Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Islamic Religiosity and Regime Preferences: Explaining Support for Democracy and Political Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Islamic Religiosity and Regime Preferences: Explaining Support for Democracy and Political Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus

Article excerpt


Does religion or religiosity affect Muslims' regime preferences? Developing constructivist and ideational approaches, we theorize why and how religiosity shapes regime preferences. We test our hypotheses on our novel survey data from Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. Our findings question civilizationist, rationalist, and modernizationist theories by showing that religiosity among Muslims strongly affects regime preferences for various types of democracy and political Islam. Religious affiliation, however, does not. Finally, we challenge standard measurements of democratic support among Muslims and argue for more nuanced definitions; our surveys generate significant improvements in data for studying these issues.


Muslim democracy, political Islam, religiosity, regime preferences, secularism

Religion and Regime Preferences

For several decades scholars, policy makers, and Muslim religious leaders and activists have debated two critical questions: Do Muslims want democracy? Are they inevitably prone to favor some form of political Islam? Put another way, does their religious affiliation or religiosity affect Muslims' regime preferences, or their preferences for a certain type of democracy? These questions have enormous implications, especially as the United States attempts to influence democratic transitions in predominantly Muslim countries from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan to Iraq. Universalistic theories often lack systematic testing at the individual level, miss important regional variations, or fail to probe whether Muslim populations understand democracy as Western policy makers and political theorists do. This article addresses these questions in the context of two predominantly Muslim states: Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. We developed two original surveys to explore religiosity's effect on individual regime preferences, namely, for varieties of democracy and political Islam. The surveys are novel in distinguishing between secular democracy, as democracy has been ideally defined in Western liberal theory (Locke [1968] 1990, 15-19; Mill 1956, 11-18; Rawls 1993), and Islamic democracy, a religiously oriented democracy advocated by many Muslim activists and theorists (Nasr 2005, 13-15; Khan 2006, 154-65). Our surveys also distinguish among types of political Islam. Contrary to prevailing theories, we find a strong, consistent relationship between religiosity-the depth of individual belief, practice, and commitment to religious ideas-and regime preference.

Our findings contribute theoretically and empirically to two major and interrelated debates about religion and politics. The first is a decades-long, polarizing debate about religion's effect on support for democracy. Huntington's civilizationalist view (1993), as well as many culturalists, expect Islam to determine Muslims' political preferences; Islamic theology and culture, they argue, is inherently undemocratic (Lerner 1958; Lipset 1994; Lewis 1998; Kedourie 1994). Other scholars contend that all religions are "multi-vocal" (Stepan 2000) and that Islam's political role has varied over time (Lapidus 1992); therefore, they argue, Islam is not inherently antidemocratic (Soroush 2002). Public opinion studies consistently argue that Muslim religiosity does not affect democratic support, or that Muslims overwhelmingly support democracy (Tessler 2002; Norris and Inglehart 2004; Esposito and Mogahed 2008).

A second and related debate concerns the roots of popular support for political Islam (Islamism)-a twentieth-twentyfirst century political movement [omit: phenomenon] characterized by [omit: based on] a religio-political [omit: Islamist] ideology that rejects democracy and calls for an Islamic state, law or constitution based [omit: exclusively] on sharìa, or a caliphate (Esposito 1999).1 The civilizationist view, prominent in media and policy circles, roots political Islam in an unchanging, theocratic Islamic religion that is antidemocratic, anti-Western, and jihadist (Huntington 1993). …

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