As the world’s leaders gather at the United Nations, they will take the opportunity to discuss issues of extremism that are currently ravaging many countries around the world. While these issues clearly have every right to be on the world’s stage, another danger is rising in the shadows of extremism.
In our pursuit of ending violent extremism such as that committed by ISIS, we have become dependent on another evil we now deem as necessary in our fight: stability. On the surface, stability comes nowhere near the dark connotations that extremism and terrorism imbue, and rightly so, for stability in its purest form is not a problem. However, what we should consider is stability at what cost.
More and more we are seeing ideas of stability superseding democracy in very convincing ways; therefore the international community remains silent. When faced with horrific violence and rising extremism around the world, it is hard to argue with stability no matter how it was achieved, yet in many of these situations it is obtained by chipping away at democratic ideals.
These limitations of democracy that can start as simply as restricting freedom of privacy, speech, or assembly in order to combat the spread of extremist views can very quickly turn into persecution against any opposition, subsequent manipulations or restrictions of elections, and the degradation of democracy as a whole.
While not all that go down this road intentionally work toward dismantling democracy, we are seeing an increasing number of leaders and regimes rise to power or solidify their power on the basis of counter-extremism. Take, for example, the Awami League in Bangladesh. A government that has technically been democratically elected to office, but has consistently utilized arguments of impending extremism to persecute, bar from elections, jail and execute members of the opposition.
Using unfounded accusations of terrorist activity, the Awami League has targeted opposition parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami. Utilizing Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, a police-military force, to perform extra-judicial killings against members of the opposition, International Crimes Tribunals to place illegitimate charges against opposition leaders, and a wide variety of fear and manipulation tactics to swing elections in their favor, the Awami League has maintained a stronghold over the country in a way that is far from democratic. Despite these actions, the ruling government is still perceived by the rest of the world as a functioning democracy and is being applauded on the global stage.
Even recently, Global Citizen, a group whose self-proclaimed mission is to “unite a generation’s call for justice,” held the Global Citizen Festival in New York City and hosted guests of honor including Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Despite the atrocities attributed to Hasina’s government, she is being highlighted at an event that is supposed to stand for justice and against the marginalization of people around the world due to poverty. While it is possible that Global Citizen is being deceived by the public relations vehicle that the Awami League has employed in the United States, a group so focused on justice may want to put greater attention on vetting their guests.
Although stability, even an illegitimate one, at a time when instability is rampant appears less offensive on the world’s stage, it is increasingly important that we do not give credibility to these leaders who maintain only a quazi-democracy in an effort to maintain their own power and influence. Although many may ask why when faced with such forms of terrorism as ISIS would we stand in the way of a stability that could keep it at bay, we must always remember that it is with this willingness to negotiate on democracy that new extremism, new oppression, and new violence is bred.
Some senators understand this very point and are working on legislation to stand against world leaders whose own power is marred by violations against the international community or their own people. If passed S 1933, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, will allow for sanctions such as the revocation or denial of visas and freezing of assets in the United States of any foreign individual known to have committed severe human rights violations or have been involved in corruption.
As Sens. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the bill’s original sponsor and co-sponsor respectively, rightly affirm, the United States cannot be truly empowered to combat extremism unless our partners are made stable, not by illegitimacy, violence, or fear but by the cultivation of democratic principles in their societies. Stability will never win the day against groups like ISIS when it comes at the cost of democracy.
Nakib Rahman, Ph.D., is research director for Human Rights and Development in Bangladesh.