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Austin Cline

Islam, Democracy, and Arab Culture

By November 3, 2006

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Many people think that Islam and democracy cannot co-exist, but there are examples of democracies working, at least partially, in Muslim nations. So what's the real problem? Perhaps instead of Islam being a barrier to democracy, it's actually Arab political culture.

The Wilson Quarterly discusses “An ‘Arab’ More Than a ‘Muslim’ Democracy Gap” by Alfred Stepan with Graeme B. Robertson, in Journal of Democracy (July 2003):

Twelve of the non-Arab countries with Muslim majorities sustained “relatively high levels of political rights for at least three consecutive years,” the authors found. Eight of these—including Bangladesh, the Gambia, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, and Turkey—did so for at least five consecutive years. Of the Arab nations, in contrast, only Lebanon passed the three-year test (in the period before the 1975–90 civil war), and it failed to reach the five-year mark.

It’s conventional wisdom among social scientists that prosperity makes nations more inclined to hold meaningful free elections, yet seven wealthy Arab nations did not pass the rights test, while seven non-Arab, Muslim-majority countries with low gross domestic product per capita did. These political “overachievers” were Albania, Bangladesh, the Gambia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Stepan and Robertson argue that insofar as Arab political culture is at least partially responsible for the problems, it’s not due to anything inherent in Arab culture itself. Instead, its due to the political contexts in which Arab culture has to operate — for example, nations drawn up by Westerners and which have had relatively short lives up to this point.

I think that Stepan and Robertson are being too generous towards Arab culture. It’s reasonable to point to the political contexts which are not the fault of anyone in the Arab world, but we can find similar problems in Islam itself. People argue that Islam has fundamental contradictions with democracy, but the argument has been made that Islam is less responsible than the Arab “colonization” of Islam.

By this is meant the idea that aspects of Arab culture have been smuggled into Islam and made to seem like they are basic aspects of Islam when, in fact, they are completely incidental. Examples of this might include the idea that women must be completely covered when all that is required is that women dress modestly. What does “modest” dress mean? That should be open to interpretation and could legitimately vary from culture to culture, but Arab desert assumptions about what qualifies are “modest” have become so ingrained into Islam that people don’t even notice anymore.

Stepan and Robertson should expand their analysis to include religious factors as well, factors which cannot be so readily dismissed as consequences of things like Western imperialism.


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