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Opposing Al Qaeda with democracy

3Qs with Associate Professor of International Affairs Berna Turam
March 17th, 2011

Associate Professor of International Affairs Berna Turam, the author of “Between Islam and the State: the Politics of Engagement,” offers insight into the recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and explains the importance of hope in the midst of a wave of democratic upheaval.

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya there is no religious overtone to the recent uprisings. Do you think that this can hold?

There is no simple answer to this question. So, I will take the liberty of complicating both the question and the response. Middle East politics has often been perceived as sheer opposition between two major forces, Islamists and secularists. This dichotomy misses and misrepresents several groups, such as youth, women and the urban poor, who may not necessarily define their goals and politics in these dichotomous terms. Put differently, whether pious or secular, these leading groups in the present uprisings in the Middle East have shared agendas that cannot be reduced to Islamism or secularism. For example, pious and secular youth are capable of allying against a dictator without needing to use the terminologies of Islamism or secularism. In order to be able to overcome the stereotypes associated with the Middle East, one can think about other countries, such as the United States, where different groups can associate and mobilize for democratic reform without necessarily being divided into believer and non-believer categories.

Some comparative thinking may help, by reminding us that a large majority in this region are faithful believers, who may not have anything to do with Islamist politics or the so-called “political Islam.” In this respect, there is no sense in focusing on the secularity of the uprisings. Both religious and non-religious people are capable in cooperating in and mobilizing around “secular” political goals. And yes, they can maintain this alliance as long as their spirit for democratization is not undermined or hindered by local political leaders and the international community.

There is concern that Al Qaeda could jump into this chaos to try to turn these revolutions in the direction of establishing Islamist states. Is this a risk?

This question is very important because it reflects the way the recent uprisings in the region have been debated in the West. On the one hand, there is Al Qaeda, which is a terrorist group, which must be understood separate from the majority of Muslims and Islamist groups. On the other, there has been a successful effort coming from ordinary people on the streets to challenge and overthrow dictatorships. Conflating these two is problematic, and obscures our grasp of these distinct and separate groups.

The question we should ask is, “Why, in the face of such an exciting and liberating wave of democratic upheaval, are Western debates focused on Al Qaeda?” Why put the fear before the hope and faith in the people and their will? I think this focus shadows the victory of the people and faith in people’s politics by the fear of one terrorist group. Terrorist groups undermine and harm not only weak states and non-democratic regimes. In fact, the same group organized one of the biggest and most destructive terrorist attacks in this country’s history on 9/11. The story did not end there, either. In the post- 9/11 period, American politics has acquired a “security state” edge, which largely has undermined the quality and depth of its democratic tradition.

Briefly, Al Qaeda does not only pose a threat to the newly democratizing or semi-authoritarian states in the Middle East. Terrorist groups do not only threaten the stability in countries that are currently going through major political transition. Like other transnationally organized terrorist groups, Al Qaeda is a threat to world politics. One obvious way to fight it is to strengthen democratic institutions and people’s faith in freedom. This is why the fear of Islamist terrorists should not be allowed to stand in the way of democratizing efforts in the Middle East.

So what should the U.S. and the West be doing?

From a political science perspective, it makes no sense to shy away from, or question, uprisings against dictatorships in the name of an implicit and unspoken trust in the dictator’s autocratic power to repress terrorist groups. We must maintain the view that democracies are better equipped to resist and cope with violent terrorist groups than dictators are able to suppress them. Hence, efforts to replace dictators with democratic forms of politics must be supported unconditionally, no matter how different and challenging the transition will be in each Arab country. No doubt, some countries will be more challenged and will fail in their short-term efforts in replacing authoritarian rule. Some will be more challenged by radical groups, including Islamists, than others.

We know very well from history that revolutions almost never bring about sharp breaks, but most often continuity of the old regime. Despite the expected failures and atrocities of the post-revolutionary periods, they present the first step to including the previously excluded or repressed people in politics.

In many ways, the uprisings in the Arab Middle East are just the first baby steps into more inclusive negotiations between ordinary people and their governments. The paths of negotiation will not be smooth. And yes, many non-state actors who are not necessarily pro-democratic will be part of these negotiations and/or may want to take advantage of these upheavals. But the first rule of power sharing is to allow people to bargain instead of submitting to the dictator. Unfortunately, the fear of Al Qaeda is the result of distrust in people’s politics, which is parallel to an unspoken trust in a dictator that prevents pluralist politics.

Similar to the local state actors in the region, Western states also bear responsibility for outcomes. The United States has taken a very strong stance against some other dictators in the Middle East. The lack of U.S. support for the current uprisings creates not only an ambivalent situation but also a very inconsistent image of a superpower supposedly devoted to democracy

By Kara Shemin


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