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September 12, 2012 |  Print  Book Reviews  

Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East

David Murdo Ian Macdonald:

A lecturer in International Relations at the London School of Economics, Katerina Dalacoura has worked extensively on the Middle East. In Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East, Dalacoura seeks to answer the question: does Islamist terrorism relate to a lack of democracy in the Middle East?

The view that a lack of democracy in the Middle East is responsible for the rise of Islamist terrorism became conventional wisdom in the post 9/11 world, with democracy promotion as a significant component of US foreign policy in the region. Dalacoura convincingly discredits this adage via a series of case studies that examine Islamist groups across the Middle East, charting the path of their development in relation to the political climate they have operated within.

Beyond the introduction and first chapter which introduce the background, terms, concepts and question, the book has two main parts, each a set of case studies examining Islamist groups. The first part examines the struggles of groups that have explicitly endorsed or employed terrorism. The book scrutinizes the importance of political exclusion in shaping the methods of various transnational, nationalist and domestic (insurgent) terrorist groups. In the second part, emphasis shifts from groups that have utilized terrorism to those that have embraced political moderation.

In the introduction and first chapter, previous studies on the relationship between terrorism and democracy are surveyed. This brief examination reveals the lack of general academic consensus on the relationship between democracy and terrorism. Setting the tone for the book, Dalacoura surmises that democracy does not subdue terrorism, nor does authoritarianism necessarily promote it. Building from this, she establishes that terrorism, rather than being viewed as an ideology, must be considered as a means, applied for specific reasons that may be ideational or material in nature. The material reasons, which consist of strategic, political and socio-economic, are given precedence and marked as the analytical criteria that define the books conclusions.

In the first part, Islamist terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hizbullah are examined. Here the use of terrorism is revealed to often be part of a wider political strategy, with the level of political exclusion only a secondary factor. Political exclusion for many terrorist groups is optional, and rarely a causal factor in the use of terrorism. The decision to utilize terrorism is more often connected to political aims, such as Hamas seeking to undermine the unfavorable Oslo Accords or the GIA attempting to rally popular support. Broader strategic considerations play a significant role, as with Hizbullah and Hamas compensating for force disparities in their struggle with Israel. In this part, Dalacoura persuasively establishes that strategic and political reasons are especially important in the methods and decision making of Islamist groups, and that the political exclusion of these groups is insecurely connected to their decision to employ terrorism.

In the second part, Islamist groups participating in opposition and in power are examined. The emphasis changes from the relationship between political exclusion and terrorism to that of political inclusion and moderation. In a theme continued from the first part, moderation from Islamist groups appears largely a result of similar strategic calculations that govern groups who resort to terrorism. These observations are expanded throughout the second part, with opposition and governing Islamist groups examined. Both the pressures of opposition and government are found to promote political moderation. The importance of socio-economic factors is re-asserted and gracefully weaved together with broader strategic concerns, establishing their significance in moderation. This is reflected in the case studies, with Islamists in Egypt experiencing repression and judging confrontation with the regime as unwinnable and counter-productive to their aims, while in Turkey Islamists accepted that moderation was necessary to maintain the support of the Army, or in Iran, where concern over its international status as a terrorist-sponsor state induced a trend of moderation. In all cases a major socio-economic motivator for moderation was a desire to maintain the political loyalty of the growing middle and business classes.

By the end of the second part, Dalacoura has outlined the parallels in decision making between politically included and excluded groups. Political participation is shown as only partially explaining moves to moderation, while strategic, political and socio-economic factors remain potentially decisive factors. Dalacoura closes the book by observing that there is no critical link between Islamist terrorism and democracy, and effectively arguing that the Islamist groups are driven more by strategic and socio-economic concerns than their level of political inclusion or exclusion. With this assertion it is proposed that in the study of Islamist Terrorism and democracy, future endeavors should eschew efforts to compartmentalize Islamist terrorism as exceptional due to its Islamic component.

Considering its relatively modest aim of challenging preconceptions of the relationship between terrorism and democracy, this study shows impressive scope, and unexpected depth. Dalacoura tactfully acknowledges the difficulties in approaching the subject, such as the kaleidoscope-like implications of phrases such as terrorism, Islamist, moderation and democracy. Each of these phrases is carefully unpacked and defined in relation to the subject matter, prior to conducting the case studies. The defining and streamlining of these terms greatly aids the overall effect and elegance of the book.

Furthermore, the consistent analytical criteria, regarding the use of strategic, political and socio-economic explanations for Islamist behavior allows impressive linkage between otherwise unconnected case studies. By pinpointing the junctures at which Islamist groups decide to employ terrorism or moderation, the author is able to refute claims as to the importance of democracy with remarkable elegance. Political inclusion or exclusion is shown to often be a peripheral factor, rather than causal. These observations, combined with the varied reactions of non-terrorist Islamist groups experiencing repression or actively involved in political participation, make a powerful case against any maxim's regarding the relationship between Islamist terrorism and democracy.

In highlighting the prevalence of strategic thinking in Islamist groups across the Middle East, Dalacoura has produced a credible interpretation of terrorist groups as rational actors. This assertion has important implications for international relations, signifying that Islamist terrorism may be studied in more realistic terms, rather than dismissed as being driven by ideological or religious fanaticism. Given the myriad of motives and circumstances promoting the use of terrorism, the book acquires increased significance in light of the potential arrival of many newly democratic states in the Middle East, reminding the world that democracy does not equate to stability and is by no means a proven antidote to terrorism.

David Macdonald is a Postgraduate student of International and European Politics at the University of Edinburgh, and has previously worked in the British Parliament.

