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The Uncomfortable Questions

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM HAS it that the death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring provided a powerful one-two punch that will eventually consign Islamist terrorism to the dustbin of history. This assumption relies on two underlying premises: that without bin Laden, Al Qaeda will wither, and that democracy will provide an alternative outlet for the grievances of more moderate Islamists. Of these two ideas, most terrorism analysts have quickly and forcefully rebutted the former, arguing that bin Laden does not equal Al Qaeda, and now in a disturbing and well-argued book that was researched and written prior to the Arab Spring, Katerina Dalacoura casts serious doubt on the latter, questioning the ability of democracy to allay the scourge of Islamist terrorism.

The link between repressive political systems and terrorism seems obvious. It is not difficult to imagine why some people without the means to express their political will peacefully would eventually turn to violence. Add to this the findings of the democratic peace theory, which highlight the fact that no democratic state has ever gone to war with another democratic state, and democracy would appear to be an apt remedy for the political violence, including terrorism, that has plagued the Islamic world in recent decades. Thus, countless studies since September 11 have argued that democracy in the Middle East could “drain the swamps” of Islamic terrorism. Indeed, this idea formed the theoretical foundation for the Bush administration’s adoption of its “freedom agenda” as a central tenet in its war on terrorism.

In practice, however, the link between political systems and political violence has never been as strong as some would suggest. The unfortunate truth is that authoritarian regimes are rather good at preventing terrorism. There were only a few reported incidents of political terrorism in the Soviet Union, and in 2003 the London-based World Terrorism Index classified North Korea as the state “least exposed to international terrorism.” In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that democracy, and especially the process of democratization, can actually encourage terrorism. It should not be surprising that the Middle East is no exception to these trends, and empirical studies on the links between political participation and moderation among Islamists, such as Jillian Schwedler’s important book Faith in Moderation, have come to similar conclusions about the questionable link between political systems and extremism.

Yet books such as Schwedler’s have been limited to studies focusing on one or two groups over a specific period of time. Dalacoura’s work, by contrast, offers an analytical tour of the major Islamist movements in the Middle East. Through a plethora of case studies, Dalacoura covers a wide geographical and political range, and with a social-scientific methodology that separates her work from that of pundits and journalists, she challenges hypotheses instead of simply searching for evidence to reinforce received wisdom. What she finds, across the board, is that the links between political freedom and political violence are unsubstantiated.

Those who continue to hold the view that democracy is the solution to Islamic terrorism need to answer a few pestering questions. Chief among them is that, though the number of so-called “homegrown” Islamist terrorists in the West is small, why has the existence of democracy not prevented the cases that do exists? Moreover, the notion that a lack of political freedoms leads to terrorism rests on the assumption that Islamic terrorists want to participate. So while some prominent scholars have argued that Egypt’s Gamaa Islamiya (GI) turned to terrorism in the 1990s as a result of political exclusion, Dalacoura makes the important point that, on principle, GI was ardently against any participation in the Egyptian political system. Its members held this view before the Egyptian regime cracked down on them and forced them underground. Thus the state policy of exclusion was immaterial: GI would not have participated even if it could have. The idea that state repression leads to terrorism is further undermined by groups that were absolutely forbidden and illegal, yet unlike GI, did not turn to terrorism. No Islamist organization was more utterly repressed than Tunisia’s Nahda under the Ben Ali regime, but it remained non-violent.

In some cases, it appears that repression can actually lead to moderation. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was much less radical after Nasser imprisoned, tortured, and executed its members in the 1950s and 1960s than it had been previously. An even better example of this phenomenon exists in Turkey, where the same Islamists who were excluded from national politics in the 1990s regrouped under the considerably more moderate Justice and Development Party and have been ruling the country peacefully (though not without a good deal of trepidation from Turkish secularists) since 2003. Finally, there does not appear to be a link between Islamists’ approaches to terrorism and their approaches toward political participation. Hamas has at times chosen to participate in Palestinian elections and at other times has refused to do so, but this wavering has had no effect on its support for terrorism, which has remained constant.

These case studies provide ample support for Dalacoura’s primary thesis that “there is no necessary causal link between authoritarianism in the Middle East and Islamist terrorism.” As such, she therefore concludes, democracy is not an “antidote” to terrorism. Still, Dalacoura’s methodology can only take her arguments so far. While she is correct to point out that the link between democracy and terrorism is tenuous, she often moves beyond this claim, attempting to provide insight into what motivates Islamists. Yet she does this without citing a single source in Arabic or any other Middle Eastern language. Her approach is useful for testing and striking down conventional wisdom, but if one hopes to provide insight into the motives of Islamists, one needs to examine what they say motivates them. The only way to do this is to delve into the vast—and mostly untranslated—literature that they have produced. Unfortunately, this book fails to do so.

In failing to explore Islamist ideas in depth, moreover, Dalacoura sometimes gets the intellectual history wrong. For example she claims that the concept of jihad “had traditionally been understood as a collective task which must take place under the proper sanction and banner of an Islamic government.” Therefore, she argues, bin Laden’s claim that jihad was an “individual religious obligation” was “effectively a major innovation in the interpretation of jihad.” This assertion is incorrect. In fact, the classical Islamic sources discuss two forms of jihad. Missionary jihad, meant to expand the lands of Islam, was a collective duty carried out by an Islamic state; and there is defensive jihad, meant to repel attacks against, or the occupation of, the lands of Islam, which was considered an individual duty incumbent upon all Muslims no matter the status of the state. Since bin Laden claimed that his jihad was in defense of Islamic lands, particularly the Arabian Peninsula, which he considered to be occupied by American forces, it should come as no surprise that he understood it as an individual duty.

Despite these shortcomings, most of Dalacoura’s arguments remain provocative and convincing. If they hold true, the wave of pro-democratic demonstrations that swept away entrenched autocratic regimes in the Middle East and has turned the region’s political culture on its head may not in fact provide the remedy for Islamist terrorism. Terrorists love to hide in the shadows and among supportive or merely indifferent populations. They are incredibly difficult to root out. There is nothing to praise about the brutality of Mubarak’s former regime in Egypt, but the fact that it had no qualms about punishing masses of innocent people to get to one terrorist meant that it was fairly successful at finding and eliminating terrorist organizations. If security states are good at anything, it is security.

This is not to say that political freedom and democracy are not more stable forms of government and, more importantly, good in their own right. But what will happen if and when terrorists strike in an Egypt that respects human rights? How will a democratic regime root out Islamist terrorists hiding in mosques and among the larger civilian population? These are difficult and uncomfortable questions, but those of us who support democracy and democratic transition in the Middle East need to begin taking them seriously, instead of simply pretending that democracy will provide a cure for every problem afflicting the region.

Samuel Helfont is a Ph.D candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of Yusuf al-Qaradawi: Islam and Modernity (2009).