A review of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, by Andrew C. McCarthy and Sharia versus Freedom: The Legacy of Islamic Totalitarianism by Andrew G. Bostom

One of my favorite novels is a comedy by P.G. Wodehouse, titled Spring Fever. A new book of that same name, by Andrew C. McCarthy, will provide little amusement. It is not meant to. McCarthy's Spring Fever is a polemical work, peppered with colloquialisms and given to sarcasm. This is not a criticism, but a description. The book's subtitle is The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, and its purpose is, as McCarthy says, "not to relate a definitive history of the ‘Arab Spring'…[but] to offer an alternative way of thinking about the phenomenon that is unfolding before our eyes." That phenomenon, he proffers, is not democratization, but rather Islamization with the desire for sharia rule at its heart.

This is not, per se, a book about terrorism, a subject in which McCarthy is expert. As an assistant U.S. attorney, he led the prosecution against the main perpetrator of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Omar Abdel-Rahman. Who could have imagined at the time that, in 2012, the new (and now former) President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, would be openly calling for Abdel-Rahman's repatriation? McCarthy was also involved in the prosecution of other major terrorists. Through his experiences, he developed a deep understanding of the Islamist ideology behind these acts of terror. His writings on the subject are profound. He is the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad (2008) and The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America (2010). He has now broadened his gaze to the larger problem of the prospects for reform in the Middle East and taken a hard look at the Arab Spring.

He concentrates on two subjects: the pre-Arab Spring transition in Turkey—featuring the triumph of the AKP (the Justice and Development Party) and the election of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—and the erstwhile success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He makes a convincing case that, had we understood the true nature of the transformation of Turkey, we would have seen what was coming in Egypt. We did neither.

Though this short book was completed in the summer of 2012, more recent events, including the approval of Egypt's new, though now suspended, constitution, mostly confirm its thesis. What McCarthy could not have foreseen was the massive uprising against Morsi in the summer of 2013, a year later. McCarthy begins with a seminal quote from Erdogan in 1998: "democracy is just the train we board to reach our destination." In the same year, Erdogan was pushed off the train by Turkey's military and imprisoned for four months for religious incitement in what was still supposed to be a secular republic. He learned his lesson.

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When he returned to power in 2003, this time as prime minister, Erdogan exercised it with extraordinary prudence and patience so as not to alarm the military again before he was in a position to neuter it. He has been wildly successful over the course of three successive elections, increasing the AKP's plurality each time—the last nearing 50%. His program of creeping Islamization has quickened accordingly, as he has marched his way through the institutions, including the judiciary, the press, the business world, education, and, most importantly, the military.

McCarthy points out the tremendous irony that Erdogan did this with the full compliance, even encouragement, of Western powers. The cover was Turkey's supposed candidacy for membership in the European Union. In order to qualify, Turkey needed to place its military in complete subordination to civilian powers. According to Turkey's constitution, the military is the ultimate guarantor of its secular order. When that order has been threatened, the military has removed civilian leaders in 1960, 1971, 1980, and, in a more subtle way, in 1998. Erdogan used the West to defang the Turkish military, thereby removing the single most powerful protector of secular democracy in the Muslim world. Weilding trumped-up conspiracy charges, he successfully decapitated the military and imprisoned several hundred top officers. The West stood by, even applauded, without realizing that Erdogan's Islamization program meant the ultimate de-democratization of Turkey. It was the perfect strategy: in the name of democracy, Islamize. This, of course, has resulted in changes in Turkish foreign policy, principally in terms of open antagonism toward Israel, its former ally. How far Erdogan was willing to go in this direction was demonstrated by his support for the highly imprudent attempt by the Mavi Marmara to break the Gaza naval blockade.

Yet, according to its constitution, Turkey remains an officially secular state. Though Erdogan has increased the role of religion in public life, Turkey is not a sharia state and has some distance to travel before it becomes one. For Erdogan to succeed in his Islamization project, he ultimately needs a new constitution, the prospects for which seem to be fading. It may also depend on his ability to pull a Vladimir Putin, meaning a switch from being prime minster to president in the 2014 election. Considering the massive street demonstrations against Erdogan beginning in the spring of 2013, it is increasingly doubtful that he can engineer this.

