Prospects of Democratic Transition in the Middle East

Does “Islam” Matter?

Term Paper, 2005

36 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgements

1 Introduction

2 Political Culture in the Islamic Context

3 The Compatibility Debate

4 Monolithism: The Pessimistic Outlook

5 Mosaicism: The Optimistic Outlook

6 Rethinking the Compatibility Debate: Some Suggestions

7 Rethinking the Political Culture Approach: More Suggestions

8 Beyond Compatibility Debate and Political Culture: Lessons for Transitology

9 Conclusion


Preface and Acknowledgements

The topic of this paper is the relationship between Islamic political culture and democratic transtion in the Middle East. It scrutinizes the question of the salience of Islam as an explantory variable for political and institutional outcomes – in this case a country’s regime type. The setting of Islam in quotations marks in this paper’s title indicates the author’s conviction that Islam is a complex phenomenon that prohibits simple definitions or conceptualizations. Like Christianity, Islam is a term that works in a certain distance: at close range, finer distinctions are necessary. Of course, there is a common core to the diverse expressions of Islam, but what is at the core, its size and halo varies considerably. In making this issue explicit, I hope to mitigate negative impacts of manifest generalizations in this paper. The reader has to be aware of the fact that for reasons of analytical clearness the complexity of the topic has been notably reduced. Due to restrictions in space (course director B. Frolic: “I have to read all the stuff”) and the author’s relative ignorance of the subject (notwithstanding extensive discussions about the subject matter on a five hour taxi drive from the ranges of the Atlas-mountains to Marrakesh, and contacts to Islamic fundamentalists in Granada, Al-Andaluz) this paper sketches only some relevant topics of the debate. Another issue to mention here is that my approach is normative: The spread of “democracy” (as a form of government) is viewed as desirable for human beings, independent of their socio-cultural background. I try to take a pragmatic approach, being aware that there is no such thing as true “objectivity” – “knowledge” and “facts” are what socially is agreed on (Berger and Luckman 1966). Thus, I agree very much with Edward Said’s remark: “No production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances” (1978, 11). As always, I am deeply indebted to my fabulous housemates and neighbours, being at the same time valuable proofreaders and good friends.

1 Introduction

Representative democracy has grown to be a kind of common good of humanity or at least, a mode of government widely considered as normative superior. The Islamic region in general and the Middle East in particular have, it seems, been exempted by this process. On the 7-point combined Freedom House scale of political rights and civil liberties (Freedom House 2002), with 1 being most free and 7 the least free, the states of the Middle East have an average score of 5.53. Not only is the Middle East the least free region of the world but it is also the only region where the average level of freedom has declined since 1974 (Diamond and Brumberg 2003). Of the 53 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), only Turkey can pass Huntington’s test of democracy, that is, the fulfillment of two consecutive, peaceful changes of government via free elections (Lewis 2003, 210). The Arab Human Development Report 2004, released in April 2005 says there have been no significant advances towards democracy in the Arab world, asserting that most measures have been “embryonic and fragmentary”, not having amounted to a serious effort to end repression in the region (quoted in The Globe And Mail, on April 6, 2005).

The striking singularity of the Arab world in respect to democratization has led to numerous interpretations. One of the factors most frequently emphasized is Islamic culture (Brynen, Korany, and Noble 1995, 3). This paper introduces (in a preliminary attempt) the dichotomy of two fundamental positions which are discernable within the debate about the impact of Islamic political culture on democracy. My analysis is structured around the discourse and counter-discourse of these two strands of thought. I label this intellectual dispute about the relationship of Islam and democracy Compatibility Debate, since one position is arguing for a mutual commensurability of both concepts, the other position contending the opposite. Furthermore I demonstrate how my findings impact on three different levels of analysis: within the Compatibility Debate itself, on the more general level of the political culture approach and finally on the level on the theoretical framework of Transitology. This paper is structured as follows: after a brief overview of the political culture approach, I introduce the concepts of Monolithism and Mosaicism. In the following two sections I separately illustrate and analyse their main features and core arguments. Thereafter, I argue that political culture in general and Islam in particular should not be seen as the prime or overriding variable in any process of regional democratization. Scholars should stop scrutinizing the compatibility of Islam and democracy and ask different questions, namely, why and for whom the reference to religion is politically useful. The relationship of power, knowledge and truth proves to be central to any meaningful analysis of democratization in the Islamic context. In the final section I argue that both Monolithism and Mosaicism, and political culture approaches more generally form part of a Precondition Paradigm informed by a Western experience of democratization. Derived from the presented rationale I elaborate briefly on theoretical implications for the framework of transitology, advocating the concept of a Qualified Universalism. Transitology is in need of a more comprehensive theoretical model and a refined methodology, whose application is central for the ultimate goal of incorporating the Islamic experience in the theoretical framework of comparative politics, in turn enabling scholars and decision-makers alike to learn something valuable about democracy and “good governance.”

