Interesting and important elections are piling up this spring, but few have quite as much riding on their success as those in the two countries most ravaged by the War on Terror. But the Afghan presidential election, whose first round took place two weekends ago, and the Iraqi parliamentary vote set for the end of April, are more than just crucial milestones in the countries’ recoveries from more than a decade of war: They also represent two of the best opportunities left for a political defeat of terror itself.
The idea of terrorism always consists in a rejection of politics; in the Islamic context in particular, terrorism is conceived in opposition to political Islam. Concurrent with (infuriating) Western arguments over whether the Middle East is “not yet ready” or even “culturally incompatible” with democracy are lively debates between and among Islamist movements over the role that democracy can play in achieving Islamic government.
Much as conservative Soviet leaders (rightly) concluded that the introduction of parliamentary democracy would rob the Communist Party of its revolutionary claim to mass sovereignty and thus ultimately of its power, hardline Islamist theorists have questioned whether a democratic political process can serve as a foundation for a state that places sovereignty with Allah and Islamic law.
Ever since the handful of Islamist political parties of the first half of the 20th century lost out to Western pressure during the Cold War, those same hardliners have kept a consistent line: Democracy will destroy Islam, and so the forces of Islam must fight—as al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi said in 2005, in response to President Bush’s freedom agenda speech: “A bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it.”
As the West’s favorite option of stable, secular dictatorships (making the issue moot) becomes increasingly untenable, the question of politics or militancy has reasserted itself again and again, with only one consistent result: Whenever and wherever the question is decided by force, those who advocate force inevitably have the upper hand.
And so the wars against terror drag on, as the conflict itself is stacked towards the side that wants to fight. The elections in Afghanistan and Iraq matter so much because they force a reframing of this conflict: They force every faction and every leader—even or perhaps especially those which boycott the elections—to be a political actor, just as war forces every party to be a military actor.
Although no members were on the ballot, the Afghan Taliban’s political position was clear. They announced before the election that they had “a specific military plan for the election”—namely, “to attack the security forces deployed for election security and the election materials.” As if it weren’t clear enough already, the spokesman reiterated that “we have warned the people […] not to participate in the election.”
Their failure was military, yes—not a single large-scale assault was successful—but since the people of Afghanistan spurned the Taliban’s demands to stay home, it was also a failure of a political platform.
In Iraq, political Islam is competing with not one but two alternative conceptions of the Islamist project. One is terrorism: The militant Sunni group once known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) has been disowned by central al-Qaida, and now, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), forms the most extreme faction in the Syrian opposition and controls several cities in Iraq’s Anbar province. Like the Afghan Taliban, ISIS aims to sabotage the upcoming Iraqi elections, distributing leaflets in Anbar to warn the public against participation.
The other is the theocratic ideal of wilayat al-faqih, the “guardianship of the jurist,” that underlies the Iranian political system, under which sovereign power is vested in a single (Shi’a) ayatollah, who manages and overrules the decisions of democratically elected leaders. In contrast, and despite Iranian pressure, Iraqi Shi’a political parties have chosen a more pluralist relationship with the ayatollahs that reside in their country. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest-ranking Shi’a jurist in Iraq, has been careful to endorse the election itself without standing behind any one party or leader.
Political Islam faces setbacks around the region—from the collapse of Western support in Gaza a decade ago after highly anticipated elections brought to power a party that endorsed terrorism, to the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and threats to AKP rule in Turkey—but it remains the only credible alternative in the Middle East to the autocracy and misrule of the 20th century.
Every election in a country riven by conflict is an opportunity for democracy to prove itself capable of the most difficult demand that can be placed on it—an opportunity, that is, to prove that electoral politics can be a substitute for war.
By any purely institutional account, Afghanistan and Iraq are not model democracies. But nobody has fought for democracy harder, has endured more for its sake or understands more deeply why it matters.
Contact James Bradbury at email@example.com.