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Analysis Democracy Politics Politics

How And Why Did Democracy Fail In The Muslim World?

The modernization thesis has been contested, challenged and ultimately discarded under the latest scholarship on democratization. Economically developed authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, China and Qatar compelled scholars to review their basic assumptions and revamp modern democratic theory. A through revision of the literature led to the introduction of a new theoretical explanation, which I shall call a “cultural challenge to democracy.”

Muslim countries offer convincing examples and statistical explanation to support the claim of culturalist theorists that without certain sociological settings, a democracy is likely to die in infancy even if it is structurally imposed on a society. In other words, democracy ultimately fails in somnolent social systems.

My point is that the focus of democrats in the Muslim world is considerably misleading; democratizing states or introduction of some democratic institutions does not guarantee the evolution of genuine democracy. For a democracy to be institutionalized and consolidated, there needs to be public ownership of the democratic political order where citizens guard its basic tenets and core values. Unfortunately, our contemporary Muslim world lacks it.


Why is culture important?
Scholars from the Muslim world generally focus either on “Islam vs. Democracy” or “Islam vs. the West” theses. Therefore, the Political Science being produced in the Muslim world largely misses the sociology of democracy or, to be more precise, a cultural explanation of the rise and consolidation of authoritarianism. To fill this gap, some Western scholars have attempted to offer both empathetic as well as objective theoretically insightful accounts on sociological challenges to democracy in the Islamic world. But this scholarship is demonstrative of an outsider’s view of the complex and religiously conservative societies of Middle East and Asia.

To be precise, a cultural perspective is missing from the contemporary debates on democratization emerging from the Muslim world.

Culture is a complex, dynamic and evolving entity which provides every individual with a basic worldview along with some primary moral assumptions to differentiate “good” from “bad”. Cultural evolution is an unstoppable process, but procedurally, it is both controlled and greatly molded in order to ensure an undisruptive process of social development. It is culture which determines a few very important points; a) How do individuals look at rest of the world and develop their “us vs. them”; b) What is legitimate and how is it to be acquired; c) What are an individual’s rights and responsibilities as member of the society/state; d) Does an individual or their say truly matter?

For understanding democratic evolution in the Islamic world, it is imperative to explore as to how the large part of Muslims look at the system (democracy), and at themselves in a given political setting. If democracy is not considered as philosophy of life and individuals as independent citizens with equal share in political responsibility, it is destined to fail.


The Muslim world: why are democrats ‘substantially’ wrong?
Procedural irregularities can easily be corrected once they have been diligently identified. But any mistake at a substantive level carries a heavy cost for both individuals as well as large communities. In the case of Muslim world, academics and practitioners have been following a substantively contested version of democracy (commonly referred to as a top-bottom approach). The demand and focus remained on the establishment of democratic institutions e.g. a demand for elections and independent courts. There has been no serious efforts to democratize the society. The assumption of the author is that democracy at political level becomes overtly vulnerable if there is an authoritarian social order with highly centralized family system.

Many democrats are quite mistaken in their purist views on genuine representative democracy in the Muslim world due to the undue focus on two aspects of political process.

Firstly, there is a popular “belief” among scholars that a democracy cannot flourish if there are Muslims (most likely the practicing ones). The underlying assumption behind this belief is that Islam is something more than a system of faith which makes its followers inherently anti-democracy. This over-simplified and over-generalized idea of Islamic faith is quite misleading. Hence, a campaign to de-religionize Islamic societies in order to democratize them often proves to be counterproductive.

Secondly, as mentioned above, the focus of democrats is to democratize the state (here it means development of the formal institutions) which generally helps authoritarian rulers to institutionalize their rule – e.g. the cases of Pakistan and present-day Turkey – in a politically acceptable way. Political democratization through top-down approach serves the interests of the powerful elites.


The Muslim world should be ‘democratized’

Democracy is facing a peculiar cultural challenge in the Muslim world which needs appropriate understanding and adequate policy measures to ensure its survival amidst the rise of authoritarian forces. In the present context, public intellectuals and civil society are the only best available sources of taking up the case for democracy. Through social media sites and educational institutions, democracy as a philosophy needs to be inculcated in the minds of people to make them aware of its basic values; individual freedoms, political equality and the rule of law. It will help in creating a pro-democracy culture which would ultimately help Muslims to re-frame the system and their self – to become active participants and fearless defenders of their political order.


The author works as Senior Research Analyst at Global Village Space, Pakistan. He frequently writes for various English language newspapers and think-tanks. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @Farah_adeed


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