Democracy: The antidote to terrorism

The democratic revolution in Egypt poses a challenge to Al Qaeda. The movement’s #2 leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, was tortured in Mubarak’s jails in the 1980s. He emerged a hardened murderer, convinced that terror is the only way to topple corrupt Arab regimes and hurt the “far enemy” in America that supports such governments.

This narrative has been undermined by the success of nonviolent resistance in Egypt and Tunisia (will Bahrain or Yemen be next?). The democratic movements show that authoritarian regimes can be transformed through peaceful means (almost all the violence in these struggles has been perpetrated by the pro-government side).

The significance of the democratic upsurge will not be lost on would-be Al Qaeda recruits. They can now see a more hopeful path toward ending oppression, in contrast to the utter failure of Al Zawahri and Bin Laden to achieve anything but the killing of countless fellow Muslims.

Mohamed ElBaradei said it well after Mubarak’s fall: “If we get Egypt right, it could be the best medicine to get rid of radicalism.” The same point was made by Juan Zarate, former senior counterterrorism official during the Bush administration. “There’s part of this that’s dangerous to Al Qaeda,” said Zarate. “If the street protests lead to a peaceful, pluralistic transition, that does huge damage to the Al Qaeda narrative.”

The opening of democratic political space may be the best antidote to terrorism.

7 thoughts on “Democracy: The antidote to terrorism

  1. David, I cannot but wholeheartedly agree.
    “Terrorists” usually have a desperate cause. If only they could be assured that there is an alternative to killing innocent people…

  2. I do believe that the single act of a disparate Tunisian who decided to immolate himself in protest instead of turning to the tactics of terror has spoken volumes to the efficacy of non violent struggles.
    It certainly cannot be lost on Al Qaeda and others that this single event combined with the economic and political environment in the Middle East resulted in a huge change in the landscape. A change that hundreds, perhaps thousands of suicide bombings and terror attacks could not.
    Steve Garber
    Wisdom, Mediation, and Dialogue (WMD) Foundation

  3. How interesting that it was a suicide event, a self immolation, that sparked the rise of the massive social revolt in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond–while the countless suicide attacks of Al Qaeda-related fanatics have brought only death and destruction.

    1. Your postings remind me of the Buddhist monks in Saigon, a French girl with a name “Francine” who immolated herself on March 30, 1968, in Paris protesting against the Vietnam War, and an aged Japanese Esperantist who did the same the year before in front of the Japanese Parliament building. The tragedy of “Francine” became a beautiful song, sung by hundreds of thousands of Japanese youths; I myself was among them. Thank you, again, for making me reflect on what actually moves individuals to think, act and go into the streets.

  4. While I think it’s important to note the ways violence against others (war, suicide bombings, etc.) versus personal acts of protest (self-immolation in this instance) impact us as individuals and as nations/societies, I think it’s also important to note that nonviolent action is most effective and longer-lasting via organized protest. I want to be clear that I mean in no way to diminish the magnitude of Mohammed Bouazizi’s (the Tunisian man who set himself on fire) actions. He clearly set an amazing revolution in action, irrespective of his intent. It isn’t my view, however (nor the view of the organization I represent—WMD Foundation), that violence towards oneself (martyrdom, suicide, the like), no matter the cause or nobility of intent, is the better way. I think that the attitude and heart of nonviolence extends, at its best, to all beings, ourselves included.

  5. But has it been considered what would transpire if through a democratic process a ruthless theocracy or dictatorship is established?

    While optimism might make us think that democracy will never elect an oppressor or extremist theocrats, one must be cautious about naive optimism.

    The difference between a democracy and mobocracy is very fuzzy. Though one might have reasons to doubt Gallup Polls, the result of a recent poll in Pakistan should make us cuatious rather than optimistic. 67% of Pakistanis would like their country to become more Islamic. This should make the minorities in that country very very afraid. Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood is very likely to come to power in Egypt. Copts are already very scared by this possibility.

    1. It is not optimism but rather realism that requires our commitment to democracy. I’m reminded of Churchill’s famous quote, ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.’

      No doubt voters with free choice will occasionally elect fools and knaves to power. The people of the United States re-elected George W. Bush after he had illegally invaded Iraq, but that is not a reason to deny electoral choice.

      Citizens in Egypt and other Arab countries may indeed elect Islamists to office in free and fair elections. Any attempt to suppress or deny that choice would only cause problems and reinforce the appeal of violent extremists. The hope is that Islamist parties will trend more in the direction of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey than the theocrats of Iran. The United States can encourage that process by accommodating moderate Islamist demands, for example by supporting a viable state for the Palestinians.

      The most important concern is not who gets elected but whether the electoral process is continuous and operates freely and openly. As long as elections are held fairly and frequently, we have no right to object. When people have the right to elect their leaders freely, they will be less inclined to use violence to make their voices heard.

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