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    Posted: 26 September 2005 at 2:36am

I feel democracy could counter terrorism. But MacDemocracy is an entirely different matter. It's bound to end up like the US War of Terror.

Can democracy stop terrorism?

By F. Gregory Gause III

The United States is engaged in what President Bush has called a “generational challenge” to instill democracy in the Arab world. The Bush administration and its defenders contend that this push for Arab democracy will not only spread American values but also improve US security. As democracy grows in the Arab world, the thinking goes, the region will stop generating anti-American terrorism. Promoting democracy in the Middle East is therefore not merely consistent with US security goals; it is necessary to achieve them.

But this begs a fundamental question: Is it true that the more democratic a country becomes, the less likely it is to produce terrorists and terrorist groups? In other words, is the security rationale for promoting democracy in the Arab world based on a sound premise? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be no. Although what is known about terrorism is admittedly incomplete, the data available do not show a strong relationship between democracy and an absence of or a reduction in terrorism. Terrorism appears to stem from factors much more specific than regime type. Nor is it likely that democratisation would end the current campaign against the United States. Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups are not fighting for democracy in the Muslim world; they are fighting to impose their vision of an Islamic state. 

Even if democracy were achieved in the Middle East, what kind of governments would it produce? Would they cooperate with the US on important policy objectives besides curbing terrorism, such as advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process, maintaining security in the Persian Gulf, and ensuring steady supplies of oil? No one can predict the course a new democracy will take, but based on public opinion surveys and recent elections in the Arab world, the advent of democracy there seems likely to produce new Islamist governments that would be much less willing to cooperate with the United States than are the current authoritarian rulers.

The answers to these questions should give Washington pause.

The Bush administration’s democracy initiative can be defended as an effort to spread American democratic values at any cost, or as a long-term gamble that even if Islamists do come to power, the realities of governance will moderate them or the public will grow disillusioned with them. The emphasis on electoral democracy will not, however, serve immediate US interests either in the war on terrorism or in other important Middle East policies.

It is thus time to rethink the US emphasis on democracy promotion in the Arab world. Rather than push for quick elections, the United States should instead focus its energy on encouraging the development of secular, nationalist, and liberal political organisations that could compete on an equal footing with Islamist parties. 

President Bush has been clear about why he thinks promoting democracy in the Arab world is central to US interests. “Our strategy to keep the peace in the longer term,” Bush said in a speech in March 2005, is to help change the conditions that give rise to extremism and terror, especially in the broader Middle East. Parts of that region have been caught for generations in a cycle of tyranny and despair and radicalism. When a dictatorship controls the political life of a country, responsible opposition cannot develop, and dissent is driven underground and toward the extreme. And to draw attention away from their social and economic failures, dictators place blame on other countries and other races, and stir the hatred that leads to violence. 

There is, in other words, no solid empirical evidence for a strong link between democracy, or any other regime type, and terrorism, in either a positive or a negative direction. In her highly praised post 9/11 study of religious militants, Terror in the Name of God, Jessica Stern argues that “democratisation is not necessarily the best way to fight Islamic extremism,” because the transition to democracy “has been found to be an especially vulnerable period for states across the board.” Terrorism springs from sources other than the form of government of a state. There is no reason to believe that a more democratic Arab world will, simply by virtue of being more democratic, generate fewer terrorists.

There are also logical problems with the argument supporting the US push for democracy as part of the war on terrorism. Underlying the assertion that democracy will reduce terrorism is the belief that, able to participate openly in competitive politics and have their voices heard in the public square, potential terrorists and terrorist sympathisers would not need to resort to violence to achieve their goals. Even if they lost in one round of elections, the confidence that they could win in the future would inhibit the temptation to resort to extra-democratic means. The habits of democracy would ameliorate extremism and focus the anger of the Arab publics at their own governments, not at the United States.

Terrorist organisations are not mass-based organisations.

