Ismail Serageldin


The closing speech at the 'Democratic Security in a Time of Extremism and Violence' conference

 16/01/2017 | The closing speech at the 'Democratic Security in a Time of Extremism and Violence' conference

ُExcellencies, Ladies and gentlemen

We have gathered here to discuss one of the most troubling issues of our times, forced upon democratic societies and decent people everywhere by the rampant extremism and the violence and terrorism that it begat. We sought to bring to bear the wisdom of experienced leaders, the judgment of people of political talent who have been recognized and elected by fellow-citizens, and have proven worthy of their trust, and people who have earned the respect of the international community.

The range of issues underlying our topic is complex and variegated. I believe that these issues raise ten major questions, and I beg your indulgence and the time necessary as I try to take them one by one.

First: Did we frame the issue correctly?

I do believe that we have framed the issues correctly. That one of the most important questions of our time is how societies that have had a long tradition of democratic rule, or those who aspire to build a strong democratic system have to find a balance between providing the security they owe their citizens and the rights and liberties that they must protect for those same citizens.

 All democratic societies that value the liberties of their citizens, are content to declare that a crime is an act, not a thought, and is punished after the fact, and indeed such societies have constructed elaborate legal and judicial procedures to ensure that police and prosecutors actually punish the guilty party after proving that they are responsible “beyond a reasonable doubt”. They prefer to let a guilty party go free than to incarcerate an innocent person.

Terrorism poses a different challenge. The public wants the government to prevent the act of terror from occurring. To do that will require broadened surveillance and police powers to act on suspicions of conspiracy rather than to wait for terrorists to execute an act of terror and then capture the guilty party. That sets us on a dangerous path, where our liberties at risk. Recall the US “Patriot Act” passed after 9/11 to give government powers to fight a “War on Terror” produced Guantanamo, preventative detention, torture and the systematic murder by drone attacks.

 The argument that potential terrorists could be designated as “Undeclared Enemy Combatants” and thus become prisoners of war deprived of judicial due process that would be followed in a criminal case, is absurd. The Geneva Conventions and other international legal instruments that are deployed in wartime cannot cover the “War on Terror” which is a totally different animal. Thus, in most wars soldiers wear uniforms, and there is an implicit expectation that the war will have a certain duration and end with a peace treaty or other legal device after which there will be an exchange of prisoners. But can one see such an ending in the “War on Terror”? Who would the government sign the peace treaty with?

 Maybe the examples of Northern Ireland and now the Colombia Agreement with the FARC gives us new models, but that was with a group that controlled a certain part of the national territory of a country, and their willingness after decades of conflict to change their ways and lay down their arms. I do not see that happening in the current situations with Da’ish and Al-Qaeda and similar groups, who are launching an all-out war on all civilized nations. They must be, and are being, confronted by military force and their agents are being pursued by security forces that are blocking their terrorist plans.

Where does the right balance lie? Does it differ from country to country?

These are the questions that we met here to explore. Different societies will find different points of balance, and hopefully all shall avoid a slide towards authoritarianism or even totalitarianism

However, it must also be emphasized that whatever the decisions that are reached by individual governments, ultimately terrorism shall be defeated through cultural confrontation, defeating extremist ideas with ideas of openness and pluralism, marginalizing the extremists and destroying their appeal to alienated youth. Second: how far can the pendulum swing between the extremes of a secure but repressive system, and a free but exposed society?

There is a risk that in the necessary broadening of the police powers to ensure the security of citizens against terrorist attacks governments, even the most liberal, may slide towards a more authoritarian behavior. But the rising fears of the population at large, added to the generally insecure economic future of an aging population in the west also sets the stage for the rise of a new populist politics.


An eminent intellectual, Timothy Garton Ash, defines populism with these words:


“Populism, […] is inimical to pluralism. Its target is pluralist, liberal democracy, with those vital constitutional and social checks and balances that prevent any “tyranny of the majority” from prevailing over individual human rights, safeguards for minorities, independent courts, a strong civil society, and independent, diverse media”.


