Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

The popular uprisings of the Arab Spring have left a leadership void that Islamist parties have been quick to fill.  A longtime supporter of former strongmen like Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the U.S. now faces the uncomfortable result of Arab democracy—the rise of Islamist parties that are less amenable to the West than their autocratic predecessors.  Will the Islamists, who once embraced violence, slowly liberalize as they face the difficulties of state leadership? Or will it mean the growth of anti-Americanism and radicalization in the region?  

  • reuel-marc-gerechtweb


    Reuel Marc Gerecht

    Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

  • brian-katsulis-web


    Brian Katulis

    Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress

  • danielspipesweb


    Daniel Pipes

    President, Middle East Forum

  • zuhdi-jasserweb


    Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser

    Founder & President, American Islamic Forum for Democracy

  • Moderator Image


    John Donvan

    Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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For The Motion

Reuel Marc Gerecht

Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan institution focusing on national security and foreign policy. He was a former Middle East Specialist at the CIA's Directorate of Operations. His book The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East, was published by the Hoover Institution in 2011. Gerecht was a former Director of the Project for the New American Century’s Middle East Initiative and a former Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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For The Motion

Brian Katulis

Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. Katulis has served as a consultant to numerous U.S. government agencies, private corporations, and nongovernmental organizations on projects in more than two dozen countries, including Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, and Colombia. From 1995 to 1998, he lived and worked in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Egypt for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. He is co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. Katulis speaks Arabic.

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Against The Motion

Daniel Pipes

President, Middle East Forum

Daniel Pipes is one of the world’s foremost analysts on the Middle East and Islam. Pipes is President of the Middle East Forum, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1994 whose slogan is “Promoting American Interests.” He was previously the Director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) and editor of its journal, Orbis.  Pipes’ most recent book is Miniatures: Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics (2003). Pipes served as an Adviser to Rudolph Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign.

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Against The Motion

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser

Founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy

M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D., is the Founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). A devout Muslim, Dr. Jasser founded AIFD in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States as an effort to provide an American Muslim voice advocating for the preservation of the founding principles of the United States Constitution, liberty and freedom, through the separation of mosque and state. Dr. Jasser earned his medical degree on a U.S. Navy scholarship at the Medical College of Wisconsin in 1992. He served 11 years as a medical officer in the U. S. Navy.

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Declared Winner: Against The Motion

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    • Comment Link John Smith Friday, 27 March 2015 17:37 posted by John Smith

      As a soldier, I have to side with the side for the motion, because I feel that electing Islamists, while not ideal, would lead to evolution. Yes things would get worse, but there IS no way to avoid bloodshed. Blood will be shed and lives will be lost but shouldnt we encourage the process (internally) so that more change will come. If we allow the Islamists to rise, for now, and allow the men and women to suffer as they would, wouldn't that encourage the men and woman to rise up again and push out the Islamists. And it's the possibility for better later rather than continuously pushing it off with a new dictator every 20-30 years.

    • Comment Link Jon Sunday, 04 January 2015 02:20 posted by Jon

      Sadly, the against side has been quite vindicated by ISIS.

