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20 years after 9/11

Keiko Sakai sees Islam, democracy as compatible

Expert says deep understanding of each country's culture and traditions needed

A female taxi driver transports a passenger in Tehran in August 2011. About 500 women drive for the Women's Taxi company, which serves only female passengers. In Iran, women are playing an increasing role in society.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Will democracy ever take root in the Middle East? To this question, Chiba University professor Keiko Sakai answers that Islam is not necessarily incompatible with democracy. Nikkei interviewed Sakai about the responsibility the international community should take for the Islamic world. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

The Middle East has long been considered a dangerous region. However, only since the start of the 21st century have terrorist attacks jumped globally, particularly from around 2004, and many occurred in the Middle East and South Asia. Before then, the Middle East did not have especially many conflicts or terrorist attacks.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. were completely different from previously known Middle East issues. Until then, conflict had been mainly between Israel and the Palestinians. For armed groups originating in the Middle East, the United States was an enemy purely because it was the key supporter of Israel. They attacked U.S. facilities in their countries but did not harbor the idea of attacking the U.S. mainland.

The idea of directly attacking the U.S. mainland had its roots in the Gulf War. People who opposed the presence of the U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia held protests in their countries and were met with severe penalties, including expulsion. Such occurrences engendered the thought in their minds that they were alienated because America, the superpower, had a dominating presence in the world.

Osama bin Laden, who initiated the 9/11 attacks, and his al-Qaida group believed the Islamic community was a victim of persecution by Europe and the U.S. and decided they had to save the victims. Thus a network of militants on a global scale was formed outside their home countries. The Islamic State group, a radical group that aspired to become the home for alienated Muslims to fall back on, can be thought of as an extension of this network.

IS approached Muslims who had studied in or relocated to European countries and the U.S. to join it. The majority of such people had compromised their faith and made efforts to blend into their local communities, but many had become alienated by deep-rooted discrimination and prejudice. Such individuals were lured to IS.

On the other hand, following 9/11 the U.S. asserted that democratization of the Middle East was essential for realizing peace. The U.S. administration led by then-President George W. Bush dispatched and stationed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, alleging that terrorism supporters were present in these countries, and tried to change their politics and social institutions.

However, it was very unusual for U.S. foreign policy to demonstrate an ambition to evangelize for democracy.

"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it is the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country," U.S. President Joe Biden said on July 8 as he discussed the reasons for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. What was important for the U.S. was to eliminate the threat of terrorism by helping stabilize the Middle East region, not to construct a democratic nation.

Keiko Sakai is an expert on Iraqi history and Mideast politics.

Of course, the international community was not just standing on the sidelines when Afghanistan needed help to achieve stability. Some countries and organizations, including Japan and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, took supportive action, but they failed to coordinate efforts to support democracy. Policies for the Middle East, where reconstruction does not follow destruction, left room for the Taliban Islamic group to regain power in Afghanistan.

Will democracy take root in the Middle East, then? Actually, democracy, which respects freedom and the equality of individuals, is not necessarily incompatible with Islam, which teaches "equality in the presence of God."

While the Taliban, which advocates Islamic beliefs, has severely restricted the rights of women, in Iran, which is also governed based on Islamic teachings, women are playing an increasing role in society. There are now more jobs for women in that country. For example, female drivers are required to transport teachers and students to and from schools for women.

It is possible to find ways to pursue freedom and equality in forms that suit each country's culture and traditions, although there are not yet many examples of this. The important thing is to understand that European- or U.S.-style systems are not always applicable.

In Afghanistan, where tension is mounting, locals who cooperated with foreign countries are being threatened by the Taliban. The international community must protect such people in a responsible manner. Beyond that, if we are to once again explore ways of stabilizing the Middle East, deep understanding of Islam is essential.

Keiko Sakai, born in 1959, is a Chiba University professor and expert on political history of Iraq and modern Middle East politics.

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