Essays and Stories
by Seyed P. Razavi

Why democracy isn't the answer to terrorism

It's been said "poverty wasn't what caused a group of middle-class and reasonably well-educated Middle Easterners to fly three airplanes into buildings and another into the ground. It was, rather, resentments growing out of the absence of representative institutions in their own societies, so that the only outlet for political dissidence was religious fanaticism." (John Lewis Gaddis)

The implication is that democracy is the answer. I have to respectfully disagree.

I'm obviously not suggesting that democracy in itself is not good thing. However, the perception that given democracy those who currently wage war on the USA would be acquiesced and put down their arms is a sign of the fog of Orientalism clouding people's vision.

Firstly, the "middle-class and well-educated Middle Easterners" who commit terrorism are not interested in democracy. Democracy is something that is one of the reasons why they hate America and the West. For them political power should be divinely given and absolute. Freedom to choose or sack your government is not what those seeking an Islamic theocracy want. The separation of religious life and secular life is as alien to Islamic fundemantilists as it was to Charles I before he had his head chopped off.

Secondly, from the perspective of Islamic terrorists (or their sympathesisers) the Western model is flawed and it is the exporting of parts (or all of it) to their homeland that is at the heart of their anger. Consumerism, secularism, sexual freedom, gender equality and democratic institutions represent a creeping Westernisation that they witness in their homeland and feel they must fight. The additional antagonism of a foreign military presence or war by infidels on fellow Muslims is the tipping point. The ideological leaders of this movement aren't ignorant of the Western system. Whilst they may admire its power and its technical supremacy, they despise everything associated with it starting from the dissolution of the extended family and the social structures built in village life to the moral impurity that accompanies expanded freedoms.

Thirdly, the history of the Middle East is mired in betrayel and imposition by Westerners. These sins are unforgiveable and whilst economic prosperity and increased liberalisation may quell most people, for many the insults on their honour has gone unpunished on for too long. They don't merely seek redress for wrongs done, they seek to punish those who committed those wrongs. Nothing short of defeat will sate the ideological leaders of this movement.

Some would argue that whilst democracy and economic liberalisation may not be the complete solution, it can only have a positive effect in reducing the pool of recruits for this movement, following the idiom that a person with their needs met is unlikely to rise up against anybody. However, the Western lifestyle doesn't fill the spiritual void of Westerners, so how can it possibly substitute a culture where worship of God is indivisible from daily life? How can the shortfalls of Western culture, from the perspective of Muslims, be overcome?

It's my supposition that in fact as economic liberty and democracy develop (or worse are enforced) on the region the anxiety will only grow. The growing economic inequality (as parts of society do increasingly better) and secularisation will increase the pool of active jihadis seeking to reasssert an Islamic tradition. The first such testbed for this supposition is Iraq where I believe that the situation will get worse after a democratic government is established not better.

Whilst generations may pass, the people of the region become better off, the hardcore revanchists will continue to draw upon history and the weaknesses of the Western lifestyle to wage war on the infidels.

The solution is of course to implement change within ourselves, to examine the problems of free societies and to offer solutions without stripping away freedom. The intellectual consensus in the West in the post-Marxist period of social sciences seems to be to abandon all hope of finding a solution, to accept or even embrace the parts of human behaviour that religions have demonised for millenia. Sometimes the religions are so drastically wrong or outdated that it makes sense to bear the cost of educating people out of the dogma of generations. Sometimes however, the visibile impact of such doctrines on society are unpalatable to those who can draw upon the teachings of their ancestors.

Perhaps though democraticisation of the Middle East is understood to be a two-edged sword by those who advocate the policy. Understanding that this will increase instability and pit brother against brother as secular and religious Arabs fight for political power, they hope to simply relocate the battlefield beyond their own borders. This certainly seems an objective of the Iraq war.

The final consideration is that given political freedom and democracy, will a non-European culture follow a consensual path which is in harmony with the current world order? It is often dismissed as patronising to suggest Arabs don't want the same order of things as Westerners. Yet the cultural heritage of the Middle East is quite different and a Reformation is not the only missing ingredient in the development of Islam into a Western style religion or political ideology.

That's not to say Islamic democracies can't peacefully co-exist with non-Islamic democracies. Yet whilst real differences exist over the West's moral decadence (from the Islamic perspective) and Israel not to mention the tricky problem of resources (particularly Oil), a truly independent Arab democracy may find it hard to assuage a vocal minority who will continue to view the West as the enemy. Even if the nation state doesn't get into conflict with the West, it may be sidelined by those who don't recognise its authority. This can lead to increased policing and decreased freedoms, followed by increasing sympathy for the Islamists' cause.

Now that terrorism has been utilised, its process refined with each subsequent organisation into the global, venture capital driven, decentralised model of today it will be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. No satisfactory political objective can be met to end it, no compromise or concession given to satisfy those who have the money, organisation and motivation to start terrorist movements.

Sooner or later, I believe people will realise that the war on terrorism is in fact unwinnable. Whilst making the Middle East democratic and its people better off is not a bad goal in itself, it will do nothing to thwart the long-term terrorist threat. And when trying to demoraticise the Middle East, using force is usually worse than the cure. Even in discrete wars with legitimate grounds (such as Afghanistan) the efficacy of the solution is dubious and the costs extremely high.