Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (22): Arab Democracy, an Oxymoron? Ctd.

I already wrote about and dismissed the claim that Islam is the main reason why democracy seems to fail in Arab countries (see here). Now I’ve found a new study that seems to support my argument:

The Arab world’s so-called “democracy deficit” is not tied to the Islamic religion but rather to the Arab world’s history and the institutions introduced following conquest by Arab armies over 1000 years ago. (source)

Territories conquered by Arab armies during the Middle Ages still have weak civil societies and strong states today. Countries that are predominantly Muslim today but outside of this area of medieval conquest are not more or less democratic than the average country.

If this is true, then we can be somewhat optimistic about the possibility of real democracies emerging from the Arab Spring. If Islam were the problem, we could forget about democracy.

However, I have my doubts about the importance and validity of this explanation. It’s not the historical distance of the causal link that troubles me. You may be skeptical about the long-lasting effects of events that occurred centuries ago, but I think such effects are commonly accepted in other areas: the slave trade still causes poverty in Africa to this day, and poverty and inequality in present-day Peru for example are partly the result of the mita system of the Spanish colonizers.

What troubles me is that I can see other, more or equally important reasons for the democratic deficit in Arab countries: the resource curse, foreign intervention (motivated by the FOTA principle) and, yes, some elements of Islam (Islam’s hostility to equality, to the separation of state and church etc.). The latter point should not be understood as implying fatalism with regard to the prospect of democracy: Islam is only one causal element among many, and it’s a cause that can be eliminated. After all, Catholicism as well was once believed to be an insurmountable obstacle to democracy.

More posts in this series are here.


5 thoughts on “Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (22): Arab Democracy, an Oxymoron? Ctd.”

  1. Democracy is a hard and complicated thing to achieve and sustain.In “first world” countries its taken as a given, but if you look at the third world and countries that where colonized,you’ll get a picture of how difficult it can be to be democratic.

    But the most important thing that I realized about democracy is that, regardless of how undemocratic, totalitarian a country is, and how much the international community complains and cries foul; democracy only comes about if the citizens of the country want it, and are willing to fight hard enough to gain it.


  2. I don’t think it’s possible to establish cause-effect relationship between Islam and democracy. The region has been a big victim of centuries of European imperialism. And in several countries, US imperialism has taken over. In my view, this part of the world is doing great when we consider all the challenges they had to face.


    1. Islam is a religion,not a region or a government,and democracy is not just one generic thing, democracy or democratic is what a country becomes/is when its government and institutions abide by certain rules and meet certain standards.

      the question that we need to ask is what makes democracy flourish, and what makes democracy fail?


  3. Dangerous simplistic thinking.
    Spain has been islamic for a significant part of its history. Turkey and Indonesia and now vibrant democracies. Don’t forget it was the West that dismissed democratic outcome of elections in Algeria in 1990s and now again we express concerns about democracy in Egypt. Don’t forget it was the islamic world that maintained many liberal values before Europe stumbled into the renaissance – this included high levels of local democracy – think about the water councils for example.
    I would think the democratic deficit it is perhaps more correlated to the the fact that many arab states were just drawn on a map by colonial powers less than a 100 years ago and that democracy in the region has not served Western (or former Communist) interests for most of that time.
    And fundamentally, correlations do not prove causality so please do not suggest that they do.


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