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The Muslim Love Affair with Autocracies

While the world moves ahead with democratization, the Muslim world moonwalks like Michael Jackson back into authoritarianism.

The Facts:

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In the third wave of global democratization that occurred during and especially after the decline of the Soviet Union the only civilization that resisted the trend is the Islamic world. The figures are particularly embarrassing; “since 1974 the absolute number of democracies in the world has nearly tripled, while the percentage of the world’s states that are democratic has doubled.” (1) Even in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union “the number of democracies has gone from none to 19, or 70 percent of the 27 states. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 30 of the 33 states are democracies… In Asia… the number of democracies has increased from 5 in 1974 to 12 in 2002, or about half of the 25 states… Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, which came late to the third wave, the number of democracies has increased from 3 to 19, about two-fifths of the 48 states.” (1)

Where as the number of democratic Muslim countries is a paltry 7 out of 43. And this includes countries with minimal (read: dubious!) democratic credentials like “Bangladesh, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Indonesia, Turkey and Albania” (1). The case of Middle Eastern countries is particularly shameful; there were 3 democracies in 1974 – Israel, Turkey and Lebanon. Now only the former two remain and even Turkey has had military interventions in various regimes over the years.

On the 7 point Freedom House scale where 7 is the least free and 1 is the most, Muslim countries have the unenviable position of ranking last. Furthermore the Muslim world is the only “region” of the world to have become less free since 1974 – its rating fell from 5.29 to 5.33. Back in my day as a Muslim youth I experienced first hand the rampant corruption and the draconic curbs on political participation and freedoms. As a troubled patriot, the childish panacea of our humiliating condition was always the thought that we were better off than someone else. In this case Africa, but sadly not even that is true any more! Sub-Saharan Africa is now ranked at 4.33, up from 5.51 in 1974, which means it is freer than the Muslim world!

I feel baptized in the waters of a shameful reality. Don’t you?

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You can check the latest Freedom House ratings of individual countries here.

The Theories:

While these statistics are damning, unfriendly critics of Islam and the Muslim world derive over-arching, anti-Islamic social theories from them to suit their own political agendas. But their theories have major anomalies and discrepancies; of the 27 non-Arab Muslim countries, roughly a quarter of them are democracies. A closer examination of these democracies shows an unusual occurrence; the level of economic development usually thought to be necessary to sustain democracy is not yet achieved. Therefore these democracies are what we call “electoral overachievers” (1). Somehow I have the faintest suspicion that the Muslim world might not erupt onto the streets in jubilation at these statistics.

Anyway, if Islam is not the problem, what is? Why is the Muslim world predominantly moving backwards as far as liberalization and democratization are concerned? Speculation by various Arab and Iranian political scholars (many of whom are apostates like yours truly!) is that it’s due to socioeconomic, political, cultural, ideological and foreign imperialist factors.

a) Socio-Economic factors

Most Muslim autocratic regimes have totalitarian control over economic resources as is the case with Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran and other countries. The revenue earned through these resources is used to finance their well-established system of cronyism, helping them consolidate power. History shows he who has money, or in this case total control over economic opportunity, has power. The Muslim world does not attempt to divorce itself from this general rule of thumb.

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b) Political Factors:

These include the threat Islamists and terrorists pose to the world. Islamists are, simply put; Muslims who want to gain political dominance and create a theocracy like Iran. A point to note is that Islamists don’t necessarily have to be violent and care must be taken to differentiate between ordinary Muslims and Islamists.

In the absence of secular democratic forces, Islamists threaten to take full advantage of any move towards democratization in an autocratic system – as they did in Algeria in 1992 and as the massive support they seem to be getting in Pakistan these days, due to a prolonged absence of secular forces. Islamists are obviously not a democratic force. Even if they claim otherwise, many fear their true intention is best exemplified by the aphorism “one person, one vote, one time!”, as it was in Iran. It is interesting to note that the Islamist party of Turkey, the AKP, has learnt to abandon its Islamist label and ideologies in the harshly secular political environment and is now (seemingly) committed to democratic ideals.

c) Cultural and Ideological Factors:

Islamists can be found making claims like “let’s revert to the ways of the sahabas and of Muhammad!” The reference to the “good ol’ days” was coined by Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century Muslim theologian, and later taken up by those very embodiments of pacifism and all embracing piety; Syed Qutb and the Maulanas Abdul Wahab & Maududi!