Timothy Garton Ash goes further and charges that


“… to describe what happens when a government that emerges from a free and fair election is demolishing the foundations of a liberal democracy but has not yet erected an outright dictatorship—and may not even necessarily intend to. … I shall continue to use “illiberal democracy.”


So is a populist “illiberal democracy” a mask for, or a prelude to, a form of dictatorship? Or is it just another form of democratic government?


But for the moment, let us leave the risks of a rising tide of populism and concentrate more on the broader picture of the global wave of terrorism and the role of radical Muslim extremists from Al-Qaeda to Da’ish and the many other groups from Boko Haram to Jabhet Al-Nusra, in what is indeed a full scale war being waged by these terrorists on the civilized nations of the world.


Third: Diagnosis: Is this a religious war? Can an inter-religious dialogue help?


Although the terrorists use a religious language to justify their pernicious ideology it is not a religious war since the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Indeed, by far, most of the victims of terrorism are Muslims, and most of the fighting being done in the field on the ground against Da’ish is being done by Muslims.


But undoubtedly there is a huge problem in the Muslim world of today. The Sunna/Shia split has been revived, and the battles between schools of thought within each of these two broad sides of Islam are further joined by different schools from the most conservative to the most liberal. All this in addition to a severe cleavage between Muslims and the rest of the world, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist, and the Muslim World of Muslim Majority countries, and large minorities (such as in India) definitely has to address these difficulties. Then if you overlay all that onto a complex mosaic of ethnicities and tribal affiliations, not to mention minority religions, you have an extremely complex set of issues that has now exploded into a number of failed states, outright civil war, and a region engulfed in fire and brimstone.


It is the prevalent religious discourse that has to change. Centers of Muslim learning have been allowed to drift ever more to the conservative and even extreme- right in the last forty years, at the behest of some states, both Shia and Sunna. Liberal intellectuals both within the Muslim traditions and from the secular realm are bringing to bear all their capacities and their learning to combat that drift. Here in Egypt we have been exposed to what the leaders of Muslim thought, from Al-Azhar to the intellectuals in the universities, as well as the leaders of the Christian Church are doing in terms of trying to bring the communities together in a framework of amity and mutual respect, to change the religious discourse by both learned studies and field actions. But the extremists are also active, trying to attack the legitimacy of those who want to change the religious discourse, and continuing their fight against the established order.


The extremists within this Muslim world, with their armed militias and terrorist groups wage a war of terror on the West and on the Muslim majority countries alike. These fighters are sometimes referred to as Jihadists, a word that I do not like as it does not do justice to the term jihad in Muslim history of thought and of action. But it is a term that has now acquired its own meaning and its own baggage. They are waging a war, in the name of religion, on all the values that we hold dear and they are attracting youth from all countries into their web of deceit and of violence.


The youths that they are attracting are actually better educated than the average populations they are drawn from, but are severely alienated from their societies. This is especially true of the societies where large unemployment among educated youths has accompanied the austerity programs launched by governments who are still following obsolete policies based on presumed fiscal rectitude with no regard to the social consequences of such policies.


Fourth: What is the role of social injustice, poverty and marginalization in connection to Terrorism?


It is normal that youth, who are less invested in the order in which their elders found a place, even if a marginal place, should feel that if that social order rejects them, they should also reject it. They are ripe for recruitment into movements that claim to advance a better societal model, and have a vision of something even greater than technically solving some issues that plague society today.


Buffeted by globalization and technological advance, most western societies have lost a significant number of manufacturing jobs and these displaced workers have become the main supporters of the extreme right politicians. Their children are angry at the obvious injustice as the gaps between the rich and the poor, whether measured by income or by wealth, continue to grow over the last three decades.


In the USA the situation is devastating: during the last 35 years, since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution in 1980, the super-rich (the top 1%) went from earning half as much to earning almost twice as much as the bottom 50% of society. But luckily, the USA has a growing labor market that is absorbing many of the educated youths while their elders, who have lost their jobs, are the primary respondents to the appeal of populism.


In Europe it is different. Unemployment is high, and the austerity measures in the southern tier countries of the Eurozone, have seen unemployment rates in the range of 20-25% and youth unemployment rates that hover around 50%.

