By Emily Fernwood
One of the most prevalent global trends in the past century has been democratization. Through Globalization liberal ideals have spread throughout the world as individual’s access to channels of communication increase. However, democracy has failed to take root in the Middle East in the same way that it has in other regions around the world. It has long been theorized that the Middle East has been so resistant to democracy because Islam and democracy are incompatible. Some argue that the principles of individual autonomy, freedom of speech and press, secularism, and universal suffrage that are central to any liberal democracy fundamentally conflict with the teachings of Islam. While some Islamic principles are certainly the largest part of the explanation, there are several other factors that must be considered as well, such as the social structure and economics of the region that are also responsible for this phenomenon. I argue that the absence of democracy in the Middle East is not simply because Islam intrinsically opposes liberal freedoms and popular rule, but is due to a multitude of different factors.
Islam, in its purest form, is absolute and cannot be interpreted. It is not simply a religion, but a set of rules that apply to every faction of a follower’s life, both public and private. Islam, from the beginning, was a political movement as well as a religious one. Muhammad and the caliphs who followed him were not only spiritual leaders but served as the head of the government as well. Muhammad collected taxes, administered justice, and led his followers to war. The political power he gained validated his convictions that Islam was the answer, and the religious truths he taught solidified his political status (1). Islam, therefore, has never been a merely a religion but a way of life.
The religious teachings of Islam also offer a specific set of laws and ideas that a government should enforce upon the people. Sharia, or Islamic law, is found in the Hadith and sets the foundation for Islamic principles at the state level. Because sharia is directly handed down from Allah, the rules cannot be interpreted or modified in any way, and opposition to them is considered blasphemous and wrong (2). According to the Quran, God and God alone can make laws, and any individual or government that does so goes against Islam (3). These beliefs concerning state governance are not conducive to the formation of democracy. For one thing, Islamic law leaves no room for opposing viewpoints or minority beliefs that go against it, whereas in a democracy such opposition must be protected, minority groups even have some influence in the government. The caliph is appointed not through popular sovereignty but through the laws of god. That a leader could be removed from power by the people through an election is a completely foreign concept because this would entail an explicit contradiction of God’s will. Islam also teaches that it is the duty of each follower to submit fully to God and to any authority that works on behalf of God. It is this mentality that makes much of the Muslim world predisposed to acceptance of authority, especially authority that takes actions in the name of God.
However, the traditional view of Islam as outlined above is changing. The internet and the availability of communication have made the idea of democracy available and enticing, and as the rest of the world becomes more liberal there is mounting pressure for the Middle East to follow suit. As can be currently observed in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Bahrain, there seems to be a shift away from the traditional values of Islam and a new generation of Muslims who seem to be able to reconcile their religious views and their desire for popular sovereignty. The Sudanese intellectual Abdelwahab El-Affendi wrote, “the sovereignty of one man contradicts the sovereignty of God, for all men are equal in front of God…Blind obedience to one-man rule is contrary to Islam”(4). By making this assertion, he asserts that the doctrine of tawhid, the aforementioned belief in God’s sovereignty, directly calls for democratic rule because any other system denies equality. El-Affendi’s interpretation of Islam in favor of democracy is not by any means the only one. All over the Middle East, Muslims are calling for an alternative to the traditional autocracy. Unfortunately, much of the violence in the Middle East is caused by backlash to these ideas from radical fundamentalist groups who favor the traditional laws and believe that the key to the success of the Islamic nation is to return to the non-secular method of governance and reinstate more conservative ideals.
The success of the Middle East’s few democracies is proof that it is possible for countries that are primarily Muslim to achieve popular sovereignty. Israel, Turkey, and Lebanon are all democratic to some extent in that they allow elections and turnover of elected officials (5). Turkey, although technically a democracy, is still evolving into a liberal nation. The country adopted a number of reforms during the Ottoman Empire in an effort to modernize with the rest of the world. Since 1924, a series of military coups and resistance movements have hindered the transformation into a liberal democracy. Currently, there is a debate over secularism versus Islamism in Turkish politics, which highlights the recurring theme of the tricky balance between religion and politics in the Muslim world, as an increasing number of people favor a more traditional type of regime. However, Turkey remains the largest democracy in the Middle East and has been for many years, proving that it is possible (6). There are also many democratic prototypes in which the country is led by one person but a parliament is elected in order to advise the leader. Such systems could eventually evolve into democratic or parliamentary regimes and prove that many Muslims in the Middle East do support elected leadership.
Those that maintain that Islam and democracy are incompatible point out that the only Middle Eastern country that can be considered a liberal democracy is Israel, a Jewish nation. However, Indonesia is the world’s largest predominantly Muslim state (86.1 percent in 2000) and is a democracy (7). If Indonesia was able to create a democratic government with the blessing of its citizens, there is no reason why countries within the Middle East should not be able to do the same. This creates a compelling argument that it is not that Islam is intrinsically against democracy, but that there are other factors at play that are preventing democratization in the Middle East.
