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'To Contain Jihadism, You Need Pluralism'

Phares sees "two stages in...a decline but not yet the end of Al-Qaeda."
Phares sees "two stages in...a decline but not yet the end of Al-Qaeda."
The U.S. change of command in Iraq this week comes with violence levels at four-year lows and a slight reduction planned in U.S. troop figures. Although large-scale attacks remain a concern, many observers regard a weakening of Al-Qaeda in Iraq as a major reason for the reduction of bloodshed.

Walid Phares, a visiting fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, talks to RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel about Al-Qaeda's setbacks in Iraq and the future of its ideology.

He says young Muslim minds must be offered "a model of pluralism and democracy" as an alternative to a "fighting caliphate."

RFE/RL: After many battles between Al-Qaeda and its former Sunni insurgent allies, and after the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, terrorist attacks are markedly down. Now some U.S. commanders are speaking of reaching the end-game of the conflict. What has caused Al-Qaeda, which initially made such rapid progress in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, to lose so much ground?

Walid Phares: Well, No. 1, there were two stages in what seems to be a decline but not yet the end of Al-Qaeda. The first stage was that it lost its enclave and the first battle really was in Fallujah. Al-Qaeda's not being able to establish similar Fallujah-like enclaves was its first defeat. Then, it was able to survive through its networks and the foreign jihadists who poured through the borders and, of course, it was able to survive a longer period of time because of some of the support the local Salafist networks in Iraq have provided. The reason for why Al-Qaeda is on the decline today is first of all its own behavior, its own savagery with civil society, and that is a hallmark of the Salafi combat doctrine, which in Algeria in the 1990s also had similar activities and lost the trust of Muslim constituencies.

But again, the real Al-Qaeda defeat today is because of the surge that has operated over the past year, denying Al-Qaeda the initiative. But having said all that, I agree with the commanders on the ground that this is the endgame, but only of this stage. The big question would be if, after a redeployment of U.S.-led coalition forces, Iraqi forces would be able to deliver the same blow to Al-Qaeda. And the jury is still out on that.

RFE/RL: The level of violence Al-Qaeda is ready to use against civilians is, indeed, so horrific that it often is very hard to understand the movement's appeal at all. Yet, jihadists are able to recruit new members, partly because they claim to be working for the goal of a peaceful and just, almost utopian, world. Their stated goal is to liberate people from existing exploitive governments and recreate the harmonious society that existed in the earliest days of Islam between the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate followers. Does this appealing vision give jihadism an enduring appeal and perhaps assure that -- despite the setbacks in Iraq and Algeria -- jihadism will never entirely disappear?

Phares: That's what the jihadist message says in its propagandist dimension, meaning for soft eyes and ears before they are indoctrinated in the classroom, in the madrasahs. What they are talking about really is to bring down 21 Arab governments as we know them. They are not always democratic or efficient, but what the jihadists want to establish instead -- and I wouldn't say only 21 but 52 Muslim states if they can -- is the Taliban model. If you ask a Salafi jihadist or an Al-Qaeda supporter what is your ideal regime, they would say the Taliban, which means no rights for women, no rights for minorities, no religious rights -- remember what they have done with the Buddhist statues and with Shi'a or with Sunni who will not go by their ideals -- plus establishment of a very tightly interpreted Shari'a law, meaning blocking progress and liberalization within the Muslim world.
If you ask a Salafi jihadist or an Al-Qaeda supporter what is your ideal regime, they would say the Taliban, which means no rights for women, no rights for minorities, no religious rights.

With all of that, obviously, the real message is going to be understood by the public only if there is an alternative thinking, meaning: In order to contain and reverse the agenda of the jihadists you have to have pluralism, you have to have the ability for young minds to get another message and let them make their choice. If they listen to a message that says, well, the future is for a "fighting caliphate," and at the same time they see a model of pluralism and democracy, then the choice will be theirs. I do not believe that reversing or defeating the jihadists intellectually is only by crushing their message. It is by offering another alternative and the choice will be a free choice.

RFE/RL: If jihadism has the potential to recruit people as a liberation theology, or liberation ideology, let's look more specifically at where that potential comes from in the Middle East. Is it due to great public disappointment with the region's self-named republican leaders who led the struggle against colonialism? Is there a sense that Western democracy does not offer the East a workable model? Is it due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? These are all reasons that are sometimes cited.

Phares: All these reasons are valid, or have some validity. But that alone does not explain the choice for another as oppressive, as suppressive movement. Meaning, that if young minds were able to choose they would choose to be away from oppression and not to choose one form of oppression over another one. The only way is for young minds, those who have not been indoctrinated, to see that there is a difference. And if you take societies where Al-Qaeda has been thriving, these are societies where the segments have been conditioned. Meaning, young people go to madrasahs because they don't have another opportunity. And once they are in the madrasah, don't blame them if they get only this one dominant ideology. It all goes back to providing a space for freedom -- democracy will come as a result of that. You cannot impose democracy, but you can open a space for freedom.

RFE/RL: An Arab analyst once remarked to me that the reason for the "war on terror" is, in his words, that "our fundamentalists are at war with your fundamentalists." That's a provocative way of saying the West shares blame for the "war on terror" due to the pursuit of its own interests in the Middle East, including making profitable alliances with autocratic regimes rather than making greater efforts to promote democratic groups. How do you react to this notion?
We have seen what happened with many liberal elements in the Middle East who have been suppressed by authoritarian regimes allied with the West.

Phares: Yes, of course, U.S., Western, European foreign policies have made tremendous mistakes and among those most important mistakes in the past were to ally themselves with autocratic regimes in the region. We have seen what happened in Iran. We have seen what happened with many liberal elements in the Middle East who have been suppressed by authoritarian regimes allied with the West. Yes, I do accept partially that criticisms can be leveled against foreign policies.

But the only difference is that the West can correct itself. Not just the West, democracies can correct themselves. That's why there are opposition movements, that is why there are hearings in congresses and parliaments, that is why there are demonstrations and free press. If the Arab and Muslim world can reach the level whereby an opposition is tolerated, whereby women can vote and drive in some places, I think that would be a good agenda to follow.

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