[ACC Entry] Are Islam And Liberal Democracy Compatible?

[This is an entry to the Adversarial Collaboration Contest by John Buridan and Christian Flanery.]

Matter: To what extent does liberalism and democracy obtain in Islamic countries. Whether Islam consistently poses political opposition to liberalism and democracy.

Two simple narratives have split the western world’s perspective on Islam.

These two narratives do not exhaust the spectrum of opinion, but they do function well enough to establish the basic controversy around Islamic countries and Liberal Democracy.

The first narrative opines that Islam is an ideology inimical to “western values,” such as classical liberalism and liberal egalitarianism, and a rival to the Judeo-Christian social mores. It constitutes an ideological rival, inherently aggressive, both unable and unwilling to sustain non-partisan legal systems, democratic norms, fair treatment for opposition parties, protection of dissidents, or the basic rights and freedoms which Western European and Anglophone countries enjoy. And that Islam sustains this undesirable state of affairs.

The second is that Islam is not qualitatively different from any other religion. Islam has contributed to civilization in a significant way, and ordinary Muslims share our own values of family, peace, and justice. In contrast to the first narrative which stresses Islam as an ideology, the second narrative emphasizes that Muslims are normal people. There is no problem with Islam eo ipso; the perceived “problems” of Islam are actually some combination of the fairly normal problems of traditional societies, poor socio-economic conditions, and legacy problems from colonialism.

In order to avoid a point-scoring debate between these two narratives, our approach is to provide a descriptive examination of the performance of liberal democracy within Islamic environments. We take as granted for this paper that one cannot look at a religion on paper and predict what it will look like in a polity. Religious practice and theological doctrine inform every aspect of the pious person’s outlook and life, but the way in which it informs that outlook is not deterministic and cannot be gleaned merely by looking at the source texts, nor by the impossible task of a quantitative comparison of which religion has produced more violence across regions and millenia. Although we believe original texts are not deterministic, that does not mean Islam is totally amorphous. Religious culture is a powerful force within society. It unifies people, allows them to feel part of something bigger and better, it provides solace in their troubles, and can mobilize political action. How that mobilization of power occurs remains largely up to the needs of the moment, but it’s that mobilization of power which we are interested in.

A community’s interpretation of a religious text can be unpredictable, and our study does not hold such texts as a reliable source for predicting political outcomes. Nor will we attempt to determine the nature of Islam by enumerating the good and bad works it has produced. We hold that investigating the politics of a particular community over time more adequately casts light on the possibilities for the future than the foundational texts of the culture.

Our methodology is to investigate the recent political history of Islamic countries as they relate to democratic forms of government and the package of rights we call ‘liberalism.’ We survey the national history, constitutions, and current political environments to determine the extent to which democracy and liberalism have obtained in these countries, and we predict the conditions under which more democratic and liberal policies could emerge. Islam is a useful study since certain well-known expressions of Islam are decidedly neither democratic nor liberal. The “Islamic world” is one of the largest populations groups in the world, and so each Islamic country’s relationship and experimentation with democratic forms of government and human rights is important for the future.

First, we will define our basic terms.

Democracy – A system of government which rejects the rule of a single interest (dictator or oligarchs) through the participation of citizens and some separation of powers.

Liberalism – In an effort to avoid taking sides between classical and egalitarian forms of liberalism, we are just emphasizing the basic liberalism of texts like “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”, “The Declaration of the Rights of Women”, and a generally consistent protection of these rights by the police and judiciary.

Islamic country – for us any country with a Muslim population of 70% or higher. We use the phrase Islamic country even when the country in question is officially nonsectarian. The six countries we study are United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Lebanon (see the section on Lebanon for more on our reasons for choosing this country). We chose these countries for their geographic range, cultural diversity, and relative stability. These countries can act as a representative sample for future inquiry on politics in Islamic countries.

In each case we examine the history, constitution, and current political environment, focusing on democratic mechanisms and human rights records.

We stress constitutions because they are useful, tangible indicators for political outcomes. However, constitutions can be misleading, and so reviewing the context and results of implementation is essential in making sure our moorings are in the political world and not hypothetical jurisprudence.

United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a sovereign nation state founded in 1971, and composed of the lands of seven Emirates. An Emirate, is the rank, land, or reign of an Emir. Emir is the patriarch of a tribe and the leader of an Emirate. Emir’s are also referred to as Sheikhs at times, which simply means leader of a tribe. The Emirs and their family rule each Emirate and power is passed through male successors. The 1971 unification was the first time the Emirates were united into a formal state. Despite the constraints of the constitution, each Emirate still enjoys a degree of autonomy within the confines of the union.


In 1971, the seven gulf emirates unified themselves into one sovereign state known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This was in response to the withdrawal of the British Protectorate over their provinces in 1968. The UAE adheres to a long standing cultural tradition rooted in ancient tribal systems. This tribal tradition, and a 500 year old geopolitical strategy of precarious orientation between the Islamic world and western power are the determinants of the UAE’s place in the contemporary international order.

In order to be a citizen of the UAE, one must prove a direct ancestry dating at least as far back as 1930. This dictate resulted from fear in the 1940s that tribal relations would be diluted in the wake of increasing immigration caused by oil discovery. The tribes that compose the UAE are Arab. Some tribes have occupied the strait of Hormuz and Persian gulf coasts since the days of Alexander the Great’s conquests. Others migrated out of the Arabic desert in the 1700s and settled parts of the coast.

Arabic tribal arrangements served the needs of a people in a desolate landscape where living on one’s own meant death. Because resources were scarce, tribes hoarded them jealously and placed a premium on tribal solidarity. This meant discouraging inclusion of outsiders and prohibiting membership in the tribe other than through birth. This mentality has played a role in discouraging the promotion of democratic norms. Citizenship is denied even other Arabs who do not have direct tribal links, and a patriarchal kinship system orders politics, not democracy nor kingship.

The tribes were never formally unified until 1971. Historically, when security concerns arose, they often operated in loose confederation with one another in order to protect mutual interests. In the 16th and 17th centuries the emirates entered agreements with Portugal to protect their trade routes stretching from Swahili in East Africa to India and beyond. These were especially lucrative on account of demand for pearls in Europe. This system was renewed under the British protectorates of the 19th and 20th century. In 1968 the British withdrew their protectorate, prompting the Emirates to form a unified state. The newly created UAE then established security agreements with the U.S. similar to the client relationships they had with the Portuguese and the British.

Today, longstanding squabbles between the Emirates still influence relations. Even at the inception of the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar were originally destined to join the union. On account of old territorial disputes between the emirates, the two decided to establish their own independent states. These long standing conflicts continue to assert themselves as we have seen in the 2017 severing of ties between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Qatar.

In addition to tribal disputes, the UAE fear a continually more bold and expansionist Iran. The Emirate’s historical relationships with western powers remain the primary means of securing themselves in an often volatile and unfriendly region. Consequently, the UAE’s close ties with the U.S. constitute a critical security lynchpin if they are to remain autonomous and unharrassed. This necessitates paying some degree of lip service to American values, as we will see below.


The UAE constitution was ratified in 1971. It represents a middle of the road effort by the ruling Emirs to cater to western democratic liberalism while retaining as much of their central power as possible under the traditional patriarchal kinship system. As shown in the history section, the UAE clings to its tribal systems and asserts them against efforts to dilute tribal ties. Democratic instruments such as universal suffrage and the power of collective, popularly elected legislative bodies threaten these modes of rule.

In 2004, a number of amendments were made to the constitution. The preamble in this version, stakes out a commitment to a Westphalian1 conception of the state and a commitment to democratic principles and process.

Desiring to create closer links between the Arab Emirates in the form of an independent, sovereign, federal state, capable of protecting its existence and the existence of its members, in cooperation with the sister Arab states and with all other friendly states which are members of the United Nations Organization and members of the family of nations in general; on a basis of mutual respect and reciprocal interests and advantage;…[and] preparing the people of the Union at the same time for a noble and free constitutional life, progressing by steps towards a comprehensive, representative, democratic regime in an Islamic and Arab society free from fear and anxiety;

In the latter half of the 20th century, it became critical that a nation obtain for itself a seat within international institutions. The most common avenue to prosperity and security for emerging states today is through the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Institutions. Access to these international institutions require formal statehood and are not bilateral in nature. Therefore, membership comes with a greater set of demands and requirements. The U.N., World Bank, and IMF are institutions largely oriented at the discretion of western nations and insist on democratic liberalism. The commitments to liberal democracy instantiated in the UAE constitution, as quoted above, serve to keep the UAE in good standing within the international community, maintain access to key international financial and monetary instruments, and facilitate security relationships. There is little substantiating evidence that the Emirates intended to adhere to these commitments to liberal democracy lest their international ties are threatened. This strategy is protected in the constitutional preamble where it states that movement towards a democratic order is, “progressing by steps.” It is not democratic yet but the implication is that it will be eventually. By stating that the UAE will move incrementally towards democracy, the Emirs can justify perpetuating oligarchical rule.

The constitution does contain a number of liberal protections and commitments. It contains non-discrimination clauses regarding race, nationality, religious belief, and social position, but there are no clauses for gender or sexual orientation. It also guarantees free speech, but as we will see below governmental protection of free speech has been dubious according to U.S. reporting agencies.

The arrangement and structure of government bodies provide minimal checks on arbitrary decision making on the part of the Supreme Council which is the highest authoritative body, composed of the seven Emirs. The Supreme Council selects judges and does not require confirmation of its picks by the legislative branch. They unilaterally select the president from their own ranks. The Council of Ministers and its chairman are selected from the population by the Supreme Council. No confirmation is required. The only semblance of popular election based self rule lies in the Union National Council, an advisoral legislative body which is composed of 40 legislators. 20 of them are popularly elected, and 20 are chosen directly by the Supreme Council.

The Cabinet of Ministers submit draft legislation which passes through the Union National Council and then to the Supreme Council for ratification. The legislative power of the Union National council is advisoral only. The Supreme Council can ratify any draft legislation without the approval of any other body or individual. Only the seven Emirs may challenge the constitutionality of laws, which is then determined by judges who the Supreme Council selects. Only the Emirs may submit amendments to the constitution, which require two thirds (30 out of 40, 20 of whom are chosen by the emirates) support in the Union National Council.

Frequently, the constitution reiterates that all bodies and individuals must be beholden to the constitution as the ultimate authority. Shariah is mentioned only once but does exercise considerable authority over the primarily Muslim population.

The preamble commits to democratic rule and the constitution as the foundational binding document, but in effect, it is only a reformulation of pre-existing tribal systems. It masquerades as an effort to create a fair and balanced system of governance, but in reality, it enshrines almost all executive, legislative, and judicial power in the hands of the seven Emirs. This document cannot be considered democratic because it establishes almost no democratic mechanisms, and it lacks important key guarantees, such as gender discrimination and due process, in order to be considered liberal.

Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

Citizenship and Voting

The Emirs select who is allowed to vote and the criteria for selections is not clear or published. It seems a very small number of citizens are allowed to vote. Perhaps 10% of the population of 5 million. In 2015 voter turnout was 35.29% of those eligible to vote. Roughly 11% of the resident population are citizens and 85% of these are Sunni Muslims. In 2010, Pew Research estimated that 76.95 of the total population were Muslim. Obtaining citizenship, and thereby voting rights, requires proving direct tribal lineage prior to 1930. Thus, democratic participation is accessible to a narrow sliver of society. Citizens who do vote, can only vote for a consultative counsel that is not vested with any real legislative power. Some of the Emirates have at times created parliaments with real legislative power but still retain the right to dissolve these at will, which they have.

Constitutional Adherence

The U.S. State Department has reported on the UAE’s many unconstitutional activities. For further reading on these, see the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and International Religious Freedom Reports.

Article 26 of the constitution forbids torture. Article 30 ensures freedom of expression. Article 28 lays out juridical procedures to ensure defendants receive a public and fair trial.

In the State Department Human Rights Report for 2017, it notes that U.N. human rights experts working with former detainees in the UAE have repeatedly reported the use of torture techniques such as forced standing, threats to rape or kill, and electrocution. Shariah courts also impose flogging for pre-marital sex, defamation, and consuming alcohol.

Activists have alleged that authorities detained citizen Ghanem Abdullah Matar after he posted a series of videos on social media in June that expressed sympathy with Qatar, with whom the UAE are in a bitter dispute over an email hacking scandal. Ghanem, in the video here, criticises the UAE for it’s hard stance on Qatar and for not remembering Qatar’s aid in the conflict in Yemen.

Fair public trials have also been withheld from individuals considered to be potential terrorists or who criticize government policy. The location and status of political activist Nassir bin Ghaith remains unknown from the time of his arrest in August 2015 until April 2016,

“when prosecutors formally announced charges of defaming a foreign country (Egypt), criticizing the UAE’s decision to grant land for a Hindu temple, and having ties to Islamist group al-Islah. In December 2016 bin Ghaith’s case was transferred from the State Security chamber of the Federal Supreme Court to the Federal Court of Appeal. In March authorities sentenced bin Ghaith to 10 years in prison for promoting “false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the state and one of its institutions.” Bin Ghaith called into question the fairness of his trial, noting an Egyptian judge was assigned to adjudicate a case that involved charges of bin Ghaith defaming Egyptian figures.”

Nassir bin Ghaith did not receive a fair, public trial. The State Department a number of other such cases which strongly indicate that public criticism of the government is likely to result in arbitrary imprisonment.

