Can Democracy Stop Terrorism? Conference participants respond



Rt. Hon. John Brumby, former Premier of Victoria; Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne

In government, I generally followed the approach to tackling crime that was summed up by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.' 

Terrorist acts are, first and foremost, crimes.  We don't need to make a choice between coming down hard on those committing or planning to commit terrorist acts on the one hand, and working with communities and individuals to stop the processes that lead to radicalisation on the other.  It's a false dichotomy: we need to do both.

From time to time, democracies must review the balance between police and judicial powers and the democratic freedoms they exist to protect. This is not an easy task. 

Governments must weigh up the nature of the threats that are emerging; the legislative impediments identified by police and intelligence services that compromise their ability to address these threats; and the potentially negative social and human rights impacts of removing these impediments.

Governments should match their hardline responses with an equally serious effort to promote harmony and pride in our multicultural society. One of my proudest moments as Premier was leading our Harmony Day march through Melbourne, at which tens of thousands of Victorians showed their solidarity with multicultural communities. 

At-risk communities and young people need to know there is a place for them in Australia; that they are welcomed and valued; and that a positive future awaits them with opportunities in jobs, education, and the other social supports they need to live well and prosper.

Finally, strong political rhetoric is needed to counter the influence of shock jocks and fringe politicians. To their credit, both Prime Minister Turnbull and Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten have been exemplary on this front.

Akil Awan, Associate Professor in Modern History, Political Violence and Terrorism, University of London

There are two fundamental principles that need to be borne in mind if democracies are to successfully defeat the scourge of terrorism.

First: democracies must not overreact to terrorist outrages. Second: Citizens must not, through fear, hand over excessive power to the state in the wake of terrorism.

As difficult as that might be in the aftermath of horrific tragedies like the Paris attacks, we must ensure we respond with proportionality in mind. We cannot overreact in knee-jerk fashion in our own societies. Islamic State will not only be hoping for such a response, but confidently expecting it.

In the February issue of its flagship magazine, Dabiq, Islamic State wrote of polarizing the world by destroying its greatest threat, the “grayzone”: that space in which young Frenchmen could be both Muslims and good citizens of the Republic, without any inherent contradiction.

IS anticipated that provocative terrorist attacks, like the one in Paris, would goad the French towards overreaction and “further bring division to the world and destroy the grayzone everywhere.”

Western Muslims would then be forced to make “one of two choices”: between apostasy or IS’ bastardized version of belief. The article even cited, rather approvingly, former US President George W. Bush’s central dictum that underscored the Global War on Terror: “The world today is divided into two camps. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning, either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.”

State counterterrorism responses that disproportionately target Muslim citizens, as they inevitably will, risk simply reinforcing the Manichaean black-and-white worldview of the fanatics themselves, playing directly into their hands.

We also cannot allow the state to overreact, because naturally, it proves incredibly corrosive to our own freedoms and democracy. From the American National Security Agency’s unprecedented mass surveillance regime to the creation of legal black holes like Guantanamo Bay, and from extrajudicial assassination by drones to the sanctioning of torture, we know precisely where the “threat of terror and tonic of security” can lead us.

When we are afraid, we will pretty much agree to anything.

And of course, many things that we do not agree to nevertheless end up on the roster too. This is the danger of the slippery slope, or function creep. Big data algorithms, used to decide who is placed on the drone strike kill list abroad in Yemen, might suddenly find their way into predicting civil unrest and dissent in places at home like Ferguson. We might not have approved of the latter, but by then it is too late—the genie’s out of the proverbial bottle.

Yes, we can and should tackle the growing menace of jihadist terrorism, but in the process, we cannot afford to lose sight of who we fundamentally are, as open, liberal, democratic societies.

This is an excerpt of an article published in the National Interest]

Dr Melanie Sully, Director, Go-Governance Institute

The European Union defines its common values as:

“[R]espect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail".

Since the terrorist atrocities in Paris on November the 13th, Europe is awakening to a nightmare of how to keep its people safe, while still defending these values under attack.

France has invoked the Mutual Defence Clause in the EU Treaty which states:

“If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States”.

National security remains the responsibility of the respective Member States, but they have responded with solidarity in this spirit which allows even neutral countries like Austria to play a role.

For some, like the United Kingdom, living with the spectre of terror is not new. Emergency measures should be justified and appropriate and continually reviewed by parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron said this month that it is to the British parliament that he is accountable. Before embarking on further military action in the Middle East it is expected that he would seek the support of the House of Commons, but this is a convention not a legal requirement. Where time was of the essence he could bypass this route, order action and go back to parliament subsequently for its consent.

