politics : culture : economics

Islam: democratic underachiever or overachiever?

In Islam, Turkey on June 14, 2010 at 9:07 am

Let me dispense with the preliminaries and put one of the big questions straight on the table. What is the relationship between Islam and democracy? I want to consider some research by the political scientist Alfred Stepan, who looks at this question in ways that are apposite at a time when Turkey’s prime minister is busy making something of a hero of himself on the Arab ‘street’.

Stepan’s basic argument is that the absence of democratic rights is less a problem for the Muslim world in general than for the Arab world in particular. In fact, one of his most counter-intuitive assertions is that the world’s largest group of overachievers on key democratic criteria is made up of countries with a Muslim-majority population.

For our purposes, there are three key steps in Stepan’s argument. (I’m making a number of elisions here, but you’ll find a full citation for the research at the foot of the page.)

First, Stepan defines the ‘electoral competitiveness’ criterion that he’ll use as a measure of democratic rights. For a country to be electorally competitive, he says, it must have fair elections and its elected government must be able to fill the country’s most important political offices. (He acknowledges that this puts to one side much that is important about democracy understood more broadly, but he notes that electoral competitiveness is central to and a necessary condition for democracy.

Stepan’s second step is to look at the performance of countries with a Muslim-majority population on this electoral competitiveness criterion, and to compare the results for Arab and non-Arab countries. In particular, he asks how many countries managed either three or five consecutive years of electoral competitiveness over a roughly three decade period (1972 to 2000). The results are striking:

  • 11 out of 29 non-Arab countries met the three-year threshold.
  • 8 out of 29 non-Arab countries met the five-year threshold.
  • 1 out of 16 Arab countries met the three-year threshold.
  • Not a single Arab country met the five-year threshold.

Stepan’s third and final step is to compare the electoral competitiveness of Muslim-majority countries (both Arab and non-Arab) with what one would expect given their economic development.

The well-established background assumption here is that poverty makes democracy difficult. For this reason, if a country with GDP per capita (GDPpc) below $3,500 meets the three-year democratic threshold, Stepan counts it as an overachiever. Similarly, if a country with GDPpc above $5,500 fails to meet the three-year threshold, he counts it as an underachiever. Once again, his results are striking:

  • 9 out of 29 non-Arab states met the three-year threshold. 7 of these were overachievers.
  • Of the remaining 20 non-Arab countries that didn’t meet the threshold, 18 had GDPpc below $3,500, so their lack of political rights was to be expected.
  • 7 of the 16 Arab countries were  electoral underachievers.
  • Not a single Arab country was an electoral overachiever.

What can we conclude from all this? Well, if two sets of countries share Islam but differ sharply on political rights, it follows that Islam cannot be the key driver of their performance on the political criteria. Stepan puts the key point succinctly: “We should be more cautious and nuanced than Western social scientists and public commentators have tended to be in ascribing the electoral gap of Muslim countries to the nature of Islam.”

Of course, it might be suggested that all Stepan has done is replace one essentialising over-generalisation (‘Islam can’t do democracy’) with another (‘Arabs can’t do democracy’). Even if this were the case, it wouldn’t affect the relevance of Stepan’s analysis to Turkish politics. Empirical evidence questioning the link between Islam and antidemocratic politics—and locating the key problem in a group of countries that doesn’t include Turkey—is clearly germane to ongoing debates here.

But Stepan isn’t claiming simply that ‘Arabs can’t do democracy’. He leaves the analytical heavy lifting to future work by regional experts, but he suggests a clear line of research for them when he writes:

“It seems likely that both theorists and policy makers will do better to search the political—as opposed to the ethnic or religious—particularities of the Middle East and North Africa for clues to the obdurately antidemocratic features of political life in those regions.”

He lists a number of the factors that might play a role, including states’ relatively new and arbitrary boundaries, their colonial histories and the weakening of national political identities by the region-wide use of Arabic as the dominant language. But the consideration to which he devotes most attention in his conclusion is the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and its implications for resource allocation and great-power interference across the Arab region. It is geopolitics rather than religion, he suggests, that has stifled democracy in the Arab world. We should bear this in mind when considering Turkey’s supposed tilt towards the East in recent weeks.


  • Stepan, Alfred. “An ‘Arab’ More Than ‘Muslim’ Electoral Gap.”
    Journal of Democracy 14, 3 (2003): 30-44.
  1. One small note for Stepan: While he’s differentiating between Arab and non-Arab countries, he generalizes Islam as one unified sphere. In his analysis, if a control element such as (but not limited to) legislative or even institutionalization of Islam within a political system was included, I strongly think his analysis would be more solid. That is to say, measurement of democracy within a political system is both a social, as well as an institutional phenomenon. Hence the differences in application between say Turkey, Pakistan, Syria and Iran.

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