They are small and secretive. They are not organised or based on democratic principles. They revolve around strong leaders and a cluster of committed followers who are willing to take actions from which the vast majority of people, even those who might support their political agenda, would rightly shrink. It seems unlikely that simply being outvoted would deflect them from their path.

The US major foe in the war on terrorism, Al Qaeda, certainly would not close up shop if every Muslim country in the world were to become a democracy. Osama bin Laden has been very clear about democracy: he does not like it. His political model is the early Muslim caliphate. In his view, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan came the closest in modern times to that model. In an October 2003 message to Iraqis,” bin Laden castigated those in the Arab world who are “calling for a peaceful democratic solution in dealing with apostate governments or with Jewish and crusader invaders instead of fighting in the name of God.” 

He referred to democracy as “this deviant and misleading practice” and “the faith of the ignorant.” Bin Laden’s ally in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, reacted to the January 2005 Iraqi election even more directly: “The legislator who must be obeyed in a democracy is man, and not God. ...


That is the very essence of heresy and polytheism and error, as it contradicts the bases of the faith and monotheism, and because it makes the weak, ignorant man God’s partner in His most central divine prerogative—namely, ruling and legislating.”

Al Qaeda’s leaders distrust democracy, and not just on ideological grounds: they know they could not come to power through free elections. There is no reason to believe that a move toward more democracy in Arab states would deflect them from their course. And there is no reason to believe that they could not recruit followers in more democratic Arab states. It is foolish to think that democracy would end Arab anti-

Americanism and dry up passive support, funding sources, and recruiting channels for al Qaeda.

When it works, liberal democracy is the best form of government. But there is no evidence that it reduces or prevents terrorism. The fundamental assumption of the Bush administration’s push for democracy in the Arab world is seriously flawed.

It is highly unlikely that democratically elected Arab governments would be as cooperative with the US as the current authoritarian regimes. To the extent that public opinion can be measured in these countries, research shows that Arabs strongly support democracy.

When they have a chance to vote in real elections, they generally turn out in percentages far greater than Americans do in their elections. But many Arabs hold negative views of the US. If Arab governments were democratically elected and more representative of public opinion, they would thus be more anti-American. Further democratisation in the Middle East would, for the foreseeable future, most likely generate Islamist governments less inclined to cooperate with the United States on important US policy goals, including military basing rights in the region, peace with Israel, and the war on terrorism.

The problem with promoting democracy in the Arab world is not that Arabs do not like democracy; it is that Washington probably would not like the governments Arab democracy would produce. Assuming that democratic Arab governments would better represent the opinions of their people than do the current Arab regimes, democratisation of the Arab world should produce more anti-U.S. foreign policies. 

In a February – March 2003 poll conducted in six Arab countries by Zogby International and the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, overwhelming majorities of those surveyed held either a very unfavorable or a somewhat unfavorable attitude toward the United States. The Lebanese viewed the United States most favorably, with 32 percent of respondents holding a very favorable or a somewhat favorable view of the United States. Only 4 percent of Saudi respondents said the same.

The war in Iraq – which was imminent or ongoing as the poll was conducted – surely affected these numbers. But these statistics are not that different from those gathered by less comprehensive polls conducted both before and after the war. In a Gallup poll in early 2002, strong majorities of those surveyed in Jordan (67 percent) and Saudi Arabia (64 percent) rated the United States unfavorably. Only in Lebanon did positive views of the United States roughly balance negative views.


In a Zogby International poll conducted in seven Arab countries at about the same time, unfavorable ratings of the United States ranged from 48 percent in Kuwait to 64 percent in Jordan, 76 percent in Egypt, and 87 percent in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. One year after the war began, a Pew Global Attitudes poll showed that 93 percent of Jordanians and 68 percent of Moroccans had a negative attitude toward the United States.

