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today say Islam and democracy are not compatible, and support it with the fact
that most Muslim-majority countries are ruled under authoritarian regimes. Researchers
of this topic present that Islam and democracy do have a negative correlation,
yet they do not seem to be able to find a causation factor (Hanusch 316). Islam
like many other religions has been and is still subjective to many
interpretations, such as those favored by radical Islamists which conflict with
democratic ideals. Instead of Islam as a religion, there are many historical,
cultural, economic, and political factors that explains why democracy has
failed to have been implemented in many Muslim countries, especially in the
Arab world.

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             In this paper, I will analyze the many
different factors, besides Islam as religion, which led to the democratic-deficit
of most Muslim-majority countries, and two countries that have defied the trend.
First, I will look at the historical context and location of the Middle East
and North Africa that inhibited the growth of democracy. Second, I will look at
the political regimes, resource, and the security forces of the region.
According to Petrofke, the military accounts for 5.3 percent of the labor force
in MENA, compared to around 1.6 percent in the rest of the world (2012, p.). Then
third, I will look at the cases of two countries Tunisia and Turkey, which are
a proof to some extent that Muslim-majority countries are not incompatible with


Historical Context of
Islam and Democracy in the MENA region

            The events
in the Arab world in 2011 highlighted the relationship between Islam and
democracy. In January of 2011, acts of individual and group protests in Tunisia
triggered the events that raised the expectations of democratization of the
region, and was eventually labeled the ‘Arab Spring’. Until the hopeful
protests, Muslim-majority countries mostly those in the Arab world had
authoritarian regimes. The countries had been inherited by local rulers in the
forms of military dictatorships and traditional monarchies after being under
colonial rulers (Ismael 229-230). By the time of the uprisings, the mass
protest against the uncivil state represented the struggle for democracy,
specifically a new form politics that represents the popular will.

            While the
West was evolving new forms of political over the last few centuries, the Arab
world was stagnant. Colonial rule only made the situation worse by oppressing
the region and then leaving their legacies of oppression to continue. In these
cases the West, to a certain extent, is the root of grievances across the
region. The anti-Western sentiments are almost synonymous with anti-liberal
sentiments that creates a vicious cycle. After colonialism they were divided
between those who wanted to imitate the West and those who wanted to go back to
Sharia law (Ismael 230-233). Tunisia is an example of those who said they
wanted to move forward with Islam and facilitated the foundation for real democracy.
Egypt also took the same path, following Tunisia, yet they were unable to
sustain it and were overwhelmed by a military coup a year after.

            Adding on
to the history of authoritarian rule, colonialism, and conservative beliefs,
proximity is also one of the major reasons why democracy did not grow in the
region. Murdoch and Sandler state that “It is unlikely that the economic
consequences of civil wars will be solely confined to a nation in turmoil.
There is apt to be negative spillovers to neighboring nations from disruptions
to trade, heightened risk perceptions by would-be investors, severance of input
supply lines, collateral damage from nearby battles, and resources spent to
assist refugees” (91-92) It is not only limited to civil wars that negatively
influence the neighboring countries economy. If the neighboring country is
under an authoritarian regime, it will have a similar spillover effect to civil
wars. Presence of authoritarian countries limits the number of trade partners
in their region, limiting resources and transportation. When countries in the
vicinity wish to secularize and transition into a more democratic form of
government, they are heavily criticized and at times are intervened.


Resource and Security
Forces in the MENA Region

major reason why democratic growth has been impeded can be explained by the
natural resources curse. The MENA region is widely made up of a chain of
undemocratic and economically backward countries. Most of these countries are
oil producers and exporters or important transportation routes. Ross mentions
that these are called “rentier states”, because a large amount of their wealth
comes from oil exporting or pipeline transit fees (329). The national wealth of
these states does not depend on the agricultural or industrial sectors, but
only on natural resources. Families and groups from the elites collect revenue
from oil exports and use it to further solidify their political, social, and
economic power. These groups control the state government and bureaucracy.  In the oil-rich rentier countries, society is
not compact but the division between different groups are not a result of class
conflict or economic interests. In these societies there are no social mobility
or class conflict. Society is never really compelled to oppose their
governments as oil revenues relieve tax burdens of the people.