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Since McCarthy's opinion of events in Turkey is not widely shared in the foreign policy establishment, it is no surprise that Turkey's path did not serve to warn our diplomats as to what was soon to take place in Egypt. After Mubarak's ouster by the Egyptian military in 2011, the democracy train pulled out of the station with the Muslim Brotherhood at the controls. The Obama Administration was not worried. At a House Intelligence Committee hearing on February 10, 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper infamously described the Muslim Brotherhood as a "largely secular" organization with "no overarching agenda." As novelist Saul Bellow once remarked, "A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep." The depth of ignorance in this statement was shocking. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in reaction to Kemal Ataturk's abolition of the caliphate in 1924. Its "overarching agenda" is to restore the caliphate and impose the rule of sharia. This has never been a secret. The current Deputy Guide of the Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater, said, "The mission is clear: restoring Islam and its all-encompassing conception; subjugating people to God; instituting the religion of God: the Islamization of life, empowering of God's religion; establishing the Nahda of the Ummah on the basis of Islam."

The Brotherhood vehicle for accomplishing this agenda, according to founder Hassan al-Banna, is a one-party system akin to that of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Al-Banna envisaged a bottom-up strategy in which people would be Islamized at the local level first. For this purpose, he created his party. After winning the masses, the Muslim Brotherhood would take total control.

Like Erdogan and the AKP, though in a highly telescoped time frame, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to march through the institutions of Egypt. If Turkey is undergoing a creeping Islamization, Egypt stampeded toward it. In March 2011, the Brotherhood overwhelmingly won the national referendum requiring early parliamentary elections. It then won the parliamentary elections. Then its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won the presidency. The newly drafted (now suspended) constitution was ratified in December 2012 by some 64% of those who voted. Before the new parliamentary elections, Morsi stacked the upper house of parliament, called the Shura Council (now dissolved), with his own members, who had the power to legislate until the new lower house is elected. Morsi decapitated and appeared to make peace with the powerful Egyptian military. The new constitution gave him the power to purge the Supreme Constitutional Court by reducing its size from 18 to 11 members. He replaced the heads of state media. Despite, at times, substantial opposition, the Brotherhood and Morsi seemed to have made a clean sweep in consolidating their power.

Why was this so dangerous? In an August 2010 interview, Morsi said that "freedom" means being "governed by Islamic principles to be implemented in the constitution." That means sharia. Unlike Erdogan (until recently), Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood did not exercise prudence and patience in achieving the ultimate goal. (In contrast, witness the caution exercised by the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in Tunisia, the Nahda Party.) Displaying this kind of flexibility, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the de facto spiritual guide of the Brotherhood, suggested that Islamic law should be implemented gradually in Egypt: "I think that in the first five years, there should be no chopping off of hands."

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As in Turkey under Erdogan, Egypt under Morsi took a new foreign-policy approach. In a September 2010 interview, made available by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Morsi gave a preview of what Egypt's approach to Israel might be (though here, despite his cozying up to Hamas and Iran, Morsi did exercise some prudence upon assuming office):

Either [you accept] the Zionists and everything they want, or else it is war. This is what these occupiers of the land of Palestine know—these blood-suckers, who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs…. We must confront this Zionist entity…. We want a country for the Palestinians on the entire land of Palestine, on the basis of [Palestinian] citizenship. All the talk about a two-state solution and about peace is nothing but an illusion.


In another 2010 appearance at a rally in his hometown in the Nile Delta, Morsi said: "We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews." Morsi added that Egyptian children "must feed on hatred; hatred must continue…. The hatred must go on for God and as a form of worshiping him."

