Export of democracy to the arab world

An essay on the compatibility of islam and democracy

Essay, 2007
26 Pages, Grade: 18/20



A. Introduction

B. Limits
I. Democracy as Universal Model
1. Modernity
2. Democracy
3. Islam and Democracy
4. Perception of the Current Situation of Democracy in the Arab World
5. Conclusion and Prediction
II. Democracy and the Clash of Civilizations
1. Modernity
2. Democracy
3. Islam and Democracy
4. Perception of the Current Situation of Democracy in the Arab World
5. Conclusion and Prediction
III. Islamic Modernity
1. Modernity
2. Democracy
3. Islam and Democracy
4. Perception of the Current Situation of Democracy in the Arab World
5. Conclusion and Prediction
IV. Conclusion

Books and Articles
Internet Resources:

A. Introduction

“Because of their concern for authenticity, Islamic authors have shifted the emphasis from a discussion of the required socio-political foundations of pluralist democracy to its cultural and religious dimensions, debating the cultural acceptability of the model rather than its feasibility and efficiency in solving problems of contemporary Arab societies. Islam, they claim, is the only valid expression of authenticity, and the solution to all problems of private life, state and society. Islam is the yardstick by which to measure values, goods, institutions. Hence, either the necessity either to prove that liberal and democratic notions, structures and procedures can in fact be traced back to Islamic tradition provided it is freed from obscurantist interpretation and repressive practice, or else show that Arab-Islamic tradition is both radically different from, and at the same superior to, western style liberal democracy, on a moral as well as practical level.”

Krämer, 1994[1]

Western Initiatives in the last years and especially in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 multiplied and intensified (e.g. the U.S. proposal of a Greater Middle East Initiative, Barcelona Process by the EU) in order to bring democracy to a region which by any definition has the Arab World at its core and which in comparison to Eastern Europe and Latin America seems reluctant to follow the common trend of establishing representative democracies as form of government. Besides the “exportation” efforts also internal Arab political discourse generally endows democracies with a virtually talismanic quality capable of solving all outstanding problems, as Al-Azmeh rightly points out.[2]

The Arab Word is stretching from Morocco in the west to Oman in the east including a variety of different state structures (small city states like Kuwait , large states like Libya, extremely rich and extremely poor regions)[3] and is populated by heterogeneous ethnic groups (large Berber minorities in the Mahgreb and Kurdish, Turkic and Armenian minorities in the Mashreq).[4] However big the differences may be two common nominators can doubtless be identified: Islam and a democracy deficit . The questions arising are obvious. Is the message of the prophet responsible that no stabile democratic government is in sight in the Arab World ? Is the deficit in democratic ruling indeed a cultural and religious problem ? Is the Koran compatible with the concepts of democracy ?

I am subdividing the existing opinions on the problems in question by the three main “school of thoughts” which perceive, describe and develop the discourse and the solutions according to their respective point of view.[5]

Three different perspectives are presented as follows:

1. Democracy is a universal success story which will be introduced sooner or later also in the Arab states (universal approach)
2. Democracy is a western phenomenon based on western culture and society and is incompatible with Islam (homo islamicus)
3. Islam is a liberal and flexible ideology which is able to allow and develop a democracy sui generis on the basis of a moderate and reformed interpretation of the Koran and the Sunna (Islamic Democracy)

In order to compare the three perspectives the following question will be answered along the respective school of thought:

1. How is modernity perceived ?
2. How is democracy defined and which pre-conditions are necessary ?
3. How do the concepts of Islam and Democracy correlate ?
4. How is the current situation in the Arab World perceived ?
5. What is the future going to bring ?

B. Limits

The aim and the limit of this essay is to find answers or at least direction for the above questions by focusing on the religious phenomenon and by acknowledging that the explanation for the existence or non existence of a democratic government is a highly complex topic which can not be simply explained by cutting out one factor. However, I am convinced that the value of such a non-holistic approach is to be find in subdividing a complex issue in several special fields of research in order to make it possible to provide guidance and knowledge in one area which in another moment in time has to be combined with the other researches to see the big picture.

I also renounce to an in-depth study of various country cases in the current situation reflections and keep mostly on a theoretical level to remain consistent with the outreach and page limit of this paper.