In the Arab World and much of the Muslim World the situation is far worse. With populations where the under 25 years of age are a majority, the anger is not only palpable, it has exploded into outright revolution.


But wherever they are, in general, youth are marginalized in increasingly less caring societies. After their journey from childhood to adulthood and the emptiness of unemployment stretching for weeks, months and years, they see their society as indifferent to their plight and inimical to their interests.


Society sees in these unemployed youths a living condemnation of its policies, a breathing reminder of its failures. The politicians’ statements sound hollow even to their own ears, as they guiltily mouth the slogans and repeat the empty promises that other politicians have made before them.


But the explosive energy and creative abilities of these youths is available to the summons of experience. The traction of political dissent is capable of attracting their participation and of rousing their dormant powers like a fire signal in the night. The question is whether society is willing to create the space for these reawakened youthful powers to take a constructive path. If not, we should not be surprised to see youth challenge the social injustice, poverty and marginalization by taking to the streets or even joining extremist movements, who know how to recruit and indoctrinate them into terrorists.


Fifth: How do we win the war against terrorism?


The fight against terrorism is a primary responsibility of all civilized nations and all those who believe in the rights of humans to live in societies of their own choosing, where fundamental human rights to differ and express yourself are respected.


This conflict will require a mix of military actions, diplomatic initiatives, and security measures. But it must also involve the battle of ideas, the education system and the media. These domains should not be totally separated, for those who fight militarily must understand the cause they fight for, and those who fight with the pen must appreciate the efforts of those who put themselves in harm’s way. Indeed on the need to involve both warriors and scholars, we can find wisdom in the famous statement of Thucydides, (c.460 B.C.–c.400 B.C.) who said:


“The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools”


That strategy must avoid the twin challenges of the democratic regimes fighting terrorism sliding into autocracy, and the demonization of the enterprise into a “clash of civilizations” where entire societies are considered to be the enemy.


On the right mix of military, security and intellectual initiatives to be deployed to fight terrorism, there will be different views, but we can only hope that we achieve a measure of consensus that will maintain and even strengthen the social fabric of our societies. Such a consensus will be “an appropriate mixture of unforced agreement with tolerant disagreement”.



Sixth: Can one overcome the cleavages in society that terrorism has exposed? Can a compromise be made with the terrorists or their sympathizers?


Since 9/11 the “War on Terror” has been the dominant form of confrontation between the civilized world and the merchants of hate and the artisans of terror. But there were other earlier campaigns of terror and governments managed to defeat them. From the IRA in the UK, to the OAS in France, and from the FARC in Colombia (the longest such campaign in history) to the GIA in Algeria and the Jama’at Islamiyya in Egypt (who assassinated President Sadat), all these confrontations, despite their differences, have much of value to bring to the reflections of thoughtful people in these terrible times the world is living through. I believe that one of the insights that is unmistakable from past experiences is that those who think they can collaborate with or manipulate and use the extremists are mistaken. The experience of The Mujahidin in Afghanistan begat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda; the opening that President Sadat gave the Islamists in Egypt was repaid by his murder.


We know that a military and security response to Terrorism is warranted and needed. But beyond that is the battle of ideas, which requires dialogue and openness on all of society to change the dominant political, religious and media discourse. Military solutions alone will not be enough.


Just look at Aleppo. There are no victors there. Death and destruction is everywhere… the fires of conflict have consumed it all… now the only things left under the rubble and the ash, are the burning embers of latent hatreds, ready to reignite the flames of chaos sometime in the future.


This kind of victory, by either side, does not resolve the issues that led to the conflict in the first place. And the cleaved societies have to learn to bind the nation’s wounds and start the healing process, as the members of the various communities re-learn how to live with each other. It is only by stopping the vitriolic sermons of hatred and by rejecting the seductive political promise of besting our designated stereotyped adversaries that the first steps to marginalizing the extremists will be taken. Social rehabilitation will come by recognizing the voices of reason and the artisans of pluralistic communities. From these we can advance towards restoring social peace and rebuilding a viable body politic.


