Palestinian Attitudes toward Democracy and Its Compatibility with Islam: Evidence from Public Opinion Research in the West Bank and Gaza

Article excerpt

STUDENTS OF ARAB POLITICS OFTEN mention the need to consider the orientations of ordinary men and women, the so-called "Arab street." Unfortunately, however, systematic studies of the attitudes and behavior of ordinary citizens are rare. Insights, while not necessarily inaccurate, are frequently based on anecdotal evidence and hence impressionistic. They sometimes also reflect Western stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. Accordingly, rigorous empirical research at the individual level of analysis has long been called the missing dimension in the investigation of Arab politics, and there have thus been continuing calls for more and better studies of political culture in the Arab world (Hudson 1995).

The present study responds to such calls, using data from Palestine (West Bank and Gaza), the Arab society where political attitude research is most developed. In contrast to most Arab countries, there are several research centers in Palestine that regularly conduct opinion surveys dealing with important and sensitive political issues. Among other things, these polls include questions about governance, religion, and the connections between them. Drawing upon data collected in one such survey, the present study assesses the nature and determinants of support for democracy in Palestine, giving particular attention to the role of religion in accounting for attitudinal variance and to views regarding the compatibility between democracy and Islam.


The 1980s witnessed a renewed interest in democratization in the Arab world. Confronted with mounting popular anger fueled by economic conditions, government mismanagement and corruption, and the violation of human rights, a number of Arab governments enacted programs of political liberalization. For the most part, these reforms were part of a containment strategy designed to reduce public discontent and to increase regime legitimacy at a time when calls for meaningful political change were increasingly widespread.

These reforms rarely gained momentum, however, and many of the Arab world's democratic experiments were slowed, stalled, or even abandoned altogether during the 1990s. Lisa Anderson offers a forceful expression of the pessimistic assessment voiced by many observers by the beginning of the new millennium (1999, p. 4):

The prospects for democracy seem exceptionally bleak as we survey the remnants of so many of the democratic experiments, from the spectacular crash and bum of Algeria's liberalization to Tunisia's more subtle but no less profound transformation into a police state, from Egypt's backsliding into electoral manipulation [and repression of Islamic political movements] to the obvious reluctance of Palestinian authorities to embrace human rights.

There are some partial exceptions to this depressing characterization. In Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Qatar, for example, some would argue that there is continuing progress and that it is possible to have a meaningful debate about whether the glass is half full or half empty. In the Palestinian Authority, too, there have been accomplishments as well as setbacks in the struggle for democratic governance. On the other hand, according to Freedom House, not a single Arab country qualifies as even an electoral democracy, let alone a true democracy (Karatnycky 2000; also Sivan 2000).

In any event, most of the grievances that fostered popular discontent in the 1980s remain prominent at the present time and calls for democracy are as common as ever among Arab intellectuals and others. As a Jordanian journalist recently wrote, echoing sentiments expressed by many others, "one of the leading sources of instability and political-economic distortion in the Arab world is the unchecked use of state power, combined with the state's whimsical ability to use the rule of law for its own ends" (Khouri 2000). …