After Sept. 11, many voices in the West argued that the lack of democracy in most of the Muslim world is the main cause of terrorism. Their analysis was based on their assumption that when young Muslims do not find a way to express themselves or state their opinion in a democratic process, they have no other option but to start down the path of extremism. This theory, while it seems attractive, does not explain certain fundamental observations.
Advocates for solving the problem of Islamic radicalism via implementing democracy need to explain the following: Why do Christians in the Middle East, who live under the same political circumstances as their fellow Muslims, not contribute to terrorism and suicide bombings? If a lack of democracy is the true cause of terrorism, it should affect both Muslims and Christians to the same extent.
Furthermore, the ‘lack of democracy’ theory can not explain why homegrown terrorism and Islamic extremism developed in democratic countries and societies such as the United Kingdom. The theory also can not explain why Islamic extremism has developed in the United States, as we have recently seen with some young Muslims from North Carolina, and with some U.S. citizens of Somali origin who traveled to Somalia to wage violent jihad.
The following are just few examples of homegrown Islamic extremism in the U.S. alone in 2008:
• A convert from Long Island joined al-Qaida (disclosed this past week) and gave the group information about Long Island trains and New York City's subways.
• A plot to kill hundreds of soldiers at Fort Dix formulated by assimilated American Muslims who have lived here for 25 years (all convicted).
• A plot to operate a terrorist training camp in Oregon (pleaded guilty).
• A plot to blow up two synagogues and a National Guard plane in upstate New York by prison converts (scheduled for trial).
• A plot to blow up buildings by the Liberty City 7 (all convicted).
• The cases of young Somali teenagers raised in the U.S. going overseas to become suicide bombers.
It is hard to say that all the above incidents were due to the lack of democracy in the U.S.
In fact, concrete evidence shows that premature implementation of democracy in some Islamic countries can bring radical Islamic regimes to power. This happened in the early 1990s when a Salafi radical Islamic group in Algeria came to power in a democratic election and vowed to end democracy itself after being elected. The sweeping victory of terror groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January 2006 is another example that suggests that “sudden democracy syndrome” in the Middle East can be disastrous.
Looking at democracy as a process of establishing values of liberty, and not as the end result, can help solve this dilemma. The Middle East may be better off with a non-democratic system that provides people with elements of liberty than with a democratic system that brings Islamic extremists and fascists such as the Taliban to power.
The visit of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Washington this August has stirred up this issue again, as many asked the U.S. administration to exert more pressure on the Egyptian regime to implement democracy.
The U.S. may need to engage and co-operate with the current leaders of Islamic countries such as the Mubarak regime on three strategic steps:
Step 1: Weakening radical Islam.
Step 2: Promoting educational systems that teaches values of mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence.
Step 3: Democracy.
Trying to jump to step 3 before steps 1 and 2 can cause many problems, as explained earlier. In addition, forcing democracy on the current regimes can create another enemy for the U.S. in addition to the Islamic extremists. We do not need to have more enemies to the U.S. if we can have less.
Changing societies cannot happen all of a sudden. Working with the current political leadership of Islamic countries to bring gradual but progressive changes in society can be beneficial to the free world. On one hand, failure to support the current regimes and American allies in the Muslim world can allow radical Islamists to gain more power; on the other hand, supporting these regimes unconditionally may not be very effective either. Working effectively with, not against, U.S. allies in the Muslim world and using incentives for these countries conditioned by achieving progress in certain areas of education, law, and media to modernize the society can be the best available option.
On a personal note, I as an Egyptian citizen would prefer to live under the Mubarak regime than to live under a democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood group.
Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad." He was a former associate of Dr. al-Zawahiri (second in command of al-Qaida) and currently he is a reformer of Islam. To know more about Dr. Hamid please visit www.tawfikhamid.com. Dr. Hamid's writings in this blog represent only his thoughts and not the views of the institute where he works.
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