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Safe democracy

About the author

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics.

America’s “9/11” and Spain’s “3/11” (or “11-M” as Spaniards refer to the terrible events of 11 March 2004) have become the icons of a pervasive global sense of insecurity. There is a huge temptation for politicians to pander to and to amplify the public’s proper anxiety and concern. Measures like over-strict immigration rules, draconian anti-terrorist legislation, indefinite imprisonment without charge and even war, may make them look tough and decisive. But such policies can compound the mood of fear and prejudice, they tacitly permit growing racism, Islamophobia or anti-immigrationism. Worst of all, they can increase rather than reduce the threat of terrorism and violent fundamentalism. In other words, democracy is being undermined both by terrorism and the fear of terrorism.

Democracy for a safer world

openDemocracy is working with safe-democracy.org on the forthcoming Madrid Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security. Find out more about this major event at: http://madrid.opendemocracy.net

On the anniversary of 11 March 2004, the political leaders who come together in Madrid will formulate a set of principles and policies to address this double problem. I hope that they will take terrorism seriously but also refuse to allow electoral calculations to influence their conclusions. I want them to call for the mobilisation of global civil society involving people of all faiths from all over the world, especially in those areas where terrorism is most pervasive, to create programmes which will protect individuals and communities, counter extremist ideologies, extend the rule of law and social justice worldwide, and help to build democracy at global, national, and local levels.

Certainly, we are facing a new form of terrorism that can only be understood in the context of globalisation.

The US state department defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents”. The new form of terrorism differs from classical 20th century terrorism in three key respects.

First, classical terrorist groups usually used it to further political goals of left or right (Trotskyism, Anarchism, Fascism). The new groups espouse extremist ethnic or religious ideologies. They claim to act in the name of a particular community or religious doctrine but they share a narrative of holy war, an Armageddon obsession, in which a mighty clash between good and evil is taking place. The novelty of al-Qaida was that Osama bin Laden was the first to use these ideas to directly attack America.

Second, their violence is itself a form of political mobilisation. It is grisly, spectacular and designed for the media age. Whereas classical terrorists tended to attack strategic targets – such as important officials, telephone towers, or power stations – the new terrorists carry out mass killings, suicide bombings, or hideous atrocities like video-beheadings in order to gain and shape public attention and project their call to a holy war.

Western governments often emphasise the risk that terrorist groups will try to acquire weapon of mass destruction (WMD), by which they mean lethal chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Although terrorist groups may acquire such weapons, it is extremely difficult to inflict mass destruction without sophisticated labs and infrastructure. Current tactics, which are the tactics of the weak, are horrible enough. The western preoccupation with WMD simply adds to the generalised sense of anxiety.

Third, the new organisational forms of terrorism are more like a network than the classical terrorist groups which were hierarchical and built on tightly knit secret cells. Today, militant organisations consist of loose horizontal associations, united by a common narrative but consisting of a variety of groups, cells, religious institutions, NGOs and charities, and even individuals. Within the network different units operate fairly autonomously funded by a combination of transnational support groups and organised crime. They make use of the infrastructure of globalisation – web sites, videocassettes, transnational banking systems, mobile phones.

Western governments may have succeeded, as they claim, in averting some attacks through the classical methods of intelligence and policing, and, of course, such methods have to be sustained. At the same time, the treatment of suspected terrorists, the double standards applied to different repressive regimes, and especially towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, and above all the wars fought in the name of the “war on terror”, have allowed extremist networks to spread and multiply.

openDemocracy’s global security correspondent Paul Rogers writes a weekly column on “the war on terror”. Read it here.
Nothing more clearly illustrates this than the war in Iraq. The main extremist Islamic cell then before the war was a small marginal group called Ansar al-Islam, based in northern Kurdistan. The invasion of Iraq and subsequent failures of the occupying troops have allowed the allies of al-Qaida to become a visible element of the insurgency, to ally with their former enemies, the Ba’athists, and to spread and gain support. Violence is a recruiting agent and a training ground. In western Europe, some immigrant groups have been radicalised by the failure of their efforts to prevent war and elsewhere, the war has strengthened anti-western feelings.

How then should we respond? Political leaders should call on global civil society to participate in the campaign to make democracy safe. But we do not need to wait on our leaders. We need to initiate a far-reaching discussion, especially involving the Islamic world, about how to address the immediate threat of violence and also the conditions under which terrorism thrives. Instead of allowing leaders to exploit public opinion through the manipulation of popular fears, we should press for frank, reasoned and dignified arguments at all levels of society, to counter the influence of terrorism in all its forms.

openDemocracy’s idea of having meetings around the world to coincide with the Madrid Summit is a bold one that can help to begin the kind of agenda changing dialogue that is needed.

What are the main questions that the Madrid Summit needs to address and which openDemocracy meetings on 11 March can consider? My list is not complete but it includes:

  • How to protect individuals and communities? Governments and international institutions need to focus on human security rather than the security of borders. For this they need communities to provide not just information but also to build their own forms of support and protection, which reinforce the work of the police and other government agencies.
  • How to stabilise and resolve ongoing conflicts? The ‘new wars’ not only in the middle east but in places like Africa, the Caucasus and central Asia, or southeast Europe, are the “black holes” that generate a dangerous mixture of extreme ideologies, organised crime and humanitarian disaster.
  • How to counter extremist ideologies? The ideas that contribute to extremist ideologies, especially political Islam, need to be taken seriously. All of them involve a critique of modernity, not only on so-called moral issues but also the ways in which globalisation has been accompanied by excessive consumerism and social exclusion.
  • How to respond to the economic and social insecurities that contribute to the growth of terrorism – issues like migration, rapid urbanisation, unemployment, as well as the role of militant NGOs or extreme forms of religious education?
  • How to promote democracy and participation from below? Democracy is never best imposed from outside or from above. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill made the point that democratic values can only be established through the “arduous struggle for freedom”. How can individuals and institutions in civil society connect with and support those directly engaged in this “arduous struggle”?
21st-century terrorism is an extreme response to globalisation. It has set in motion a vicious circle of exclusion and anxiety. If we are to break out of this we need rethink the meaning and nature of global politics, starting where globalisation itself begins - in the locality. Our political parties need to reflect this too and become forums for engagement with new realities as the Greek opposition leader George Papandreou has argued in his recent openDemocracy interview.

Terrorism is frightening and dangerous. Its threats are not to be lightly dismissed. On the contrary, it needs to be taken seriously and not used for short-term political advantage. The challenge is to develop a broad, large-minded and principled response that isolates terrorists and shows them that democracy can deliver.


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