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.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (12): Arab Democracy, an Oxymoron?

When people look for reasons why countries haven’t made the transition from authoritarian government to democracy, they often mention economic development or culture, or both. And culture usually means religion more specifically. And religion usually means Islam. Now it’s true that if you look at the largest Muslim region, the Arab world (roughly North Africa plus the Arab Peninsula), you won’t find a single democracy. You can check the most common democracy indexes, Freedom House and Polity IV. That’s an anomaly: no other large region in the world is similarly devoid of democratic governance.

The question is of course: why? In our post-9/11 world the obvious answer is Islam, which is believed to be a religion that is particularly incompatible with democratic principles such as separation of state and church, pluralism, rule of law, human rights etc. Some even say that there will never be democracies in the Arab world as long as Islam remains an important force.

However, sometimes the obvious answer is also the wrong one. Some Muslim countries outside the Arab world have reasonably well developed democratic systems of government (Albania, Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal, Turkey etc.) and are doing much better than some non-Muslim dictatorships out there.

But then, if it’s not religion, what is the reason for the absence of democracy in the Arab world? In an interesting new paper, Larry Diamond has a look at some possible reasons. He focuses on the so-called resource-curse and the correlated lack of accountability (accountability only emerges in countries that have to tax their people), but I think he’s wrong there. Lack of economic development could be a cause, but he rightly dismisses it. If you compare economic development in Arab and non-Arab countries, you see that per capita GDP of Kuwait is on the same level as Norway, Bahrain compares to France, and Saudi Arabia is on a par with South Korea. Conversely, you’ll be able to find non-Arab democracies that are much less developed than the average Arab country.

A more promising explanation of enduring Arab authoritarianism is FOTA: fear of the alternative. moderate opposition groups in Arab countries tend to accept their authoritarian governments. Their dislike of “modern pharaohs” is topped by their dislike of radical Islamist groups that could profit from free elections. Rather than the principle “one person, one vote, one time” followed by theocracy, they settle for the relatively mild yoke of secular Arab dictatorship. Something similar happened before in Latin America, when the feared alternative was communist rule.

Another explanation for the lack of Arab democracy is the large proportion of GDP spent on the security apparatus, and the relative efficiency of Arab security forces. This is probably linked to the support these countries receive from the West, which is another reason for their longevity. And finally, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a very convenient diversion: it allows public frustration to discharge outwards, without internal consequences.

As you can see, none of these causes condemn Arab countries to dictatorship. Compared to religion, these are things that can be changed quite easily, if the will is there. The FOTA is self-fulfilling: it’s likely that radical Islamist movements are encouraged by authoritarian rule, as much as they are restrained by it. So better give it up. And the West could use its leverage, resulting from decades of support, to push for reforms.