Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens

Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens

Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens

Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens


Some of the most pressing questions in the Middle East and North Africa today revolve around the proper place of Islamic institutions and authorities in governance and political affairs. Drawing on data from 42 surveys carried out in fifteen countries between 1988 and 2011, representing the opinions of more than 60,000 men and women, this study investigates the reasons that some individuals support a central role for Islam in government while others favor a separation of religion and politics. Utilizing his newly constructed Carnegie Middle East Governance and Islam Dataset, which has been placed in the public domain for use by other researchers, Mark Tessler formulates and tests hypotheses about the views held by ordinary citizens, offering insights into the individual and country-level factors that shape attitudes toward political Islam.


I WAS INTRODUCED to questions about Islam and its place in Muslim society and political affairs when studying, many years ago, at the University of Tunis. The curriculum in the year-long program leading to a certificat in “Sociologie Maghrébine et Islamique” included courses with prominent Tunisian professors and a chance to interact in a classroom setting, and on campus, with Tunisian university students. One of my courses, the title of which was something like “Islam in Theory and Society,” was taught by Professor Abdelwahab Bouhdiba and focused on many of the topics that Bouhdiba would later explore in his writings. Among these were Islam and social change, sexuality in Islam, and Islam and criminality.

My experience in Tunisia beyond the university also deepened my early interest in Islam. Under the leadership of its charismatic and determinedly modernist president, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia was carrying out a bold program of reform that had implications for the place Islam would occupy in public life. Reforms included the promulgation of a personal status code that challenged traditional interpretations of Islamic law in family affairs and gave men and women equal rights in a number of areas. This was, and remains today, the most progressive body of family law of any Arab country.

Bourguiba’s government also challenged the way that Islamic endowments and trusts were administered; and in one of his most notable and controversial actions, he called for Tunisians to refrain from fasting during Ramadan if this would reduce their effectiveness at work. Bourguiba argued that the country was in a war against underdevelopment and that Islam exempts warriors from fasting when in battle. Among Bourguiba’s many speeches dealing with Islamic themes was one, made during the time I was in Tunisia, in which he told his countrymen, “Faith and spiritual values are only effective to the extent they are based on reason.”

But Bourguiba’s was not the only Tunisian voice speaking about Islam at the time; and although there were many other Tunisian advocates of reform during this period, there were also those who opposed the president’s modernist project in the name of fidelity to a proper understanding of Islam and its place in a Muslim society. These individuals called the president’s message misguided and harmful, however well intended it might be. Some also charged that Bourguiba’s actions were politically calculated and that their true purpose was to reduce the influence of institutions that might challenge his authority and the dominant position of the political party he led.

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