Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Democracy, "Arab Exceptionalism," and Social Science

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Democracy, "Arab Exceptionalism," and Social Science

Article excerpt

This article deals with a cross-national measurement methodology of democracy as it is applied to Muslim and Arab nations by Freedom House, a major research organization. The results of Freedom House's studies show that Muslim and Arab states prove comparatively to be exceptional in being resistant to democracy. This article briefly examines measurement criteria then highlights the finding that the exceptionalism thesis propagated by the Freedom House project is the product of serious discrepancies in the measurement application.

The quantitative measurement of democracy on a global scale may not be a new phenomenon, though in recent years it has come to attract widespread attention in periodical literature and official circles. Of the many interesting discussions resulting from the profusion of measurement studies,1 the ones that revolved around Islam, Arab states, and democracy have received widespread attention in academic and other influential places,2 in addition to being particularly relevant for comparative studies.

The issue of whether democracy is inimical to Islam, to Arab culture, or to both is a question that used to be relegated mostly to area specialists as a subject of particular regional character. In recent years the question has been thrown wide open to the mainstream of the comparative study of politics, a step that in principle guards against essentialist tendencies. Yet, in two of the social science measurement enterprises of a global nature,3 more excitement has been generated regarding the political behavior of Muslims and Arabs with respect to democracy than about the soundness of the methodology and research that have produced the results.

This article will assess the findings reached by Freedom House (FH), one agency engaged in measurement on a worldwide scale,4 and whose surveys have had the effect of propagating the exceptionalism thesis of the Muslim and Arab worlds.5 As the thesis is briefly rendered by Freedom House, Muslim states in general stand out as having a greater democracy deficit than is the case in any other culture or region of the world. The democracy deficit is shown to be more acute among the subset of Arab countries, where democracy is totally absent in nearly all but a few of them that are considered partially free (4 out of 17).6

No expert on the Middle East would argue that the Arab states are firmly grounded in the democratic club of nations; indeed it is generally held that a small number of them rank amongst the top authoritarian regimes in the world. What is being questioned here is the wholesale indictment of Arab states as failing to meet any democratization standards to speak of,7 thus paving the way to separate them as an exception even within the developing world. Freedom House studies try to show that even under permissive standards set up to accommodate the developing countries of Africa and Asia, only four Arab countries have been found to be partially democratizing.8

It will be argued here that (1) the denial of any democratizing trends in the Arab countries is a function of questionable measurement rather than of facts, and that (2) a more careful reading shows that many of them fall in the FH "Partly Free" category, comparable to a large cohort of developing countries. Not an exception, but much like other developing countries, most Arab states have since the 1970s been taking steps toward democratization in measures that vary in degree and extent from one country to another.


One of the distinctive features of cross-national analysis on a global scale is its disaggregative nature. According to this method, an observer keeps a scoreboard on which each democratic attribute in a regime is assigned a numerical value. The system's ranking then is determined by taking the average score of all the considered attributes. Studies conducted by Arend Lijphart,9 Vanhanen,10 Freedom House," and Polity IV Project,12 for instance, have a disaggregative methodology in common. …

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