Intelligence Squared Debate: Are Islamists or Dictators Better Leaders For the Middle East

Intelligence Squared US (IQ2 US), an English import, was founded in 2006 by Robert Rosenkranz, a philanthropist and CEO (of Delphi Financial Group), with the goal of providing a forum for “intelligent discussion, grounded in facts and informed by reasoned analysis.” The series is based on Oxford-style debate format, a formal contest in which a specifically framed motion is proposed by one side and opposed by the other; the winner is declared by which team has swayed more audience members: it is a competition over which side makes the better argument. Since its inception, IQ2 US has hosted more than 60 debates on everything from the question of banning college football to the question of whether or not Islam is an inherently violent religion, and has featured many impressive, high-profile personalities, including Karl Rove, Dinesh D’Souza, Peter Thiel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Arianna Huffington.

Last week, Intelligence Squared US continued its Fall 2012 debate season with “Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators.” In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, Islamist parties (like Hamas and Hezbollah and most notably the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda) have been politically inserting and reasserting themselves in influential positions of overwhelming — and oftentimes brutal — political power across the Middle East. In short, it appears that the immediate results of democratic uprisings have ironically led to the election and entrenchment of Islamists — the very kinds of people who oppose liberal democratic politics. In Egypt, for example (which used to be an important and much less ambiguous ally of the U.S.), where there had once been a dictator the U.S. government was eager to support is now a government dominated by anti-Westerners who sympathize with terrorists (perhaps even sponsor some terrorism), wish to establish Shar’ia law, practice torture, reduce women to the level of subhuman, and would very much be delighted to see a global, hegemonic, Islamic state.

The motion is that elected Islamists are better than elected dictators. Arguing for this motion are Brian Katulis, senior fellow at Center for American Progress, and the energetic, very animated and entertaining Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Arguing against the motion are Dr. M. Zuhdi, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and Dr. Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum — Gerecht’s smooth, witty, and cool-blooded foil.

You can watch the debate in its entirety here:


Both sides agree that neither Islamists nor dictators (or Islamist dictators for that matter) are desirable things (although, the side for the motion did their best to spin those against the motion as people who support rule of dictators — which wasn’t necessarily the case). Both sides wish to eventually see liberal democracy predominantly marking the governments and societies of Middle Eastern countries. Where they divert, however, is the method of achieving that. Pipes, in his opening statement, stated it eloquently when he explained the night’s question to be not one of “principle” but rather one of “tactics.”

The side for the motion believes that the path to liberal democracy should be an “organic” one — not forced. They argue that, though the path to a functioning representative government may certainly be violent, chaotic, and undesirable in the beginning (perhaps even for the duration of the entire transition), democracy needs to be won at the ballot box. It cannot be imported or implanted by other countries; moreover, Gerecht especially holds that not only is the free world, much less the United States, too incompetent to strategically nudge a dictator into adopting democracy, but it’s also impractical to expect seeded liberals within authoritarian nations to rise up and create a liberal government.

The side against the motion, which very quickly and eagerly likened Islamists to Nazis, believes that Islamists are ever more dangerous and tyrannical than dictators because of their ideological zeal — the very nature of fundamentalist Islam. Pipes in particular maintains that, though dictators are indeed every bit as brutal as Islamists, the former have a better chance of being molded and influenced by external political, cultural, and social pressures than the hardheaded latter. He and Dr. Jasser stress that Islamists cannot be morphed, and that voting for the motion is appeasement of unyielding violence and human rights violations.

In a lively, substantive debate which John Donvan, moderator of IQ2 US, went on the record in claiming to be a contender for the best debate he’d ever moderated, the side against the motion prevailed, not only coming from behind and winning the majority approval of the audience, but coming from way behind, seeing a much more significant gain in the audience’s approval of their argument than that of their opponents.  

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