Merits and limits to democracy promotion in the Middle East


To advocate true democracy in the Arab world is a tough sell at the best of times. In the wake of the “Arab Spring,” a half-decade that witnessed some of the greatest human suffering in modern Middle East history, it is tougher still, notes Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of several books on the Middle East, including Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands.

Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams, however, is undeterred, and his case is simple: promoting democracy is not only right, it is also the smart thing to do, he writes for Mosaic:

Indifference to democracy, he argues, in addition to jettisoning our core values as Americans, undermines our core interest in stability. By contrast, democracy “is likely to be a stronger barrier to terror and to extremist Islamist groups than repression.” Having exhausted the failed ideologies of pan-Arabism, socialism, anti-Westernism, and anti-Zionism—and fearful of the violent and revolutionary genie that could emerge if they rubbed the lamp of Islamism—Arab republics looking for legitimacy ultimately have nowhere else to turn but to the validation that only democracy can provide. (Monarchies like Morocco and Jordan, he astutely notes, are in a different category.).

Abrams [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] is similarly correct to assert “the need for politics” in most Arab countries, Satloff adds:

Only through requiring and building popular support on a broad range of public-policy issues will the innate advantage of Islamists eventually erode. As important as it is for democrats to win votes, it is at least as important for Islamists to lose them, peacefully and through a consensual political system.

By definition, however, that requires Islamist participation. The practical question is where to draw the line: which Islamist groups are to be allowed into the political game, and under what conditions? Excluding parties that advocate Islamist ends through undemocratic (i.e., violent) means is or ought to be a straightforward proposition; the tougher question is what to do about parties that advocate Islamist ends but employ (allegedly) democratic means. RTWT

“Radical Islamist ideology is a grave threat to all civilized people,” US national security adviser HR McMaster said yesterday, addressing a Washington conference organized by the London-based Policy Exchange think-tank. Qutbist ideology facilitates jihadist violence, he said, referring to the dogma developed by Sayyid Qutb, a principal inspiration for the Muslim Brotherhood.

The threat had been defined “too myopically” in terms of violent jihadism, while neglecting the ideology’s propagation through charities, madrassas and other social organizations.” While Saudi Arabia had previously supported such groups, Qatar and Turkey had taken on a “new role” as the principal sponsors and sources of funding for extremist Islamist ideology.

While it’s important to distinguish the religion of Islam from the political ideology of Islamism, and to draw a distinction between violent jihadists and non-violent Islamists, the latter should not be considered benign actors, some observers suggest.

It’s to stop appeasing Islamists and begin empowering progressive liberal-democratic Muslims, says Roberta Bonazzi, the president of the European Foundation for Democracy. Western democracies have for too long tolerated a non-violent Islamist cocktail which has brought about the propagation of a radical ideology incompatible with liberal-democratic values, she writes for Euronews. A recent analysis should lay the basis for effective policies to prevent radicalization, Bonazzi contends:

  • Point one, the Islamist ideology is unequivocally identified as a threat to society in a twofold way: in itself, for promoting a version of Islam incompatible with liberal-democratic values and individual liberties; and in its potential effects, for lighting the fuse of terrorism. The literalist and exclusivist interpretation of Islam taught in the Grand Mosque, and in general spread by various Islamist actors, pursues the goal of a state where laws and citizens’ rights are not contingent upon the Constitution, but upon shari’a. One does not need ISIS to be brainwashed into the utopia of an Islamic State. Understanding and accepting this fact is the first step towards tackling extremism.
  • Point two: this sort of Islamism has been spread thanks to powerful and rich godfathers. Gulf countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are identified in the report as the main sponsors of radical preachers and propaganda material. The taps of foreign funding for Islamist organisations must be turned off in order to drain the resources of radicalisation.
  • Point three: it has been a tragic mistake to imagine that any entity whatsoever could represent “the Muslim community”: a liberal-democratic society is made of individuals, and all the more so in the case of Islam, which is a religion without a Church and without a Pope – hence potentially open to as many interpretations as the Muslims on earth. Islamist groups always purport to represent “Muslims” as such, because this fosters their takfiri argument – if you are against us, you are not simply outside our club: you are outside Islam.



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