Furthermore my ignorance of the Arab language has prevented me from exploring fully the source material. However, since the use of English by Arab scholars is growing, scholarly work in English and sometimes German is not difficult to come by. A deeper problem is the fact that I am working from a fundamentally European, specifically German, background. Students studying the Arab World from the West cannot fully understand their perspective simply by reading articles, speeches, and studies.

I. Democracy as Universal Model

There is a possible retort to the claim that democracy has a universal approach since it is present in virtually every major region of the world and thus is indeed a universal phenomenon. Democracy may thus exist today also in the Arab World, not only temporarily and superficially, if the conditions for its existence are established in a sustainable way.

1. Modernity

To comprehend the nature of this perspective it is mandatory to find out which role modernization plays in this scenario. The „universalists“ perceives modernization as a rational, culturally neutral process. Charles Taylor calls it „acultural modernization.“[6] They postulate a chain of certain changes which take place in each culture or which each culture is forced to go through. The acultural theory sees modernization thus as a unique and universal process guided by the idea of homogenization (e.g. the extinction of all cultural differences).[7] The ideological background of this postulate is to be found in the ideas of the Enlightment. The values of the Enlightment are deeply rooted in the European and American history (e.g. increase of the scientific consciences, prevalence of rationality, individualization and secularization) and are translated as universal values belonging to humanity as a whole. From Hegel's „Weltgeist“ to Kant' s „Zum Ewigem Frieden“[8] and from Voltaire to Marx Enlightment has only been thought of as a process of global progress and development which is historically unavoidable.[9] The European present is hence the future of the whole humanity and the current political situation in Arab countries is nothing else than a transition stage.

Democracy is regarded as crucial element of the Enlightment and the Modernization and even as final destination of the Arab World which is longing for it. Secularization for examples is described by Halim Barakat, as the creation of a pluralistic society of free individuals and the restitution of the decision making process to the people together with the realization of a civil society as an aspiration, which is deeply rooted in the Arab Nation.[10]

2. Democracy

The proponents of the universal approach view democracy as an integral part or even better as the political appearance of the Enlightment. Democracy is seen as pre-condition to realize the core values of Enlightment-the human rights. Thus also democracy is a universal concept and does not depended on a certain civilization or culture but is an indispensable part of any kind of modernization. Many studies compare the democratization process of Arab societies with the history of the Western Democracies and their struggle to overcome religious absolutism in the Middle Ages by the forces of rationality.[11]

However, all definitions of democracy in this school of thought include a direct link between the implementation of human rights and democracy.[12] As Sigrid Faath puts it:

„... a democratic society is characterized by their respect for human rights, by the guaranty of individual and collective freedoms, by the participation of important numbers of the population in the administration and public affairs.“ [13]

The definition of democracy in this context goes beyond Joseph Schumpeters technical dimensions of a democratic system,[14] which has been summarized by Deegan as „free competition for a free vote.“ A normative dimensions is asking for the acceptance of certain liberal values as the basis of democracy as universal model of governance:

„... the rule of law which separates the legislative from the executive, the preservation of the liberties of the people: freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, which a government would be unable to violate; responsible government which is accountable to the people via elections; and the political equality of one person, one vote and equal sized constituencies.“[15]

Since democratization is perceived as a process, the following steps are considered essential pre-conditions for the establishment of democracy in the Islamic societies of Arab countries:

a. Secularization, which means the fundamental modification of the impact religion has on society, especially on politics, jurisprudence and science. These fields have to be autonomous from religious norms in favor of demythologized rules and laws from this world.[16] In the case of Islam, the discourse is primarily one against the Islamist, which conceptualize religion and state as a indissoluble unity.

