Can We Simultaneously Fight Terrorism and Promote Democracy in the Middle East?

Western reactions to terrorist acts always follow the same pattern. Westerners blame Arabs and Muslims, assuming that current realities are the result of a zero-sum game between modernity and Islam. Subsequently, Western governments intensify internal security measures and continue the external “war on terror.” Undoubtedly, all violence against innocent civilians must be condemned, whether in Paris and London, or Jerusalem and Aleppo. However, thus far, Western governments have failed in fighting terrorism and rebuilding their relations with the Islamic and Arab worlds. The last several decades have proven Western policies to be misguided and, in fact, responsible for engendering even more terrorist acts.

All possible security measures must be taken to secure civilian lives and to deal with current and potential threats. However, policymakers in the West must also identify the problems and crises – and their causes – that continue to outrage Arabs and Muslims.

The United States and its Western allies have adopted double standards on two crucial issues. First, though the West previously supported democratic regimes in Latin America and Eastern Europe, it has spent the last seventy years supporting authoritarian governments in the Arab region. In maintaining support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict and for despotic Arab governments, the West has indeed overlooked numerous human rights violations.

In fact, the majority of Arabs and Muslims hold the West and its allied Arab dictators accountable for the deaths of millions of their fellow Arabs and Muslims. Thousands have died in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Millions have been killed, wounded, or displaced as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Arab Spring uprisings, supported by the West, hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Libyans, and Yemenis, as well as tens of thousands of Egyptians following the country’s July 2013 coup, were killed or imprisoned.

Younger Arab generations, fortunately, are more aware, knowledgeable, and persistent in their opposition to Western intervention. They see clearly how the Arabs’ demands for freedom, justice, and dignity have focused on fighting terrorism and have escalated the secular-Islamic divide and sectorial divides among Arab societies. During the Arab Spring, the youth expected a decisive stance from the United States and the West – one that favored concrete change instead of an insistence on pursuing the same failed policies on combatting terror.

Policymakers in the West must realize that any “war on terror” in response to terrorist acts likely yields more civilian victims and a higher level of indigenous rage against those who “combat terror” than against the terrorist acts themselves. This phenomenon, in turn, has resulted in thousands of young people joining armed groups, such as Daesh and al-Qaeda. The 2013 ousting of Mohammed Morsi, the elected Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt who represented a moderate stream of political Islam, led many young Islamists to conclude that a modern state can only be founded on violence. The concept of moderate, democratic, political Islam had effectively reached a dead end.

The West also seems to regard freedom of speech, secularism, and the separation of religion and politics as absolute and universal standards in determining a nation’s level of civility. Such an attitude is utterly unacceptable for Arabs and Muslims. While secularism may have ended the Catholic Church’s political domination in Europe, it did not end the role that Christianity and Christian Democratic parties have played in Europe’s political life.

For many Muslims, Islam is the ultimate source of reference, as it provides values and principles upon which they establish their social, economic, and political structures. Indeed, Islam defines the limits of certain freedoms (for example, prohibiting adultery or offensive remarks directed toward the prophets). However, this is the case with many types of references and political ideologies. Germany and other European countries, for example, have restricted their citizens’ freedom to deny the Holocaust, wear the hijab, and build minarets.

Other realities continue to complicate the global South’s existing economic, political, and security problems. These issues include the constant negative stereotyping of Muslims and Islam in the media and research milieu, discrimination against minorities in the West, unfair economic relations between the global North and South, unbalanced international trade and investment systems, and the negative repercussions of globalization. The impact of these problems is hardly confined to Arab and Muslim countries, for they are widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin and South America as well.

A successful war on terror must include rebuilding Islamic-Western relations using a platform that promotes wide-ranging dialogue. The agenda must be well prepared and realistically deal with the crucial aforementioned issues. This dialogue could follow in the steps of the principles and values of the Helsinki Accords, issued by the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975, which comprised of ten mutual pledges that Muslims and Arabs could use to reformulate their relations with the West.

Particularly relevant are those pledges relating to equality in exercising sovereignty; refraining from the use of force or threatening to use it; the territorial integrity of states; the peaceful settlement of disputes; non-intervention in [another nation’s] domestic affairs; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief; equal rights and self-determination of peoples; co-operation among states; and fulfillment in good faith of obligations under international law.

Although Islamic-Western relations might be more complicated than the West’s relations with other countries, both parties pay a price as a result of failed policies. This only engenders more violence and further escalates anti-Western feelings in the Middle East. Policymakers on both sides should seriously consider rebuilding a more constructive relationship, for the good of all.

Abdel-Fattah Mady is associate professor of political science at Egypt’s Alexandria University, where he teaches courses on comparative politics, democratization, human rights and contemporary issues in the ME. He was trained in the study of politics at Alexandria University, Egypt (B.A., 1991 and M.A. 1997) and Claremont Graduate University, U.S.A. (M.A. 2004 and Ph.D., 2005). His research focuses on democratization in the Middle East, Islamic political movements, civil education and academic freedoms. He is the author and editor of several books, as well as numerous research articles. A seasoned political analyst, he has appeared as a commentator on Al-Jazeera, BBC, among others. In 2004, he was a recipient of the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Fellowship. Since Egypt’s 2011 revolution, he has served as a political consultant to newly established political parties and NGOs.