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Struggle against Islamist ideology will last centuries

By Benjamin Herscovitch - posted Monday, 6 October 2014

Combating Islamic State's deadly global reach gets more urgent by the day.

In the wake of the beheading of French tourist Herve Gourdel by Islamic State sympathisers in Algeria last week and the death of radicalised teen Abdul Numan Haider, a Melbourne man was arrested on Tuesday after reportedly providing $12,000 to a US citizen fighting for a terrorist organisation in Syria.

But the tragic truth is that in addition to counter-terrorism raids and airstrikes lasting days and weeks, we must prepare for a centuries-long ideological struggle with an enemy who is opposed to fundamental human rights and yet who enjoys a dangerously high degree of democratic support.


The Arab Spring's democratic uprisings of 2011 held out the promise of a flourishing of liberal rights and freedoms, and yet they have mired North Africa and the Middle East deeper in violence and extremism.

With the power of authoritarian but relatively secular strongmen challenged across the region, the fortunes of totalitarian Islamist ideology have soared on the back of widespread popular support.

In Tunisia-the birthplace of the Arab Spring-the relatively moderate but nonetheless Islamist Ennahda party stormed to electoral success in October 2011 after decades as an underground organisation.

Democracy then installed the abortive presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in June 2012, while Muammar Gaddafi's demise in Libya has seen Islamist militants expanding their control over the country's largest cities, including Tripoli and Benghazi.

The most striking chapter in this marriage between popular uprisings and Islamism is the now more than three year-old Syrian Civil War. This revolution has incubated the violently totalitarian Islamic State movement now unleashing terror across vast swathes of eastern Syria and western Iraq on the back of widespread Sunni support.

Even though Islamism seeks to enforce faith as the foundation of political, social and even economic life-and is therefore inherently hostile to basic individual freedoms-it has thrived in the era of democratisation.


Democracy merely stipulates that the will of the people should be sovereign; and provided that the majority is intolerant enough, there is nothing inconsistent between democratic rule and illiberal ideologies like Islamism.

There is, of course, a great deal of diversity among the varieties of Islamism. The comparatively liberal Ennahda party accepts citizenship rather than faith as the basis of individual rights, while the genocidal tendencies of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria make it as much a thuggish hate group as it is an outlet for Sunni discontent with Baghdad's Shia-dominated government.

Regardless of its different forms, the conventional wisdom is that this resurgence of Islamism is the product of foreign meddling.

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About the Author

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Follow him on Twitter @B_Herscovitch.

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