But Muslims are unaware that the first four “rightly guided caliphs” (of the sahabis) were authoritarian dictators for life. Furthermore Islamists “ignore the struggles for power and the conflict that led to the assassinations of three of the four [caliphs]” (3), with Abu Bakr dying of natural causes only 2 years after obtaining power. Unlike the romantic picture they paint of the early Muslims, there was great political friction amongst them. According to Middle East scholar Joseph N. Weatherby, “there always was rivalry between the towns of Mecca and Medina… The Mecca elites opposed and persecuted the early Muslims. Once Islam had triumphed… there began a competition for leadership between the ‘old believers’ from Medina and the ‘new believers’ in Mecca. This tension became an open struggle during the rule of the third caliph, Uthman.” (3). At one point Muhammad’s youngest wife, Aisha, declared war on the fourth caliph Ali, over a judicial policy disagreement! “Aisha, mounted on a camel, exhorted her troops to defeat the ‘usurper’ [the fourth Caliph, Ali]…” After her defeat, “Aisha was taken prisoner and returned to Medina, where she was placed under virtual house-arrest.” (4) And this is what many Islamists refer to as the Muslim golden age. Charming!

While it may be arguable that this was the direct result of Muhammad’s failure to “clearly designate his successor before his death” (3) or even a system of transferring power, the historical precedent these occurrences set are clearly antagonistic to the establishment of democratic precedents and values. In fact this tradition has eerie similarities to the way many Arab rulers have “climbed to the top by shoving aside or even murdering [their] rivals or …predecessor[s]” (1). These same Arab rulers are hence well aware of the underlying threat of the Islamists’ reference to the ways of the 7th century Muslims. So when they try to use democracy to gain power, it is little wonder the skillful autocratic regimes of the Muslim world are able to use them as an excuse to legitimize and consolidate their own rule.

d) Foreign Imperialist Factors:

And finally there is US support for friendly autocratic regimes. Ah, that neo-colonialist imperialist force, eh? Sarcasm aside, it is no secret that the US has historically supported regimes, based a realist foreign policy strategy. US aid comes in the form of monetary, political and military support. Why, just the military support is enough to see how they strengthen extremely repressive regime! For example, Saudi Arabia, the personal property of the Saud family (doesn’t it feel odd to refer to a country as personal property of someone? Yet that’s what it is!), receives gargantuan amounts of military hardware from the US. A closer look reveals, a) Saudi Arabia spends 30 percent of its GDP on arms purchases and, b) for every contract; the royal family receives a 30-40 percent commission. No wonder the number of combat planes already greatly exceeds the number of available pilots! (2)

This is how the nexus is tied together – the US earns money and oil from Saudi Arabia, the Saudi regime earns money for wasteful and unnecessary expenditures, which it then uses in its system of cronyism – paying off officials to continue supporting it.


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It’s still odd how only the Muslim world continues to face these problems – the rest of the world also had these issues, but they were able to break those shackles; the apartheid South African regime was powered by their resource rich economy yet they eventually democratized, Latin America was finally able to break free of the US control, and even Europe suffered at one point under the extremely authoritarian cultural and religious structure of Catholicism – which did not set many cultural democratic precedents and values, to put it mildly.

Overall the problems of the Muslim world are of a unique flavor, but they are not unique problems in and of themselves. A quintessential theory the satisfactorily explains why it is under the yoke of authoritarianism still eludes me.

In any case, a solution is obvious; the Muslim world needs to clean its own house by creating powerful movements to counter their own autocratic regimes, the way Argentina did with Peron, India did with Gandhi and so on. (The religion of peace should come in very handy right?) For that to happen, the Muslim ummah needs to first realize its own faults and short comings – that there are few believers in democracy and that the democratic system is the best political system. They also need to reject in totality, a) the Islamist approach of establishing sharia law and b) theocracy as unfeasible – thereby smashing any mix of religion and state. And finally, stop blaming Zionists and “grand schemes against Islam” for their own made woes, which includes blaming the US all the time. After all, in most cases the autocratic regime leaders come from the same society, culture, race and religion as the people. They’re one of them!

