By Selin.M. Bölme

Over the last 40 years, many countries in the world have been democratized. Between 1974 and 1990 the number of democratic governments in the world nearly doubled.



An ancient explanation: Islam

Many studies track the roots of Middle Eastern authoritarianism in Islamic history. This view dates back to 1798 with Montesquieu and basically claims that Islamic beliefs made the region more prone to autocratic rule.

According to Montesquieu, Muslims must have a despotic government as Islam speaks only by the sword and acts upon men with a destructive spirit, on which it is founded.

Montesquieu’s approach influenced many people after his time, and it was reproduced after the collapse of the Soviet Union by a number of scholars, including Bernard Lewis, Samuel P. Huntington, and Elie Kedourie, as a response to the question of the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East.

Bernard Lewis is one of the foremost scholars defending the idea that Islam is not compatible with democracy. He argued that the lack of separation of church and state in Islam is the main reason for this incompatibility.

The Islamic state was in principle a theocracy. Therefore, devout Muslims believe that legitimate authority comes from God alone.

Since the ruler (the caliph) derives his power from God, not from the people, and the holy law (sharia) is based on the Qur’an, Muslim people submit to authority without questioning.

Lewis explained all these factors as accounting for the prevalence of authoritarianism in the Islamic world.

According to Kedourie, “the idea of democracy is quite alien to the mind-set of Islam.”

Moreover, the notion of a state as a specific territorial entity which is endowed with sovereignty, the notion of popular sovereignty as the foundation of governmental legitimacy, the idea of representation, of elections, of popular suffrage, of political institutions being regulated by laws laid down by a parliamentary assembly, of these laws being guarded and upheld by an independent judiciary, the ideas of the secularity of the state, of society being composed of a multitude of self-activating, autonomous groups and associations – are profoundly alien to the Muslim political tradition.

As a result, Kedourie claimed that there is nothing in the political tradition of Islam and hence the Arab world which gives a place to the constitutional and representative government.

Huntington is another notable name who believes that Islam is responsible for the region’s democratic deficit. In his view, Islam is not hospitable to democracy because it holds strong cultural obstacles to democratization within itself.

Huntington argues that Islam “rejects any distinction between the religious community and the political community.”

In an Islamic state “governmental legitimacy and policy flow from religious doctrine and religious expertise,” and as a consequence “Islamic concepts of politics differ from and contradict the premises of democratic politics”.

With the beginning of the third wave of democratization, nonetheless, he became more optimistic about the future of Muslim countries. This time, he did not treat these obstacles as substantive facts that prevent democratic development.

As he stated, similar cultural arguments were expressed against Catholic countries for democratization and against Confucianist countries for economic development in the past. Hence, he started to express doubts about viewing a particular culture as a permanent obstacle to change.

Islam, just like other religions, is a highly complex body of ideas, beliefs, doctrines, assumptions and behavior patterns. It has some elements that are compatible with democracy, some elements that are clearly undemocratic.

Furthermore, cultures are historically dynamic, and the dominant beliefs and attitudes in a society change. Nonetheless, Huntington left his optimism and moderate stance over prospects for democracy in the Islamic states in his controversial article “The Clash of Civilizations?”

He then argued that there is a deep conflict between the values of the West and those of Islam.

Huntington held that Muslim societies are more prone to political violence and that “the crescentshaped Islamic bloc, from the bulge of Africa to central Asia, has bloody borders”.

In Huntington’s view, the existence of political violence in Islamic societies is related to the Islamic culture, which is unfamiliar with Western ideas of democracy.

Judith Miller published an article in the same issue of Foreign Affairs based on similar arguments about Islam and democracy. Miller replied to her question “Why should one suspect the sincerity of Islamists’ commitment to truth, justice, and the democratic way?”

with this: “In short, because of Arab and Islamic history and the nature and evolution of these groups.” Using Bernard Lewis’s studies to support her outcomes, Miller claimed that Islam is incompatible with the values of pluralism, democracy and human rights.

The assumptions relating the authoritarianism in the Middle East to Islam reflect a certain bias stemming from an orientalist approach.