Wole Soyinka addressed this dilemma in his outstanding set of essays published under the title: “The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness”. We owe the victims of the past to bear witness to future generations about what happened. We cannot let their memories fade and mingle with those who were their torturers and their butchers. And any sense of justice demands that we do not just spare the innocent, but also that we condemn the guilty. For there can be no impunity for those who have engaged in barbaric behavior.


But on the other hand, the country cannot continuously fight and re-fight these divisive wars indefinitely. We cannot foist the sins of the fathers on their children. Forgiveness and turning the page to start a new life for the nation is also needed or else there shall be no future.


Not only must we condemn the guilty, we must also exonerate the innocent. But there is no perfect boundary between the darkness and the light. There are many who will fall into that twilight between the two. And for those who thought and who were inclined to, but did not act upon, the hate and rejected the calls to violence, we should be able to find a means of co-existence and dialogue that we may convince them of the blessings of pluralism and the need to tear out root and branch from our society the visceral hatreds that animated those who went beyond extremist views and into violence.


These probably count in the hundreds of thousands, and in a generally conservative and religious society there would be an even wider circle of sympathizers and well-wishers who can sense some kinship between them and these hundreds of thousands even as they distance themselves from the terrorists and condemn their actions. So at some point, there must be an effort to reach and work with those who have perhaps sympathized with the extremists but did not join in their murderous activities.


Seventh: Does the rise of populist far-right politicians in the West prefigure more cleavage between the Western Democracies and the Muslim-Majority Countries?


Yes, there is no doubt that the rise of populism is a threat to democratic systems anywhere. Those who see the political systems of the west as immune from the rise of possible extremists because the capitalist economic system is closely intertwined with liberal democracy, and that the current mood of rejection of further expansions of globalization and trade is merely a brief blip in that continued direction are mistaken.


The notion that capitalism is tied to liberal democracy is a sham. Capitalism is a system of production that can co-exist with absolute dictatorship (as with Pinochet in Chile), a liberal social democracy (as in Sweden) a plutocracy (as in the US) and in the heart of a state-run centrally managed country (as in China).


The notion that democracy is all about elections is also a sham. Shorn of the fundamental notion that democracy is about the protection of the minority from the tyranny of the majority, and deprived of the leavening provided by an active civil society and a free press, ritual elections lose much of their meaning.


The seduction of the notion of populist politician as the savior will probably lead to an authoritarian regime, without checks and balances, and a society where youth is wasted, greed rules, and corruption is everywhere, all of which leaves little room for the voices of reason, rationality and pluralistic debate to flourish in a climate of civility.


In their rise, the populist politicians are pitiless towards their befuddled opponents. They operate without regard to truth, to accuracy or to any notion of common decency, and they are able with laser-like accuracy to hit the key concerns of an estranged and fearful population. Watching them operate, one is held and absorbed by the virtuoso displays of mass mobilization of a potential majority of the country against the outside world and the resisting minority of the citizenry.


There is a horror in watching the rise and rise of these political movements and the manipulations of their guiding merchants of hate and fear. The conventional politicians are left bereft of responses to the ever more outrageous claims; hanging on, trying to parry the darting thrust of the next attack, and overwhelmed by the punishing swiftness of its visitations.


But there is a fascination in watching these – by our judgments – catastrophic developments and the emerging linkage between the populist politicians and their targeted supporters. There is a type of perfection, like watching a snake seemingly mesmerize its prey. It is part of the peculiar harmonies of a chaotic world.


So, they can win elections, but can they govern? It is a dangerous test, for some have proven adept at the consolidation of their position once they came to power. We do not have to go back to the dark days of communism, fascism and Nazism to draw our examples. There are lessons to be learned from developments right now. By actually doing something about one or two issues of great concern to their followers, such as banning immigrants, and wrapping themselves in the mantle of nationalism, claiming to protect the nation and the national identity against a murky and undefined set of enemies. They can get reelected and stay in power. But claiming legitimacy from the electoral process, they then proceed to subvert he institutions of democracy, destroy all opposition, strangle the media and designate their critics as co-conspirators with that murky and undefined set of enemies. This leads to more divisiveness, more of the “Us vs. Them”: “We are the real nationalists; these other citizens are not true members of this nation”. And of course, in that type of climate, the relations with “the Other” beyond the frontiers of the nation are bound to deteriorate even further.