2 Political Culture in the Islamic Context

Why is the Middle East the only region of the world to have been largely untouched by democratization? Modernization theory suggests a strong association between modernization (theorized as a universal process leading to GDP-growth, high levels of literacy and urbanization, and the formation of an educated and affluent middle class) and the development of democratic institutions and modes of behaviour in a society (Lipset 1960). By now, many Arabic countries have achieved levels of modernization that would lead one to expect democratization (Najem 2003, 197). Waterbury finds that for the Middle East “the ascent of standard indicators of socio-economic status (SES) has been underway for some time” (1994, 24), more than half of them having surpassed a per capita income of $4,000 (in 1988 prices) what is hypothesised as threshold for the development of competitive political systems (Wade 1990). However, genuine democratization in the Middle East has obviously not taken place. The idea of an Arab and/or Islamic "exceptionalism” has therefore re-emerged among western proponents of universal democracy. In order to account for the apparent lack of democratization academic attention has shifted from socio-economic to socio-cultural prerequisites for democratization. The “political culture approach” (Almond and Verba 1963) has recently become more central in comparative politics, especially in the context of the contemporary debate about political liberalization in the Arab world (Hudson 1995, 63).

This paper follows Kamrava in defining political culture as a set of “collective norms and values that people hold in regard to political institutions, principles and practices” (1998, 5).[1] According to Gregorian (2003) two of the strongest elements of Middle Eastern political culture are Islam and the cult of personality. Further variables would include nationalism and the “Palestinian syndrome”. Sharabi (1988) argues that traditional patterns of gender relations and the typical forms of the exercise of power and authority within the family have produced patriarchal patterns of political authority in the Arab world. Therefore, Sharabi’s Neo-Patriarchy constitutes another significant aspect of Arab political culture. However, this paper elaborates exclusively on the impact of “Islam” as a key political culture variable. Literally translated as “submission under the will of God” I understand Islam in the context of this paper as a religion and political tradition.[2] This paper is restricted to an analysis of the Islamic Middle East, which does not include Islamic countries in Central or South East Asia. Expressions such as “Islamic world”, “Arab world”, and “Islamic Middle East”, are used in the following without further apology as synonymous (what in the strict sense is erroneous but serves linguistical convenience).[3]

Unfortunately, the debate about the role of Islamic political culture is complicated by the political and intellectual consequences of Western colonialism and an often conflictual relationship between the Western and Islamic world. This leads to the accusation that Western concern with the supposed authoritarian characteristics of Arab-Islamic culture simply reflects a contemporary Orientalism, which all of its attendant emphasis on the cultural “alieness” of the region and a narrow historical reading of Islam (Said 1978). Or, even more simply, it reflects Western ethnocentrism (and an assumption that democracy is inevitably tied to Western cultural values) (Hudson 1995) or racism (and a defamation of things Arab and Muslim) (Sadiki 2004). Although important for their own sake, the paper cannot address these issues and will touch on them only occasionally.