These scholars submit their roughly generalized knowledge on Islam as the only explanation for the democracy deficit.

As Hinnebusch pointed out, such arguments see political cultures as essentially fixed and uniform. Hinnebusch referred to the doubts of Huntington on seeing a culture as a permanent obstacle to change, yet he was more certain.

According to Hinnebusch, Islam varies too widely by context and time to constitute an unchanging religious obstacle to democratization any more than Catholicism was once wrongly said to be.

Emphasizing the same point, Bellin held that Catholicism and Confucianism were also accused of incompatibility with democracy; however, it did not prevent countries in Latin America, southern Europe or East Asia from embracing transition.

Furthermore, many research surveys and empiric studies questioning the relationship between Islam and democracy/authoritarianism do not find any significant connection between Islam and a democracy deficit.

In order to test Huntington’s assumption that Muslim societies are more prone to political violence, Steven Fish used the list of incidents of political violence in the world between 1946 and 1999.

During this period, there were 207 episodes of major intrastate political violence. Only 72 events, 35% of the total, took place in Muslim countries. Given that 30% of the world’s countries are predominantly Muslim; their share of political violence is fair.

Fish concluded that the evidence does not show that the Islamic world has been the site of a grossly disproportionate amount of political violence. Fish also used “political stability/lack of violence” indicators and compared the stability/lack of violence scores for Muslim and Catholic countries.

According to his results, the level of economic development is the major factor determining a country’s stability/lack of violence, with higher-income countries enjoying greater stability/less violence.

The Islam variable is not statistically significant. When one controls for economic development, the evidence for a link between Islam and violence is weak at best.

Fish also repudiated the assumptions that Muslims are more religious than Christians, and political life in Muslim societies is determined by religion which is considered an ally of authoritarianism.

Fish argues that there is no evidence to prove the strong correlation between religion and political choices in Muslim-majority countries.

Thus, the survey of Mark Tessler, based on public opinion data collected in Palestine (West Bank and Gaza), Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, showed that strong Islamic attachments do not discourage support for democracy.

On the contrary, Tessler concluded that the stronger the Islamic attachments are, the greater the support for democracy. Another result of his survey is that support for political Islam does not involve a rejection of democracy.

According to Tessler, those with a more favorable view of Islamist movements and platforms are no less likely than others to favor political competition and to desire mechanisms to hold leaders accountable.

These people do not see an incompatibility between democracy and Islamic governance.

Rather, many of them complain about the current political system and support an alternative that incorporates both the democratic principles of choice and accountability and the Islamic principles of justice and protection of the weak.

In another empiric study, Alfred Stepan and Graeme B. Robertson compared the political performance of Muslim countries from 1973 to 2002 to see the correlation between Islam and democracy.

They argued that differences in the level of democracy between Muslim and non-Muslim countries in the developing world are not significantly different.

Of the 29 non-Arab Muslim-majority countries they studied, more than a third, enjoyed significant political rights for at least three years, and more than a quarter experienced these for at least five consecutive years.

Nevertheless, they found a difference between Arab and non-Arab countries when they compared the level of democracy according to electoral competitiveness, political and civil rights and the like.

They concluded that “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab Muslim-majority country”.

According to their results, although there may be a “democracy deficit” in Arab-majority countries, there is none in the 31 non-Arab Muslim-majority countries.

The lack of democratization in this part of the world can be seen as caused not by religion but by Arab culture.

In other words, the Muslim gap is mostly an Arab gap, yet they did not analyze how “Arab culture” causes this result.

to continue in part 5


Selin Bölme received her B.A. in Public Administration department of Hacettepe University. She graduated with an M.A degree on Israel foreign policy from International Relations department of the same university. She received her PhD from International Relations department of Ankara University upon completion of her doctoral thesis titled, US Military Base Policy and Turkey: A Study on Incirlik Air Base. She has been working as a researcher for SETA Foundation since the establishment of SETA.


(The article is a chapter from: Bakis, J. Karakoç, Karakoç, Jülide, Authoritarianism in the Middle East Before and After the Arab Uprisings. Palgrave Macmillan, UK 2015.)







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