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.