These are just three areas where the unconstitutionality of acts are disregarded in the name of expediency, national security concerns, or as a relinquishing of authority to shariah courts. The Emirs, despite the existence of binding constitutional law, can still act unilaterally and arbitrarily, regardless of the rights of their citizens or of foreign nationals in the country.

UAE’s Future

Change in the UAE looks highly unlikely in the near future. It was untouched by the Arab Spring, and long standing patriarchal systems are firmly in place. I should note, that while the “incremental” approach to democracy that the Emirs articulate is certainly suspect, (See Cleveland and Bunton’s A History of the Modern Middle East in suggested reading for a good examination of Britain;s use of the same method of maintaining unilateral rule and suppressing democracy in its colonial holdings in Egypt) conditions have improved for religious freedom and female freedom in the UAE over the last 50 years relative to before the unification.

Until the Emirs are stripped of some of their religious and political power it is unlikely things will change any faster than the current snail speed. The UAE is wealthy and its stability is of critical geo-strategic importance to U.S. and western regional concerns who are loathe to demand too much of the Emirs in regards to political change.

In order for the patriarchal system to be supplanted, citizenship would have to be radically expanded, and real legislative power delegated to the Union National Council. As it stands, the Union National Council can tentatively maintain current conditions from worsening, but it is unlikely that it can alter the existing governmental mechanisms in any significant way.



After the fall of Rome, the region of modern day Tunisia was sporadically conquered and settled by European tribes until the Muslim conquest of the 7th century transformed the culture and population of the region. It become a province of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century

In 1881, Tunisia was wrested from the hands of the declining Ottoman Turkish empire and became a French protectorate. In 1956, Tunisia declared independence, adopting a constitution akin to France’s highly centralized presidential system.

This planted the seeds for Tunisia’s becoming one of the few Arab Spring successes in 2011. Tunisian presidents previously could extend their time in office indefinitely. Between 1956 and 2011 there were two presidents. Thus, in the intervening years between independence and the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisia was an authoritarian presidential system with few functioning democratic mechanisms. Opposition parties were banned until 1981 and even then had little or no influence over the reigning party.

Despite this, Tunisia was relatively progressive under its two presidents, Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Bourguiba focused on the status of women and social and economic development and education. Ben Ali continued this and made some constitutional changes (something separation of powers should prohibit, but on the other hand he did it in the name of fomenting greater democratic participation) that included allowing opposition political parties, and presidential term limits.

Consequently, Tunisia entered the 21st century with greater literacy rates and social safety nets than its neighbors, Algeria and Libya, and many of its peers in the post colonial, Muslim world. While it was socially egalitarian, it was still not democratic. Ben Ali later re-imposed the ban on opposition parties and in conjunction with secret police forces, suppressed political dissent whenever his party became threatened. Cue the Arab Spring, which in Tunisia was known as the Jasmine Revolution, or as The Revolution for Freedom and Dignity. Political corruption, media and internet censorship, and high unemployment continued to mount in the 21st century and precipitated a waning of public faith in Ben Ali, that turned into protests in 2011 which the government suppressed violently. Eventually, Ben Ali was forced out and a new struggle emerged between secular and Islamist groups. A moderate Islamist group, Nahdah, functioned as the moderator between secular minded groups demanding a democratic and liberal regime like Ben Ali’s and hardline Islamists pushing for a government founded on Sharia principles.

After a series of negotiated compromises, a new constitution was drafted in 2014 that intended to resolve and balance liberal concerns, and the role of Islamic Shariah within the newly established Tunisian state.

The 2014 elections were a resounding victory for the secular Nidaa Tounes coalition who won 85 of 217 seats compared to the moderate Islamist Nahda party who won 69. This was a critical consolidating juncture for Tunisia’s nascent democracy. The world held its breath waiting to see if the Islamists would concede and legitimize the elections. When Nahda conceded and no challenge came against the results, Tunisia’s democracy became consolidated. This is critical sign of how robust the democratic regime is as Nahda still has significant sway and influence and continues to cooperate and work within a democratic framework and does not challenge mechanical pillars like election results, and universal suffrage. It is a powerful nod to Islam’s potential to interface with liberal democratic systems. Since 2014, Nidaa Tounes has consolidated more control over parliament and this correlates with increased radicalization amongst Tunisian citizens as the government appears more and more to be unfaithful to the country’s Islamic heritage.

As we saw with the UAE, Tunisia’s leaders, before and after the Jasmine Revolution, saw close relations with Western partners, in this case France and the U.S., as critical for their continued independence and success. Unlike the UAE, the commitments to liberal democracy promulgated in the constitution are manifested faithfully and are reflected in the 2014 election results. As we will see next, the Tunisian constitution commits to the American constitutional model and even corrects what many political scientists see as deficient in the American model.


Tunisia’s 2014 constitution is strongly nationalist and Muslim. It asserts Tunisia’s independence as a sovereign national state, and also as an integral member of the Arab Maghreb of North West Africa. It’s religion is Islam, as stated in article one, and the people see themselves as part of the Islamic world.

The preamble lays out quite clearly the intent and values of the new government:

“With a view to building a republican, democratic and participatory system, in the framework of a civil state founded on the sovereignty of the people, exercised through the peaceful alternation of power through free elections, and on the principle of the separation and balance of powers, which guarantees the freedom of association in conformity with the principles of pluralism, an impartial administration, and good governance, which are the foundations of political competition, where the state guarantees the supremacy of the law and the respect for freedoms and human rights, the independence of the judiciary, the equality of rights and duties between all citizens, male and female, and equality between all regions,”

Here is a link to a pdf of the Tunisian constitution. We recommend reading the entire preamble. It is quite beautiful, and we wish we had space to include it.

This paragraph alone includes almost everything a high functioning constitutional democracy requires in order to accomplish egalitarian, pluralistic, self rule. Participation, unbloody alternation of power, free elections, separation of powers, pluralism, fair political competition, human rights, independent judiciary, and female suffrage and freedom enshrined in a political document: the bedrock of western democracy. Having a document that is worded in a manner that leaves little legal wiggle room, is a key ingredient for continued success after a revolution that overturned 60 years of presidential authoritarianism, but this does not guarantee perfect adherence to the norms established in the constitution nor does it mitigate the strong backlash Tunisia has seen from radical Islamists who have significant influence over large portions of the population.

Within this new constitution, Tunisia addresses several issues that have been a thorn in the side of the American democracy. The constitution establishes term limits for legislative representatives as well as for judges. It also imbues a dedicated constitutional court of 12 judges with the power to resolve budgetary and other constitutional problems that arise between the legislative and executive branches. Each government branch selects four constitutional court judges, ensuring the balance of powers over constitutional issues. Protected from corruption and elite capture, this democratic mechanism facilitates smooth government operation and resolves gridlock between the legislative and executive branches. Something that would be a much appreciated sight in the U.S., instead of watching legislators filibuster on the senate floor for days on CSPAN about their favorite ice cream, all because Republicans and Democrats are unwilling to cooperate. Tunisia does not know the joy of watching a filibuster on CSPAN.

Democratic Mechanisms

Of the Muslim countries that experienced rapid revolutionary change in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011, Tunisia was the only one to establish high functioning democratic mechanisms. Tunisia quickly did away with the autocratic power of the President and his unilateral control over security forces and the secret police. They managed to implement a new government without state collapse.

Tunisia has successfully passed Huntington’s two-turnover test with successful alternations of power between 2011 and 2018 from president Fouad Mebazaa of the Neo Destour party, to president Moncef Marzouki of the Congress for the Republic party, and finally with the incumbent president Beji Caid Essebsi of the Nidaa Tounes party. This is something easier said than done, especially in a country deeply divided between secular and Islamic traditionalist legacies. In the U.S., political participants understand that, through many iterations of power turnover, it is necessary that the output of the democratic process not be challenged. We saw how robust this is in the U.S. when the Supreme Court settled the crisis that arose over electoral recounts in Bush v. Gore (2000) as well as the brute fact of nearly 250 years of unbloody power transfers. In many parts of the world this sort of crisis results in the losing party not conceding. Then the tanks roll, and democracy dissipates. It is a highly illusive collective mobilization problem, but Tunisia transcended it.

For Tunisia this indicates widespread agreement and assent to the rules of democratic process, regardless of the outcome that the freedom machine spits out, and such agreement and trust is always fragile after revolutions. Security dilemmas often arise after a revolution because groups do not trust one another to not hijack elections and consolidate their own power over the ensuing government. For all groups to simultaneously relinquish the right to challenge results ex post facto posed incredible collective coordination and communication problems for the emerging Tunisian government between hardline secularist and hardline Islamist Salafist groups. This was achieved by the moderate Islamist party Nahdah successfully balancing the security concerns of Salafist Muslims and the secular Nida Tounes party before the 2014 elections. They maintained this role even after losing in the elections.

The judiciary seems to function independently of the executive and legislative branches and the constitutional court continues to perform its functions over disputes unharassed.

The U.S. State Department reports that Tunisia has also taken significant strides against government corruption.

Human Rights

As Tunisia consolidated and refined democratic processes, it incurred more resistance from the extreme religious right. Secularists continue to increase their seats in Tunisia’s unicameral legislative chamber. As this has occurred, government crackdowns on extremist activity have grown more and more willing to favor national security concerns at the cost of human rights and judicial process. Many perceive this as a liberal takeover intent on stamping out Tunisia’s cultural heritage and Islamic legacy.

Tunisia is currently one of 70 countries where homosexuality is illegal. Efforts from the Tunisian human rights commission are moving forward to revoke this and other Shariah based laws, such as female inheritance laws and the death penalty.

As these political shifts occur, they conversely produce an increase in Islamic radicalization. Thus, Tunisia, in its efforts to stomp out extremism and facilitate a pluralist society as stated in its constitution, has resorted to various methods of indiscriminate arrests, censorship, and unfair trials.

The U.S. State department reported that, “In May [2017] a court in Tozeur sentenced two journalists – a brother and sister – to six months in prison for “insulting a public servant” after they criticized security forces for regularly raiding their home, allegedly on suspicion their sibling was affiliated with extremist religious groups.” This is one amongst a number of indiscriminate, unilateral government action against suspected, but unproven, Islamist sympathisers. See the State Department report for more such instances.

“The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology.” and , “The penal code criminalizes speech likely “to cause harm to the public order or morality,” as well as acts undermining public morals in a way that “intentionally violates modesty.” These stipulations constitute a powerful scepter in the hand of the Tunisian government to dictate public discourse. It is difficult to say what the next administration might interpret as “divisive theology”.

There are numerous reports of religious profiling of Salafist Muslims on account of their traditional dress and beards and restriction of movement for Salafists within the country, “Since 2014 more than 500 individuals filed complaints with the Tunisian Observatory for Rights and Freedoms, saying the government prevented them from traveling due to suspicion of extremism, and in some cases apparently based on their religious attire. The media also reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab.

Tunisia’s Future

Currently, Tunisia is a liberal and democratic government that, out of fear of radicalization of its citizens and for its security, has marginalized and isolated a large portion of the religious right through extrajudicial means. Tunisia boasts of thwarting some 12,000 ISIS recruits from leaving the country since 2013. This is not reassuring.

It is not hard to understand why Tunisia’s rationale for these miscarriages of justice, considering that Tunisian born individuals are overwhelmingly represented in recent terrorist attacks, including the Charlie Hebdo and Nice France attacks, and among ISIS recruits. Radicalism is the greatest threat to an emerging democracy in an Islamic country aiming to prove to the West that Islam is compatible with western modes of governance. It is incumbent on the leadership of Nidaa Tounes and its current Tunisian President, Beji Caid Essebsi, to find a way to avoid using human rights violating and unconstitutional means in order to maintain national security. If the religious right is more isolated on the margins, it will undoubtedly be the unraveling of the democratic project in Tunisia.

As things stand at the time of this writing, the problem of resolving the dichotomy between liberal democracy and traditional Islam has not been so much resolved in Tunisia as it has been shunted aside, and therefore, thrives underground, providing an ever replenishing pool of candidates for radicalization.


Indonesia has a strong democratic constitutional platform but is deadlocked by corruption. The two political visions offers solutions to this “moral decay”: military-based nationalism and more explicit Islamic rules. Although Islamic political parties field candidates and do well electorally, Pancasila remains an important governing ideology for the archipelago, and no party can escape paying some lip-service to it.


Indonesian nationalism which began in the earliest years of the 20th century did not have a strong religious component. Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism had majorities in certain provinces of the archipelago, but Islam was the most dominant religion in terms of numbers. However, the Islam of Indonesia did not coalesce into a credible political force until recently. You will see why shortly.

Indonesian independence activists in the early 20th century had their sights set against the Dutch colonizers, who kept the Indonesian governments under their mercantile thumb, employing a race-based caste system. After 1900 early nationalists took up the term ‘Indonesia’, originally an ethnographic term coined by northern Europeans, and used it to raise awareness about the possibility of a unified nation. Through the 1920s groups formed using the name Indonesia and other groups incorporated ‘Indonesia’ into their title. Additionally, youth movements, socialist and communist parties, and Islamic financial solidarity groups formed to resist colonial exploitation. Into this caldron of budding nationalism, socialism, communism, Islamic consciousness, anti-colonialism, and national consciousness stepped the imperial Japanese occupying force.

The Japanese occupation did not maintain a light touch. The abuse of islanders in many different principalities impressed the need for a strong independent Indonesia upon the above groups; religious leaders, scholars, and activists mourned the occupation and abuse. During the end days of Japanese power, communist, Islamic, and nationalist resistance organized. Two days after Japan’s surrender to the United States on September 2, 1945, Indonesia declared independence.

