Saturday, February 26, 2011

Al Qaeda and the rise of freedom in the Middle East

Among Muammar Qaddafi's bizarre comments as his fall from power in Libya approaches, one particularly interesting one was his accusation that the rebels were under the thrall of Al Qaeda. His notion was that Al Qaeda had imposed its will by enticing young people to take hallucinogenic drugs, but -- that bizarre idea aside -- Qaddafi's basic point was not crazy: Al Qaeda has indeed opposed the autocratic governments of the Middle East. Not because Al Qaeda opposes autocracy, at least in the form of theocracy, but because it sees these governments as tools of the West and obstacles to Islamist change.

So is the fall of several authoritarian Mideast regimes good for Al Qaeda? That is one possibility. A commentator on the news today (Saturday, February 26) mentioned that one of the Libyan tribes that has now turned against Qaddafi practices a fundamentalist form of Islam and has declared Islamic rule in its part of Libya. More generally, it's clearly possible that fundamentalists will prove the best organized and most determined citizens in the countries that have thrown off their previous rulers, and will install themselves in place of the old, more pro-Western autocrats.

But something else is possible too. It's often been said, and I think correctly, that Franklin D. Roosevelt helped save American capitalism -- even though many capitalists hated him, and even though he sharply attacked them in turn. Precisely because FDR's government paid attention to the needs and the voices of the American people, he was able to generate reforms that contributing to reestablishing a workable social contract in this country.

Something of the same thing may turn out to be true in at least some countries of the Middle East. (It's a very diverse place, so I don't want to generalize too much -- and even so I'm speculating!) It may be that the best way to stem the tide of Al Qaeda is for governments to come to power that listen to their people. If so, the fall of the governments that we relied on may in the end turn out to be not Al Qaeda's victory but the source of its eventual downfall.

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