due to rentier states having high oil revenues, it leads to the “repression
effect”. Ross states that, “Citizens in resource-rich states may want democracy
as much as citizens elsewhere, but resource wealth may allow their governments
to spend more on internal security and so block the population’s democratic
aspirations” (335).  As mentioned
previously, a distinguishing regional characteristic of the region is the size
of their security forces. The military accounts for 5.3 percent of the labor
force, compared to 1.6 around the world. An example of the repression effect
would the political repression during the Arab Uprisings. When the popular
movement for democracy had been in action, the protestors were met with brutal
repression from the countries’ militaries. Authoritarian countries are always
more confrontational than democratic countries, and the elites from rentier
countries are more belligerent than businessmen.


Case Study Tunisia

            Tunisia is
currently deemed to be the model democracy within Muslim-majority countries. Since
overthrowing Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has transitioned to functioning
democracy, where citizens have experienced more civil and political rights than
ever before. Freedom House, the independent organization that monitors freedom
and democracy has ranked Tunisia highest in the past few years (FH). As the
country has navigated through significant difficulties, the future seems
promising, and is on the track to becoming the first fully Arab-Muslim
democracy in the modern world.

            Similar to
Egypt, Tunisia at one point in time had a complex history that included a
strong Sufi presence. The Ennahda (Renaissance Movement) party that won the
plurality votes in 2011, was inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and
has traditionally appealed to the general Arab-Islamic heritage of the people (Torelli
66). However, it went to a different direction from the ideals of the Muslim
Brotherhood after the elections (Kubicek 288-289). Cavatorta then mentions how
the party has strived to develop a “post-Islamist” orientation, not only
moderating its previous Islamist orientation but also going for Tunisian
reformism (29-30). Thus, Islamic thinkers in Tunisia have opened discussion
with the aim of an Islamic reformation.

            The idea of
moving towards secularism has been repeated multiple times since the 2011
elections. And when Ennahda party came in second place in the 2014 elections,
the talks of secularization of the state have increased. Still, the Ennahda
party were able to form a coalition with larger secularist party Nidaa Tounes
that won the plurality vote. The approval of Islam as the state religion in the
Constitution in 2014, gives some room for the Islamist actors to push for some
rule of Sharia law, but is polarizing and negatively influences the Ennahda
party (Kubicek 290-291). Some scholars would argue that a more secular
government would lead to more efficient democracy, but the former dictator
showed that secularism can be used in autocracy.

            While there
is wide support for secularism, Islamic-oriented mobilization is happening at
the same time as democratization. In Tunisia, democracy can be viewed as a set
of mechanisms that help rationalize the political sphere. Additionally as
mentioned previously, Islam like many other religion has been and is still
subjective to many interpretations. There are open flexible interpretations,
and there are extreme and closed interpretations. If you adopt the positive
format, there are more open interpretation that facilitate a common ground
between Islam and democracy.

            A key
success in the Tunisian democracy has been the moderation of Ennahda. The party
has presented itself as democratic-oriented and “post-Islamist”, who have
dropped their previous agenda and is committed to working with other parties
and establishing democratic institutions (Kubicek 291). A major reason for the
moderation of the party was due to inclusion into political processes after the
2011 elections. The party was to a certain extent, given the opportunity to
compete for power through democratic processes and also had become more moderate
because it lacked a majority to impose its previous agendas on Tunisia. Ennadha
in this sense, is a democratic party with an Islamic reference, where it is
like a more like a liberal Islamic democratic party.

with an Islamic reference can compromise, govern effectively, and share power.
Religion can abet tolerance and openness, as secularism can. Secularism has not
always facilitated tolerance and openness, as some of the world’s most brutal
and repressive dictators were secularists. So, when we discuss about
secularism, there can be an interventionist form of secularism as well as a top
down secularism which was implemented in Tukey. Thus, in Tunisia religion and secularism
can both be despotic, but the opposite applies here as well.


Case Study Turkey

Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923 as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire,
was the first Muslim-majority to democratize. For the first couple of decades,
Tukey was a one-party state, the republican People’s Party. Throughout most of
the period Turkey has at least been formally a democracy, and has also been
upheld as the model for the Muslim-majority countries. The foundation of the
Turkish model was secularism which distinguished it from other Muslim
countries. Gellner states that Turkey was “the exception within the exception”,
when Islam was claimed impossible to be secularized (236).

