Even as a staunch supporter of democracy for all, I will concede this point I say anything else: democracy has some troublesome flaws. And currently some of those flaws have contributed to a disturbing trend in some Middle Eastern states—the trend of growing illiberal, Islamist political parties, organizations, and ideologies.
In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood now holds substantial power, with the even more extreme Salafist party holding an unnerving amount of government positions as well. In Iraq, Al Qaeda affiliates and similar jihadi groups continue to orchestrate attacks against government and civilian targets. As Libya’s experiment in democracy begins, Islamist groups control small regions and have engaged in attacks against Western targets, as in the case of the recent, controversial Benghazi attacks. In Yemen, as democracy advocates try to reform the historically authoritarian regime, strong Al Qaeda affiliates continue to operate, expand, and organize attacks both domestically and around the globe. And in Syria jihadists have expanded their role in the anti-Assad rebellion, most recently arranging a high-profile suicide bombing in Hama province.
Even gazing out of the Middle East into the Pashtun-dominated mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, one must also accept the fact that, currently, for either of those states to be truly democratic they would have to incorporate illiberal, Islamist parties into their governments and institutions.
Again, yes these are all areas of concern and illiberalism in any form, with Islamist or secular in nature, should be confronted at all times. However, the answer for many conservative observers it seems is to blame democracy solely for this trend and pine for a return to the days of authoritarianism in these states, sponsored of course by the long-arm of the United States government.
As endearing as the idealization of traditional American realpolitik sounds, this imagined history forgets the multiple, credible observations that it was these types of regimes and their internationally (and thus artificially) enhanced lifespan that led to the growth if not creation of these organizations and ideologies in general.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian Salafism grew under the iron-grip of Nasserist authoritarianism. Iraq’s Al-Qaeda affiliates and Sunni Islamists sprouted in response to Saddam Hussein’s relative secularism and truly bloomed, like extremist group often do, during the vacuum of power following the regime’s overthrow. Libya’s Islamists organized under and plotted against the long reign of the infamous Muammar Gaddafi.
A return to authoritarianism would not make these organizations and their ideologies go away. If anything it would strengthen their legitimacy and possibly lead to their growth in the long run.
Democracy may give illiberalism some daylight in the short-term, but in the long-run, with the right kind of progressive support, illiberalism always falters. The late, controversial writer Christopher Hitchens often said that religious extremists lost the most legitimacy soon after they gained power and begin implementing their illiberal policies. And this observation generally holds true. The Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq in part arose from average Sunni Iraqis balking at the barbaric behavior of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM). Extremists groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have moderated their platforms and rhetoric in some areas in order to gain and retain electoral approval and political success.
Democracy requires compromise. And comprise inevitably leads to moderation for extremist organizations. All authoritarianism requires is an iron fist. But that fist is generally an oversized one that ends up squishing innocents along with violent extremists. It’s not the answer for this states or any society.