When Democracies Repress: Democratic Repression of Nonviolent Islamist Groups and the Likelihood of Political Violence

Open Access
Vining, Peter Bradley
Area of Honors:
Interdisciplinary in International Politics and Security and Risk Analysis
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Philip A Schrodt, Thesis Supervisor
  • Michael Barth Berkman, Honors Advisor
  • William Benjamin Gill, Honors Advisor
  • repression
  • political violence
  • terrorism
  • islamist groups
Despite having reputations for tolerating non-violent political dissent, it is well-known that democracies don’t always behave “democratically” towards political dissenters. Examples of repressive behavior towards non-violent civil rights activists, communists and ethno-nationalist groups during the 20th century provide historical examples to demonstrate that high polity scores don’t always reflect tolerance for dissent in democratic states. More recently, democratic governments have struggled over how to behave towards dissenting Islamist groups. Some Islamist have supported or even committed acts of political violence against democracies. Many others, however, have adopted and practiced methods that are purely non-violent, despite radical ideologies. With respect to non-violent Islamist groups, democracies have taken varying approaches; some have tolerated their activities as free speech, while others have constrained them. A few democracies have even banned non-violent Islamist groups for reasons that are idiosyncratic to their legal systems and historical experiences. In most cases of democratic constraint and/or banning of non-violent Islamist groups, prevention of radicalization and subsequent political violence (in the form of terrorism) was generally to account. Does silencing non-violent rhetoric prevent radicalization and political violence in democracies? How might a democracy’s use of repression against non-violent political dissenters affect the likelihood of subsequent political violence? Moreover, how do repressed activists groups respond in a democratic context? This paper investigates democratic repression of non-violent Islamist groups and how repression is associated with the likelihood of political violence in a democratic context. Consistent with previous research on the group I argue that when states repress non-violent activists, the activists resort to informal networks for reorganization and recruitment. These informal networks (such as anonymous web forums and chat rooms) are already in use by other illegal groups, including those that use and/or support political violence. When repressed activists adapt by resorting to these informal channels in democracies, their personal networks increasingly overlap with those of other proscribed groups. Thus as social solidarity seekers who are unable to organize openly, once-peaceful activists are more likely to be radicalized and support or even carry out acts of political violence when they are repressed. I argue that this phenomenon occurs both domestically and internationally, because the fluidity of informal channels leveraged by repressed activists transcends borders. As a result, democratic repression can also lead to an unintended consequence of radicalized activist proliferation abroad.