Eighth: What about the Muslim minority in each of the western democracies?


Most of the Muslim minorities in the West are law-abiding people who mind their own business and try to maintain their religious beliefs. Occasionally that makes them appear different than the mainstream of western society. This was also the case with Jewish communities in the last century, and remains the case with the Roma people in this century. But there are some loci of extremism, where militant Imams give vitriolic sermons and call for application of Sharia, and self-isolation from society. But it is clear that they do not constitute the majority of Muslims in the west. In fact, they are a tiny minority, but one that is vocal and media-savvy.


But if these Muslim communities in the aggregate do not pose threats to western society, the militant extremist loci are another matter. They build on the fears, alienation and anger of the younger generation, and strengthen the prevailing historical narrative that casts Muslims as the eternal enemies of Christian Europe. This deepens the cleavage in society, and feeds the alienation of the Muslim youth.


Indeed, the prevalent historical narratives in Europe and in the Arab countries in the south of the Mediterranean need to be changed. Each of these prevailing narratives casts the “other” as a long standing enemy.. Thus Muslims in Europe are not told that their forefathers contributed to the formation of European civilization, and the crusades are presented as an episode where the Muslim East is the villain. That is why Amin Maalouf’s book The Crusades seen Through Arab Eyes had such a powerful impact in the West.


On the south of the Mediterranean, the Europeans are cast as the villains from the Crusades to colonialism, imperialism and currently neo-imperialism. They are denied the credit for the enormous advances in the values of the Enlightenment and the promotion of democracy and human rights, and are accused of hypocrisy, double standards and worse.


Yet I am convinced that an alternative historical narrative is not only needed, but possible, for it is the true narrative. Stretching over millennia, it gives each cultural group and each civilization its due, and shows that – at different times – our forefathers each made a contribution to the formation of the civilization that we value and appreciate today in the beginning of the 21st century. It is time that this narrative becomes better articulated, and that it be supported by the media and the structures of the educational enterprise in all countries.


This is in addition to the need to ensure that all minorities, including the Muslim minorities, are treated fairly in the socio-economic structure in society, and do not bear a disproportionate burden of the difficult economic adjustments that lead to “first fired, last hired” among youth where unemployment rates are already at astronomical levels. This is difficult at a time when Europe is opposing immigration, and justified fears of terrorism are on the rise, and populist politicians are exploiting these situations to their benefit.


But can we think of these changes on a regional scale?


Ninth: Is an alliance between the West and the Muslim-Majority countries possible? What would the basis and reach of such an alliance be?


I believe yes, it is possible, but the problems of refugees and migration have complicated the issues. Europe today is seeking to replicate the holding arrangements that they have established with Turkey, by entering into similar agreements with many countries in the southern Mediterranean and beyond, as they reach out to countries south of the Sahel in Africa, where economic and environmental as well as political migrants may be coming in the years ahead. But beyond that type of a short-term “fix” to the issue of immigration, there is much more that can be done, by helping the stabilization and development of the countries of origin of the potential future migrants.


The rising problem of terrorism on both sides of the Mediterranean does not only pose military and security challenges, it also raises a fundamental set of cultural challenges. For in the end, the violent extremists among the religious zealots and the political movements that are devoted to terrorism as a means of achieving their aims, all need to be defeated in the realm of ideas. Their views must be exposed for the sham that they are and their positions must be marginalized so that their appeal to younger generations is minimized. This set of tasks is important for all governments, and constitutes a basis for collaboration between the governments on both sides of the Mediterranean and beyond to all the civilized countries of the world.


A corollary of that is the emerging problem of refugees from the war zones, to whom refugees from environmental degradation from deep in Africa will be added. The politics of dealing with these numbers of refugees is proving a controversial political issue in many if not all European countries and now also in the USA. Addressing the causes of the current refugee problem means we must address the warfare that is raging in their home countries, as well as promote development and improvement of living conditions for all in these countries. It is a vision of cooperation built on mutual interest, clear win-wins on both sides of the Mediterranean.