3 The Compatibility Debate

Based on insights gained from the reviewed literature I differentiate two major, diametrical positions regarding the question of the compatibility of Islam and democracy/democratization. Both positions argue that Islamic political culture has considerable utility as an explanatory variable, with the second insisting to deal with it in a nuanced way, sensitive to history, social structure, and context. On the one side, the scholarly assesses Islam in a uniform and static manner, on the other side it puts forward the concept’s flexibility and adaptability and the diversity of actual experience.[4] Following the postmodern distinction between Foundationalism and Defoundationionalism (Sadiki 2004) and the division in reductionist and empirical approaches (Hudson 1995), I develop a comparable dichotomy, however not engaging in meta-theoretical considerations (in case of the former) or normative judgements of the approaches’ accuracy (in the case of the latter), contending that both positions make valuable contributions. The suggested dichotomy is characterized by the assignment of particular features to Islam which in turn results decisive for the question of its compatibility with democracy. I entitle the first position as Monolithism which suggests that important aspects of Islamic political values are incompatible with, or at least in tension with, fundamental principles of democratic practice . Hence, analysts are rather pessimistic regarding prospects of political liberalization and democratization in the Middle East and theorize authoritarian rule as inherent to Islam.[5] The second position suggests that both participatory and authoritarian currents exist within the political culture of the region, with the former expressed for instance in the Islamic principle of shura. Such scholars see political culture not as fixed, but as a subject to constant change. They propose that Islam is in practice a far more varied and flexible religion than a narrow, doctrinal reading of it would suggest – thus leaving room for interpretation. I identify this approach as Mosaicism. In opposition to Monolithism, Mosaicism draws heavily on notions of relativism and historicism and regards the prospects of transition in the Middle East far more optimistic. It is to emphasize that the analytical distinction between Monolithism and Mosaicism is not replicated in a separation or the scholarly in terms of religious denomination and/or geographical distribution. Both Muslim and non-Muslim, Western and Eastern scholars work within the two approaches. In the following, the suggested dichotomy serves as a framework for the discussion of the main arguments of the two positions.

4 Monolithism: The Pessimistic Outlook

Scholars of Monolithism (in the following Monolithists) view Islam as a uniform and unyielding force that is unfavourable to the development of democracy. The political implication of Islam is fairly simple: It supports both authoritarianism by rulers and submission by followers; the prospects for democratization are therefore bleak. For instance, Fukuyama writes:

“It is true that Islam constitutes a systematic and coherent ideology, just like liberalism and communism, with its own code of morality and doctrine of political and social justice […] And Islam has indeed defeated liberal democracy in many parts of the Islamic world, posing a great threat to liberal practices even in countries where it has not achieved political power directly (1992, 45).

Huntington (1996a, 1996b) speaks of an imminent “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. Arguing the West is “unique”, Huntington states that “Western Christianity, first Catholicism and then Protestantism, is the single most important historical characteristic of Western civilization” (1996b, 30), adding that it displays the unique dualism between God and Caesar, church and state, spiritual and temporal authority, a “dualism that is essential for democracy to flourish.” In contrast, Islam is still bound to the notion the state and the church is one. Islam is also burdened by a “poverty of civil society” and characterized by a spirit of collectivism rather than the individualism that is so vital to the development of liberal democracy in the West (Ibid. 31). Likewise, pointing to the fact that Muslim nations have been absent from the “third wave of democratization”, Lipset (1994, 6) notes the similarities of Islam and Marxism and states that political freedom is a concept unknown to the religion, making the growth of democracy in the Islamic Middle East in the near future highly unlikely. According to Kedourie, the political history of the Muslim states in the Middle East during the past two centuries has been an unhappy story of endless power struggles rooted qualitatively in historical Islam, which, influenced by the Byzantine and ancient Iranian traditions in the territories it conquered, making passive obedience to those who exercised power a religious duty. The result was “oriental despotism” – a type of regime in which the monopoly of state power effectively determines who enjoys the fruits of labour, a system where economic power, properly speaking, is non-existent and property is permanently insecure (Kedourie 1994). He is certain: “The idea of democracy is quite alien to the mind-set of Islam.” (Ibid. 1)

The Monolithists’ view of Islam as an antidemocratic ideology and their pessimism towards change is grounded on an exclusivist and monolithic notion of the relationship between tradition and modernity. Their view can be summarized in three major assumptions, which I simplify here for analytical purposes. The first assumption states that modernity and democracy require secularization, that is, a process systematically displacing

“religious institutions, beliefs, and practices, substituting for them those of reason and science [… Max Weber called this process] ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ It eliminates all the superhuman and supranational forces, the gods and spirits, with which non-industrial cultures populate the universe and to which they attribute responsibility for the phenomena of the natural and social worlds. In their place it substitutes as the sole cosmology the modern scientific interpretation of nature. Only the law and regularities discovered by the scientific method are admitted as valid explanations of phenomena” (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online 2004).

