The New York Times published a story that points out that (a) citizens of Arab nations have toppled dictators who al-Qaeda (AQ) leaders loathed — and these citizens have done so without the help of AQ; and (b) the opposition movements in the Arab Middle East have “shunned the two central tenets of the Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers.”
For many specialists on terrorism and the Middle East, “the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda, making the jihadists look like ineffectual bystanders to history while offering young Muslims an appealing alternative to terrorism.”
AQ is ruthless and resourceful; its leaders will try to adjust and take advantage of new conditions on the ground. So it’s far too early to count AQ out (and the Times story rightly does not). Still, it is satisfying to hear even fierce critics of the Bush administration admit, as one does in the story, that “[d]emocracy is bad news for terrorists. The more peaceful channels people have to express grievances and pursue their goals, the less likely they are to turn to violence.”
This insight was obvious to some people, and to some presidents, some time ago. “Islamic radicalism, like the ideology of communism, contains inherent contradictions that doom it to failure,” America’s 43rd president said in 2005. “By fearing freedom — by distrusting human creativity, and punishing change, and limiting the contributions of half the population — this ideology undermines the very qualities that make human progress possible, and human societies successful. The only thing modern about the militants’ vision is the weapons they want to use against us. The rest of their grim vision is defined by a warped image of the past — a declaration of war on the idea of progress, itself. And whatever lies ahead in the war against this ideology, the outcome is not in doubt: Those who despise freedom and progress have condemned themselves to isolation, decline, and collapse. Because free peoples believe in the future, free peoples will own the future.”
While conceding that this is a difficult, long-term project, America’s commander in chief suggested that there was no alternative to it. He then offered this observation:
Our future and the future of that region are linked. If the broader Middle East is left to grow in bitterness, if countries remain in misery, while radicals stir the resentments of millions, then that part of the world will be a source of endless conflict and mounting danger, and for our generation and the next. If the peoples of that region are permitted to choose their own destiny, and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women, then the extremists will be marginalized, and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow, and eventually end. By standing for the hope and freedom of others, we make our own freedom more secure.
A half-dozen years ago, these observations were derided in many quarters; today they are commonplace. There is credit in recognizing these truths now, but there is greater credit for having recognized them early on.