In 2004, Arab publics were particularly cynical about Washington’s policy of democracy promotion in the Middle East. In a May 2004 Zogby International – Sadat Chair poll, only in Lebanon did a substantial segment of the population surveyed (44 percent) believe that promoting democracy was an important motive for the Iraq war – compared with 25 percent of Jordanians and less than 10 percent of those in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE. The majority of people polled in most of the countries thought the war was motivated by Washington’s desire to control oil, protect Israel, and weaken the Muslim world. 

And in a less extensive Pew Global Attitudes survey, also conducted in 2004, only 17 percent of Moroccans and 11 percent of Jordanians thought that the US war on terrorism was a sincere effort, rather than a cover for other goals.


And no poll is needed to show that US policy on Arab-Israeli questions is very unpopular in the Arab world.

There is no doubt that public opinion can be a fickle thing.

Anti-US feelings in the Arab world could change markedly with events. But although it is possible that Arab anti-Americanism would decline if Washington no longer supported authoritarian Arab governments, there is little data to test the assertion, and anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Syrians, for example, do not hold strongly positive views of the United States, even though the Bush administration opposes the government in Damascus. Apparently, the United States is unpopular in the Arab world because of the full range of its policies, not simply because it supports authoritarian governments.

Even if democratisation could reduce anti-Americanism, there is no guarantee that such a reduction would yield pro-American governments. Anecdotal evidence certainly seems to indicate, for example, that the public in non-Arab Iran has a better impression of the United States than does the Iranian government. The Iranian public’s more pro-American stance did not, however, translate into votes for the candidate favouring rapprochement with the United States in the second round of the recent presidential election.

History also indicates that legitimate democratic elections in Arab states would most likely benefit Islamists. In all recent Arab elections, they have emerged as the government’s leading political opposition, and in many of them they have done very well.

In the 2003 parliamentary election in Yemen, the Yemeni Reform Group (Islah), a combination of Islamist and tribal elements, won 46 of the 301 seats and now forms the opposition. That year, Islamists combined to win 17 of the 50 seats in the Kuwaiti parliament, where they form the dominant ideological bloc. In the 2003 parliamentary election in Jordan, held after three postponements and a change in the electoral laws to benefit independent candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party won 17 of 110 seats and independent Islamists took another 3 seats, forming the major opposition bloc.

In the Palestinian territories, Mahmoud Abbas, of the nationalist Fatah Party, won a convincing victory in the 2005 presidential elections, but that is partly because Hamas did not field a candidate. Hamas has, however, performed strongly in recent municipal elections: in the West Bank in December 2004, it took control of 7 town councils compared with Fatah’s 12, and earlier this year in Gaza, Hamas captured control of 7 of the 10 town councils, as well as two-thirds of the seats. Some observers predict that Hamas will outpoll Fatah in the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections, which could be one reason that Abbas has postponed them.

The trend is clear: Islamists of various hues score well in free elections. In countries where a governing party dominates or where the king opposes political Islam, Islamists run second and form the opposition. Only in Morocco, where more secular, leftist parties have a long history and an established presence, and in Lebanon, where the Christian-Muslim dynamic determines electoral politics, did organised non-Islamist political blocs, independent of the government, compete with Islamist forces. The pattern does not look like it is about to change. 

The Bush administration’s push for democracy in the Arab world is unlikely to have much effect on anti-American terrorism emanating from there; it could in fact help bring to power governments much less cooperative on a whole range of issues – including the war on terrorism—than the current regimes. Unfortunately, there is no good alternative at this point to working with the authoritarian Arab governments that are willing to work with the US.

Administration officials, including President Bush, have often stated that the transition to democracy in the Arab world will be difficult and that Americans should not expect quick results. Yet whenever the Bush administration publicly defends democratisation, it cites a familiar litany of Muslim-world elections – those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Saudi Arabia – as evidence that the policy is working. It will take years, however, for non-Islamist political forces to be ready to compete for power in these elections, and it is doubtful that this or any other US administration will have the patience to see the process through. If it cannot show that patience, Washington must realise that its democratisation policy will lead to Islamist domination of Arab politics.

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