On the Western front democratic Muslim dissidents need to pressure the US government to end its support of authoritarian regimes, perhaps by establishing ties with liberal and/or other kinds of groups from which they can find support.

Admittedly all of this is easier said than done, for a plethora of reasons. But one factor uniquely intrigues me; diet Muslims are still too busy looking for the secular ideals they admire, in the canonical texts of their faith instead of openly embracing them without seeking theological backing! To them I’d like to say; get over it. Move on! Find a better basis for a world view, for the love of whatever god you worship! Don’t be like the writers of the Iraqi constitution – which I will be discussing in the next article.

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    1. Diamond, Larry, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg, eds. Islam and Democracy in the Middle East. Baltimore & London: John Hopkins, 2003. ix-xiii.
    2. Talbi, Mohamed. “A Record of Failure.” Journal of Democracy os 11 (2000): 58-68.
    3. Weatherby, Joseph N. The Middle East & North Africa. New York: Dison Wesley Longman, Inc., 2002. 121-122.
    4. Ali, Tariq. The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity. Verso, 2002. 51.

Salahudin al-Rawandi is an American dissident, born and raised in Pakistan. Phantasm film In a Dark Place divx The Wanderers download

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7 thoughts on “The Muslim Love Affair with Autocracies

  1. @ NK:

    Thank you! 🙂

    @ Naty:

    I completely agree with you. The two party system in my opinion is barely democratic! In the words of one of my favorite political personalities: “Hey, we’re one better than the communist system of totalitarian one party rule!” – Jesse Ventura.

    The US system frustrates me. It really boils down to this: being ONE better than say the predominant system {authoritarian) in the Muslim world is nothing to be proud off.

    I define democracy in two ways. “Minimal” Democracy and “Liberal” Democracy.

    Minimal democracy is simply a system where ultimate state power is peacefully and consistently transferred between a plurality of regimes/leaders.

    Liberal democracy is the above but with the addition of guarantees of civil liberties, judicial autonomy etc.

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  3. Indeed. The military intervention in Turkey actually taught the AKP that they would have to drop the Islamist label actually champion a democratic system, becoming essentially like “Christian Democrats”.

    Military intervention taught them the virtue of democracy… which is something you see in Pakistan as well these days, barring all the hypocritical rhetoric of the opposition parties.

    For there to be democracy in the Muslim world, the un-democratic agendas of the military, Islamist parties or any other group will have to be dropped. The idea is captured really well in the saying “For democracy to exist, all the players have to believe it is the only game to be played.”

    It’s possible, given Turkey’s example.

  4. Fantastic article …. Thanks for this very thoughtful piece. I have been wondering for a long time why are we so persistent in rejecting democracy in the Arab world.

  5. This was a great read, S. I guess one thing I’d be interested in discussing is what constitutes a “real” democracy. Because for me, the democratic process itself has become such a letdown as of late. Considering the two-party system in the U.S., for example. It’s so meaningless. It offers people no real choice.

    Obviously, it’s better than what’s happening, say, in Syria – but is it ultimately about freedom, i.e. the founding principle? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this. And I apologize if this is slightly off-topic.

  6. Hi,

    I am not a muslim and I am not an apostate either. But I have a suggestion that you may perhaps appreciate.

    “A quintessential theory the satisfactorily explains why it is under the yoke of authoritarianism still eludes me.”

    The is one basic requirement for democracy that will give you this explanation it is called separating “state from religion”. Turkey is a democracy because its military crushes religious parties and keeps the state untainted by religion. Revealed religions like Islam and Christianity depend heavily on political clout to spread. Wherever christianity and islam had spread, you can see that it was the rulers that first adopted and then over many many centuries forced their subjects to adopt it also. Mohammed (PBUH) writing to rulers to accept Islam is a forerunner of this concept. The koran explicitly forbids separation of the state from religion. That is why it is almost impossible to bring democracy to a muslim majority country, because the people who follow the koran will vote islamic parties into power thus breaking down the wall between state and religion and that party will become the new authoritarian regime repealing democracy (or keeps a sham democracy like iran). Do you think that any muslim majority country will be able to VOTE to ban islamic parties? Once they do so and only then will they be able to sustain a democracy. Till then it is autocracy for you, don’t you think so?

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