    • Comment Link Webnaame Saturday, 29 June 2013 01:38 posted by Webnaame

      I used to have a tremendous amount of respect for the “Intelligence Squared debates”. Not anymore. As a matter of fact, NPR’s credibility as a whole went down in my eyes after watching this debate.
      I’ll start with the panel. To call Daniel Pipes “one of the world’s foremost analysts on the Middle East” is almost as dishonest as Pipes’ own scholarship. Surely the man is highly educated-I don’t doubt that for one second. But that makes his intellectual dishonesty all the more problematic. Islamophobia is real and this man is at the forefront of propagating it. Anyone who has any familiarity with discourse on the Middle East needs no explanation as to why Pipes’ inclusion in this panel is highly problematic and, frankly, unacceptable.
      The “against” side does a great job of sidestepping the question completely-and the moderator does nothing to get them back on topic. The question at hand is: what’s best; Islamists who are popularly elected or dictators friendly to the United States? Jasser and Pipes ignore the debate format and introduce their own question; taking the easy stand that western-style liberal democracy is what is ideal for the Middle East. Neither Gerecht and Katulis nor the moderator do anything to remind them that this is not the side they have been signed up to take.
      But I guess when the topic up for debate is as chauvinistic, orientalist, and devoid of real substance as this one, there is no choice but to make up the rules as you go along. Not once is the assumption that western-style liberal democracy represents the pinnacle and endpoint of political life questioned. Nor are the desires and needs of those living and breathing in the country of their birth ever addressed. This is what happens when you have neo-cons arguing about “Islamism”-a term without any real meaning, but a term Jasser throws around too often for me to consider him a true analyst of the Middle East.
      Jasser fools some people in the audience with his constant reminders of being a “devout Muslim,” but it’s clear that he’s another disgruntled expat who is given too big of a forum for his simplistic and reductionist analyses of the Middle East.
      At points, I found myself shocked that this topic was even drafted/chosen by Intelligence Squared. For me, it’s very clear. The mere fact that one of the options is, “dictatorship,” shows that whoever drafted this question must have thought that those living in Middle Eastern countries are not deserving of anything less than a dictatorship. Or that they are not bright enough or evolved enough (a point Gerecht couldn’t escape) to choose anything but a “theocracy” if they do get a chance to vote.

      The reality of the situation must have escaped those in charge of the debate. There is a call for participatory politics all across the Middle East. This arguably started with the 1979 revolution in Iran, and has continued enthusiastically with the Arab revolutions of the past few years. Where this change takes the M.E. is up to THEM to decide. If they hold elections and they vote for so-called “Islamists”, then so be it. This is what democracy means: the people choose who they vote for. It’s just as crazy (maybe just a wee-bit more, but probably less) than Texans voting for Rick Perry. The momentum is there for real change: but it’s a change that THEY must come to terms with before we step in and dictate for them what will happen next. It’s clear that Middle Easterners must be given the opportunity to decide, whatever America’s grand imperial designs.

    • Comment Link Gato Tuesday, 30 April 2013 20:12 posted by Gato

      Actually, this comes down to a fundamental question about democracy: should a nation have a right to institutionalize internal inequality by vote?

    • Comment Link Gato Tuesday, 30 April 2013 20:02 posted by Gato

      The debate is really a lessor of two evils question: Are secular dictators in the Middle East better than religious dictators in the long term? The question then becomes: which dictatorship, if any, would engender a more liberalized society enough to break the orbit of dictatorship *in a stable way* first? Then the question becomes: if one choice is ultimately more stable in the long term, but has to go through a period of 'worse before better,' how much 'worse' are we willing to accept in the short term to get there?

      The second question leads us to consider what liberalizing forces are at play in each context. Reactance psychology is important to consider here (what Scott Atran calls "sacred values"; these are not necessarily religious values, but unassailable ones) and so is the influence of technology as a force for combating xenophobia through social education, creating international in-groups, while enabling more autonomy. There are, of course, other factors, but of these two main ones, which dictatorship would allow for more technology, yet prevent 'sacred value' reactance? I think that these would be really good avenues of empirical and historical research to start to build a case.

    • Comment Link Cathy Friday, 22 March 2013 00:01 posted by Cathy

      Pardon me, but I think this debate was extremely badly handled. The debate was not "Are Islamists better than liberal democracies?" but "Are they better than dictatorships?" Mr. Pipes and Jasser kept harping on that Islamists are the worst and that there's a "Third Way" – that of liberals. Well, yes, we all support the liberals (in other countries) but by putting up liberals as the alternative to Islamists, they're twisting the terms of the debate, and Mr. Donovan NEVER POINTED THIS OUT. When the audience voted for Pipes and Jasser, they were voting for liberals, not for dictatorships.

      Historically, if you look at Theocracies, they tend to wither after a while. NONE of the the theocracies in the world today are more than forty years old. Even Saudi Arabia is less than a hundred years old, and they're a dictatorship, not a true theocracy. Dictatorships, on the other hand, do not wither, they found dynasties and go on for centuries.

      One person pointed out that Islamist groups have tended to rise because of reactions against dictators (who we've supported) and against foreign influence. However, this point wasn't taken up, maybe because Messrs. Pipes and Jasser didn't want to admit we helped cause the Islamists' rise.

