Competing paradigms of Middle Eastern democracy

“What cultural, demographic, and religious factor are linked to levels of support for democracy and Islamism”? This is the question posed by Amaney Jamal in a 2006 article in the journal World Affairs, which provides valuable insight into the Arab world’s position on this question. Perhaps contrary to the established academic opinion, Jamal found that it was not the strength of the respondent’s faith that had the biggest impact on their political views, but rather their income level, education, and attitudes towards gender roles.

Jamal notes that two traditional paradigms have been posited explaining the potential dichotomy between democracy and Islam. The first states that support for democracy is linked to modernization in the region, with citizens who have benefited by modernization with, for example, further education and higher incomes, being more likely to support the democratization of their state. Conversely, those who did not benefit from modernization, or who experienced blowback from such failed experiments like the Import Substitution Industrialization, are more likely to reject democracy in favor of an Islamist state. The second paradigm contends that the very nature of Islam make democracy impossible, by virtue of being a “monolithic, hierarchical faith devoid of individualism, liberalism, and political freedoms,” a hypothesis which currently has little support of empirical evidence.

To fill this void of empirical evidence, Jamal tested four hypotheses “derived from modernization expectations and politicocultural arguments” to determine the validity of the two paradigms. Her four hypotheses can be summed up by these four questions: Is greater Islamic observance linked to lower support for democracy and greater support for Islamism? Do negative attitudes about gender equality suppress support for democracy? Are those that are more economically comfortable more likely to support democracy? And is support for democracy a function for higher levels of education?

Her results were fascinating and, unsurprisingly, far more complex than some Western political pundits would have you believe. While there certainly was an ideological gap between those that were strongly pro-Islamist and strongly pro-democratic, the findings also found subsets with every conceivable combination, such as those who had both high support of Islamic government and high support of democracy, and vice versa.

The article is an interesting expose of the actual attitudes among citizens of Arab nations, but, in my opinion, also points to a serious flaw in the academic and political arguments both for and against the idea of an Islamic democracy. The lack of true empirical study into the attitudes and socio-economic conditions of the Arab region leaves a huge gulf of knowledge that could be used to enhance the democratic standing of the region. However, this data is often foregone in favor of polemicizing, which, while surely good for the political commentators ratings and/or book sales, neither shed light on the real issues or aid in finding solutions.

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5 responses to “Competing paradigms of Middle Eastern democracy

  1. Pingback: “there are reasons to remain skeptical” | Invictus

  2. Pingback: A Democracy that is not chosen by the People is not Democracy | Invictus

  3. Pingback: “Reasons to remain skeptical” about American involvement in Middle East democratic efforts | Invictus

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