Does Democracy Reduce Religious/Political Terrorism?

Here is a well-written and acute review by Samuel Helfant of Katerina Dalacoura’s (LSE) interesting book, Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East (CUP 2011).  As Helfant notes, the book was written before the upheaval in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc., but its themes and thesis are more relevant now than ever.  Here’s a bit from the review.  — MOD

The link between repressive political systems and terrorism seems obvious. It is not difficult to imagine why some people without the means to express their political will peacefully would eventually turn to violence. Add to this the findings of the democratic peace theory, which highlight the fact that no democratic state has ever gone to war with another democratic state, and democracy would appear to be an apt remedy for the political violence, including terrorism, that has plagued the Islamic world in recent decades. Thus, countless studies since September 11 have argued that democracy in the Middle East could “drain the swamps” of Islamic terrorism. Indeed, this idea formed the theoretical foundation for the Bush administration’s adoption of its “freedom agenda” as a central tenet in its war on terrorism.

In practice, however, the link between political systems and political violence has never been as strong as some would suggest. The unfortunate truth is that authoritarian regimes are rather good at preventing terrorism. There were only a few reported incidents of political terrorism in the Soviet Union, and in 2003 the London-based World Terrorism Index classified North Korea as the state “least exposed to international terrorism.” In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that democracy, and especially the process of democratization, can actually encourage terrorism. It should not be surprising that the Middle East is no exception to these trends, and empirical studies on the links between political participation and moderation among Islamists, such as Jillian Schwedler’s important book Faith in Moderation, have come to similar conclusions about the questionable link between political systems and extremism.

Yet books such as Schwedler’s have been limited to studies focusing on one or two groups over a specific period of time. Dalacoura’s work, by contrast, offers an analytical tour of the major Islamist movements in the Middle East. Through a plethora of case studies, Dalacoura covers a wide geographical and political range, and with a social-scientific methodology that separates her work from that of pundits and journalists, she challenges hypotheses instead of simply searching for evidence to reinforce received wisdom. What she finds, across the board, is that the links between political freedom and political violence are unsubstantiated.

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