The years following the declaration of Independence were fraught with guerilla warfare between the nationalist government, European colonizers, communist resistance groups, and (by the 1950s) Islamist resistance groups. The resulting political ideology of the state was called Pancasila.


Pancasila (or “The Five Principles”) run as such:

  1. Belief in the One and Only God
  2. A just and civilized humanity
  3. A unified Indonesia
  4. Democracy, led by the wisdom of the representatives of the People
  5. Social justice for all Indonesians

What Pancasila means in practice for liberalism is that public atheism, agnosticism, and animism are illegal, and that outspoken criticism of the government can be considered and offense against the 3rd principle – a unified Indonesia. The leaders of Indonesia safeguard the country’s unity by force of arms and sometimes violent suppression. The central government goes to some lengths to maintain independence from “Great Powers,” so that their military forces can be concentrated on combating problems within the archipelago. Additionally, free market economics ought to be tempered by social welfare programs, and programs for mutual aid (these programs for mutual aid are very important in contemporary Indonesia, since in the present day explicitly Islamic institutions have created nearly all social safety nets).

The Indonesian constitution looks and reads like a liberal democratic constitution with some important idiosyncrasies. The strong centralized executive branch takes the lead over other branches and acts as balance against against the forces of decentralization and democratic impotency. We call this authoritarianism. While arguments about decentralization and federalism were at the heart of American politics in the early days of the U.S.A, for Indonesia the constitution provides the executive all the powers needed to ensure unity through force, which occurs regularly. Apparently archipelagos tend to resist centralization.

Articles 27 through 34 guarantee a cornucopia of human rights. The list is impressive and beautiful and a distant ideal. For our purposes I will draw your attention to Article 29:

Chapter XI Religion Article 29

(1) The State shall be based upon the belief in the One and Only God.

(2) The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief.

After the death of Suharto in 1998, a new debate emerged to define the role of Islam in the nonsectarian constitution. The options on the table for the revision of Article 29 of the constitution tell the story of the interests of political actors involved.

  • The state is based on Belief in One Almighty God
  • The state is based on Belief in One Almighty God with the obligation upon the followers of Islam to carry out Islamic law
  • The state is based on Belief in One Almighty God with the obligation upon the followers of each religion to carry out its religious teachings
  • The state is based on Belief in One Almighty God, Just and Civilised Humanitarianism, the Unity of Indonesia, Democracy Guided by the Wisdom of Representative Deliberation, and Social Justice for all Indonesians

The first option, original to the constitution, stuck.

The third option could lead to religious courts for all religious believers. In Indonesia there are only six officially recognized religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Confucianism); ID cards state religious identity on them. A system of personal status courts would require courts for each sect and would diminish the power of civil courts, leaving them to decide family cases outside the ken of the religion in question. Opening the door to a justice system with 6 different legal codes would not, we reckon, foster stability.

The fourth option reiterates the principles of Pancasila signaling recommitment to the Indonesia’s ideological roots.

The second option, of course, is the Islamic one which would enshrine in the constitution the role of Islam for believers and allow sharia law to be a basis for future lawmaking. The government in that case would obtain the potential to legislate away some of the autonomy and rights of non-Muslims and non-Muslim communities which are protected by Pancasila. Furthermore, the need for this law is suspect. In 1998 Law No. 7 gave Muslims the right to have personal status cases heard in Islamic courts if they wish. The push for the change to federal law revealed a possible future for Indonesia that would step decidedly away from the nonsectarian values of the state.

Although no textual change came of this constitutional debate, the lack of change affirmed the same non-secular, nonsectarian Indonesia which preceded the debate. This is good. Perhaps it even strengthened Indonesia’s political system. Nonetheless for us the disagreements illuminated schools of thought among the politically active in Indonesia.

Democratic Institutions

In the past 8 months over 300 elected officials have been implicated in corruption scandals. Corruption in the judiciary, civil service, and police force runs rampant. Efforts to crackdown on corruption are ongoing, as are counterterrorism efforts within the country. Between terrorism and corruption of elected officials, little faith remains in the power of democracy and liberalism to solve the problems of security and prosperity for Indonesia.

Businesses in Indonesia frequently have to grease the wheels of bureaucracy with bribery, and the cost of doing business is highly variable. During Suharto’s regime corruption was centralized and predictable. Decentralized corruption on the other hand makes transaction costs unpredictable, thus business has a more difficult time now than in authoritarian times. Additionally, corruption among the police and judiciary exacerbate costs, since the justice department can’t always be relied on to prosecute crimes efficiently or effectively.


Up to 2,000 Indonesian citizens have fought for ISIS. As these fighters return home, some seek rehabilitation, some carry out terrorist attacks, some promote Islamic State political visions. The government’s antiterrorism task force releases commercials trying to debunk the glorious Islamic State. Some returnees had to be threatened before they would swear allegiance to Pancasila; according to C-SAVE director Maria Kusumini, 90% of returnees want to live under an Islamic caliphate. While that is not an enormous percent for a country of 261 million, it’s still enough to cause problems for society.

Suharto brooked no opposition in his ~50 years of power. He restricted freedom of speech and reacted with military force against both Islamic and communist separatists. Debate about shari’ah in Indonesia was not permitted until 1998 with Suharto’s death. The many years that political Islamic expression sat impotent allowed the energies of Islamic organizations to flow into local communities of financial aid, health, and support. These organizations make Indonesia a strong country, but in the future their renewed political character might repeal and replace Indonesia’s founding principles.


The Republic of Kazakhstan is not an Arab country. Kazakhs are Turkic people, and their conversion to Islam did not come until well after the Mongol invasion (13th c.). Islam came late to Kazakhstan (15th c.) and conversion was a slow and inconsistent process for the traditionally nomadic people.

Eventually, Islam did spread to the itinerant people overtaking their traditional beliefs. The Hanafi school of jurisprudence remains the dominant school of Islam in Kazakhstan largely, some Kazakh scholars say, because it allows friendly relations with non-Muslims. Also note that Arabic Islamic traditions never became widespread among the tribes. The nomadism and lack of education ensured that the expression of Islam would be less tied to written interpretations, and more adapted for life on the road, while incorporating some syncretic elements from the traditional paganism of the region.

As happens on the steppe, slowly over the course of the 19th c. the great bear to the north, Russia, absorbed its unwilling southern neighbor, and thus Kazakhstan became part of the Russian Empire’s geopolitical strategy . Then came the Bolshevik revolution which first suppressed religion, then used some elements of the Islamic governance structure. The effect was a decimation of Islamic culture, traditional culture, and nomadism, balanced by Russification, secularization, and various other Moscow initiatives for economic modernisation. Results over the 20th c. were… mixed.

Independence came in 1990 and with it a resurgence of Kazakh population, decrease in Russian population and influence, return to various cultural expressions, namely Islam, and a new capital, Astana.

Post-Soviet Political Expression

Kazakhstan has many trappings of a Soviet state. The President holds power as an autocrat, not merely one actor among others in government. In fact, Kazakhstan has had the same president since 1990. The nation is officially secular, allows authentic freedoms, guarantees protection of citizen rights, but betrays such constitutional promises through corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary and suppression of political dissidents and “nontraditional” religious groups. The Constitutional Court has failed to rein in latitudinous interpretations of the constitution such as Article 5.3:

Formation and functioning of public associations pursuing the goals or actions directed toward a violent change of the constitutional system, violation of the integrity of the Republic, undermining the security of the state, inciting social, racial, national, religious, and tribal enmity, as well as formation of unauthorized paramilitary units shall be prohibited.

Or Article 20.3

Propaganda or agitation for the forcible change of the constitutional system, violation of the integrity of the Republic, undermining of state security, and advocating war, social, racial, national, religious, and clannish superiority as well as the cult of cruelty and violence, shall not be allowed.

The result of these statues is the heavy monitoring of all assemblies, especially religious assemblies. “Nontraditional religions” are censored. Missionaries and religious groups need state approval in order to operate. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to always be finding themselves on the wrong side of the law, as do Baptists, and Muslims which do not subscribe to Hanafi Sunni Islam, or who read or are found in possession of “dissident” materials. At times Baptists have had difficulty operating in the country without being accused of unlicensed evangelism. Private religious reading is carefully watched by the state and is considered a national security issue overriding the “right to confidentiality.”

For political opposition, this spells doom. Opposition leaders, activists, and journalists find themselves fined, imprisoned, and exiled. Even academics, according to the U.S. State Department (see link above), self-censor for fear of “infringing on the dignity and honor of the president and his family.”

There are few prospects for Kazakhstan to become a more liberal and democratic society any time soon. Instead, by the example and logic of its neighbors (the other four -Stans, China, and Russia), authoritarian power and pervasive opportunism preserve the government of Kazakhstan.

Islam in Modern Kazakhstan

The suppression and control of Islam during Soviet rule further isolated the country’s culture and reduced the transfer of Islam to the next generation. As glasnost gave some wiggle room for religion in Kazakhstan, Islam and Russian Orthodoxy reestablished themselves. The Christian population (mostly Russian Orthodox) declined from 46% in 1994 to 26% in 2018 due mostly to Russian and other Slavic emigration. Islam gained momentum in the 90s going from 44% of the population in 1994 to 70.2% in 2018. Only around 5% percent of this change is from Islamic population growth.

As Islam has grown, government initiatives to control Islamic expression have grown too. One of the reasons for this is education. Better educated Muslims are more informed about the rest of the Islamic world and thus more uncomfortable with Kazakh Islamic idiosyncrasies and syncretisms. Social movements inspired by the more politically charged Islam of Afghanistan, Iran, and Indonesia has led to government crackdown. Islamic cultural symbols such as the hijab are banned in schools, dressing in an Arabic Islamic way can be punished, and many Islamic organizations are banned, especially Salafist adjacent movements. Meanwhile the government is also taking positive steps to use the muftiate of Kazakhstan to define a specifically Kazakh Islam. Whether Kazakhstan can create an effective state-sponsored Islam, the way a country like China has created a state-sponsored Catholicism, remains to be seen.

Sadly, human rights seem to be an afterthought in Nazabayev’s government, as political dissidents are shut-down, both in the streets and online, thanks to China-esque internet surveillance. While Islam is treated as part of the national heritage, any expression, or suspected expression of Islam deemed too extreme gets the accused convicted of political dissidence. And similarly, political dissidents can be labelled extremist Muslims and thus convicted. While some see in this repression a potential for backfire against the government, more likely, the coercive binding of the Overton Window will serve its purpose and reduce dissent and the public sphere, so long as Kazakhstan’s government can merely cite national security concerns to work its will.

Islam is not a political force in the country. You would think that a Muslim majority country would have a more “Islamic character,” but Kazakhstan’s political history puts religious expression in a context of post-Soviet authoritarian secularism. The Islam of Kazakhstan is young and develops along government initiative; public political religion is just not possible. Kazakhstan is secular, just not in a way that a human rights activist would celebrate.



Iran experienced a number of conquests and periods of cultural enrichment and decline between the conquest of Alexander the Great (330 B.C.) and the Safavid Empire (1501-1732), which ruled roughly the same geographical parameters as modern day Iran.

The 7th century Islamic conquests altered Persian society dramatically, and permeated Persian culture deeply, competing with longstanding Zoroastrian and Byzantine Christian cultures. Not long after Islam established itself in Iran, the Shiite and Sunni schism occurred over the prophet Mohammed’s heirs. This would prove to be the proverbial line in the sand, setting the stage for a millenia long regional split between the two Islamic schools. This dynamic fundamentally informs many of today’s conflicts in the Middle East. See the conflict in Yemen and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

We saw in Tunisia that postcolonial, secular authoritarian leaders were able to successfully implement industrial and political modernization over the latter half of the 20th century without inciting backlash from Islamist traditionals. A similar effort began in Iran in the early 20th century with the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907, Iran’s first efforts with democratic norms of popularly derived rule and self identification as a sovereign nation state, something ever illusive in Iranian history. It collapsed quickly into chaos. After Russian intervention in Northern Iran threatened the stability of the country, Britain switched support from the Constitutionalists to the Shahs, who were the ruling monarchy before the revolution. Reza Shah seized power in 1921, reestablishing monarchical rule with significant control over parliamentary systems.

Reza Shah embarked on a modernization campaign with ambitions to make Iran a regional power and globally competitive economic entity, free from foreign interference by Russia and Britain. Reza Shah also dramatically increased the centralization of the state and strengthened the military.

This process came to a head with the 1951-1953 oil crisis, known as the Abadan crisis, when Iran nationalized the Anglo-Iranian-Oil Company (AIOC) assets. While this did prompt a British and U.S. supported coup d’etat which ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in favor of consolidating the monarchical rule of Mohammad Shah, Iran had vast undercurrents of political disaffection as economic modernization efforts dating back to 1925 continued to leave behind rural Islamic communities. Known as Operation Ajax, the CIA fomented support for Mohammad Shah and organized guerilla forces to discredit Mosaddegh’s government. Iran was primed for this operation to work, as Mossaddegh’s socialist rhetoric alienated Iran’s conservative Islamic population.

In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini executed a successful Islamic revolution that ousted the American backed government in favor of a new theocratic government which is still in power today and is of rising importance in Middle Eastern affairs.

Radical Islamic Ideology

Ernest Gellner’s theory of Folk-Islam and High culture-Islam provide a compelling explanation for the causal sources of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 in addition to the coercive effects of interventionist U.S. foreign policy.