For other Member States, the concept of militant democracy will be applicable which tolerates a higher level of retaliation and even violence in the name of ultimately securing peace.

Squaring this democratic circle will be the challenge for Europe in the years to come.

Europe is often cited as a successful peace project which reconciled the historic hostility between France and Germany. Today Europe is fighting a new battle on Belgian soil triggered by events in neighbouring France that has consequences for that peace we know far beyond Europe’s borders. But even these borders are the subject of contention and conflict as the EU struggles to defend them and its openness, reluctant to return to the barbed wire and watch towers of the Cold War.

We may need to consider differentiating between democracy in war and in peace. As Francois Hollande repeatedly has declared, “we are at war”. But Europe will not automatically “win” just because it is composed of democracies; it needs resolution, the means to fight and the correct strategy. The “war” is versus an enemy within making these prerequisites more complex than previous conflicts on European territories.

Rt. Hon. Simon Hughes, Former Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties, UK

Can democracy stop terrorism? The blunt answer to the direct question is clearly no. 

People set on unauthorised uses of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aims may not have any respect for democratic institutions and practice and may never have had any. There are those who do not accept the rule of law and the processes of law. 

There are also those who wish to impose their own rule of law apparently based on their own interpretation or understanding of theology. This ambition gives no credence to a system of government by the whole population, or a group of eligible members of a state other than those with a particular theological view or with military authority.

There is however an equally important second question. 

Can democracy reduce the risk of terrorism and minimise its adverse consequences both for individuals and for states? 

The answer to this question is more difficult, but clearly yes. 

Western democracy does not give confidence to many people for all of the time, let alone to all of the people for all of the time. Sometimes democracy fails to the extent that extremism is borne out of discrimination and marginalisation.

The challenges which threaten the more ordered world we seek are almost beyond comprehension. Improving democracy will never make the risk of terrorism worse.

Can democracy stop terrorism?

A/Prof Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director, Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University

Western democracy is not the answer to Middle East-rooted/Islam-inspired terrorism.

On the contrary, autocratic/authoritarian rule - at least strong and somewhat brutish central authority - may be necessary to maintain stability and peace in Middle East states in a broad sense. 

The ongoing Middle East mess is squarely attributable to the United States' miscalculated response to the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001, as I have argued elsewhere.

Changing regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya while promoting regime change in Syria and elsewhere generated massive civilian strife and unprecedented migratory crises, not to mention militant radicalisation and the outgrowth of relatively new terrorist movements, such as the Islamic State (IS).

The answer in the short term and as a strategic approach is to focus more on special operations to take down terrorism leadership and squeeze its sources of income.

In the longer-term, the answer may actually be to face up to and respect the teachings of Islam. This would narrow the alienation and resentment gaps between disenchanted ordinary Muslims and the modern world that has been instrumentally shaped by the West.

This contains excerpts from an article originally published in the Bangkok Post.

Professor John Keane, University of Sydney

There are those who are saying loudly, and in language much too self-righteously flowery for my taste, that the organised violence against French civilians is an attack on people everywhere.

Barack Obama has a point: the Paris violence is indeed an assault on “all of humanity and the universal values that we share”.

But as the Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi has just noted, the strange and hypocritical thing is that similar attacks on civilians in the cities of Lebanon, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Iraqi, Somalia, Palestine and other places are never greeted with the same public outcry, or moral indignation.

Why is this? Aren’t these also attacks on “all of humanity and the universal values that we share”?

So why do democracies harbour double standards? Why do we keep bombing and bullying people who are determined to take revenge on us?

Surely there will be no peace until we find other ways of compromise and reconciliation?

(This is an excerpt of an article originally published in The Conversation)

Dr Christopher Hobson, Waseda University, Tokyo

At a time when the calls for war grow loud, and the only response to violence seems to be more violence, it is valuable to remember what distinguishes democracy as a form of rule.

One of the most basic features of constitutional democracy is that it provides a method for struggling over and transferring power that largely excludes violence. Ballots are, as Friedrich Engels once described them, ‘paper stones’.

Democracy is meant to allow for debate and discussion, for arguments to be made and compromises reached.

Certainly the reality of democratic government is much messier and less noble than these sentiments might suggest. That is not enough to dismiss them, however.

When facing enemies that do not respect or share our values, it is easy to think that force must be met with force. The sad history of the mistaken ‘war on terror’ launched in anger and fear after 9/11 has demonstrated the moral and practical weaknesses of such thinking.

In facing the threat of terrorism, the challenge for democracies is to avoid the easy temptations of violence and instead emphasise the core features of democratic government that make it worth valuing and defending.


Image credit: Lyman Green/Flickr

Published Date
December 7, 2015