Turkey’s transition to democracy did not include much input from
Islamic-oriented actors. Discussion of the political development of modern
Turkey began with Kemal Ataturk, the founder and former president of Turkey. His
rule was accompanied by a series of reforms designed to modernize, or westernize
the country. Kubicek states that “the most important element was ‘laicite’,
which evolved over time and included various components: the disestablishment
of Islam as the state religion; the closure of religious schools and religious
brotherhoods; elimination of the long-standing Islamic institution of the
caliphate; adoption of European legal codes; bans on Islamic modes of dress;
and measures giving women equal political rights and opportunities for
education and employment” (37). Furthermore, it meant that there was no
concession that allowed traditional laws or use Sharia laws. Kubicek also
mentions that mosques and other religious institutions were placed under the
direct authority of the state’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (37). Thus,
the Muslims world’s most radical secular revolution, had one thing clear, which
was to diminish Islam from society and somewhat open the mind of the Turkish people.

            As fast and
powerful as the democratization of Turkey was, the country experienced multiple
coups, the 1960 coup being a major event in the history. Kubicek says it was a
major event that might have ended the Turkish democracy, but that it was not
the case (50). The event occurred due to the problems in the 1950s and the
Democrat Party was held accountable, the leader, Menderes, being hanged. The
military saw itself as a guardian of the state, and the changes they made to the
constitution ensured that the military became “an integral part of the
political and socio-economic life of the country (Ahmad 130). Then, as the
officers were in fear of corruption that came from politics, they returned
power back to the people within a year (Findley 310). Kubicek the mentions that
the intervened again in 1971 and 1980, both due to political instability and
polarization, but similarly to the previous one, it over within a short time
(50-51). In these periods, Kubicek, Ahmad, and Findley stress the fact that
Islam was not a factor that interfered with the democracy, but that political
and economic instabilities led to the interventions.

            As there
was a time that Turkey was considered to be the Muslim democratic model, today
it is not the case. AK Parti (AKP) in Turkey was described as an Islamist party
which had found a way combine all aspects such as Islamic norms, classical
liberalism, market economy and democracy. It currently looks very much like an
illiberal democracy, with president Erdogan looking very much like a
dictator-in-waiting. Therefore, turkey is no longer that model, as the AKP
growingly becoming authoritarian. However, the reason for the failure is not
due to Islam or Sharia law related issues. In Turkey, the issue is not whether
AKP will bring Sharia law or impose Islamic norms in society. What happened in Turkey
is that through democratization the AKP gradually grabbed power, and the
consolidation of power leading to further corruption.

problems associated with the issues in Turkey are inhibiting freedom of press,
silencing opposition, and hindering tolerance. These are problems not directly
coming from Islam, these are problems coming from power and authority which we
see in other countries such as Russia. It is arguably possible to extract
political values from Islam such as searching for justice, rule of law, and transparency.
However, the ideas of enlightenment and liberalism that comes with democracy are
certainly complicated as these are coming to the Muslim world from the West.

            There are
many criticisms on Turkey and their political system, however, as much
reservations the critics have on their political system, if you look around and
analyze there are many countries in the region who have yet to have an
election. There are dictators and general who distort and manipulate the
interpretations of Islam by picking pieces here and there from Sharia law
(Kubicek 195). There are those who have a record of rigged elections and
repression. So, in this aspect, the criticisms are heaped on Turkey rather on
the real dictatorships in the region. The role of outside powers has to be
emphasized here again because democracy requires the chance to play out. Turkey
might have the spillover effect, however, the underlying reason would not be Islam
the religion itself but the many different negative factors.


The Muslim predicament of autocracy
reflects the historical, cultural, economic, and political aspects rather than
the innate features of Islam. Put differently, Islam is undemocratic as any
other pre-modern religion. Historical events such as colonialism and authoritarian
rule created led to anti-liberalism sentiments. Proximity of the countries,
being neighbors to authoritarian countries inhibit the progress of democracy.
The drawbacks that come with natural resources and its relation to the size of
their security forces repress the need for change. While there are multiple
factors that impedes the progress to democracy Tunisia and Turkey have defied
common sense and were able establish their democracies. Overall, Tunisia and
Turkey proved that Islam is not incompatible with democracy.

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