because, beneath his loud talk of democracy, he has Islamized not just the Turkish government, but the daily lives of individual Turkish citizens, far more successfully than any crackpot anti-Western imam has. When Erdogan boasts on the Charlie Rose PBS program, “Let me give you a very clear message. I don’t see Hamas as a terrorist organization,” we can see how his overweening confidence arises from the smug awareness that he is currently being courted by the Obama administration.
Indeed, the administration has foolishly ignored Turkey’s hostility to American interests, its recent “Zero Problems” policy of wooing both Iran and Syria, and Erdogan’s growing anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic policies. Instead, President Obama has all but urged Turkey to play a role in overthrowing such secular dictators as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, and Hosni Mubarak — a policy that could end up spreading Istanbul’s own version of radical Islamic democracy. Should Egypt follow the Turkish trajectory, the consequences of an aggregate 150 million Muslims under sharia law in these two nations would be akin to a sort of resurrection of the anti-Western Ottoman Empire, which for over four centuries was in near-constant war with a nearby West.
Second, McCarthy debunks the idea that the 2011 Arab Spring had much of anything to do with democracy. To the extent that plebiscites took place, they were simply the means by which Islamists, as they had in Turkey, advanced to power and legitimized their attempts to create theocracies as they massaged the electoral process. “Democracy is just the train we board to reach our destination,” Erdogan once declared as he entered Turkish politics. Here McCarthy reviews the difference between plebiscites (in the Middle East context of “one election, one time”) and true constitutional government. The latter is holistic. It includes a written constitution ratified by a legitimate legislature and upheld by an independent judiciary, one that not merely spells out the checks and balances of consensual government but also formally protects the rights of the individual to worship, speak, write, and live without coercion. Clearly, neither Turkey nor Egypt — nor, for that matter, any Islamic country — meets or wishes to meet such criteria. As McCarthy notes of the differences between Islamic democratic theory and American practice, “our signature commitment to individual liberty, free markets, and limited government shaped our law and our politics — not the other way around.”
Third and finally, McCarthy believes that multiculturalism and moral equivalence have blinded past Republican administrations into thinking that, in times of war, we can nation-build and foster true democracy in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. And even more dangerously, liberal Democrats have invested U.S. support and prestige in such countries as Islamist Turkey that are currently neither democratic nor, by any definition, pro-Western. McCarthy reviews the Islamist modus operandi of fooling a gullible West: It is, usually, to say and write one thing for Western public consumption, while promulgating quite a different message in native languages to domestic audiences — in expectation that starry-eyed and intellectually lazy utopians of Europe and the U.S. will not take the trouble to read what they would find troubling. McCarthy is most devastating when he simply quotes translated Islamic political literature, contemporary constitutions, and the speeches of prominent Muslims, allowing their own voices to make his own case that Islamists — many of whom have been subsidized by Western agencies on the pretense of their English-language moderation — are fascistic and bigoted. Are we to laugh or cry when we learn that the current president of Cordoba University in Virginia, the Saudi immigrant Taha Jabir al-Alwani, was praised by the Muslim Brotherhood in its 1991 “Explanatory Memorandum,” which declared that the Brotherhood’s “work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within”? The “moderate” Feisal Abdul Rauf, the force behind the so-called Ground Zero Mosque project, wrote A Call to Prayer from the World Trade Center Rubble: Islamic Dawa in the Heart of America Post-9/11 — a book widely praised and marketed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that the current director of national intelligence, James Clapper, assured us was “largely secular.”
Such pseudo-democratic Muslims depend on postmodern Western apologists to contextualize their messages with relativistic notions of not judging others by supposedly arbitrary Western standards. “Enraptured by diversity for its own sake,” McCarthy argues, “we have lost the capacity to comprehend a civilization whose idea of ‘diversity’ is to coerce diverse peoples into obeying its evolution-resistant norms, particularly its non-negotiable prohibition against free expression that takes the form of critical examination of Islam.”
It would be easy to nitpick McCarthy’s take-no-prisoners book and claim that he has blurred the boundaries between Islam and Islamism. The prose is unapologetically both fierce and colloquial. (“‘There’s your proof. McCarthy is a hopelessly bigoted, raging Islamophobe.’ Now, I could just bat my eyes and say, ‘Gee, I get that all the time.’”) And from McCarthy, there is not really much guidance about what exactly we are to do with these bad and worse choices of engagement, when the world depends so heavily on Middle Eastern oil, the U.S. is so committed to the security of Israel, secular authoritarians such as Saddam Hussein and the Assads have subsidized anti-American terrorism, and so often our retaliatory anti-terrorism efforts and military interventions hinge on making friends on the ground in otherwise hostile regions.
Yet one must not review the book not written. McCarthy’s effort is not a blueprint for U.S. foreign policy. Nor is it a philosophical journey into the contours, ironies, and paradoxes of East-West engagement. Instead, Spring Fever is old-fashioned Tom Paine pamphleteering, albeit grounded in a wide reading of Islamist literature, about a clear and present danger of an anti-Western, anti-American radical Islam that is increasing its power by deluding naïve Westerners about its true nature and aims. In that regard, nothing McCarthy says is untrue, and he has been right about the past far more than he has been wrong. If Islam is not quite the same as Islamism, the difference is often irrelevant when millions of Muslims predicate their support and empathy for a Muslim Brotherhood or even a Hamas or Hezbollah not so much on its doctrine as on the degree to which it is seen as winning rather than losing global influence and popular support. The disturbing problem with this book’s final conclusion — “Necessarily, ‘Islamic democracy’ will make the Middle East less democratic, and less free” — is not that it is shrill or one-sided but that, like most of what Andrew McCarthy has argued over the last few years, it is likely to be all too accurate and insightful, and borne out by subsequent events.
– Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of the forthcoming The Savior Generals.