      A lot of the audience, and a lot of the people commenting on this website, seem to think:
      1. All Muslims hate America (they don't)
      2. Sharia law is automatically rigid and oppressive (in fact, it's flexible and often tailored to the social customs of the countries it's in)
      3. That Muslims and "those countries" are inherently violent and want to kill everyone else. Having lived in the Middle East for twelve and a half years, I observed that people there are mainly interested in living a peaceful, productive life.

      Lastly, I have to ask, why did you have Daniel Pipes on the show? He's long been known to be both anti-Islamic and a rabid anti-Iranist, and from having read some of his previous stuff I suspect he's more interested in putting down Iran than in upholding the facts. He supports the MEK (a terrorist group which wants to overthrow the Tehran government and install themselves), he has smeared the National Iranian American Council because they want negotiations instead of war with Iran, and he is all for letting Israel bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.
      He tried to tell us that the Oklahoma City bombings were the work of Islamists and announced in 1995 that Islamists have declared war on the USA. I think he lives for that theory; he's certainly made a lucrative career of it. After 9/11, he tried to tell us that Iran was behind the Twin Towers attack. He was a strong supporter of the Iraq war.
      He has suggested that American Muslims in the military might be "security risks" and that the "enfranchisement of American Muslims... will present true dangers to American Jews."
      On the surface Pipes may have a lot of credentials, but for anybody who has researched Middle Eastern affairs, having Pipes on the program detracts from your credibility.

    • Comment Link Jacob Tuesday, 19 March 2013 13:06 posted by Jacob

      Laine: With very few infidels having been conquered by Muslims and lived to tell their tale to the infidel world, there IS one fine point that you missed.Although Muslims allow conquered dhimmis to initially possess the option of conversion - the option eventually becomes a mandate in ALL truly Sharia states. If you look at the Sharia state of Saudi Arabia, you see that Saudi Arabia is all but 100% Muslim. If you look at Egypt which is about to become a Sharia state via the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jews are already nonexistent and Christian Copts are about to encounter the full Sharia mandate to become Muslim - or die violently.But, it is important to note that dhimmi conversion does NOT confer new Muslims in conquered countries with either equal rights or equal status to native born Muslims or Arab Muslims.Indeed, where at all possible, Muslims treat converted conquered dhimmis as slaves for centuries after their conversion to Islam.Islam is an ARAB supremacist religion where the Arab Muslims claim superiority over all other Muslims - injuring the pride of conquered Iranians and Turks whose Muslim leaders constantly vie for supremacy despite the fact that 1) Mohammed was an Arab, 2) the Koran was written and is memorized and recited in Arabic, and 3) Medina and Mecca exist in Saudi Arabia - giving the Arabs all of the best theological trump cards.Tellingly, Arab Muslims still call black Muslims by the Arab insult word and which means both black and slave.

    • Comment Link Rob Winters Saturday, 09 March 2013 22:54 posted by Rob Winters

      An important point absent from this debate is the inherent potential for change due to the democratic process. We vote parties in and out on a regular basis.

      Even the illusion of democracy cultivates discussion and participation.

    • Comment Link mark Wednesday, 13 February 2013 11:47 posted by mark

      First of all Islam WILL NOT CHANGE! perhaps for short and perhaps by extreme force. But after the elections its going to go back to its heritage. Suppression especially towards women, Violent towards other religions and most of all liberalism. once its roots digs deeper through its new president. Egypt as I remember it will be more Palastine than individual Egypt. Repressed and many regimes.

    • Comment Link John Wood Friday, 08 February 2013 19:10 posted by John Wood

      Just watched this and was noting the term "Liberal Muslim" was very popular. On the other hand, "Conservative Muslim" wasn't mentioned at all. I presume one must assume that there are only two kinds of Muslims, "Liberal" Muslims and the other Muslims.

      Doing some historic math I see that Democracy doesn't happen fast where a political vacuum existed. If history is to be a lesson, the Middle East will roil in violence for a few hundred years before settling on some form of dysfunctional government. The crescent of Arab nations are far too close their old colonial masters in both geography and history.

      Beyond the lack of defining what is an "Islamist", my problem with the debate is that ultimately the pro-Islamist were defending what they hoped their side would turn into. The pro-dicators had it easy. "Hey, this is what these guys do..."