All of this, McCarthy argues, was foreseeable, and he speculates about why the West chose not to admit to itself the nature of the changes taking place in the Middle East. Ignorance is one excuse and self-deception another. Azzam Tamimi, the biographer of Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Nahda party in Tunisia, said something else we should pay attention to. The real struggle of the future, according to him, is "going to be about who is Islamist and who is more Islamist, rather than about the secularists and the Islamists." Until recently, this was certainly proving to be true in Egypt, where the salafists and the Brotherhood were struggling over who is more authentically Islamic, not over who is more democratic. The overthrow of Morsi in Egypt does not necessarily refute this prediction, as the Islamists remain the largest organized political force with a near monopoly on religious legitimacy. In any case, the terrible irony, as McCarthy points out, is that this is a future that we haplessly helped to shape.

One deficiency of the book is a paucity of footnotes. McCarthy fails to give sources for many of the numerous quotations and references. I would add two other points. McCarthy's attack on Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq fails to take note of the fact that al-Sistani, in opposition to the velayat-e faqih doctrine regnant in theocratic Iran, represents the quietist tradition of Shia Islam, known as irshad wa tawjeeh. His success in restoring traditional Shiite doctrine would relocate the theological center of gravity from Qum in Iran to Najaf in Iraq, thus posing a mortal threat to the ideological justification of the Iranian regime. If we had known what we were doing in Iraq, this is what we should have been aiming for from the beginning. This is why Iran is attempting to insert Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi as al-Sistani's successor. As distasteful as Sistani's rulings on homosexuals and infidels, cited by McCarthy, may be, his success in the larger endeavor would represent a huge net gain. I'm surprised that McCarthy does not see this.

Finally, McCarthy states that "unlike Turkey, Egypt has never had a secularization project." Actually, it did. It was called the British Empire. Under the British, Egypt enjoyed a constitutional monarchy, with a real parliament, limited government, an independent judiciary, and relatively free press. There never was an attempt to expunge Islam from the public sphere as there was in Turkey under Ataturk, but the real question becomes: why didn't democracy lead to more democracy in Egypt, or anywhere else in the Arab Middle East? This point only reinforces McCarthy's general thesis.

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If a lack of footnotes is the only major defect in McCarthy's book, the profusion of footnotes in Andrew Bostom's Sharia Versus Freedom is one of its main assets. There are close to 200 pages of them. Bostom, a medical doctor, is a prodigious researcher. His first two books, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism (2008), are compendia of historical documents laying out in exquisite detail the jurisprudence of jihad and of Islamic anti-Semitism, along with contemporary scholarly overviews. These magisterial tomes make it very hard for anyone to deny the central role of jihad as a form of violent conquest in Islam or of anti-Semitism as an essential component of the Islamic faith. Anyone wishing to promote the view of Islam as an essentially irenic, pluralistically disposed faith will have a very difficult time not stumbling over these two substantial boulders in his path. One may try to say that these materials, which will no doubt shock those who have not seen them before, have been superseded, have become obsolete, or have been historicized, but one cannot deny that they are there. In fact, Bostom demonstrates that these tenets obtain in contemporary Islam, too, by providing ample evidence of their frequent reiteration. These are the singular services that Bostom has provided in his voluminous research.

His new book—with an introduction from Andrew McCarthy—is not a compilation of documents but a collection of his own essays, many of which I read (and saved) when they were first published. Like everything he writes, they are larded with great source material, all of it well documented. By itself, this makes the book a gold mine for anyone interested in the subject matter. As one would expect from a collection, these essays are for the most part stand-alone, self-contained works. The book, therefore, does not continually develop its themes so much as repeat them, albeit in different contexts, each repetition adding to the overall meaning and impact of the author's thesis.

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Bostom is definitely of the opinion that what we are experiencing regarding Islam today is a resurgence of something from the past. He might, like Gertrude Stein, simply say that Islam is Islam is Islam, and leave it at that. In fact, that thesis deserves serious attention. If he is right, we had better get a very firm grip on the past if we wish to know what is going to happen, especially to us.

