Michael Novak, a Catholic political philosopher, was invited in September 2002 to give lectures to field commanders of the Sudanese resistance fighting the oppressive Islamist government in Khartoum. He writes of his surprise, in The Universal Hunger for Liberty, when he discovered that more than half of his audience were devout Muslims who were searching for ways to "find a Muslim theory that embraces the best of the modern world, such as democracy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Sudanese Muslims with whom Novak spoke are not alone in this search, nor is this search limited to the post-9-11 world. The problem is immense for a variety of historical reasons including the irony that so many Muslims, such as Osama bin Laden and his supporters, have opted to embrace the worst of twentieth century politics—fascism, militarism, and totalitarianism—instead of the best of the Western tradition of democracy and human rights.
Charfi's small book provides an insightful and cogent explanation of why the Muslim world, particularly the Arab countries, remains confounded when it comes to building democracy. The author brings a wealth of personal experience to bear on Islam and liberty. He was a professor of law in Tunis, served as vice-president and president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights and as minister of education until he resigned in 1994 over a disagreement concerning the excessive use of force by Tunisian security officers.
Islam and Liberty draws upon the specific history of modern Tunisia during the presidency of Habib Bourguiba. But Tunisia also offers a case study for a deeper examination of Islam and Arab-Muslim history and why the trajectory of that history turned toward authoritarian politics and the construction of an Islam supportive of politics that are contrary to the core value of freedom that Islam intrinsically represents. The "historical misunderstanding" in the subtitle refers to his thesis that liberty is intrinsic to Islam.
Charfi is unabashedly a modernist Muslim who contends that the traditional insistence of Muslims on religion and politics in Islam being inseparable is the source of much difficulty. Historically Islam was shaped by men in politics to legitimize their power, to make the state an instrument of faith, and to invest the successors of the Prophet, the caliphs, with an aura of sacred authority, an argument that others beside Charfi have also illustrated (most notably Ali Abderrazak in Islam and the Foundation of Power).
President George W. Bush has spoken eloquently about freedom being God's gift to mankind; Muslims have not been denied this gift of heaven but have squandered and abused it. Charfi's study will be of interest for both specialists in Arab-Muslim politics and general readers keenly concerned in contemporary affairs. The author is to be commended for striving to kindle an understanding of Islam that would take Muslims back to the religion's original impulse and help non-Muslims to appreciate how difficult is the process of reform.
 Basic Books, 2006.