Gellner distinguishes between High-Islam and Folk-Islam. High Islam is deeply austere, literate, and connected to a fundamentalist reading of sacred texts. It is often associated with more elite society in urban areas. Folk-Islam on the other hand, is grounded more in community and local tradition within the illiterate rural population. Folk-Islam is analogous to the nomadic and moderate Islam that we discussed as the prevailing style of Islam in Kazakhstan. In Iran, Gellner asserts, the influx of Folk-Islamic peoples into urban areas as a result of rapid industrialization in the mid-20th century, where High-Islam predominated, in conjunction with aggressive interventionist foreign policy of the U.S. and Britain in the 1950s, produced perfect storm conditions in 1979 for Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a coalition of conservative clerics to incite a popular uprising and seize control of an unstable country that had been abused by foreign powers and had a deeply dissatisfied lower class.

The ensuing Islamic Republic of Iran identifies less as a sovereign nation state, and more as an ideological cause whose purpose is to expand the umma (the community of all Muslim believers), to all corners of the world, eventually absorbing all the lands of the infidels. This obviously has posed serious problems to the international order. Iran does not play by Westphalian rules of statehood and self determination. It sees itself as the vanguard of the divinely ordained mission to establish the reign of God on earth.

Hassan Abbasi, head of the Iranian think tank, associated with the Revolutionary Guard (which is under the personal command of the current leading Ayatollah), Center For Borderless Doctrinal Analysis, argued that the Islamic Republic could not be safe unless it persuaded other Muslim nations to take the same path. “If we remain alone, we will always be in danger,” he said. “Our system will also be in danger if most Muslim nations take the path of Western-style democracy.” Abbasi also asserted that Iran’s mission overrides borders and state sovereignty which are, in his estimation, “colonial inventions”. Khomeini spoke often of the need to export the revolution to other Muslim countries and to liberate Palestine and Jerusalem. These notions are fundamental in Iranian foreign policy today.


The introduction and preamble to Iran’s constitution reads more like propaganda than a legally binding document. There is much talk of saints and martyrs’ blood, as well as the imposition of deity-like characteristics to the Ayatolla,

The honorable source of emulation, the great leader of the global Islamic Revolution, and the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the venerated Grand Ayatollah, Imam Khomaini, may his noble character be sanctified, who was acknowledged and accepted by the undisputed majority of the people as the marja’and the leader. Iranian Constitution Article 107

The Ayatollah holds the final decision over all jurisprudential matters, is commander of the military and security forces, as well as the Islamic Pasdaran Revolutionary Corps. He is the only individual who may amend the constitution with a two thirds confirmation from the Islamic Consultative Assembly. The assembly does wield limited legislative powers, but not on anything that, “Contradict[s] the canons and principles of the official religion of the country or the constitution. The Guardian Council is responsible for the evaluation of this matter.” Article 72. The Ayatollah heads the Guardian Council. Thus, the delegating of any executive, legislative, or judicial power to anyone but the Ayatollah is always qualified in a manner that allows the Ayatolla to frame any issue as, “Contradicting the canons and principles of the official religion” in fact, give him unassailable and arbitrary control over government.

Some democratic principles are enshrined in the constitution, such as popular secret elections of legislatures and of the president. Political parties are allowed to exist on the same basis as legislation, so long as it does not contradict the religious canon. Again, they are flimsy.

The constitution also benevolently condescends to return women to their true dignity in replacing them upon the resplendent and exalted pedestal of true womanhood, in their calling to motherhood.

Women are emancipated from the state of being an “object” or a “tool” in the service of disseminating consumerism and exploitation, while reclaiming the crucial and revered responsibility of motherhood and raising ideological vanguards. Women shall walk alongside men in the active arenas of existence. As a result, women will be the recipients of a more critical responsibility and enjoy a more exalted and prized estimation in view of Islam.

Iran Constitution, page 6.

Why is it acceptable for men to be “tools” and “objects” of exploitation and consumerism, but not women? The consequence of this is that women are relegated to child bearing and home-managing responsibilities only.

These points indicate a constitution that is neither democratic nor liberal.

Democratic Mechanisms

Political parties are allowed to exist so long as they do not challenge religio-political dogma. Roughly 11 parties exist that command any significant following including a reformist party, but this does not mean that a wide window of public discourse exists. The spectrum of political opinion is severely limited by the broad terminology in the constitution as to what is acceptable in public debate, and the Ayatollah’s power is arbitrary as to determining what is religiously or politically admissible. Thus, the democratic nature of party politics and free elections is misleading at first take. In reality, political opinion is dictated almost entirely by the Ayatolla and the clerics.


Iran’s best hope for change, since we are assuming it would be a toss up over which would be worse between maintaining the status quo and a regime change operation carried out via a U.S. led coalition, is The Council For Coordinating the Reforms Front organization. Led by former president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who instigated intense internal debate during his presidency between his administration, and the conservative clerical elites and the Ayatolla. Khatami led reform efforts during his presidency with two government reform bills intended to limit the power of the Guardian Council to select candidates for political office as well as limit other constitutional powers of the judiciary. The Guardian Council is selected by the Ayatolla and is responsible for investigating infractions against religious and political doctrine. Every time a reformist minded candidate arises, the Guardian Council hammers them with claims of kafir and they are banned from running. Khatami’s two bills would retract the power of the Guardians to ban candidates as well as allow the executive to reprimand constitutional bodies like the Guardian Council and the Experts (a judicial body body charged with selecting the Ayatolla) for arbitrary decisions. Both bills failed under the pretext that this was a power grab by the executive, instead of an intended balancing of power between government branches. They were also deemed unconstitutional by the Guardian Council. After 2005, the Reform effort was deemed dead by reform theorists like Saeed Hajjarian.

Clerics have continued to win most political battles since the early 2000s as they have a firm grip on the lower class poor, but with a rising middle class, some reformists maintain optimism of pushing reforms through in the near future. In 2017, 28% of Iranians identified as leaning Reformist. In comparison, 15% identified as leaning Principlist. Despite this, a large number of reform activists wrote an open letter to Khatami demanding a “Reform of the reform”. After the demonstrations earlier this year yielded no apparent results, younger Iranians are beginning to see the reformists as merely a political party that has been assimilated into the Iranian clerical authoritarian structure.

Conclusion/Future Considerations

The only possible imminent change to the government in Iran would be via external imposed regime change. Reform efforts are easily suppressed through the legitimate mechanisms instantiated in the constitution. The Ayatolla is unlikely to be pushed to a point that might force him to do something unconstitutional, because he has all of the tools he needs in the constitution already. He is able to maintain this control while still allowing for regular assembly elections. It’s the holy grail of authoritarian control. The constitution allows the unitary leader various avenues of venting and mitigating efforts for change, while still refreshing the active participation of civil society in government decisions and keeping them engaged in the revolutionary cause.

Lots of think tanks like the Atlantic Council and other western publications love to talk about how much simmering discontent there is lying beneath the surface in Iran, but I do not buy this. This form of radical Islam has co-opted democratic mechanisms in such a manner that a less than pareto-optimal equilibrium has formed such that the democrat instruments themselves are used to prevent improvement in democratic norms and human rights.


The big story in Lebanese political society is the multiconfessional state. By law the President is always a Maronite Catholic, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim, the Deputy Speaker and Deputy Prime Minister are Greek Orthodox. The ratio of Christians to Muslims in Parliament until this past election was – by law – 1:1.

This internal sectarian balance of power system is described everywhere as ‘fragile.’ The evidence for this fragility is the protracted 15 year civil war which tore Lebanon apart until 1990 and sears into Lebanese political consciousness today, and the brute fact that a proper census has not been conducted since 1932. The prospect of a census sends horror down the spines of every religious and political leader, for whatever the outcome of such a census, it could throw open the floodgates of renewed sectarian demands followed by violence.

The Sectarian System

Although this does not sound like a promising start for a democracy, the state certainly functions within the basic scope of a democracy: elite capture and tyranny are not a concern. In fact, the sectarian balance-of-powers structure maintains basic democracy through its quotas and coalitions. Government power comes from the consent of the sectarian leaders who can work to come together, address the latest crisis, and ultimately, play fast and loose with the constitution to solve the needs of the moment.

France created Lebanon out of Greater Syria in 1926; from this original constitution the confessional balance-of-power system was born. However, the French ensured that western leaning Christian groups had more power in the government, since they would be more likely to favor French interests. The civil courts were based on a Napoleonic variant, and the government included a French high-commissioner who could suspend the constitution and establish direct rule.

When the Lebanese declared independence in 1943, norms needed to be established for the balance of power. These new norms were called The National Pact. The National Pact reaffirmed the sectarian status of offices: President (Maronite), Prime Minister (Sunni), Speaker of the Parliament (Shia), Deputies (Greek Orthodox), Commander of the Armed Forces (Maronite), Army Chief of Staff (Druze). It also reaffirmed the 6:5 representation of Christians to Muslims in Parliament based on the possibly manipulated, already out-of-date 1932 census. What’s important to add here, though, is that National Pact required Maronites to express their identity as non-Western Arabic, and that Muslims not seek incorporation into Syria. This Christian promise of an Arab identity for the country is crucially important for its international relations to this day, while the Muslim promise helps guarantee the spirit of Lebanese independence in the region.

The Civil War 1975 – 1990 was long and we will not get into the weeds of it. However there are some important lessons about Lebanon from the civil war. The coalitions of the civil war shifted around fast, and the political situation deteriorated from political ideology to confessional lines. The “leftist” opposition was made up of a coalition of pan-Arabs, Greater Syrians, socialists, and Islamists, while the ruling right was made of nationalists, fascists, and hard-line Christians. These coalitions broke apart fairly quickly and soon all that mattered was regional control and serving the needs/prejudices of those constituents. Since regions were fairly homogenous in their religious make-up, these regions assumed sectarian agendas and biases. This led to provocations everywhere followed by Israeli invasion, Syrian invasion, and UN Military Action, Iranian supplies to Shia militias, and ubiquitous atrocities. Although commanders of the varying forces were often of the same religion, the soldiers hailed from any sect. For example, the Shiite leadership of the Amal and Hezbollah militias were often fighting their coreligionists who were under Maronite leadership.

To bring the Lebanese Civil War to a close Saudi Arabia hosted the 1989 Taif Agreement. The agreement was brokered behind the scenes by the survivors of the 1972 parliament and its Speaker Hussein El-Husseini. The purpose of the agreement was to end the civil war, bring back rule of law, and reestablish an independent Lebanon. Additionally, the agreement changed some legacy problems from the French days. Once the French high-commissioner became a non-existent position, his powers were rolled up into the presidency. This gave the Maronite president a lot of power. He could, for example, dismiss the Prime Minister if he did not get along with him, giving the Christians a lot of power. This power was revoked in the agreement and the Christian – Muslim representation in Parliament was changed to 1:1.

Over the next years, Hezbollah, with the tacit consent of the central government, tried to reclaim the south from Israeli occupation. Since Taif (up to the present) the government has tried to diminish Hezbollah’s extra-governmental military operations, and lastly the country began extracting itself from rule/occupation/influence of Syria. However, since Palestinian-aligned militias controlled south Lebanon, and Syria controlled the north and east, the central government was still fairly weak and peace was uncertain. The Cedar Revolution (2005) pushed the Syrians out, and in 2018 Lebanon made credible strides into an independent future by means of its first parliamentary election since 2009.

The June 2017 electoral reforms divided Lebanon into 15 districts, lowered the voting age to 18, and allowed oversees Lebanese to vote. Here’s how it worked, and by the way, this is the most complicated voting system I have ever seen:

  1. Each district had a set number of seats per sectarian group.
  2. Political parties field a candidate for each of those seats in a registered candidate list.
  3. Citizens of the district get one vote per seat.
  4. Then the candidate with the most votes fills the respective seat.

Let us give an example. In the region “Beirut II” there were 6 Sunni seats, 2 Shia seats, 1 Druze seat, 1 Greek Orthodox seat, and 1 Evangelical seat, 11 seats total.

9 political parties formed to create a list of candidates for each seat. Citizens then cast 11 votes divided by sectarian confession. In theory there could have been 99 candidates up for election in Beirut II; however dropouts reduced the number of candidates to a still staggering (by U.S. standards) 82. While Beirut II is an outlier with its glut of nine political coalitions, the national average was still 5 – 6 lists per district.

The new system requires political parties to become interreligious coalitions which support a political platform, and since it relies on citizens casting votes for people outside their sect, the principle of consensus governance is preserved while decreasing sectarian tensions. Additionally, political interest groups are incentivized to work together to create consolidated candidate lists to reduce unwanted competition.

The big news item in the 2018 election was that the majority Future Movement party got smashed and Amal-Hezbollah won big. (Amal-Hezbollah is so named because the parent group, Amal, reunited with the splinter group Hezbollah.) Looking deeper Amal-Hezbollah made coalition lists with Free Patriotic Movement (mainly Christian center-right), Al-Ahbash (Sufi activists, because you can never have enough Rubaiyat), and Syrian Socialist Nationalists (yes, founded in 1932…). The triple decimation of the Future Movement and double rise of Free Patriotic Movement along with Amal-Hezbollah is a big move towards friendliness with Syria. At first blush this makes no sense. Isn’t Syria in shambles? Why be their ally? It is important to note though that these groups which won big in the most recent election were not part of the Cedar Revolution which pushed Syria out of Lebanon. Allowing Hezbollah militias freedom to actively support Assad may be the quickest path to relieving the pressures of 1.4+ million Syrian refugees in terrible camp conditions. (Furthermore, the Greater Syria ideology or a new Nasserism might find itself back on the table.)