He tends to see Islam as a system in concrete because of its codification in the sharia (Islamic jurisprudence, which regulates every aspect of life). Since sharia is considered at least semi-divine, there is little prospect of its transformation into something more liberal and humane. I believe that he is, in the main, correct in this, though sharia can be more flexible than he implies. The concept of maslaha, or public welfare, allows for some wiggle room. Also, as a French acquaintance who spent years in North Africa once told me, "you get the fatwa you pay for." Nonetheless, sharia is always Islam's default position, as is evident from the developments of the so-called Arab Spring today. Many, perhaps most Muslims (according to the University of Maryland/World Public Opinion interview surveys that Bostom cites half a dozen times) have a deep yearning for sharia; the reason, in my opinion, is that sharia is the exclusive source of moral certitude in their lives. It becomes particularly important during periods of turmoil. Witness the phenomenon in Afghanistan today of people, even government officials, in parts of the country under the control of the Karzai government, crossing over into Taliban territory to have their cases heard by sharia courts. When the Islamist rebels in Mali arrived in the town of Diabaly last January, one of the first things they did was announce to the villagers that someone would be there soon to teach them Islamic law.

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As McCarthy mentions in his introduction and as Bostom amply and repeatedly demonstrates throughout the book, sharia is inimical to freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, equality before the law, and just about all the other elements that undergird democratic constitutional rule. It codifies the inequality of men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, free and slave. Therefore, when we heard Mohammed Morsi, during a campaign appearance, chanting, "The sharia, then the sharia, and finally, the sharia," we should have been worried.

The essential problem is that Islam has reduced itself to sharia. It did this by extirpating philosophy and delegitimizing moral reasoning apart from the sources of revelation. By becoming a form of divine legal positivism, Sunni Islam placed itself in a theological prison. Bostom knows the jail cell very well, not only from its present-day contours, but from its architectural plans. I know many Muslims who want to get out. I even know some who have escaped. So does he. In fact, the last part of the book is dedicated to amplifying the message of warning from Muslim "apostates" like Ibn Warraq, Wafa Sultan, and Hirsi Ali. (I think it is fair to say from Bostom's work that he considers the only good Muslim to be an apostate Muslim.) He ends with a beautiful, lengthy meditation upon Whittaker Chambers, a former American Communist who tried to warn the West about the Soviet Union; Bostum deftly sketches the similarities between Communist totalitarianism and Islam.

He also spends a good deal of time on the subjects of Islamic anti-Semitism and jihad in both its historical and contemporary manifestations. He writes with particular relish on the relationship between the Nazis and Islam, and he eviscerates the notion of a Golden Age in Andalucía, Spain. Bostom often proceeds by reporting a contrary position and then assaulting it by piling on quotations showing that it is false or that it grossly mischaracterizes Islam. In general, this is effective, as his sources are so good. So too, generally speaking, are his explications of them. He brooks no opposition if anyone strays from his thesis or, in fact, does not reiterate it, and he is apt to deliver highly polemical drubbings. I know because I have been on the receiving end of them.

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I leave aside a few marginal instances where his fervor and stridency get the better of him in order to concentrate on a fundamental and very important disagreement between us. In part three of the book, subtitled "Islam, Sharia, and the Treason of the Intellectuals," is a chapter dedicated to "Mutazilite Fantasies: Dross in Islam's ‘Golden Age of Reason.'" Bostom claims here that, "The myth of a golden age of Islamic rationalism plays a critical role in maintaining the somnolence of America's establishment in grasping the implacability of political jihad." Having worked in foreign policy and national security for some years, I do not think I could find one in a hundred people who had ever heard of the 9th-century Mutazilites, much less been lulled into a false sense of security by their knowledge of them. Nonetheless, however improbably, Bostom argues that I have contributed to perpetuating this dangerous myth in my book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind (2010).

