The ambiguity surrounding some Islamist powers involved in Middle East revolts raise questions in the West about the trajectory in which ongoing turmoil is taking the region. Skepticism is exacerbated by the fact that some Al-Qaeda affiliates are enthusiastically talking about the opportunities that change in the Middle East holds for them. Lessons learned from Iraq’s transformation suggest two things; that the emergence of even a stumbling democracy makes extremists more vulnerable to change themselves, and that the potential for evolution towards democracy is greater than that for relapse towards theocracy. The international community should therefore remain engaged until that outcome is achieved.
Change is happening. And with change comes opportunity for the powers that oppose the status quo. The average Tahrir Square-type protesters use this opportunity to seek greater freedoms, a more representative government, better jobs and other legitimate aspirations. There are, however, unsavory actors who see in this change and the ensuing chaos an opportunity to do harm.
Al-Qaeda propagandist and extremist cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, for instance, recently said that change will allow terrorist organizations to make a “major leap forward,” regardless of the end-state of the new political system that will replace outgoing dictators.
Awlaki’s generalization is fundamentally flawed, and the opportunity for his envisioned “leap” will end when stability and pluralistic political processes begin to take hold. The nature of the new political system does indeed matter. Protracted ethic and sectarian conflicts, civil wars and failing states tend to provide a favorable environment for extremists and terrorists. Democracies do not.
A democracy should allow previously repressed Islamists to take part in politics. These Islamists will strive to influence this democracy to further their views. But the system also changes the Islamists. Under the previous regimes, Islamist groups appealed to people simply by merit of their opposition to a dictator. In a democratic system the competition is different. Islamists will have to get elected to have influence, and since there will be no more resistance-against-dictatorship to boast, they need to present a revamped platform to be electable.
Gradually the Islamists will have to assume a more civil and less confrontational posture. The campaigns and results of the 2005 and 2010 general elections in Iraq show what the trajectory is; voters gradually base their decisions more on the policies of the contenders rather than their piety.
Even seemingly irreconcilable cases like Moqtada Al-Sadr had to pay lip service to what the people want; reform, freedoms and better services. And above all, they have to eventually distance themselves from violence. Although Sadr continues to threaten with violence and tries to bend democracy to serve his purposes, the rules of the democratic game forced him to suspend most armed operations in 2008--in part--in exchange for a role in politics.
Change in the Middle East will break the vicious cycle the dictators had created and which enabled them to thrive and justify their staying in power. First, they kept the West under the impression that their regimes are necessary to protecting the security and interests of the West from Islamist extremists. Second, they simultaneously kept their people under the illusion that the West is bent on destroying Islam and resurrecting Western imperialism. Such arguments do not seem to resonate well today.
Change will alter the threat calculus for Islamists, from an international, intercultural or global realm, to one that is confined to individual states or communities. Instead of preparing Jihad against America and the West who—in the extremists view—support oppressive regimes and seek to destroy Islam, their efforts will shift towards the more urgent struggle for power within their own countries.
Rallying cries such as Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan will become less and less relevant as people and factions in the Middle East regardless of their ideology start to compete with one another for power and influence and pay more attention to their problems at home.
Contrary to what Awlaki likes to think, change in the Middle East and North Africa will provide a great opportunity to significantly weaken radical Islamist groups. There will soon be a long and tough turf battle between radicals and moderates within the Muslim communities undergoing change. And as we saw in Iraq a few years ago, Sunni extremists, which saw in the fall of the dictator an opportunity to declare an Islamist state, were defeated at the hands of other Muslims. As long as the international community remains invested in consolidating democracy in the Middle East, the extremists’ fortunes in Libya or Egypt or Bahrain will not be any brighter than they were in Iraq.
By Omar and Mohammed