Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dictatorship and Religious Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

A popular false dichotomy in the West--promoted partly by those who can see only black and white, partly by those with a private agenda to profit from chaos--holds that the choice in the Mideast lies between dictatorships and religious extremism. Don't fall into this trap: dictatorships and religious extremism are two sides of the same coin.

As the pace of reform slows in the Mideast, the viciousness of criminal regimes rises, and the counterrevolution gains momentum, the prospects for moderate, peaceful modernization coupled with political reform, civil liberties, and the installation of regimes interested in popular welfare rather kleptocracy dimishes. In direct response to the fading prospects of responsible democracy, the prospects for extremism rise. Dictators and those who hope to benefit from dictatorships will stress the danger of religious fundamentalist extremism as though two opposite choices existed – either dictatorship by a kleptocracy or al Qua’ida. In truth, it is precisely the existence of one type of extremism that provokes the other.

Saudi Arabia is starting already in these initial post-Bahrain intervention days, to provide one example: the political elite, having evidently learned nothing from the wave of global terror, is once again kissing up to religious ultra-conservatives. From ultra-conservative dogma enforcing radical religious strictures to the use of violence against those who do not submit is a very short step: if “god” says you must and you don’t, it is very easy for the credulous to conclude that those who don’t are evil (short step) and (another short step) should be murdered. The Saudi mistake (from the perspective of those who aspire to live in a tolerant society) is to use religious fundamentalists to buttress the kleptocracy against the population.

Algeria is providing a second example of the tight relationship between the religious extremism the West fears and the Arab dictatorships Western elites find so convenient. Where Riyadh coddles fundamentalism to repress the people, Algers uses military oppression against both, leaving the people with no hope and thus making the revolutionary socio-political message of fundamentalists attractive. The Algerian mistake is to turn its back on a population that wants peace and offer it no alternative but resistance.

Extremist regimes that either repress their populations, as in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Algeria, or repress conquered ethnic minorities, as in the case of Israel, provoke an extremist response. Abuse of power by a criminal state provokes the empowerment of radical dissent and its own concomitant abuse of power. The longer the Mideast popular protests continue without substantive improvements socio-economic conditions for the population, the more radicalized politics is likely to become. It is not in the interests of the American people for Washington to pick elite favorites as clients but for Washington to support the emergence of independent, moderate, reformist political systems that focus on improving domestic socio-economic conditions. U.S. politicians may not be ready to turn any of their aircraft carriers into small-business loans for unemployed Arabs, but we might all be more secure if they did.

A superb list of 10 things Western governments should avoid in the Mideast;
Needed for Arab democracy - jobs

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