In Bostom's otherwise fine chapter on Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture, he never once mentions the pope's central thesis that the problems of Islam derived from its "dehellenization," its loss of reason and philosophy. That is the subject of my study, which required, of course, dealing with the brief period of hellenization preceding it. That would be the early 9th century, during which the Mutazilite theology was formulated. Bostom sets up a straw man by suggesting that I and others of my ilk consider the Mutazilites "liberal freethinkers." I did not and would not use this characterization (and know of no one else who has) for the simple reason that it is inapplicable to them or to any school of thought in the 9th century or, for that matter, for many centuries afterwards. We are not dealing here with the Enlightenment, but with the absorption of Aristotelian influences into Muslim theology. After accusing me of this anachronism, Bostom uses it to criticize the Mutazilites for not being liberal freethinkers, as if this proves his case against them.

The reason this issue is worth going into at some length is that one will gain a far deeper understanding of Islam if one knows of the struggles which took place within it. This kind of appreciation can provide the basis for a more realistic appraisal of the prospects Muslims have today of escaping from the dysfunctional culture in which they have entrapped themselves. Grasping the contours of the jail cell (Bostom's specialty) is valuable, but so is knowing why it was built and why Muslims incarcerated themselves in it.

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In other words, it is worth knowing about Islam's hellenization and subsequent de-hellenization, particularly if you wish to discern if it could be re-hellenized—the only way out of the prison. As my book shows, that is a dim prospect, indeed. I think it less likely that someone who knows these things would be lulled into a false sense of security than if one did not know them. Bostom apparently believes that none of this has any relevance because, as he points out, as if this were a revelation, the caliphs who sponsored this rational school of theology nonetheless conducted jihad. (Of course, they did; they had a jurisprudential obligation to do so.) He even suggests—and this is the critical point—that, had the Mutazilites remained in the ascendant, it would not have made things significantly different, or perhaps would have even made them worse.

To accept Bostom's thesis, we would have to ignore the importance of the differences between the Mutazilites and their opponents, the Asharites. Consider the following issues on which they were diametrically opposed—the first being the Asharite position, the second the Mutazilite:

  • Man has no free will/man has free will;
  • Reason cannot know moral principles/reason can know moral principles;
  • There is no truth outside of Islam/truth is a universal standard to which all reasonable people can agree, regardless of their religion and the source of such truth;
  • There is no such thing as nature or the laws of nature (as understood in classical philosophy and by Aristotle)/there is natural law;
  • The Koran has existed co-eternally with God in heaven/the Koran was created in time;
  • God is pure will and power/God is justice and rationality.


The difference between the two schools of thought regarding the status of reason can be digested in two statements. From the Mutazilite school (Abd al-Jabbar): "it is obligatory for you to carry out what accords with reason." From the Asharite school (al-Juwayni and al-Ghazali): "there is nothing obligatory by reason…. No obligations flow from reason but from the sharia." The Mutazilites legitimized rational inquiry into the nature of God and the Koran. Their opponents forbade it.

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To say that the outcome of this struggle would not have made a difference, or that the difference the Asharite victory made was preferable to what might otherwise have happened, means either that one does not understand that ideas have consequences, or that one does not grasp the ideas themselves. How can Bostom write a book against sharia and, at the same time, come close to preferring the theological school that reduced Islam to nothing but sharia? In other words, to accept Bostom's condemnation of the Mutazilites, we would have to assume that the future without them would be, or is, preferable. But we do not have to imagine what that future would be like. It is with us today. Welcome to Saudi Arabia, Bostom's ostensible nemesis, and to the Muslim Brotherhood's "Arab spring."

I cannot resist at least one quotation from an authoritative source to illustrate the error of Bostom's view. In one of his last interviews, the late King Hussein of Jordan was asked: "Would you agree that the Muslim decline can be dated from the 9th century when Islam missed the chance to become the religion of reason and moderation by crushing the Mu'tazilite movement?" King Hussein responded: "That is essentially correct, and we must do what we can to change that now."

Despite these reservations—which are minor, considering the scope of the work—I heartily recommend Bostom's otherwise worthwhile book. There is much to be learned from it, and it pairs nicely with McCarthy's Spring Fever.

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For Correspondence on this review, click here