In the Syrian Civil, Iran supports Assad’s government. They have set up forward military bases in Syria. We should not expect those to go anywhere anytime soon. While Iranian forces shuffle through Iraq to get to Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters aid Assad from the east. Hezbollah’s military arm is funded in part by Iran, and the Iranian interest is to create an effective anti-Israel alliance. The Israeli response to Iranian troop in Syria has been frequent rocket strikes.

The political leaders see the 2017 reforms as the first step in a series to fix the sectarian system to create a more unified country. More reforms will be on their way. The next parliamentary election should occur in 2022. If it is a success, Lebanon may take one more step into security, prosperity, and, we hope, a nonsectarian future. As it is, Lebanon has to try to preserve its internal peace in a dangerous and high variance political environment.

Rights: The Cedar Package

“Lebanon has an Arab identity and belonging. It is a founding active member of the Arab League, committed to its Charter; as it is a founding active member of the United Nations Organization, committed to its Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The State embodies these principles in all sectors and scopes without exception.

Lebanon is a democratic parliamentary republic based upon the respect of public freedoms, freedom of opinion and freedom of belief; and of social justice and equality in rights and duties among all citizens, without distinction or preference.”

  • Preamble to the Constitution B – C

Lebanon has not lived up to these UN notions of Human Rights. As often happens in the Lebanese constitution what is said in one part is qualified or contradicted in another. Articles 9 and 12 add important qualifiers to freedom of speech:

Article 9 “Freedom of conscience is absolute. In assuming the obligations of glorifying God, the Most High, the State respects all religions and creeds and safeguards the freedom of exercising the religious rites under its protection, without disturbing the public order. It also guarantees the respect of the system of personal status and religious interests of the people, regardless of their different creeds.”

Article 12 “The freedom of opinion, expression through speech and writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association, are all guaranteed within the scope of the law.”

“Without disturbing the public order”, “guarantees the respect of the system”, and “within the scope of the law” provide the judicial framework for blasphemy laws and prosecution for opinions outside the Overton Window. But the Overton Window of Lebanon is extremely wide, from Communists to National Socialists, from conservative Shiites to Gay Pride promoting Sunnis.

While freedom of worship is guaranteed, freedom from religious institutions is not. Lebanon has a civil judiciary for general property rights, prosecution, and so on, but what we call family law is the province of religious courts. Marriage, inheritance, child custody, annulment, divorce are all controlled by 15 or so religious courts. Most everyone is labelled a member of a sect, even if not practicing, for the purposes of family law. These laws are the strongest legal force entrenching sectarianism in Lebanon. And, unfortunately, they often relegate women to second class status.

The Right to Rock and Roll

The current picture of Lebanon would not be complete without a few words about Lebanese culture. Lebanon is one of the most culturally productive and free Arab countries. It maintains itself as a regional media capital. Rock music, cinema, and books are produced in Lebanon and exported all over the Arab world.

Seriously, the music is great!

More about Islam

Recently, interfaith marriage has become possible, and from that marriage has issued a sectless baby. The marriage required the signature of the Minister of the Interior. Small demonstrations have called for civil marriage as a civil right. Despite these developments, Lebanon is not necessarily on the way to becoming a country which accepts secularism into its internal balance.

Sunnis and Shiites are equal in number – both being about 27% of the total citizen population. Druze make up 5%, and they are grouped as Muslim for political purposes. We don’t know that they would call themselves Muslim, since they consider the Dialogues of Plato an inspired text, and look to their own sacred texts and precepts. Political battle lines in Lebanon concern Palestine and the Palestinians in Lebanon, Israel, the role of Hezbollah in society, the role of Syria in Lebanon, preservation of identity, and some type of identity politics based on the struggles of the last 30 years. The major political parties have a narrative and some vision for Lebanon, but at the same time contain members from many religious confessions.

Problems, Predictions, and Possibilities

So given all the instability in Lebanon’s history, why include it in the study? It does seem to break our rule of inclusion since its Muslim citizen population is only ~60%. However, it is an example of diversity, dynamism, political balancing, and cultural production in the midst of a weak state apparatus.

Currently, Lebanon has a citizen population of ~5 million. An additional 400,000 Palestinians and 1.5 million Syrian refugees are also within the borders with little prospects for the future. Most of these people are Muslim, and so will probably not become naturalized citizens any time soon. Currently Lebanon’s government sees hope for the return of Syrians to their home country, even as the Palestinians hang in a hopeless limbo.

For Lebanon to extend its civil rights, greater control of the border must be secured. The first requirement is the cessation of the civil war in Syria. The second requirement is a second parliamentary election which further diffuses sectarianism and entrenches democratic norms. At the local level, interfaith marriage and conversions would assist the project of desectarianism by creating more demand for civil courts to handle some family law.


The intersection of Islam and liberal democracy is a recent phenomenon that began with decolonization in the early 20th century. These countries ratified their constitutions between 4 and 75 years ago; thus we should expect generalizations to be error prone. This data set, while chosen with the goal of being as representative a sample of the population as possible, is still small and requires further investigation. Our study and synthesis, we believe, provides a good starting point for subsequent work in an area that we found to be thin on academic literature.

We also saw that this method, to our knowledge, has not been implemented before. Most of the work we found on Islam and liberal democracy, expressed itself primarily in the realms of abstract political theory, philosophy, and theology. By examining a diverse segment of the Islamic world’s history, constitutions, and political institutions, we hope to make more confident claims about its relationship with liberal democracy than other methods have been able to as of yet.

These cases gave us some easy takeaways:

  1. Tunisia is an Islamic country which established a robust and inclusive democratic apparatus.
  2. Extreme political Islam, in the example of Iran, is still a functioning and powerful opposing force to liberal democracy.
  3. UAE, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia exemplify the wide political variability in the Islamic world between the two poles of Tunisia and Iran.
  4. All but Iran have reacted to Islamist movements within the Islamic community and suppress radicals.
  5. All have Overton Windows of different sizes. The most liberal and most illiberal opinions permitted in each society vary wildly, and the range of opinions tenable for the politically successful varies similarly.
  6. Consequently, all have freedom of speech, expression, and assembly issues.
  7. All have some large minority groups, except Tunisia which is 99% Sunni Muslim.

Despite the fact the Tunisia and Iran are the two ends of the spectrum in our study, neither is a fixed star. Over the course of Tunisia’s liberalization elements of the traditional community have reacted violently. With Tunisia traditional Islam has merely been sidelined, rather than incorporated into the political process.

For Iran, despite the existence of a deeply entrenched totalitarian clerical regime, demands for reform in the realms of rights and democratic institutions continue to surface and assert themselves in the form of political parties and activism, often at great peril to those involved.

Of the other four cases, some consistencies revealed themselves. They all make strong efforts to mitigate extremist activity within their borders. The UAE monitors and controls the content of sermons in mosques. Lebanon requires proportional representation in government across confessional lines. Indonesia and Kazakhstan employ security forces to quell radical activities. All of these countries see the rise of radical political Islam as an existential threat, and suppress it, often through methods that would be less than ideal in a democratic liberal state.

Each protects some human rights, while other rights are withheld entirely, or are superseded by higher order national concerns such as security and economic prosperity. In these four countries, democratic mechanisms like independent judiciaries, anti-corruption, free elections, separation of powers, free speech, free assembly, and female political participation enjoy different levels of protection and functionality.

We agreed that Lebanon and Indonesia had at least functioning democracies and therefore, operational avenues for improvement exist in the above mentioned areas. The UAE and Kazakhstan are oligarchic and authoritarian, respectively. It is more likely that Lebanon and Indonesia will see meaningful movement in the coming years towards liberal democratic regimes than the UAE or Kazakhstan.

Can we put some numbers on this? There are two ways of calculating the probabilities here. [Warning: we are neither mathematicians nor statisticians]

  1. A ½ chance of being democratic times a ⅓ chance of protecting human rights gives Muslim majority countries a ⅙ chance of being liberal democracies.
  2. Given that a country is democratic, there is a ~40% chance it has basic human rights protected. Given that a country has human rights protected there is a 50% chance that it democratic.

Obviously, this is not how political probability works, but that doesn’t make ⅙ probability a useless consideration.

Adding more nuance, we look at more variables: independent judiciary, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, low levels of police and administrative corruption, female participation, democratic consolidation, state monopoly on force, and free elections.

No country has all of these factors, but as common sense and probability distributions tell us, these factors are interrelated.

Concerning Islam, the exact question determines the answer. In our initial proposal for the collaboration we framed our topic as “A dominantly Muslim group could form a liberal democratic ruling party within the confines of contemporary Islamic Political Thought.” What is a fitting response to this initial declaration? We think the statement is true, because clearly there are Muslims throughout the Islamic world, who want to form a liberal democratic polity. However it leaves unanswered the question behind the question. Does current Islamic belief and practice act as an obstacle to liberal democracy more often than not? Each of our country studies seem to generate a different answer to that question.

As for liberal democratic Muslims whether they constitute a viable cultural force, to what extent they have clerical and intellectual support, to what extent other Muslims see them as heretics or apostates, these are different questions that we cannot answer here.

Democracy and liberalism require that a society lower or greatly shift expectations for what types of society can be achieved in this world. Democracy assumes that the state should reflect the will of the citizens to be free from tyranny. This means seeing political participation as a laudatory activity. Citizens then cannot submit to the state, in the same way they submit to the will of God, but must come to see the state as a human apparatus for protecting and promoting the interests of the citizens.

Liberalism requires further that the role of the state is to protect merely the material interests of citizens and to allow individuals the freedom to choose their own good, even if they choose wrong. Freedom of conscience, association, and speech each increase opportunities for people to choose wrong and lead others down with them. A strong traditional morality sees this risk as unacceptable. The goal of the liberal state cannot be “helping the people conform to the will of God, which is the highest good for man.” Rather the role of the state is safeguarding the citizen’s freedom to conform to the will of God or not.

An Islam which accepts both of these visions for government would have to allow that the state does not need to reflect the authority of God and God’s revealed word and that ideological purity is not necessarily desirable. Lastly, democracy and liberalism must support security, prosperity, and justice, rather than undermine them. The most frequent objection to democracy and liberalism in these countries is that they are destabilizing to society.

Many Muslim countries have travelled some portion of the path to liberal democracy in the brief period during which these forces have interacted. When liberal and democratic policies correlate with economic prosperity and security, an Islamic majority state is more likely to continue adopting such policies. For most states so far the steps taken remain small, and the results of their experiments uncertain.

Our predictions:

About UAE

The UAE will establish an independent judiciary by 2023: 5%
The UAE will establish an independent judiciary in the next 2028: 10%
The UAE will invest the Union National Council with authoritative legislative power by 2023: 10%
The UAE will invest the Union National Council with authoritative legislative power by 2028: 20%
The UAE will be invaded by Iran by 2023: 10%
The UAE will experience proxy war instigated by Iran by 2023: 15%

About Tunisia

Tunisia’s next transfer of power will be unbloody: 65%
Non-state terrorist actors will instigate guerilla warfare in Tunisia by 2023: 30%
Non-state terrorist actors will instigate guerilla warfare in Tunisia by 2028: 15%
Tunisia will experience regime change before 2023: 45%
Tunisia will experience regime change after 2023: 30%

About Indonesia

Indonesia will pass a law allowing for harsher prosecution of terrorists by 2020: 75%
Indonesia will not pass new laws promoting Islam at the federal level by 2020: 70%
Indonesia will not be involved in any wars with a foreign power by 2020: 80%
Indonesia will pass more than one piece of legislation reducing the autonomy of different regions by 2020/ by 2025: 40% / 60%

About Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s president will resign by 2020: 10%
Kazakhstan’s president will die of natural causes while in office: 60%
There will be a flurry of talks about democratization after Nazarbayev’s death, but very little will come of it within the first 5 years: 65%
By the 6th year after his death real political opposition parties will develop: 44%

About Iran

Iran will experience regime change before 2023: 15%
Iran will experience regime change by 2028: 30%
The Reform Party will have a major win in the next elections: 15%
Iran will invade Israel by 2023: 35%
Iran will obtain nuclear capability by 2023: 25%
Iran will obtain nuclear capability by 2028: 40%

About Lebanon

The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon drops to below 1 million by 2020: 70%
The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon drops to below 500,000 by 2020: 20%
Lebanon passes some law which allows civil marriage by 2020, 2025: 30%, 45%
Lebanon holds a census by 2020: 20%
Lebanon holds a census by 2026: 40%
Lebanon holds a census without recording religious denomination by 2020/ by 2026: 5%/ 8%
Lebanon has a newsworthy border conflict >1 week with Israel or Syria by 2022: 80%
Lebanon descends into civil/proxy wars by 2020/ by 2026: 5%/ 10%
If Iran’s government is replaced, Amal-Hezbollah loses >3 of their seats in parliament in the 2022 election: 60%

Suggestions For Further Reading

For a detailed Pew Report on Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa see http://www.voltairenet.org/IMG/pdf/Islam_and_Christianity.pdf

For a philosophical analysis read Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy. We especially recommend pages 103 – 123, 144 – 165. The book takes into account secularism, which our paper essentially ignores.

For an engaging view into ISIS, listen to Rukmini Callimachi’s Caliphate which is fantastic.

We haven’t read it, but we want to read this humanizing book about the people one meets while hitchhiking in the Middle East by Juan Villarino.

The movie A Jihad For Love is a documentary about Muslims and homosexuality. It is not a particularly good movie, but it was fun.

Also, it’s always fun to read the YouTube comments on Arabic and Islamic music.

The Question of Orientalism by Bernard Lewis. Bernard Lewis was one of the foremost historians on Islam and the Middle East. This essay is a great expose on western misgivings about Islam and the Middle East.

