Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Islamist Bogeyman

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Islamist Bogeyman

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Missing the Third Wave: Islam, Institutions, and Democracy in the Middle East" by Ellen Lust, in Studies in Comparative International Development, June 2011.

ARGENTINA, PORTUGAL, THE Soviet Union: All turned democratic during what the political scientist Samuel Huntington famously called the "Third Wave" of democratization, a phenomenon of the 1970s, '80s, and early '90s. The authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and North Africa, however, were curiously resistant, and scholars have long tried to figure out why.

One group blames the region's oil riches, noting the negative correlation between resource wealth and democracy. Another says that the absence of civic life and the strength of tribal and family-based networks make the region more disposed toward authoritarianism. For still others, the culprit is Islam, with its mixing of religion and governance.

Ellen Lust, a political scientist at Yale, is not completely persuaded by any of these explanations. An important factor is being overlooked, she insists: the ability of incumbent regimes to exploit the presence of Islamist movements. By portraying Islamists as a greater threat to society than the status quo, authoritarian regimes dampened the ambitions of democratically oriented opposition groups across the region, particularly in the 1980s.

Take Tunisia. The secularist regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1987, excluded Islamists from the political sphere. …

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