Tag Archives: Tunisia

What’s Driving ISIS? How Can It Be Stopped?

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for several terror attacks last week. In Tunisia, 38 people were killed when a gunman opened fire at a beach popular with foreign tourists. The government responded over the weekend by announcing the closure of 80 mosques it blames for spreading radical Islam. In Kuwait, a suicide bomb attack outside a Shiite mosque killed 27 and wounded more than 200. And in France, a man crashed his van into a chemical factory in an attempt to cause an explosion and release chemicals into the air. ISIS claimed responsibility for all three attacks, though no independent authority has confirmed the group was involved. Interestingly, the attacks all took place during the holy month of Ramadan, which began this year on June 17 and historically has been viewed by most Muslims as a time for fasting, reflection, and prayer.

For many ISIS fighters, Ramadan is viewed as an opportunity to expand the organization’s reach.

What’s driving ISIS’s current efforts? There are several interpretations. In this interview with the BBC, Majid Nawaz, Chair of the Quilliam Foundation, offers a complex interpretation of current events, suggesting that the expansion of the Islamic State is driven by a combination of factors that includes foreign policy, identity, underemployment and other grievances interpreted through a lens of Islamism that provides justification and inspiration for action. If correct, his analysis suggests a response rooted in isolating and challenging radical interpretations of Islam (and by extension, other religions) that lead to radicalization.

What do you think? Do you agree with Nawaz’s analysis? Why? And what does it suggest for efforts to prevent the apparent spread of Islamic State terrorists?

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Libya: The Drivers of Democratization

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Pro-US Protester in Libya

In continuing developments in Libya, protestors on Friday stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia and the Sahaty Brigade. Both groups were believed to be involved in the recent attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi.

Anti-American protests continue to reverberate across the Middle East in response to a trailer for the controversial film The Innocence of Muslims. The trailer—which makes B-movies look like Academy Award material by comparison—was apparently shot to promote a film which (given the quality of the acting, thankfully) was never made. Nevertheless, many protestors believe the film was produced and that it mocks the Prophet Mohammed.

While protests against the film continue in many parts of the Islamic World, in Libya, the protests now appear to have a different message.

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Protestors there have taken to the streets there to demand justice for the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stephens last week. Many have carried signs like those here.

There appears to be reason to believe that Libya has, as the BBC put it, “bucked the Islamist trend.” While democratization has been a boon to the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Egypt, in Libya there appears to be much less support for fundamentalist parties.

There is a rich tradition in political science of exploring why some countries move towards liberal democracy while others do not. Common theories center on one or more of the following variables: wealth (gdp per capita), education (especially female education), a free market economy, social equality, a civic culture, cultural values, foreign intervention, and even age distribution. Unfortunately it is not clear yet why (or even if) Libya is moving towards liberal democracy while its neighbors are not. At a minimum, though, the contrasting experiences of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt will likely provide interesting case studies for comparativists moving forward.

What do you think: What drives democratization? Will Libya sustain its move towards democracy? Or will the trend reverse?

Should We Fear the Arab Spring?

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the Chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council, recently decreed that polygamy would be legalized and banks would not charge interest.

Dictators across the Arab world obviously have reason to fear the phenomenon known as the Arab Spring. The wave of popular uprisings has already toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya since January, and tyrants from Damascus (Syria) to Sanaa (Yemen) to Manama (Bahrain) are feeling the heat from domestic protesters and rebels demanding change. But in recent days observers in the West have voiced concern that events are taking a dangerous turn, down a path that could harm Western interests and undermine the quest for democracy that has purportedly motivated much of the unrest.

These critics cite several recent developments in making their case:

(1) In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the
first free elections
have brought to power an Islamist party that some fear will not uphold basic civil liberties.  The authors of this opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor raise this concern: “Tunisia’s current constitution is not explicitly secular and keeps the possibility open for a more religious interpretation of the way the state should function. This is unlikely to change with the coming constitutional modifications, and the potential for oppression in the name of religion becomes a legitimate threat with Islamists in power.”

(2) In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful actor and will likely do well in the upcoming elections, scheduled for November 28.  Since the ouster of President Mubarak–a close U.S. ally–in February, concerns have grown in the U.S. that his successors may be less hospitable toward peace with Israel.  Attacks on the Israeli embassy in Cairo and against Coptic Christians have underscored the instability of this key country.

(3) In Libya, the chairman of the National Transitional Council has made statements indicating that Islamic Law, or Sharia, will play a greater role in Libya than many observers expected.  He has already decreed that the ban on polygamy be lifted and has said future banking regulations will ban the charging of interest.  As this report describes, “Mr Abdul-Jalil’s decision – made in advance of the introduction of any democratic process – will please the Islamists who have played a strong role in opposition to Col Gaddafi’s rule and in the uprising but worry the many young liberal Libyans who, while usually observant Muslims, take their political cues from the West.”

Are these criticisms premature and lacking in perspective, given the nature of the regimes that the Arab Spring toppled?  Or do they correctly sound the alarm about ominous developments that undermine democracy in the Arab world and the interests of Western powers?

The Troubled Road to Democracy

The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, 2003 was an iconic image but only the beginning of a difficult transition to democracy.

With the historic changes of the Arab Spring many observers have concluded that “people power” has finally begun to triumph over autocratic regimes in a region that had seemed strangely resistant to the waves of democratization that swept over other parts of the world in previous decades. And while there are indeed many hopeful signs throughout the region for those who value democracy, it is worth noting that the road to democracy is often fraught with setbacks and challenges that the pictures of falling statues, cheering crowds, and jubilant voters don’t communicate.

Scholars such as Fareed Zakaria have distinguished between electoral democracy and liberalism (the presence of civil liberties that limit the government’s reach). While liberal democracies enjoy both free elections and broad civil liberties, illiberal democracies combine (at least nominally) democratic institutional structures with serious deficiencies in the area of civil liberties.  Countries undergoing transitions to democracy sometimes get “stuck” in this halfway zone and find it hard to progress the rest of the way toward full liberal democracy.  Consider Russia, a country that began its transition with the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991.  It holds regular elections (although the degree to which they are free and fair has come into serious doubt), but as noted in this Freedom House report, individual liberties including freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religion are lacking. 

America’s recent “democracy projects” in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced nominally democratic regimes that have a very long way to go before they can be called mature democracies.  Not only do serious questions persist about the freedom and fairness of elections (particularly in Afghanistan) but basic democratic norms such as respect for minority rights and nonviolent resolution of disputes have not yet permeated these societies. 

Despite the stagnation and setbacks associated with so many democratic transitions, Daniel Drezner’s recent thought-provoking blog post on trends in global democracy and autocracy suggests that the future for democracy remains bright.  Drezner cites the analysis of Jay Ulfelder, who explains the deepening authoritarianism of certain nondemocratic regimes as increasingly desperate attempts to contain democratic aspirations that will ultimately prevail: “[It is] evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.”

Are Drezner and Ulfelder simply putting a rosy spin on some very harsh realities, or is there reason to be optimistic that freedom will ultimately prevail in countries such as Russia, Iran, and China? What signs are there that the newest revolutions, in Egypt and Tunisia, will result in democracy? What signs are there that these embryonic transitions have already stalled?