In this report Research Director Shadi Hamid calls for the United States to prioritize democracy over stability in the Middle East, and to recognize and engage mainstream Islamist parties as the most effective organized opposition to autocratic regimes.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have struggled to articulate an overarching, long-term strategy for fighting religious extremism and terror in the Middle East. Most experts on both the left and right agree that promoting democracy will help address the root causes of terrorism in the region, though they differ on to what degree. The reasoning is simple: If Arabs and Muslims lack legitimate, peaceful outlets with which to express their grievances, they are more likely to resort to violence. In one important 2003 study, Princeton University’s Alan Krueger and Czech scholar Jitka Maleckova analyzed extensive data on terrorist attacks and concluded that “the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties. Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists.”
This is not to say that democracy is a magical solution for the Middle East’s long list of problems and pathologies. It is, however, a first step, and a necessary one. Without substantive political reform, the region will continue to suffer under the same poisonous political environment that produced the Jihadist movement and gave us 9/11. In short, the status quo is untenable and threatens America’s security.
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