Can democracy calm jihadists?

By Andrew L. Urban

“We can’t build a global set of moral values while each religion is in its own moral ghetto, eg the Taliban, whose moral code is anathema to everyone else.” Richard Dawkins

I used to think it’s only a question of time: terrorism fuelled by Islamic extremism will burn out, its moral vacuum and destructive force combining to suffocate its appeal. Like Communism and Fascism, Jihad carries the seeds of its own destruction. Soviet Communism imploded because that ism never had any genuine moral authority, for all its superficially idealistic claims to citizens’ equality. It was never in practice a basis for legitimate government, and always existed only as an oppressive and morally bankrupt system.

Anytime and anywhere Communist regimes practiced the political tenets of Communism, they had to (as China and North Korea still do in their different ways, for example) deny political alternatives and personal freedoms. In practice, Communism has always turned out to be a bullying, nasty sort of power unable to maintain its claim to legitimacy as a political movement of, by and for the people. It was always Animal Farm. It is always oppressive in practice.

The ideology self destructed in Europe when its moral emptiness could no longer survive on the lies of its daily practice.

But Islamic radicals are driven by the ideology of their religion as they interpret it. And that is a crucial difference to the imperatives of political ideology.

But in fact there is buried within the Islamic terrorist mindset a perverse political narrative which relies on “the easy interpretation of all modern geo-political disputes to fit a story of Muslims being persecuted by the West.” [1]

Can democracy calm this fiery beast? Can it ever find the tools to defuse the anger and violence fuelled by a narrative that reflects an artificially extended religious mandate for Islam to rule the world by – literally – destroying everyone who differs.

It seems an impossible task if you read the interviews published in ‘Jihadists in Jail: Radicalisation and the Indonesian prison experience,’ by Carl Ungerer. [4] They collectively reflect a strength of religious conviction that cannot be bought off with offers of a comfortable life, nor by admonishments from the West or indeed from other Muslims. With death seen as a prize not a deterrent, jihadists seem immune to de-radicalisation.

Or are they? There’s a lesson from history that could be applied to that end, even though it comes from the conflict between political ideologies. In the 1960s, a number of analysts of the state of the Cold War came to the conclusion that one of the most promising strategies was to use the democratic Left to subvert the totalitarian Left. The 1968 Prague Spring proved them right.

This was the policy employed by my father, Dr George R. Urban at Radio Free Europe in the early to mid 1960s when he ran the Radio’s University programmes; he would give plenty of air time to conversations with disillusioned ex-communists, broadcasting into Eastern Europe, where listeners (including Soviet party officials) would hear not what Western propagandists had to say, but these former party members. [2]

A trial of such a policy has indeed been put into practice in Indonesia, where the problem of Islamic terrorism is acute, as Carl Ungerer writes. [3] The country has faced “a period of sustained terrorist violence for nearly a decade. Since the first Bali bombings in 2002, the Indonesian counter-terrorism police have arrested more than 600 members of terrorist organisations, most of them from the now dispersed Jemaah Islamiah group.

The Indonesian approach to de-radicalise terrorist convicts is focused heavily on the former JI leadership. … The police have spearheaded an initiative using former militants who have revised their views on violence to engage other jihadists in prisons. This is based on the assumption that former hardliners have a more lasting impact on supporters of violent jihad than the appeals from moderate, state-sanctioned religious clerics.”

Ungerer cites a couple of examples of successful de-radicalisation in Indonesia, such as the one with Ali Imron, brother of the first Bali bombers, who is sent to prisons to convince extremists that attacking civilians is forbidden by the Koran and that violence only hurts the Muslim community.

Encouragingly, Jek Harun and Usman, both in jail for helping Bali bomber Noordin Top, have revised their views on violence after meeting Imron. There are other examples.

This policy may well be the best strategy and perhaps the only one we have in democracy; if widely implemented and well resourced, it has the advantage of propelling itself once it gains critical mass. New converts who stand against violence multiply and feed the program.

In this ever-online world where jihadists are internet trawling activists, the conversations of reformed jihadists should be published & broadcast extensively on line, via multilingual websites and the likes of Facebook and YouTube. It would be an acceptable form of propaganda, pursuing a positive outcome. Any such policy of de-radicalisation one at a time is destined to be slow and it is not guaranteed to succeed; much death and misery will continue. But the fundamental strength of democracy is it’s humanity; that must be made to prevail.

Otherwise, much of the world is condemned to an intractable war driven by ideology that is fuelled by a religious aberration and a self-perpetuating political lie.

[1] Greg Sheridan, The Weekend Australian, May 22-23, 2011, Inquirer p.1: Declarations of Faith

[2] Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy, Dr. George R. Urban, Yale University Press, 1997

[3] Carl Ungerer, The Weekend Australian, May 22-23, 2011, Inquirer p.4 : ‘Battle for the minds of terrorist convicts’

[4] Full report at Australian Strategic Policy Institute:

Special Report issue 40 – Jihadists in jail: Radicalisation and the Indonesian prison experience, Thursday, 19 May 2011, Project director Carl Ungerer

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