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National Interest: Alarmism on Islamism

Author: Paul R. Pillar
December 4, 2011


National Interest's Paul R. Pillar discusses three problems with the fear of Islamist threat to democratization in Arab countries.

Results of the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections—in which the Muslim Brotherhood came in first, followed by a Salafist party—have stimulated still more of what has been a common response to the Arab Spring ever since it began: the fear that Islamists might derail or hijack democratization in Arab countries. The response has often taken the form of a simple "Islamists dangerous, non-Islamists okay" attitude. There are three basic problems with this outlook, besides its crudeness. One is lack of clarity about exactly what is the danger that Islamists supposedly pose. A second is lack of explanation as to why Islamists in particular would pose it. The third is lack of analysis of whether Islamists could carry out feared acts even if they wanted to.

If discontinuation of democracy itself is the supposed danger, bear in mind that the targets of any alarmism about this are political parties that are gaining shares of political power through democratic methods. To be sure, there is the possibility of democratically elected elements subsequently trying to retain power through undemocratic means, but why should Islamists be any more likely to try that than anyone else? It is not hard to find examples of such attempts, and they are not Islamists.

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