But matters are not much simpler on „secular“ state side in the Arab World, such as Egypt. It is widely recognized that the modern state in the Arab world was secular to begin with, but for reasons of political opportunism is progressively accommodated the Islamist sectors of the population and becoming an instrument of islamization itself.[17] A phenomenon which is not limited to Arab regimes but is also known in the secular Turkish Republic. In order to achieve a new social consensus it was the secular state-elite itself that politicized religion under the official banner of a so-called “Turkish-Islamic synthesis .[18]

According to Barakat the most important aim of secularization in this part of the world is therefore to stop the misuse of religion.[19] Secularisation is perceived as self-determination and applied democracy since it represents the will of the people to become the master of its own destiny. Instead of becoming a passive creature caught in religious rituals, the individual should become an active part in creating history.[20] The necessity to regulate the political and social life through norms which have been set by men is thus to emphasize, in order to guaranty that they can also be dissolved by men which allows to adapt them to the constant change of conditions in the life and environment of human beings. The secular state is in addition regarded as requirement and guaranty to implement political, cultural and ideological pluralism in the framework of a state under the rule of law.[21]


[1] Krämer, Gudrun, The integration of the Integrists, in: Salamé, Ghassan, Democracy without Democrats ? New York 1994, p.207-208

[2] Al-Azmeh, Aziz, Populism Contra Democracy: recent democratist discourse in the Arab World, in: Salamé, Ghassan, Democracy without Democrats ? New York 1994, p.114,

[3] BBC, Middle East, 2005: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/country_profiles/1550797.stm

[4] Annex

[5] Given the limited space and outreach of this paper, the sub-division has been limited to three main ideas but it is surely possible to present several more sub-groups; this is especially true for the last approach.

[6] Taylor, Charles, Modernity and the rise of the public sphere, in: Peterson B, Grethe, The Tanner Lectures On Human Values, 14, 1993. p. 205.

[7] Eisenstadt, Smuel N./ Schluchter, Wolfgang, Introduction: Path to Early Modernities - a Coparative View, in: Daedalus 127, (3),Summer 1998. p. 2.

[8] Kant, Immanuel, Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf (1795, 1796), in: Weisscheedel, Willhelm (Hg.), ders., Theorie- Werkausgabe. Bd. 11, Frankfurt a. M. 1968.

[9] Tu Weiming, Implication of the rice of "Confucian" East Asia, in: Daedalus (American Akademie of Arts and Science), vol.129, no.1, Winter 2000. p.195-218.

[10] Barakat, Halim, Glaube und Herrschaft in der arabischen Gesellschaft von heute: eine Analyse, in: Heller, Erdmute/ Mousbahi,

Hassouna (Hrsg.), Islam Demokratie Moderne, Aktuelle antworten Arabischer Denker, München 1998. p.126.

[11] Ismail, Salwa, Democracy in Contemporary Arab Interlectual Discourse, in: Brynen, Rex/ Korany, Baligat/ Noble, Paul (ed.),

Political Liberalisation & Democratization in the Arab World, Vol.1, Theorethical Perspectives, London 1995. p.96.

[12] Faath, Sigrid/ Mattes Hans-Peter (Hrsg.), Demokratie und Menschenrechte in Nordafrika, Hamburg 1992. p.129.

[13] Faath, Sigrid/ Mattes Hans-Peter (Hrsg.), Demokratie und Menschenrechte in Nordafrika, Hamburg 1992. p.129.

[14] Massing Peter/Breit Gotthard, Demokratie-Theorien, Bonn 2005, p.180-192

[15] Deegan, Heather, the Middle East and the Problems of Democracy, Boulder 1994. p.3.

[16] Faath, Sigrid/ Mattes Hans-Peter (Hrsg.), Demokratie und Menschenrechte in Nordafrika, Hamburg 1992. p.137.

[17] Salamé, Ghassan, Introduction, in: Salamé, Ghassan, Democracy without Democrats ? New York 1994, p 7

[18] Yavuz, Hakan M. 1998: “Turkish Identity and Foreign Policy in Flux: The Rise of Neo-Ottomanism,” in Critique, Vol.12 (1998) pp.19-41

Yavuz, 1998: 30

[19] Barakat, Halim, München 1998. p. 126.

[20] ibid. p.128.

[21] 15 Faath, Sigrid/ Mattes Hans-Peter (Hrsg.), Hamburg 1992. p.139.

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Export of democracy to the arab world
An essay on the compatibility of islam and democracy
Vrije University Brussel  (Université Libre de Bruxelles)
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Franco Burgio (Author), 2007, Export of democracy to the arab world, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/113628


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