From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East by Bernard Lewis.

Contains an excellent essay on Islam and Secularism called, “Can Islam be secularized?”

Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present by Michael B. Oren

Oren is an American born Israel historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. This book is an invaluable overview of the history of American involvement in the Middle East and its relationship with Islam.

Counting Islam: Religion, Class and Elections in Egypt (Cambridge University Press) by Tarek Masoud. To understand the less savory side of the Arab Spring, see the converse of what happened in Tunisia in this Tarek Masoud’s examination of how Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood utilized democratic processes to gain power and then used it to deconstruct a liberal democratic program in favor of a hardline Islamist one.

A History of the Modern Middle East by William Cleveland and Martin Bunton. A sober and detailed history of the contemporary Middle East. A must read for understanding what produced the conditions across the Middle East that we see today.





  1. Westphalian Sovereignty is a principle of international law that each nation state has complete sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs to the exclusion of all external actors, and that every nation state, no matter how big or small, is equal under international law.  

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147 Responses to [ACC Entry] Are Islam And Liberal Democracy Compatible?

  1. SamChevre says:

    I have a substantial quarrel with the definition of liberalism

    I think there are two traditions fairly described as “liberal”–the classical Anglo-American tradition, and the more egalitarian French tradition. Both the examples used here are clearly in the French tradition, which tends to be much more anti-religious and much less concerned with minority rights than the traditional (pre-1910) American or English liberal tradition.

    Because the French “liberal” tradition is inherently and congenitally anti-religious, any heavily religious country–Islamic or otherwise–is going to look less liberal if that definition of liberalism is used.

    • Frederic Mari says:

      Speaking as a Frenchman – “that’s coz any heavily religious country, islamic or otherwise, is going to BE less liberal”.

      By definition, religious leaders and believers assume they have the answers and the keys to a good life. They always come with a series of rules and regulations on behaviours and beliefs not rooted in utilitarianism or necessary for basic interactions to happen.

      Eg. Imagine you’re living in Ireland or Poland or an African christian country and you’re gay. Or atheist. Or a woman who does not enjoy the roles assigned to her gender in traditional patriarchies.

      These countries cannot help but BE less liberal than more secular ones. The argument for supporting them has to be totally different i.e. “they might be less liberal BUT they show greater cohesion, greater levels of trust and its members are more charitable towards each others”.

      • Deiseach says:

        Imagine you’re living in Ireland …and you’re gay. Or atheist. Or a woman who does not enjoy the roles assigned to her gender in traditional patriarchies.

        Funny you should say that!

        (a) Two members of our last government were atheist, and indeed one of them was militant about it – as Minister for Education, he tried removing religion from schools and challenged the set-up where the vast majority of the State’s schools are Church-run/owned/Board of Management. He didn’t do too well, but part of that was him managing to seriously insult women primary teachers. Our current President (and who is going to run again in our next election, which will be any day now) may be an atheist, probably agnostic but not really saying much one way or the other about it, though he is perceived as reliably left-wing/progressive
        (b) Our current Taoiseach is gay. Oh, and biracial or whatever the current trendy term is (Indian father, Irish mother)
        (c) We’ve just legalised abortion (though the legislation has yet to be hammered out), on the heels of our gay marriage referendum in 2015 which legalised same-sex marriage and which the government of the day and pretty much all the political parties tripped over themselves to encourage a ‘yes’ vote
        (d) the Pope’s visit which just concluded had a slew of “Ireland has cast off its old confessional identity” media thinkpieces and was contrasted to the visit of John Paul II in the 80s, which was much more enthusiastically received and drew in many more attendees. Weekly Mass attendance is down to somewhere in the 30-40% range from 90% in the 70s, though Catholicism is still the majority faith in Ireland
        (e) We’re maybe about to have a referendum on removing an article from our constitution about the place of women in the home
        (f) We’re getting more liberal and secular; we have divorce, cohabitation is normalised, there are soaring rates of births outside marriage, and all the other fun of the fair of the world!

        So perhaps it’s not just religious leaders that are dogmatic know-it-alls about how certain societies are run, hmmmm?

        • MNadolsky says:

          He wasn’t arguing Ireland is totally devoid of liberal characteristics today.

          “Slightly less religious than two decades ago” isn’t “Not overwhelmingly religious.”

          • Lodore says:

            “Slightly less religious than two decades ago” isn’t “Not overwhelmingly religious.”

            So you’re asserting that Ireland remains “overwhelmingly religious”? Did you read Deiseach’s reply? Ireland may have come to secularism a little later than (most of) the rest of Europe, but it’s about as agnostic now as anywhere––and the recent referendums are merely after-the-fact reflections of this.

            The original statement from Frederic Mari asks us to

            Imagine you’re living in Ireland or Poland or an African christian country and you’re gay

            The issue here is running Ireland and Poland together with fundamentalist, biblical-literalist models of Christianity like they form a natural category. Poland, to be sure, has some messed up right-wing shit going on now, but this is probably (hopefully) temporary. But no more than Ireland, the idea that it represents some priest-infused stew of peasant ignorance is merely ignorant itself in a different direction.

          • Deiseach says:

            “Slightly less religious than two decades ago” isn’t “Not overwhelmingly religious.”

            ‘Slightly less religious’ is not the case at all. The changes in social attitudes between the 80s and now is astounding. But what do I know, I’m only living in the country all my life!

          • deciusbrutus says:

            “Astoundingly less religious than 20 years ago” isn’t “Not overwhelmingly religious”.

            And I don’t think that anyone here has the unbaised judgement to say if Ireland is overwhelmingly religious or not. There’s too much of a judgement call and I think it will come down to people saying that any area that is more religious than optimal is “overwhelmingly religious”, and any area that is less religious than optimal, or is religious of a non-optimal religion, is “insufficiently religious”.

          • Nick says:

            “Astoundingly less religious than 20 years ago” isn’t “Not overwhelmingly religious”.

            And I don’t think that anyone here has the unbaised judgement to say if Ireland is overwhelmingly religious or not. There’s too much of a judgement call and I think it will come down to people saying that any area that is more religious than optimal is “overwhelmingly religious”, and any area that is less religious than optimal, or is religious of a non-optimal religion, is “insufficiently religious”.

            No, I’d say Deiseach can quite clearly judge whether Ireland is overwhelmingly religious or not. By the very terms of the religion in question—which is no “judgment call” at all—the Irish have apostatized en masse. Weekly Mass attendance is an obligation for Catholics, and a good proxy for religiosity, and it’s being shirked by the majority of the country. Catholic moral teaching is meanwhile being removed from its laws and constitution one referendum at a time; with the latest one, the bishops discouraged priests from even preaching against it, fearing backlash. In what world does that constitute “overwhelming” religiosity? Who or what exactly does it “overwhelm”?

        • antpocalypse says:

          I think you fairly rebut their claim about Ireland’s present climate, but almost entirely using examples from the last handful of years that support both the claim that liberalization somewhat tracks downturns in religiosity and the claim that Ireland’s liberalization comes decades after most of its Western peers’.

        • Frederic Mari says:

          As many have pointed out, that’s all fine and dandy and I’m glad to see Ireland joining the concert of civilized nations. Better late than never (yeah, I’m exaggerating for effect).

          My overall point remains. Deeply religious countries will have a host of institutions and behavioural norms that make them automatically less liberal, by any definition of the term.

          As I said, you can defend them for achieving better results than secular countries in other dimensions but not on liberalism/individualism.

          • Deeply religious countries will have a host of institutions and behavioural norms that make them automatically less liberal, by any definition of the term.

            Nonsense. It depends on whether those norms are more or less liberal than whatever norms that society would have had absent religion.

            You might consider that the officially atheist countries of the 20th century were considerably less liberal, by any definition ot the term, than the Catholic countries.

            You might also consider that the Catholic church was the main opponent of early 20th century eugenic policies.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Communist countries (like the USSR and China) were officially atheist, but very restrictive.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          I deny that official religion is determinitive of actual religion; USSR and China might be low-religion, but that their government demands atheism is merely moderate evidence of that.

        • fion says:

          Depends what you mean by “restrictive”. LGBT rights in the early USSR were ahead of most countries. They were also among the first to give women the vote and legalise abortion.

          Of course, much of this was reversed when Stalin took over, so your point still stands that atheist countries can be restrictive, but I do think they tend to be less so, which I think was Frederic Mari’s main point.

          • Utah was the second U.S. state to give women the right to vote. Also surely the most religious state in the U.S.

            Do you think that the Soviet Union, pre-Stalin, was on net more liberal than contemporary western European countries? Freedom of speech, of the press, and the like?

          • fion says:


            Utah was the second U.S. state to give women the right to vote. Also surely the most religious state in the U.S.

            That’s interesting; I don’t know that. However, we’re all just giving examples from one side or the other without really proving anything. Even after I accept the Utah example, I still think more secular societies tend to be more liberal than more religious ones.

            Do you think that the Soviet Union, pre-Stalin, was on net more liberal than contemporary western European countries? Freedom of speech, of the press, and the like?

            No. But I do think it was more liberal than most modern non-historian westerners believe. And I also think that 1920s western European countries were less liberal than most modern non-historian westerners believe. There seems to be a very prevalent narrative that the Soviet Union was hell and Western Europe was free. The reality is more complicated and much less black-and-white.

        • yossarian says:

          You shouldn’t call someone atheist just because their god really existed.

      • nadbor says:

        What exactly ‘rules and regulations’ you think Poland has against atheists or women ‘who do not enjoy traditional roles’? I will grant you the case with gays because we haven’t legalised gay marriage yet and homophobic attitudes are still common. But regarding gender roles and atheism you don’t have a leg to stand on.

        • Frederic Mari says:

          On atheism (from Wiki): “A concordat between the state and the Church allows the teaching of religious education in school.[19] There are 31,000 state-paid religious education teachers.[20] The government partially subsidises the Church for Catholic schools, historic Church buildings, and salaries for public and private religious teachers. This totals about 2 billion zł (~ US$633 million on 5 V 2013).

          According to Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, money from money given by people including voluntary and semi-mandatory (e.g. required during marriages[citation needed]), religious events and other, is more than 6 billion zł(~ US$1.9 billion on 5 V 2013”.

          Assuming this is true, I’d be flabbergasted this does not translate in some general, quite possibly diffuse (given Communism official support of atheism) disparaging of known atheists.

          A quick way to verify would whether Catholics are happy and proud to display their Catholicism while atheists/agnostics are practicing a variation of “don’t ask/don’t tell”.

          But, again, even if you don’t like me picking on Poland (or Ireland), it doesn’t invalidate the point. As you conceded, Poland (Eastern European countries in general) are pretty homophobic. Indeed, my experience in such countries is that they’re pretty classically socially conservative. In terms of social norms and behaviours, they feel pretty much stuck in the 1950s.

          On women for example : https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/03/poland-no-friend-women

          I happen to have lived several years in Ukraine. One of my best friends is Yugoslav. Regarding gender roles, they consider the 1950s western bourgeois model to be the only natural and worthy one.

          And, sure, you shouldn’t beat a woman but, hey, bitches should also learn their place – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/07/putin-approves-change-to-law-decriminalising-domestic-violence

          • SamChevre says:

            I’d be flabbergasted this does not translate in some general, quite possibly diffuse (given Communism official support of atheism) disparaging of known atheists.

            I’d agree, that’s what I’d expect. And I would find that to be a perfectly liberal outcome.

            I wouldn’t describe the US as non-liberal because it’s tobacco-phobic–even though most states officially discourage smoking, and there’s a lot of social pressure not to smoke, and there are increasing efforts to design public spaces to discourage and stigmatize smoking, and some employers won’t hire smokers, and some landlords won’t rent to them. Similar social pressure not to be openly non-conforming to gender norms, or openly anti-religious, is in my view no more illiberal.

          • nadbor says:

            You asked us to imagine what it would be like to be a woman or an atheist in Poland as if it’s well known fact that it’s would be bad. But then it turns out that you don’t even know that. You only assumed that it’s bad because the country is very catholic. And you want to use this imagined evidence to prove that catholic implies bad.

            It’s terrible epistemology and very rude.

            I don’t have to assume or imagine anything. I’m a polish atheist and I’m fine. So are most of my polish friends. So is my polish wife. Also she is better educated than I am (has a PhD in theoretical physics), works in a ‘manlier’ industry (commodity trading) and never lets me drive. None of it has ever been any kind of issue.

            Is my experience not representative? Maybe. But it’s infinitely better than pulling evidence out of thin air based on no experience at all.

            I’m not arguing against your broader point. I don’t care enough to have an opinion about that. I’m just irritated (as you can probably tell) by your drive-by bigoted remark.

      • Jacobethan says:

        Speaking as a Frenchman – “that’s coz any heavily religious country, islamic or otherwise, is going to BE less liberal”.

        I think the basic classical/Anglo rejoinder would go something like this. The point of liberalism is to get the state out of the ultimate-conceptions-of-the-good game, NOT in order to minimize the influence of such conceptions in society and culture at large, but rather in order to enable individuals to pursue them vigorously in their private associational life. A state that restricts or actively disfavors religious expression in the sphere of civil society thereby becomes ipso facto less liberal, not more so.

        From this perspective, the danger of the French model is that it risks making the state no longer a neutral referee between substantive conceptions of the good but instead harnesses coercive power to one such conception, called “secularism,” with its own thick assumptions about human rationality and justice.

        In judging a state’s degree of liberalism, the operative question is not whether the conception of the good embodied in its laws and practices is “religious” or “non-religious,” but rather how stringently it constrains individuals’ ability to pursue alternative conceptions via their freedom of property, expression, and association.

