Democracy and the Defeat of Radical Islam

When groups or political parties form in society along religious lines they organize themselves into difficult political cleavages. And this is particularly true when the political party is radicalized and immovable with respect to consensual decision-making and tolerance for other points of view. These groups are a problem and difficult to contain but ultimately must be controlled and defeated.

The United States has often taken the military and security approach but this only goes so far. You can’t kill them all. So what is a political culture like the United States to do if it is going to address these problems politically? Political Islam stresses international grievances and includes their own anger, frustration, and humiliation. Surely broad scale international relations are part of the answer: American drone attacks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and genuine engagement with Iran are all part of the equation that might lead to dignity and moderation.

But this is not enough. These rigid authoritarian political systems, that produce frustration and violence, must be more directly confronted. In essence, these Muslim countries characterized by extremist religious parties are failing to provide economic development, political voice, and human rights. Something more direct must be done but that something must be moral and politically viable. Members of these authoritarian cultures typically report feeling humiliated and hopeless. In places like Algeria, Egypt, and Pakistan large segments of the population are young and in need of jobs as well as a sense of self-worth that comes from something other than confrontation with the West.

Our military efforts in Iraq might be characterized as noble attempts to begin the process of regime change and redress of injustices heaped on the people by corrupt and authoritarian leaders. But American military presence just exacerbates the claims of imperialism and humiliation. That’s why political solutions are more important than military ones. And although no single approach or strategy will solve the problem the best way to achieve lasting change is through good democracies that protect freedom, control corruption, and have effective systems of checks and balances. These democracies cannot be what are called “illiberal” democracies; that is, democracies in name only but really have unfair elections, authoritarian leaders, and laws that limit personal freedom.

Democracy promotion in these countries is not easy. It is slow and risky and fraught with dangers. But here are some steps in the right direction:

1. There is much distrust of the United States and we must restore trust by not promising more than we can deliver.
2. We have to find better ways of stabilizing political cultures than supporting authoritarian figures such as Mubarak and Egypt. Support for Mubarak was of course practical but costly in terms of trust.
3. Our knowledge of other cultures must improve. As diverse and multicultural as the United States is, we still have shallow understanding of many cultures, and Muslim cultures in particular.
4. There must be a way to talk to Islamist political parties. This is not naïve. There are some Islamist parties who do not envision a new caliphate but would prefer to accommodate others. Moreover in the era of new technology there must be more creative ways to make contact.
5. Some people, and I include myself, consider the basic tenets of democracy to be universal values. We need to use new media to broadcast these values.
6. Most of the world is highly sensitive to basic human rights and the rights of women. The argument that women should be liberated and have increased freedoms should be pressed such that cultural and legal repression is challenged wherever it occurs.

Wherever possible the United States must push for transition to democracy. There are a variety of paths to democracy and different countries must move at different speeds. But principles such as the rule of law, an independent judiciary, constraints on corruption, and protection of human rights are easy enough to defend. The United States is an important player on the international scene and is in a position to intelligently and seriously push for Democratic reforms. This takes skill and nuance but it’s possible with some rethinking of how to promote democratic principles.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on May 20, 2013, in Democracy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. “Our knowledge of other cultures must improve” is a great point. Had we just sought to learn Iraq before we attacked we could have learned of the huge terrorist uprising our attack created that resulted in the deaths of 500,000 people. All we should have done is sent some people to spends months in Detroit with Iraqi people and they would have taught us the reality on the ground in Iraq and better ways to topple Sadam.

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