But what can we do to bridge the differences between these societies both in their socio-cultural and political constructions? Marshall, great statesman that he was, recognized that the new world order was not to try to impose by force a transformation of the societies of the world into little Americas, but that the starting point had to be the existing societies, with all their imperfections, and then to build on that towards a peaceful and more equitable world. Already in 1942 he was thinking of the Post-war order, and in a speech in NY he said:


“We must take the nations of the world as they are, the human passions and prejudices of people as they exist, and find some way to secure […] a peaceful world”.


That early vision was further articulated in his grand post-war strategy that became the “Marshall Plan”. On that he said that the work would be done by the Europeans themselves and that the US would support their efforts.


And in his historic speech at Harvard in 1947, where he launched the Marshall plan, he called on his compatriots to try to understand the level of devastation in Europe as it came out of the WW2, at a time when there was no television news and YouTube videos like today:


“…the people of this country are distant from the troubled areas of the earth and it is hard for them to comprehend the plight and consequent reactions of the long-suffering peoples, and the effect of those reactions on their governments in connection with our efforts to promote peace in the world”.


Surely the western democracies today cannot claim the same distance from “the troubled areas of the earth”. They should comprehend how our futures are linked and that the actions required should go beyond short term political fixes and address the roots of the problems in the countries that will be pushing these waves of migrants towards Europe and the west.


Furthermore, Marshall also pointed out that short term political gain was not the purpose of his great initiative. He rightly said:


“Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist”.


Is that call to action not as correct today as it was 70 years ago?


Tenth (and last): what have we learned from all these discussions?


We learned again what in our hearts we already knew. That the values we hold dear must be defended again and again, from potential enemies whether in our own community or from another. And today we need to actively promote the values of civility and pluralism, humanism and liberty, and to join security and freedom for the benefit of all, and we need to do that against threats from extremists and populists alike.


We learned that intellectuals as much as warriors have a sacred duty in these confrontations. Some intellectuals believe that they can look with detachment at the evolving patterns of successive combinations of human frailty and short-sighted ambition, fragments of human reality that come to light in successive configurations, and that it is enough for them to describe all they see with ironic precision. But such detachment is today unacceptable. Intellectuals must stand up and be counted for the values that need to be defended.


We learned that if we are to defeat the extremists and the terrorists, the populists and the demagogues, political leaders must rise above the immediate short-term political fixes and complement those with actions of vision and determination, as was the case with the famous Marshall plan articulated 70 years ago, or with the launch of the European project a decade later.


It is clear that the commonalities between all the civilized societies of the world make them natural allies against the terrorists and the extremist ideological currents that seek to justify their unjustifiable actions. But the bases and frameworks for a more effective collaboration in these cases needs to be better developed.


We are today at an important moment in world history. Where the established democracies must fight for their values and prevent the rise of the populist political right wing with its drift towards “illiberal democracy”, while we who are on the front lines in the Arab and Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, reshape our societies as we bring security and freedom to our peoples. Together, as neighbors, we can forge a coalition of the caring, so that the Mediterranean once more becomes the locus of global hopes and aspirations, the meeting place of cultures where the values of humanism are nurtured. It is a vision that can be realized.


Our forefathers coming out of the bloodbath of WW2 managed to forge not only the European Union, but also an Atlantic Alliance. And I think that President Kennedy’s words addressing the neighborly relations between the US and Canada still resonate through six decades to inspire us to confront the challenges ahead in our Mediterranean neighborhood, and to encourage us to build our Trans-Mediterranean Alliance to promote peace, prosperity and Democratic Security in this age of war and terror, for he said:


“Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. … What unites us is far greater than what divides us”.


And speaking in Germany Kennedy also said:

So we are all idealists. We are all visionaries. Let it not be said of this […] generation that we left ideals and visions to the past, nor purpose and determination to our adversaries. […] And we shall ever remember what Goethe told us--that the "highest wisdom, the best that mankind ever knew" was the realization that "he only earns his freedom and existence who daily conquers them anew”.

How true… Thank you.

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