        Traditional religions happen to be the most historically familiar examples of highly encompassing and restrictive ideologies of human flourishing. But it’s quite easy to imagine an avowedly anti-religious ideology that would be comparable in scope and thus equally potentially illiberal were it to gain officially privileged status.

        • Nick says:

          The point of liberalism is to get the state out of the ultimate-conceptions-of-the-good game, NOT in order to minimize the influence of such conceptions in society and culture at large, but rather in order to enable individuals to pursue them vigorously in their private associational life.

          Setting aside your main point, do you think this is actually coherent? One of the criticisms of liberalism is basically that the neutral referee thing is impossible; if the refereeing is too weak, a thick conception like Islam or Catholicism takes hold, while if the refereeing is too strong, the thick conception of liberalism itself has taken hold. Maybe the French are just the consistent ones here.

          • Jacobethan says:

            I certainly take your point. I’m not sure whether I think it’s best formulated as liberalism (so described) being theoretically incoherent, or as liberalism being an approach to governance that’s only practically viable where the religions/ideologies widespread in civil society happen to share certain congenial features. (E.g., the exalted notion of private conscience characteristic of Protestant Christianity.) Which, of course, brings us back around to the question that started this whole post!

            Part of the problem, I suspect, is that in this context “liberal democracy” gets held up as an obligatory aspiration for so-called developing countries in such a way that its practical meaning just becomes “you know, whatever that thing is that rich Western societies do these days.” Even when that turns out to encompass a range of approaches that are as divergent from one another as they are from liberalism classically conceived.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Which, of course, brings us back around to the question that started this whole post!

            It would have been good if the question of incompatible ideological features had actually been explored in the post. Even just a philosophical exploration, e.g., a list a criteria for what it takes to be a “true Muslim”, a separate list of criteria for what it takes to be a “true liberal”, and see which aspects are in tension with each other.

            And then, to answer the subtext that is nearly ever-present when such a question is asked, the same methodology should be applied to Christianity.

            If you find yourself running headlong into problems of what it means to be a “true Christian” or “true Liberal”, well, that’s the inherent challenge in asking whether two philosophies are compatible. Unless you want to go the route of just asking whether someone is willing to check a box on a survey, in which case every “ideology”, defined as loosely as this, is compatible with every other.

        • dodrian says:

          I wish I had seen your reply before writing mine, it’s much better thought out.

          Traditional religions happen to be the most historically familiar examples of highly encompassing and restrictive ideologies of human flourishing. But it’s quite easy to imagine an avowedly anti-religious ideology that would be comparable in scope and thus equally potentially illiberal were it to gain officially privileged status.

          To provide an example: freedom of expression is considered an important liberal value in France, unless that’s wearing religious head coverings in public schools. That ban applies to students, not just teachers. Plenty of people consider that illiberal.

          • Frederic Mari says:

            And it is illiberal.

            FWIW, I agree with the ban in schools but oppose it outside of it (unless there are safety concerns i.e. on a factory floor or somesuch). I also support the ban for public employees/agents of the Republic.

            As I said below, this is in no small part the result of a slightly different historical experience and the fact that the French want people to integrate i.e. to merge into the national body and religious views are best kept small/private, lest they invade the public square and tear the nation apart.

            Regarding school, the idea is that things like the hijab, in theory at least, are practical symbols of women’s inferior status/the need for men/society to control them/control their sexuality.

            While France is liberal enough to let you teach your daughter such worldviews at home, we consider that schools are neutral squares where everybody will be taught sciences and treated equally.

            It’s a trade-off, no doubt, but, having thought about it, I’m actually okay with it even if I’d be the first one to recognize that a more permissive attitude towards religious symbols in the UK or US doesn’t seem to generate major problems.

          • I’m curious–is wearing a cross, say the sort of pendant that many people wear, also forbidden, either in schools or elsewhere?

          • dodrian says:

            @DavidFriedman – the [British news] articles I read said that ‘large crosses’ were banned, but didn’t specify how large.

            Sikh turbans and Jewish skullcaps were also banned, so while the questions re gender equality and Islam were big in the more recent face-cover ban in public spaces, I don’t think they apply to the school head covering ones.

        • Frederic Mari says:

          Yes, I’ve ran into that counter from my English friends and from living in London. I think it also explains why UK/anglo-saxons are keener on “multiculturalism” while France is more wedded to the “integration” model.

          But I think it goes to something Voltaire (iirc) said from his time in London/the UK – “There, a thousand [Christian] sects prosper and thus none is strong enough to impose its will” (or words to that effect).

          The French experience, with a strong and well-entrenched Catholic Church, did have to fight a starker fight to get a civil society and institutions free from religious dogma. It thus makes sense we tend to think leaving the public square to religions is a dangerous thing that’ll see the rise of an all powerful religious institutions rather than the flowering of a 1,000 small and thus politically weak “sects”.

      • dodrian says:

        ‘Liberalism’ as I understand it is the idea that the political system is neutral, and is not prejudiced in favor or against any belief system or worldview.

        Liberalism in France, as I understand it, is very prejudiced in favor of a secular worldview.

        • Frederic Mari says:

          That’s one way of looking at it but we would consider the secular POV to be the neutral POV.

          To the French mind, putting secularism and religious worldviews on the same level is a bit like arguing that creationism and evolution are just two, competing but otherwise equal, worldviews…

          • How do you distinguish “the secular POV is the neutral POV” from “I believe in the secular POV”?

          • Frederic Mari says:

            David Friedman – Sorry for the mixing of replies but somehow I cannot forever reply to comments, I have to go back up to see a comment I can reply to.

            On the issues of crosses and pendants (Muslims can wear small Hamsa hands, Jewish people can wear stars of David…) they are acceptable as long as they are small/discreet – basically can pass off as jewelry rather than making an overt and in-your-face religious statement.

            Again, FWIW, I think that’s an acceptable compromise but obviously unsatisfactory to the deeply religious Muslims who find it offensive their daughters are not properly covered up. Their issues wasn’t identifying as Muslims, theirs was an issue of their women not being properly demure.

            Regarding the point of “How do you distinguish “the secular POV is the neutral POV” from “I believe in the secular POV”?”

            To me, this goes to the same kind of issues there is with calling sciences “just another way to explain the world, like religion” or “atheism is just another religion”.

            The simple answer is – No, they are not the same thing. Sciences or atheism require no faith, no addition of God’s will/actions to explain the world as we see it.

            Secularism is “the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institution and religious dignitaries”. Particularly relevant to our conversation, “One manifestation of secularism is asserting the right to be free from religious rule and teachings”.

            Now, regardless of where exactly you draw the line in particular practical cases, I don’t see how you could disagree that secularism is by definition neutral. It makes no claims as to whether this God or that God is right or wrong but simply insist on Churches/religious institutions and dogma being kept outside the public square.

            The only people who have a real problem with that are people who want their religious beliefs and institutions to have weight in said public square. You may or may not approve (i.e. you may believe that religious institutions are, overall, a force for good in public life and thus secular governments are pointlessly cutting their noses to spite their faces) but you should agree that, by definition, that’s not neutral.

          • Nick says:

            Now, regardless of where exactly you draw the line in particular practical cases, I don’t see how you could disagree that secularism is by definition neutral. It makes no claims as to whether this God or that God is right or wrong but simply insist on Churches/religious institutions and dogma being kept outside the public square.

            If religion belongs outside the public square, what belongs inside it? Don’t you think that there’s actually something more inside the public square than just science? Suppose Allah exists and Islam is true: isn’t it pretty important then that folks be able to live according to its teachings? It seems to me that, in banning the hijab in school, France is asserting a particular view about women that is at least arguably incompatible with Islam’s teachings. In other words, in France’s view, Allah is wrong and France is right.

          • Sciences or atheism require no faith

            Science at least requires faith in the inductive hypothesis–that the future will resemble the past. It can’t be tested, because the test depends on a circular argument–if you don’t already have the inductive hypothesis, the fact that today resembled yesterday doesn’t imply that tomorrow will resemble today.

            On the more general question, the problem is that you can’t do a reasonable job of educating people without taking positions on questions religions disagree about. The claim that Darwinian evolution is true is also the claim that creationism is false. An explanation of the extraordinary initial success of Islam—roughly the equivalent of Mexico, in the next forty years, conquering and annexing all of the U.S. and half of Russia—that doesn’t view it as due to divine support for Islam is rejecting the explanation that does.

            I don’t think an education teaching that some religions are false can reasonably be described as neutral. It’s taking sides.

            In practice, what you get is not even a serious attempt at neutrality, it’s the substitution of one religion for another–environmentalism for Christianity, for example. Bringing children up without normative content isn’t the way human beings work.

            What do French schools teach about the obligations of the students to France? Neutrality?

  2. TracingWoodgrains says:

    Thanks for this essay. I know little about the subject, and this was a useful read to start understanding the complexities here.

    I do have a couple of process-related questions for y’all:
    What were your original positions? Did they evolve over the course of writing the essay? How difficult, in the end, was it to present a unified viewpoint?

    • JohnBuridan says:

      What were your original positions?
      Christian Flanery – Islamic countries regularly oppose liberal democratic forms of government based on their sacred values. Any further and I risk misrepresenting him.
      JohnBuridan – Islamic countries respond to the necessities, incentives, and pressures of the political world. The necessities of government requires adjustment and flexibility. Governance and religious practice although often conflated are not “in reality” the same. My general model was that Legal practice changes faster than Religious practice.

      Did they evolve over the course of writing the essay?
      Yes. Firstly, we were able to set the terms of the debate, which gave us a similar toolkit. Secondly, we both achieved more nuanced and broader perspectives even if we didn’t change much. Lastly, I think both of us drew closer to a compromise position.

      How difficult, in the end, was it to present a unified viewpoint?
      We were able to set the rules of discussion quickly. We agreed that each of us would be in charge of three of the six countries, but we each had to agree that the other person’s presentation of facts. It worked well, and there was a lot of give and take. But ultimately it was nearly impossible to write a conclusion. Although we went from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘disagree’ over the course, it was still hard in our last two days of writing to come up with shared conclusions that were also clear takeaways. Partially, I think, we need to do more investigations and employ more various methods. Islamic grassroots organizations need a closer look: Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood, Society for Islamic Mutual Aid, Gulenism, etc. but that research is difficult to do without knowing several more languages, Arabic at the least. I think the unified view made for less interesting reading; a more dialectical presentation may have revealed where the faultlines of interpretation are.

      • DragonMilk says:

        Are either of you Muslim? I’m surprised that more attention was not paid to what beliefs within Islam compete with liberal democratic beliefs.

        • antpocalypse says:

          Yeah, I was struck by this as well. I accept that they needed to narrow the scope to a point that could reasonably be investigated with their backgrounds and time constraints, but I’m not super convinced that studying just the performance of existing Islamic states is an adequate proxy for Islam as a religion. As someone mentionsbelow, it’s especially difficult when manifestly theocratic states like Iran are involved, because then you may not even be studying the effect of Islam, but the effect of theocracy itself independent of the originating religion.

  3. tohron says:

    A question about the paper – it states about Iran that:

    The ensuing Islamic Republic of Iran identifies less as a sovereign nation state, and more as an ideological cause whose purpose is to expand the umma (the community of all Muslim believers), to all corners of the world, eventually absorbing all the lands of the infidels. This obviously has posed serious problems to the international order. Iran does not play by Westphalian rules of statehood and self determination. It sees itself as the vanguard of the divinely ordained mission to establish the reign of God on earth.

    I was wondering what the source(s) for this statement were?

    • Will James says:

      Kissinger, Henry. 2014. World Order. New York: Penguin Press. Chapter 4 The United States and Iran: Approaches To Order.

    • rash92 says:

      other comment has a source, i don’t know if it’s true and how close it is to the stuff i know about because i don’t know much about shia stuff but it makes sense if they also accept the same sunni hadiths regarding that stuff.

      thats basically part of the islamic prophecies regarding the islamic state (the all corners of the world thing) and what its meant for.

      it might not be so much ‘our short-medium term goal is to spread to the whole earth’ so much as ‘we will eventually spread to the whole world, because we are the islamic state and muhammad said thats what the islamic state would do’.

      shia consider iran to be an islamic state, sunnis don’t. wahhabists think an islamic state didnt hasnt existed since the fall of the ottoman empire, until ISIS became a thing at which point that was the islamic state.

      ISIS has similar ideas because they’re referencing the same sources about islamic states, although they seem to see the ‘take over the world’ stuff as a much shorter term thing than iran.

  4. Bla Bla says:

    “Non-state terrorist actors will instigate guerilla warfare in Tunisia by 2023: 30%
    Non-state terrorist actors will instigate guerilla warfare in Tunisia by 2028: 15%”
    Must be a typo.

    Turkey, Egypt (which have long and complex histories of modernization experiments and democratic experimentation) and muslim minority political participation in more democratic countries (western but also India and Russia which approximate better the level of development of MENA) would have been interesting to see.

    • Wander says:

      I think they’re intention is for it to be read as “conditional on there not being guerrilla warfare by 2023, there will be a 15% chance of it occurring in the window between then and 2028”.

