Reassessing Support for Islam and Democracy in the Arab World? Evidence from Egypt and Jordan

Article excerpt

Across the Middle East, support for democracy is striking. Regional survey data throughout the Arab world indicates that levels of support for democracy enjoy considerable majority support. (1) However, the Arab world has yet to see its first full-fledged democratic state. Studies examining the potential for democracy in the region often analyze institutional reforms that correspond with liberal democratic principles. Yet, students of Middle Eastern politics understand that existing institutional reforms, such as parliamentary elections and greater freedoms within civil society, have done little to enhance democracy in the region. In fact, the liberalizing tendencies of the 1990s have further solidified authoritarian rule. (2) Although these reforms have allowed for greater civic and political participation, they have also been accompanied by further repression and the continued monopolization of regime power. Today, democracy in the Arab world is, at best, a remote possibility.

In this conundrum of democratization, where institutional liberalizing reforms have been linked to further authoritarian consolidation and a rise of political Islam, little is known about the immediate effects of the current political climate on regional political worldviews. Although support for democracy is extremely high, support for Islamism is also quite high. In many parts of the Arab world, in fact, citizens express simultaneous support for democracy and Islamism. The discourse on the compatibility of Islam and democracy is quite vibrant and nuanced. From mosque sermons to newspaper columns, college campus speeches to coffee shop discussions, citizens of the Arab world view the tenets of Islam as inherently democratic. There is no distance between Islam and democracy.

Yet, in most Western discourses, support for religious rule and democracy are often assumed to be diametrically opposed categories. Secularism, implying the separation of church and state, is a discourse that the Muslim world appears to have rejected. In countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, Muslim-oriented parties (not Islamist parties that demand sharia) have made significant gains in recent elections. According to Vali Nasr (2005), "the vital center of politics is likely to belong neither to secularist and leftist parties nor to Islamists." The center of politics will be located among those who support "Muslim values and moderate Islamic politics." (3) This trend is also emerging in the context of the Arab Muslim world, in qualitative interviews with Jordanian citizens during the summer of 2005, the vast majority of citizens from all economic and educational backgrounds expressed support for democratic rule based on a worldview of Islamic laws and doctrines. These citizens do not see Islam and democracy as opposed to one another. In fact, in many instances, respondents offered very perceptive analysis on the ways in which Islam could further contribute to the democratization project. Thus, support for both democracy and Islam raises compelling points of inquiry. How does support for Islamism and democracy differ from support for Islamism or democracy? What cultural, demographic, and religious factors are linked to levels of support for democracy and Islamism in the specific contexts of Jordan and Egypt?

Drawing on modernization theory, which holds that higher education remains the most robust factor in explaining support for democracy in the Arab world, I argue that support for Islamism is more a function of poor socioeconomic conditions than of other prevailing explanations, namely politicocultural accounts. Yet, when we examine simultaneous support for Islamism and democracy, an interesting and complex story appears. We find that Islamist-democrats in the region are associated with the interaction between lower socioeconomic factors and politicocultural factors.


Two major paradigms explain the emergence of Islamism and the lack of support for democracy in the Arab world. …