One such factor could be the social structure of the region. Traditionally, Arabic people organized into tribes based on specific common family heritage and background that moved throughout the desert and provided individuals with a strong sense of personal identity. Although the Middle East is now more urbanized and less depends on tribalism, it still has a strong undercurrent in Arab culture. Tribalism fueled rivalries and fractionalized ethnic groups. The ramifications can be seen today in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, just to name a few, where various tribes have gained more power over the region than others. Aside from causing social fragmentation, tribalism has also created rifts within the religion. The divide between the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and other various Islamic sects can be largely attributed to tribal differences. As a result, the Middle East is made up of many different nationalities and religious identities within each country that do not always get along. This is a problem for democracy because there is always a fear that the largest group will take power and there will be a “tyranny of the majority” effect. There is also the problem that people will tend to vote according to the interests of their groups instead of in the interest of the country as a whole (8). In order to counter this, there must be a shift in thinking from an ethnocentric point of view to one in which there is a greater degree of cohesion and collaboration within the country. The amount of interracial and interreligious strife at the moment is most likely preventing the formation of democracies in the Middle East.
A second social factor that is preventing democracy is that the Middle East has a long history of being under autocratic or imperial control, and there is little experience with democratic ideal and procedures. Almost all of the countries in the Middle East were part of the Ottoman Empire, then became colonies of the British and French under the Sykes-Picot Treaty, and were finally taken over by an autocratic leader who came to power after. There was little time for any of these countries to form a stable democratic process without being overthrown. Though several countries, including Iraq and Pakistan, tried to have democracies at one point, the elections were far from free and fair and were hastily overthrown by military-type regimes.
Another possible explanation for the absence of democracy in the Middle East could be the constraints upon the export economies of the region resulting in an economy that favors relatively few individuals. Being poor in other resources, many Arab countries are entirely dependent on oil wealth to fuel their economies. Because the means of oil extraction are held by a few people who profit enormously from it, there is a high level of income disparity in the oil exporting countries. The result is a huge population of people living below or close to the poverty line. In addition, these countries tend to be led by autocratic leaders and experience much less growth and poorer economic performance (9). These countries are more autocratic because the possession of a majority of the country’s wealth by one person gives the leader a better ability of controlling the people against revolt.
In addition, most of the countries in the Middle East have a very small middle class. In some countries, this is an effect of the unequal distribution of oil wealth. A middle class is one of the most important requisite factors to a fledgling democracy. Without a strong middle class, it is difficult to transition easily into a democracy. For one thing, the middle class is often the one that begins the demand for self-governance and civil rights. For another, if there is a large population of people who are poor, they will demand that a democracy provide them with basic welfare programs that the country cannot afford without a substantial middle class from which to draw tax revenue. Lack of a middle class is a problem than can be seen again and again in the Middle Eastern countries that are on the verge of gaining popular sovereignty and even exists to some extent in the few countries that are democratic. In Egypt, for example, over 40 percent of people live under the poverty line (10). Although many of these people are currently calling for a new, democratic government, the country simply does not have the resources to provide enough social services to help all of the people who need them.
If the current uprisings in the region have shown us anything, it is that many people in the Middle East are ready and eager to embrace democracy and join the rest of the world. Despite their Islamic beliefs, access to internet and other channels of communication have shown then the way to greater individual freedoms and legitimately elected government. The unrest also means that it is not simply Islam that has been preventing democratic rule from taking root. Though there is considerable backlash from extremist groups who do not think that popular rule can be reconciled with the teachings of Islam, a majority of Muslims have found a way to make peace with both.
Instead of placing the blame entirely on Islam alone, I believe that it is a combination of religion, tradition, social structure, and economics that has made the Middle East an inhospitable environment for democracies, but I believe that this is beginning to change. Perhaps the Middle East is experiencing a similar transition that the countries of Europe underwent when they separated their governments from the Christian church and allowed popular sovereignty instead of the traditional monarchies. Whatever the reason, the Middle East is a unique mix of many different factors that make up its political climate and the interactions are too complex to blame one simple thing.
1 Page 8. Habeck, Mary R. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.
2 Page 19 Habeck, Mary R. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.
3 Page 73 Habeck, Mary R. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.
4 Esposito, John L., and John O. Voll. “Islam and Democracy.” The National Endowment for the Humanities. Humanities, Nov.-Dec. 2001. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. .
5 Page 165 Lust, Ellen, ed. The Middle East. 12th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2007. Print.
6 Page 167-168 Lust, Ellen, ed. The Middle East. 12th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2007. Print.
7″CIA – The World Factbook.” Welcome to the CIA Web Site — Central Intelligence Agency. CIA. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. .
8 Page 204 Lust, Ellen, ed. The Middle East. 12th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2007. Print.
9 Page 136 Lust, Ellen, ed. The Middle East. 12th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2007. Print.
10 Page 81 Lust, Ellen, ed. The Middle East. 12th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2007. Print.
Photo Courtesy of Mus