    • Comment Link Myron Wednesday, 23 January 2013 03:15 posted by Myron

      The first principal of a debate is to define terms. The con side used the term Islamists but never defined it. The idea that there is no difference between the ruling party in Turkey & the Muslim brotherhood & Hamas is absurd. A radical Muslim fundamentist like those who took power in Mali, Iran or the Taliban are not in favor of democracy & elections. They are religious fascists. To paint the Ruling Turkish party, the ruling Tunisian party or even the Muslim brotherhood with the same brush is absurd. Religious Muslims vary widely in their politics & beliefs just like religious Christians.

    • Comment Link Mohammed Monday, 17 December 2012 18:31 posted by Mohammed

      I do not entirely disagree with the sentiment that moderate Muslims should be more vocal in denouncing the radical factions. But here's the problem with what King is doing. There are moderate Muslims who feel that Americans hate them for no other reason than their religion. They truly cannot understand how so many supposedly educated and intelligent Americans can be so completely intolerant and ignorant as to be unable to distinguish between terrorists and peaceful Muslims. Displays such as today's hearings reinforce that negative impression of us. Moderates who may indeed have denounced the extremists see less and less reason to support us. This is truly why I believe the King and his intolerant ilk are a greater threat to the long-term safety of the United States than the actual terrorists. Look, the extremists are crazy, desperate, or both. There will be no winning their hearts and minds. But the majority of the Muslim world is peaceful, and we should not risk alienating their hearts and minds. I'm not coming from a liberal or even a political perspective, it's simply common sense that there is nothing to be gained by pissing off billions of people based on fear and prejudice.

    • Comment Link Betul Cam Saturday, 01 December 2012 16:57 posted by Betul Cam

      I am for the motion (even though the team for the motion was not well prepared and did not articulate their thoughts well).

      I accept a fair and open election results to dictatorship any day!
      As a muslim liberal, it is my responsibility to be active in my community and promote liberal values to gain support and educate my people. It might take decades but at least i know i can change things (assuming elections will be clean).

      Any leader who stays in power via shady elections is no different than a dictator, indeed he/she is one!

    • Comment Link William Tuesday, 27 November 2012 17:29 posted by William

      I am against the motion:
      Great Debate and a brilliant panel...very intriguing to listen to. I am a simple man comparitively however I do have loads of common sense which points to the obvious...democracy doesn't work in the Middle East precisley because of who they will elect.

      It was President Bush's biggest error over there as he blundered by keeping our military in that theater too long for this concept. They hate the West and what we stand for...they will not immitate our government successfully.

      Last I heard they have not surrendered to us so how do you impose your government on a people who are not submissive. It worked in WW II but that was on the heals of unconditional surrender. These people will never surrender ....they want to die for their faith. An estimated 20 million Iranians died in the 10 year war against Iraq...many of them never carried a weapon into the battlefield. They just martyred themselves. It is a culture of death. How do you put a liberal leader in charge of this?

      Just look at modern Iran for example...they have an elected President, but he takes all his marching orders from the Clerics. There is plenty of evidence out there proving that Iran intends to Nuke Israel and the USA but we live in denial...have you not watched youtube videos on this subject? He repeatedly calls for the death/demise of Israel labling them the little Satan. Iran's President is advancing nuclear armament pledging to drive Israel into the sea. While we set around hoping for liberal leaders to emerge. Meanwhile a mushroom cloud is appearing on the horizan!

      Our democracy is folding but it worked because it was founded on principles that work. Our government was good because we consistently voted for good people with strong Biblical and moral values. We cannot expect other nations who have strong opposing views of theocratic influence to follow our principles. Especially nations that feel that we are the Great Satan.

      Islam wants to bring about an Apocalypse in order to re-establish their world domination. Have we forgotten about the Ottoman Empire which once ruled the earth via the sword? This will repeat itself eventually if we don't educate ourselves. Through sheer numbers the Muslims could take over the world again and many of them believe that this is the right time...

      A liberal Muslim is an oxymoron if you think about can they be practicing their faith and be a true Muslim? Perhaps there might be some liberal (unpracticing) Muslims or new converts - but if they are practicing their faith they are following the later part of their Koran which supercedes the earlier more gentle part of the book. They are told in it to follow the later part of the Koran which tells them to overthrow the world and cause the world to submit by the sword. Look at Africa in Samalia and Rowanda...that is how practicing Muslim's treat their enemies.

