Terrorism and democracy

One of the paradoxes of modern Islamist extremism (including AQ (or IS) inspired terrorists) is that while it is impossible to predict who buys into the violent narrative offered by terrorist groups and engages in extremism, those that end up doing so all look and sound more or less the same when you look at them.  We hear the same tirades against Western foreign policies, the same laments over the lack of Western spirituality and descent into evil through the vices of drugs, alcohol and sex, and the same call for heroic action purportedly in defence of Islam.  All too predictable actually.

Another repeated mantra is the contention that democracy is incompatible with Islam and that it must be defeated and crushed by the mujahedin.

This warped reasoning – democracy is not inimical to Islam by the way but I don’t have the time to explain why not in a blog post – came to the fore in a recent trial in Turkey (read the report here).  96 alleged members of IS are in the dock and one who was released made it plain what he thinks of democracy:

  • “We do not believe in democracy, we do not go to the polls and we want Shariah, the rule of Allah.”
  • “Democracy says sovereignty belongs to a nation. It is not possible for me to accept democracy as it stands.”
  • We are tired of repeating the same thing over and over again. We do not go to the polls. We do not embrace democracy. We are Muslims and we want Shariah.”

I think it comes through fairly clearly that this guy is not a fan of democracy.   And lest you think he is an anomaly or that these views are prevalent only in Muslim-majority countries, we have seen similar sentiments here in Canada.  Our own homegrown extremists have taken on occasion to handing out pamphlets outside mosques in which voting was compared to disbelief.  And the infamous At-Tibyan publications, popular a decade or so ago in this country, issued a paper entitled “The doubts regarding the ruling of democracy in Islam”.  As a counter to this, I was informed that in the last Canadian federal election the percentage of Canadian Muslims that voted went way up.

The question remains then, why do Islamist extremists have such a hate on for democracy?  We could propose that it has to do with the fact that so many democracies (US, Canada, Australia, France, UK, etc.) are seen as Islam’s enemies and accused of invading Muslim lands and killing civilians.  That argument falls apart fairly quickly when you note that one of the main targets for the extremists is Saudi Arabia, which we can all safely concur is not very democratic.

Perhaps it is that extremists will tell you that their main beef with democracy is that it represents human rule over other humans and that Islam, or rather their version of it, demands Allah’s rule over humans and divine laws (as embodied in Shariah law) to trump human ones.  Extremists such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb wrote about this at length and, again for an example close to home, convicted VIA passenger train plot terrorist Chiheb Esseghaier told a Toronto judge that the court had no right to try him using the secular Canadian Criminal Code (actually it did and hence that is why he is now in prison).

I do not doubt that this is important for the mindset of Islamist extremists but I suspect that something much more fundamental is happening here.  Democracy is constantly changing (just look at how Canadian law and society has changed over the past 150 years) and is nuanced.  Laws and mores morph as circumstances morph: our views on slavery and women’s suffrage are but two examples.  Islamist extremism is not nuanced, it is black and white.  These guys subscribe to the notion “I’m right, you’re wrong, go to Hell”.  Not a lot of room for debate, is there?  My house, my rules.

Islamist extremists also cannot countenance people choosing for themselves since it entails that, given an option, the latter will reject the violence and barbarity that groups like IS offer.  Thus, if you are in power and you don’t allow for dissent and argument you ensure your way gets to stay on top.  This may be the main reason why democracy rankles these terrorists so much: it contains within it the seeds of their destruction.

The Middle East has been through many types of government over the centuries: Caliphates, sultanates, imamates, monarchies, dictatorships, military rule, extremist rule (in the form of IS) and even democracy once in a while.  Maybe it is time to put the extremists on notice that democracy is the best we have and the single greatest threat to their reign of terror.  After all, Churchill was right: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  It may be flawed but it is undoubtedly the best our species has come up with.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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