The current uprisings in so many Arab countries is yet another defeat for al Qaeda. The rebels are calling for democracy, not religious dictatorship and Islamic law. It's a defeat for Islamic radicals because al Qaeda considers democracy un-Islamic. This was not supposed to happen. But it's been a long time coming. Since World War II, Arabs have tried socialist dictatorships (believing that the communists had the right idea) and religious (Islamic) dictatorship, and found them both wanting. Kingdoms and plain old dictatorships are also unpopular, and currently under increasing pressure to go away and let democracy have a try.
While Islamic terrorism gets most of the headlines, there's also a growing "Arab Reform Movement" in the Middle East, that believes the problems in the Arab world are internal, not external. The fact that an increasing number of Arabs support this movement, and that governments are not trying to exterminate it, is encouraging. But the reform movement is pushing against centuries of conservatism, and opposition to the kinds of things that Westerners take for granted. Meanwhile, it appears that many Arabs still prefer to believe in conspiracies and fantasies, rather than deal with the reality of their situation. But this is changing, as the recent uprisings have vividly demonstrated.
The Arab Reform Movement has been holdings its meetings openly for more than a decade, many of the conferences paid for by the King of Saudi Arabia. While the Saudi royalty don't want to lose control of their kingdom, they also recognize that change is needed. These meetings get little media attention.
But a similar forum does. Since 2004, the Doha Debates have been held eight times a year in the Kingdom of Qatar. Each debate is covers a subject of great interest to the Arab world. Set up in cooperation with BBC (which broadcasts them worldwide to an audience of some 300 million), one of the recent debates posed the question that, after the recent Gaza war (which split the Arab world in a very public way, because many Arabs believed Hamas was being stupid, and a pawn of Iran), Arab unity was "dead and buried." Two notable Arabs debated for each side of the argument. Then the audience of Arabs (mostly college students from all over the Arab world) voted, 77 percent for the proposition (that Arab unity was dead) and 23 percent against.
The Doha Debates have been unique for the willingness to confront important issues in the Arab world, that are often only whispered about. Things like Israel and the Palestinians, the lack of democracy, education and economic progress and the role of religion in public life. Foreigners, including prominent Americans and Israelis, have been invited to argue their side of debates. Unlike a decade ago, important issues are being openly discussed. Public attitudes are changing, and change, in general, is creeping into the Arab world. This is what will ultimately defeat Islamic terrorism.
But the subtext of all this debate and talk of reform is that Arabs have to really run their own affairs, and confront their problems with government, economics, education, religion and much else. Al Qaeda, and similar movements want to force Arabs (Moslem or not) to go back to the 7th century lifestyles for solutions. The current unrest makes it clear to Islamic radicals that they are out of sync with the people they presume to serve. While this particular defeat may not halt Islamic terrorism, it makes it quite clear that the terrorists do not have nearly as much popular support as they say they do.