      Look, the Christians follow their Messiah Jesus, but He modled forgiveness---from the cross..."Father forgive them for they know not what they do (or know who I am)"... what if however Jesus had ordered ten thousand Angels down from Heaven to slay everyone present or told his followers (Deciples who wrote the New Testiment) to avenge his death and kill all the unbelievers? How much different would this world be?

      But that didn't happen and in fact Jesus told us to love our enemies and forgive those who sin against us. Jesus obliterated racism (Good Samaritan parable), elevated women (Mary Magdalene, Martha & Mary sisters, and woman at the well), denounced violence (sermon on the mount "turn the other cheek"). On the contrary the Koran demotes women to property (multiple wives who must cover their hair and bodies), promotes barbarism (such as decapatation and slavery), & demands world domination.

      A theocracy will result in any democratic election. They are trying to get to heaven and that is why they are following this book so closely. They are trying to earn their salvation and it is a culture of death. Grace is not a term in their vocabulary. Their Koran advocates for the overthrow civilized governments and to rule the world again. Muslims believe that they are being punished with poverty (by Allah) for losing the world to the infidels and they are in the process of converting or killing the Jews and Christians.

      If we are hoping for a liberal minded Middle East we might as well call it quits now and hand over our country to them. The only liberals in the Middle East now are the Israelis and we are all lucky that they are liberal or the nukes would have fallen on all of their enemies causing the end of the world as we know it.

    • Comment Link Roger Monday, 22 October 2012 15:09 posted by Roger

      I thought it was a really interesting discussion. Definitely worth a listen or at least read the transcript for a few minutes.

      I think simply looking at the "results" does a disservice to the complexity of it all.

      I saw it as a discussion, not an argument. It was basically highlighting the immense difficulty that comes with the democratic process and how to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

    • Comment Link organizizer Saturday, 20 October 2012 17:18 posted by organizizer

      I'm a big fan of IQ2 - its well done, and its *so* needed.

      Donvan said he thought this was one of the better debates.

      I agree in one sense - that the topic was one of the most important ones IQ2 has taken on. kudos!

      I disagree, however, in the sense that i don't think it was well articulated, especially on the pro- side. One of the most important topics of our time did not receive the well-prepared, articulate, fact-based treatment that it merits.

      In light of the fact that our public discourse is so lacking in competent fact-based debate, I fervently hope that IQ2 will take this topic on again. (w/other debaters, a more nuanced question, or perhaps a special longer show w/expanded format..?)

    • Comment Link Wiil Waal Monday, 15 October 2012 03:23 posted by Wiil Waal

      I think the whole debate was about which one is good for the United States? All four debaters were arguing from the same benchmark! I feel sorry for the audience, they didn't get what they deserve, and I'm sure the don't even know that.

    • Comment Link ikram Sunday, 14 October 2012 15:28 posted by ikram

      There is so much ignorance.
      The truth is that there is no such thing as islamism and islamist. These two are made up words. The one who practice and believes in Islam is called a Muslim and the religion is called Islam. The things that are in accordance with the teachings of Islam are called Islamic not islamist.
      These ignorant people make up their own terms and then debate it.
      I feel sorry for the ordinary people who are kept in darkness while these people achieve their pity goals.

    • Comment Link Andy Lappin Wednesday, 10 October 2012 17:42 posted by Andy Lappin

      Against....stable dictators for the most part do not brainwash teenagers to become martyrs by committing acts of terror against civilian populations.

    • Comment Link Mike Wilkens Saturday, 06 October 2012 15:11 posted by Mike Wilkens

      Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators?
      What about the null set?
      How well was Germany served by Hitler? Russia by Stalin? Cambodia by Pol Pot? Cuba by Castro Inc.?
      This topic is like the social justice folk's question which made the round of colleges in the 1970s: The lifeboat with supplies and life vests for 4 occupants and 5 are in the boat. Who should be sacrificed for the better good?
      The moral answer: all should survive.
      To the debate question: neither is an option. Where's the debate?

      BTW, I use a screen reader to navigate screens as a blind computer user. I tried to listen to the (rerun of) the debate but could not engage the video. Many screen readers have a heck of a time with Java implementation (scripts are OK) and that's life on the Net.

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