Dalacoura, Katerina (2011). Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East. New York: Cambridge University Press.

A lecturer in International Relations at the London School of Economics, Katerina Dalacoura has worked extensively on the Middle East. In Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East, Dalacoura seeks to answer the question: does Islamist terrorism relate to a lack of democracy in the Middle East?

The view that a lack of democracy in the Middle East is responsible for the rise of Islamist terrorism became conventional wisdom in the post 9/11 world, with democracy promotion as a significant component of US foreign policy in the region. Dalacoura convincingly discredits this adage via a series of case studies that examine Islamist groups across the Middle East, charting the path of their development in relation to the political climate they have operated within.

Beyond the introduction and first chapter which introduce the background, terms, concepts and question, the book has two main parts, each a set of case studies examining Islamist groups. The first part examines the struggles of groups that have explicitly endorsed or employed terrorism. The book scrutinizes the importance of political exclusion in shaping the methods of various transnational, nationalist and domestic (insurgent) terrorist groups. In the second part, emphasis shifts from groups that have utilized terrorism to those that have embraced political moderation.

In the introduction and first chapter, previous studies on the relationship between terrorism and democracy are surveyed. This brief examination reveals the lack of general academic consensus on the relationship between democracy and terrorism. Setting the tone for the book, Dalacoura surmises that democracy does not subdue terrorism, nor does authoritarianism necessarily promote it. Building from this, she establishes that terrorism, rather than being viewed as an ideology, must be considered as a means, applied for specific reasons that may be ideational or material in nature. The material reasons, which consist of strategic, political and socio-economic, are given precedence and marked as the analytical criteria that define the books conclusions.

In the first part, Islamist terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hizbullah are examined. Here the use of terrorism is revealed to often be part of a wider political strategy, with the level of political exclusion only a secondary factor. Political exclusion for many terrorist groups is optional, and rarely a causal factor in the use of terrorism. The decision to utilize terrorism is more often connected to political aims, such as Hamas seeking to undermine the unfavorable Oslo Accords or the GIA attempting to rally popular support. Broader strategic considerations play a significant role, as with Hizbullah and Hamas compensating for force disparities in their struggle with Israel. In this part, Dalacoura persuasively establishes that strategic and political reasons are especially important in the methods and decision making of Islamist groups, and that the political exclusion of these groups is insecurely connected to their decision to employ terrorism.

In the second part, Islamist groups participating in opposition and in power are examined. The emphasis changes from the relationship between political exclusion and terrorism to that of political inclusion and moderation. In a theme continued from the first part, moderation from Islamist groups appears largely a result of similar strategic calculations that govern groups who resort to terrorism. These observations are expanded throughout the second part, with opposition and governing Islamist groups examined. Both the pressures of opposition and government are found to promote political moderation. The importance of socio-economic factors is re-asserted and gracefully weaved together with broader strategic concerns, establishing their significance in moderation. This is reflected in the case studies, with Islamists in Egypt experiencing repression and judging confrontation with the regime as unwinnable and counter-productive to their aims, while in Turkey Islamists accepted that moderation was necessary to maintain the support of the Army, or in Iran, where concern over its international status as a terrorist-sponsor state induced a trend of moderation. In all cases a major socio-economic motivator for moderation was a desire to maintain the political loyalty of the growing middle and business classes.

By the end of the second part, Dalacoura has outlined the parallels in decision making between politically included and excluded groups. Political participation is shown as only partially explaining moves to moderation, while strategic, political and socio-economic factors remain potentially decisive factors. Dalacoura closes the book by observing that there is no critical link between Islamist terrorism and democracy, and effectively arguing that the Islamist groups are driven more by strategic and socio-economic concerns than their level of political inclusion or exclusion. With this assertion it is proposed that in the study of Islamist Terrorism and democracy, future endeavors should eschew efforts to compartmentalize Islamist terrorism as exceptional due to its Islamic component.

Considering its relatively modest aim of challenging preconceptions of the relationship between terrorism and democracy, this study shows impressive scope, and unexpected depth. Dalacoura tactfully acknowledges the difficulties in approaching the subject, such as the kaleidoscope-like implications of phrases such as terrorism, Islamist, moderation and democracy. Each of these phrases is carefully unpacked and defined in relation to the subject matter, prior to conducting the case studies. The defining and streamlining of these terms greatly aids the overall effect and elegance of the book.

Furthermore, the consistent analytical criteria, regarding the use of strategic, political and socio-economic explanations for Islamist behavior allows impressive linkage between otherwise unconnected case studies. By pinpointing the junctures at which Islamist groups decide to employ terrorism or moderation, the author is able to refute claims as to the importance of democracy with remarkable elegance. Political inclusion or exclusion is shown to often be a peripheral factor, rather than causal. These observations, combined with the varied reactions of non-terrorist Islamist groups experiencing repression or actively involved in political participation, make a powerful case against any maxim's regarding the relationship between Islamist terrorism and democracy.

In highlighting the prevalence of strategic thinking in Islamist groups across the Middle East, Dalacoura has produced a credible interpretation of terrorist groups as rational actors. This assertion has important implications for international relations, signifying that Islamist terrorism may be studied in more realistic terms, rather than dismissed as being driven by ideological or religious fanaticism. Given the myriad of motives and circumstances promoting the use of terrorism, the book acquires increased significance in light of the potential arrival of many newly democratic states in the Middle East, reminding the world that democracy does not equate to stability and is by no means a proven antidote to terrorism.

David Macdonald is a Postgraduate student of International and European Politics at the University of Edinburgh, and has previously worked in the British Parliament.

Dalacoura, Katerina (2011). Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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