Thursday, April 28, 2011

Middle East Transformation Will Not Favor Extremists

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


kerravon86 said...

Omar/Mohammed, good to see you back in action. I've been looking for "focus" for the intellectual battle. The Iraqi blogs provided that during the Iraq war where we could start analyzing the human psyche as to what was going wrong. I haven't found anything really good for the latest freedom-fighting. The closest I got was the oplibya Anonymous channel (before that, optunisia). Is there anything you can do to create a focal point for the old names to return to? I am shocked that people are still talking about British imperialism with regards to the Libyan war. I'd like to see Australian and Iraqi ground troops in the Libyan fight, but that's just one path that could be followed depending on the end result we want.

mark mckinley said...

Obama succeeded on his fight against terrorism though many lives has been sacrifice due to bloodshed that took almost years . Now that Osama Binladen is Cold Dead Meat I hope the terrorism will ends on that. Too many died including innocent children. Lets unite to fight and stop any terrorism acts. osamaisdeadonmayday

dcat said...

kiss off iraq!!!

sargentodiaz said...

I am SO glad to see you back online. I followed you for a long time and then lost you.
Will follow your every post!!!

sargentodiaz said...

This is a post that should give hope to all who worry about what will happen in Iraq after all the lives lost.
I wonder if the biggest change comes from the ability of so many to now connect with the rest of the world. To see how others live. I doubt that a true democracy will come to pass in Iraq as that's little more than mob rules. And, maybe with so fewer Westerners sticking their noses into things they don't understand, Iraq will be able to work up a government that represents the huge variety of differences.
Good luck and I will keep a close eye on this, linking people to blog posts like this.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

I'm not sure I share the unbridled optimism of this post.  I agree that in some ways, the demonstrations, uprisings and revolutions across the region this year have really stolen the thunder of AQ and its franchisees.  But when the dust has settled and elections are held, we have to ask who is best prepared to fight an election, and who are an inexperienced electorate going to back by default?  

Maybe we will get a "charismatic" leader in one country or another (with all the risks that involves - the Saddams and Qadhafis were all popular once, with or without an election).  But short of that, it's the religious parties in e.g. Egypt who are best prepared and supported, and the religious labels to which an uncertain electorate flock in their times of doubt.

Just like they did from Hezbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, the most voal advocates of democracy for all in the West, might get a lesson in being careful what they wish for.  You conclude that the extremists didn't find a bright future in Iraq, and in the case of AQ that might be true.  But the fact is only a coalition featuring a strong sectarian religious leaning has been able to form a government in the last eight years.  The West make this mistake time and again of thinking that people who want democracy automatically want a secular technocrat in charge, and it never happens.  In a democracy, everybody votes.  And they vote for what they know.

That's not to say that a religious-based party is by definition extreme (Al Wefaq in Bahrain for example), but in Western eyes the two things tend to get blurred.  And through those Western eyes, a government in Iraq that includes proxies of both Muqtada and the Supreme Islamic Council, is probably not what they had in mind.  That's the point, come the elections, nobody gets to base a decision on what they thought they were fighting for.  My best guess is they will vote in Libya, Yemen and Egypt according to religion (The Brotherhood will walk it in Egypt), or tribe (as we're already seeing in Yemen.

Sorry for the long ramble - this is a great blog and I'm now a follower!

kepha said...

I have a few doubts, even though I hope Omar and Mohammed are right.

In Egypt, they're starting to pick on the Copts. In Tunisia, they've attacked one of the last functioning synagogues in the Arab world (unless you want to count all those ex-Iraqis, ex- Yemenis, ex-Moroccans, ex-Egyptians in Israel as part of the Arab world, which can probably be done with some logic and justice).  In Libya, the revolt against Qaddafi broke out in a region that sent lots of foreign fighters to Iraq and Afghanistan, so we have the ridiculous situation of the USA supporting its enemies--albeit against a thuggish Qaddafi who is no friend.

jamesdelos said...

I really like this, but I have a lot of the same worries as the folks below. It still seems like religious tolerance is a ways off in some areas, and tribal concerns in places like Yemen and Libya may discourage votes (should a stable, voting democracy even emerge) based on a candidate's platform rather than their affiliation.

The optimism is refreshing though, and Omar and Mohammed's vision may turn out to be pretty correct. In Egypt, by dragging their feet in showing support for the revolution, the Brotherhood lost a lot of political legitimacy. And for the entire extent of their history the only thing they've done is set themselves against the regime anyway. I don't know if they'd know what to do with power if they found themselves with it. In Syria, people really seem to be waking up to the fact that they have a voice. The courage that they've shown, and the fact that the affair has dragged on so long, has given the opposition a chance to learn from the experiences of Egypt and Tunisia. Syrians have done a much better job coalescing around a set of objectives, and even though they have a long way to go before they form a political party, there is some hope that something will come out of the rebellion that isn't Islamist.

The key to me though is education, and finding ways to teach the cultures of tolerance and civic duty to the younger generations. There are a bunch of groups doing this (Here's a link to one in Iraq. The youth hike looks pretty cool-, but more needs to be done to expand these sorts of programs. They're probably the best way to develop the responsible, representative governors that the Middle East needs.

René O'Deay said...

Why is anyone in the Middle East paying any attention to the American fakir, awlaki? he's just a publicity hound/