In the liberal tradition, religious values are considered obstacles to modernity and modernization. The progressive Westernization and secularization of societies have been often articulated as inevitable evolutionary principles of development and democratization (Tehranian 2003, 81). For secularists modernity implied, among other things, the political marginalisation of religion. The Weberian “disenchantment of the world” is to be said to have one principal effect: "The modern West has produced an increasing number of individuals who look upon the world and their own lives without the benefit of religious interpretations" (Marquand and Nettler 2000, 5). This in turn produces a crisis of credibility of religion, resulting in the slow erosion of religion in the pubic sphere. Faith would be a private matter, with no political significance.

The second main assumption of Monolithism indicates that inherent characteristics of Islam impede the process of secularization, thus rendering democratization unlikely if not impossible. This assumption is grounded on two arguments. First, secularists argue that secularization would require a separation of church and state, what is said to guarantee the confinement of organised religion to the civil domain. While spheres of politics and religion are said to be divided in liberal democracies, they are hypothesized inseparable in Islamic countries. Islam is defined as comprehensive, integrated way of life; it is din-wa-dawlah (religion and state). The absence of a term in Arabic to describe the secular, secularity, or secularism would be just symptomatic for this assumed unity (Ibid. 15). For instance, Lewis claims that religion does not mean the same for Muslims as it has meant to the Western world:

“In classical Islam there was no distinction between church and state. In Christendom the existence of two authorities goes back to the founder, who enjoined his followers to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and to God the things which are God's. Throughout the history of Christendom there have been two powers: God and Caesar, represented in this world by sacerdotium and regnum, or, in modern terms, church and state …The distinction between church and state, so deeply rooted in Christendom, did not exist in Islam, and in classical Arabic…In all but one of the sovereign states with a clear Muslim majority, Islam is the state religion (Lewis 1988, 2 emphasis in the original).

In a recent contribution to the Peace Journal he adds:

“Mohammad was not only a prophet, but a ruler … Christianity began and endured for centuries under official persecution. Even after it became the state religion of Rome under the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century a distinction was maintained between spiritual and temporal powers …Islam in its classical form has no organizational equivalent. It has no clergy or clerical hierarchy in anything like the Christian sense of the word, and no ecclesiastical organization. The mosque is a building, not an institution in the sense that the church is” (Lewis 2003, 217-19).

The second argument for a supposed incompatibility of Islam and secular processes and democratization is the supposed prevalence of a divine concept of sovereignty in Islamic countries, in contrast to the Western notion of popular sovereignty, making the people the ultimate source of law. This difference is said to be determined by the particular relationship between truth and knowledge. In Islamic countries truth is the word of Allah as revealed by the Koran, interpreted by religious authorities of the community (ulama). In contrast, the Western concept of truth is based on evidence, logical argument and public debate and criticism. Cox and Marks (2003) argue that Western societies and Islamic societies give radically different answers to these epistemological questions which underpin, shape and give rise to very different social and political structures:


[1] Almond and Verba define political culture as “the particular distribution of patterns of political orientations – attitudes toward the political system and is various parts, and attitudes toward the role of the self in the system” (1963, 12-13).

[2] I am reluctant to elaborate here further on the different definitions and interpretations of Islam, since this (major undertaking) is accomplished in section five, where the concept of Mosaicism is introduced, highlighting the salience of an hermeneutic methodology. Accordingly I emphasise the caveat that the term “Islam” is a very broad, loose categorisation, encompassing a heterogeneous group of very different types of society and peoples with very different ways of life.

[3] I focus exclusively on the Islamic Middle East above all for analytical reasons, since it constitutes a relatively coherent unit. It is defined by the geographical region inhabited by Arabic ethnic groups and predominated by Arabic culture. It is composed of the 22 members of the Arab League: Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen (founding members), furthermore Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Non-Arab Iran and Turkey also form part of the Islamic Middle East.

[4] This distinction is also implicitly made with respect to other key concepts, such as “democracy”, “modernity” and “tradition”.

[5] Arguably, Monolithism encompasses the some of the allegations brought forward against essentialism, ethnocentrism, Orientalism and reductionism.

Excerpt out of 36 pages


Prospects of Democratic Transition in the Middle East
Does “Islam” Matter?
York University
Transitions from Authoritarianism
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
506 KB
Prospects, Democratic, Transition, Middle, East, Transitions, Authoritarianism
Quote paper
Patrick Haack (Author), 2005, Prospects of Democratic Transition in the Middle East, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: Prospects of Democratic Transition in the Middle East

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free