    • Will James says:

      The assumption here was that if the democratic cycle continues to function peacefully as it has so far, with each iteration democratic mechanisms are further consolidated and therefore sectarian conflict is less likely to erupt. So violent opposition is more likely on the front end of establishing a democratic regime than on the back end, as the population learns to vent grievances through established avenues like complaining to their elected official, or contacting local media, as opposed to violent action (I know there are certainly counter-examples to this, but those often occur in the context of larger geo-political structures, like the 1953 coup d’etat in Iran). This obviously relies on whether Tunisia actually maintains these neutral avenues and if they will exert any influence over governmental and legislative output. Hence, the thought that if it hasn’t happened by 2023, the likelihood will continue to drop. I think I will adjust these in subsequent revisions after my partner presciently pointed out a number of concerns regarding the secularists in Tunisia who appear willing to marginalize traditional Sunnis politically and prosecute suspicious behavior extra-judicially on even the slimmest of evidence of radical activity.

  5. “Iran will invade Israel”

    What does this mean? If Hezbollah invades Israel with a few Iranians in tow, does that count?

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      For almost any reasonable definition of this, 35% for an Iranian invasion in the next five years seems very high. It also seems like a somewhat tangential prediction to the main point of the collaboration; whether a country moves in a liberal/democratic direction is not that closely tied to whether it invades other countries.

    • Will James says:

      Perhaps I have been reading too many NATO funded think tanks but I also read RT and Iranian news and this question seems ever present. Firstly, the current Ayatollah has explicitly stated it as a policy goal. https://www.timesofisrael.com/khamenei-israel-a-cancerous-tumor-that-must-be-eradicated/

      I see an invasion of Israel via the Golan Heights corridor by an Iranian led coalition in the next five years as highly likely and the culmination of a long term strategy that has effectively leveraged the chaos across the upper Levant in Iraq and Syria in conjunction with multiple victories for Hezbollah in Lebanon to create a logistical land bridge into Israel to energize and sustain a long invasion.

      I would agree that it is somewhat tangential in nature, but considering virtually every story line in the Middle East is connected to some degree to that conflict, it warranted inclusion.

      • If Iran invades over the Golan, Israel will attack the SAA and can be expected to destroy a large fraction of their airplanes and heavy weapons. They will do this even if the SAA leaves the fighting to Hezbollah and the Iranians. Heavy weapons and command of the air are a big part of why the SAA has been winning the civil war, and thus if this happens it could reignite. The numerically inferior Alawites who dominate the government could face massacre. Are they willing to risk all that on behalf of the Palestinians? The Syrian government is nominally Arab nationalist, but I would think that, given the past five years, the Arab identity of the Alawites who dominate it has never been as weak as it has now, and the Golan has been quiet ever since 1973. Russia, too, will be another factor holding back the Syrian government from attacking Israel. So if Iran does attack Israel, they’ll only have Lebanon to attack from.

        Iran does have a grand strategy against Israel, but like the Soviet Union’s strategy of sinking millions into Ethiopia and Mozambique, I don’t think it’s a well thought out one. It’s the kind of strategy that appeals to politicians who like seeing friendly colors on a map and don’t think critically about whether that friendly color will provide any real military value.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          I feel similarly to Alexander Turok. There is no reason to think that Iran’s strategy is a particularly good one or effective. My skepticism of Iranian strategy is why I left discussion about Iran out of Lebanon and didn’t feel like it was a disservice to the readers.

          From what I can tell, Iran is good at forming and funding grassroots organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood is a well-known Sunni example of what I mean by a religious grassroots organization. The 17th – 18th century French Jesuits are another example. These organizations win one convert at a time, and inch their way forward politically and theologically operating with longer time horizons than say an ISIS or a presidential administration.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      My reading was “Military regulars of the Iranian military openly forcibly enter the original borders of Israel.”

      There might be quibble about some of THOSE definitions, but it’s more important to taboo “Israel” and “invade” than “Iran”.

  6. Anonymous Bosch says:

    Islamic country – for us any country with a Muslim population of 70% or higher. We use the phrase Islamic country even when the country in question is officially nonsectarian. The six countries we study are United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Lebanon (see the section on Lebanon for more on our reasons for choosing this country). We chose these countries for their geographic range, cultural diversity, and relative stability. These countries can act as a representative sample for future inquiry on politics in Islamic countries.

    It’s curious that you do not have any sub-Saharan African countries here. Senegal has an above-average Democracy Index rating and would have been worth a look. It also might have been worth including Albania as a historically Muslim European country even though I think it’s 60% Muslim and not 70%.

    I’m also a little disappointed this collaboration didn’t touch on Muslim assimilation in Western democracies, although I can understand narrowing the scope.

  7. Bugmaster says:

    What about Saudi Arabia ? They are a major political power in the region, as well as internationally. It seems odd to only them, while including Kazakhstan.

    • Timandrias says:

      Came here to say the same. I’m really surprised that someone has managed to make an article on modern islam, and talk about global islamic politics without paying some attention to Saudi Arabia.

    • Machine Interface says:

      I would assume it’s because Saudi Arabia is very similar to the UAE and so it wouldn’t really constitute an interesting additional data point — if you’re going to compare just 6 countries, they should be as diverse as possible. Otherwise it would be like comparing the relationship between, say, gun violence and gun laws over 6 countries, except 3 of them are Central American countries.

      • Randy M says:

        I’d have to assume Saudi Arabia is unique among Islamic nations no matter what other similarities it has due to having the most holy Islamic cities in its borders.

      • Bugmaster says:

        It is also my personal impression — which could be completely wrong — that, of all the Islamic countries, Saudi Arabia is the one who is most active on the international stage. They are basically what Iran wants to be when it grows up: a major player, projecting lots of soft power (political pressure, oil deals) as well as hard power (financing terrorism) in order to bring about the perfect (as they see it) Islamic regime worldwide.

    • Will James says:

      We wanted to avoid the complexity of discussing liberal democracy in the context of the center of the Islamic world in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia also has a convoluted and confusing relationship with Israel and the U.S. We believed this made it a bad case and chose the UAE as the most similar case, but without the confusing alliances and religious significance.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I think Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the US would be particularly interesting to discuss in this context. The US is already a liberal democracy, whereas Saudi Arabia is not, so the very fact that a relationship between them exist could indicate that Islam and democracy are compatible… or perhaps that the US is not as liberal as people think.

      • A3rav says:

        The UAE’s relationships with the US and Israel, both today and for the past decade at least, are barely distinguishable from Saudi Arabia’s. It’s true that Saudi Arabia has a significantly longer history of close ties with America, though.

  8. Nicholas Weininger says:

    Some things that might have made this discussion stronger:

    — Examination of locally-Muslim-majority regions within non-Muslim-majority countries and vice versa (think of northern Nigeria for the former, Bali for the latter). In the former case, are the Muslim-majority regions notably less liberal/democratic than the rest of the country? In the latter, are the non-Muslim-majority regions more liberal/democratic?

    — Inclusion of Senegal and some subset of Albania/Bosnia/Kosovo, as another commenter suggested.

    — Most of all, an attempt to pick a “control group” of non-Muslim-majority countries to your six with otherwise similar attributes (population, degree of ethnic heterogeneity, natural resource endowments, climates, history of colonization) and examine their constitutions similarly, to see if you can distinguish effects of Islam on the political system from other confounders. For example, the Philippines could be a very fruitful comparison case for Indonesia.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      These are great points. I really wanted to include Bosnia! I know and have worked with a lot of Bosnians, but I decided that since Bosnians don’t fit the American mental image of Muslim and are not a supermajority Muslim country, we should abandon them. Although, I have some great anecdotes about my experiences teaching in a 40% Muslim school in the U.S. Miss those kids.

      Introducing “controls” would have been super smart. If I had to do it over again, I certainly would make a lot of changes in our methodology. We stopped collaborating on this nearly 2 months ago, and my knowledge base has expanded since then. This project was a great starting point for my thinking personally though.

    • Will James says:

      Control group is definitely a great idea and would elucidate so much more here that we could not get to.

  9. gbdub says:

    Others have mentioned sub-Saharan Africa and Saudi Arabia, but what about Pakistan?

    Honestly this feels like a very interesting, fact filled examination of a few countries that happen to be Islamic, but nothing more. There is nothing here that convinces me these are representative of political Islam, and little to compare them to non-Islamic countries. Your preamble basically rejects any examination of Islam qua Islam, so I don’t think you answer your own question.

    • theredsheep says:

      I don’t know that it’s helpful to examine Islam qua Islam, since the religion has changed, and will continue to change, over time, the same as any other religion. The original version of Islam certainly wasn’t compatible with democracy, but that version of Islam is not coming back. It might be more helpful to ask whether the currently prevailing versions of Islam (or some more carefully worded variant on same) are compatible with liberal democracy.

      • oqpvc says:

        And that’s why only looking at old religious texts is an error. But religion usually also has methods to update dogma and steer change. These methods are much more relevant than short excerpts of religious texts and should be under consideration.

        Other commenters already commented on other countries with interesting phenomena. I’d like to add that controlling for religiousness might be interesting and important.

      • gbdub says:

        The question was “is Islam compatible with liberal democracy”… this essay attempts to answer that without really investigating/explaining Islam at all.

        Sure, examining old Islam isn’t useful, but considering modern Islam would seem to be central to the exercise. What denominations of modern Islam are most liberal? Least? What changes would those religious institutions need to be willing to make in order to allow liberal democracy to flourish?

        The most interesting question to me is, “is liberal democracy a post-Enlightenment Christian thing, or is it a Western European thing? Post colonial Christian countries would be an interesting control.

        • theredsheep says:

          I think it’s easy for people to underestimate the degree to which religion can shift and slide to fit political and cultural pressures. I don’t know a whole lot about Islam, but Christianity started as the teachings of a rabbi who urged His followers to give up worldly goals and possessions, along with violence and retaliation. Some of the earliest Christians lived in communes with shared property.

          In the US-due to an odd sequence of largely unforeseen events going back centuries–Christianity’s presently associated much more strongly with the party which favors building up the armed forces, an aggressive foreign policy, tough-on-crime, and the death penalty. They also favor lighter taxes on the wealthy and tend to speak highly of the aggressively atheist anti-altruist Ayn Rand. Then there’s the Prosperity Gospel.

          Over time, religion can go in some weird directions.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I think looking at Islamic countries is a reasonable approach to seeing how Islam is playing out in practice– certainly better than examining Islamic texts or the whole sweep of Islamic history.

        I agree that it would be good to find out how those particular countries were chosen.

    • Candide III says:

      I agree, this is a very weak entry. Why were these particular countries chosen? There are at least three times as many biggish countries (not counting minor island nations) that are majority Muslim, and many of them provide material for a much less sanguine look at the opening question. The focus on formal constitutions is, in my opinion, also a weakness, because their relationship to actual governance and structure of society is by no means clear even in the USA, never mind less developed countries which rely to much greater extent on informal or extra-governmental mechanisms and adopt formal constitutions more as a political fashion statement or an aspiration of a Western-educated minority.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think that it is hard to pick a ‘representative’ Islamic country since the facts are that it is not monolithic and that various cultures and societies have adopted and adapted it to their own circumstances. The idea of an Arab Muslim single monoculture that is the same everywhere just is not the case. So any country you pick can be argued for/against on the grounds that it’s not the exemplar of a Muslim state.

      What does annoy me is all the ignorant Western “well what Islam really needs is its own Reformation” since (a) that’s precisely what is happening with the strict, not to say fundamentalist, sects who are going to war over the purity of the faith (b) they have the shocking but not surprising historical ignorance of what the European Reformation actually was – because it has shaken out over the centuries to evolve into “primacy of conscience, i.e. everyone can do their own thing and nobody can say anything against it”, they assume that is how it started – “standing up against one monolithic Church which was no-fun and anti-sex and controlled everything”.

      In about five centuries, the Reformed Islam of that day may be like the Reformed Christianity of the West, but you are going to have to wait that long for secular forces to wear it down, and Reformation Christianity started off looking much like Reformation Islam – the insistence on the primacy of the source text, inerrant and infallible; stripping away worldly accretions; going back to the Pure Primitive Gospel Quran; even smashing the tombs of saints, for crying out loud!

      • SamChevre says:

        The idea of an Arab Muslim single monoculture that is the same everywhere just is not the case.

        True: also important to note that “Arab” and “Muslim” are not synonyms. Pakistanis, Turks, Persians, Somalis, and Malays are very often Muslims, but none of them are Arabs.

        • antpocalypse says:

          I would suppose that Deiseach uses both there because they are not synonyms, but Arab Muslims are the “prototypical” Muslims to a lot of the people debating/yelling about this question, and many people who envision a Muslim monoculture envision an Arab one.

          • Deiseach says:

            antpocalypse is correct; the idea that “All Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are Arabs” is the one I was protesting against.

      • Tibor says:

        I wholeheartedly agree with Deiseach on reformation. When I learned about ISIS I actually though, hmm, that sounds pretty much like the early protestants. Modern protestants have very little to do with the 15th (counting the Hussites as proto-protestants) and 16th century religious fanatics and the Reformation was what we would call “radicalisation” and “religious fundamentalism”. The Church was incredibly corrupt and hypocritical at the time but in many ways that also meant it was less fundamentalist in practice. Secularisation came much later and had very little to do with the country being protestant or catholic. France is a Catholic country with a very strong secular tradition. The US is a majority (historically even more so) protestant country with pockets of fundamentalist protestant churches. What Islam needs isn’t the Reformation but rather the Enlightenment.

    • Will James says:

      The thesis shifted and evolved throughout the process. Our intention ended up being the examination of how effectively liberal democracy operated within dominantly Islamic environments. That is why we asked, “To what extent does liberalism and democracy obtain in Islamic countries?” So, in a sense, liberal democracy was the primary object and its performance in Islamic environments allowed for some, cautious, inferences about modern Islam.

    • mdet says:

      If the question they were asking was “Is the average Muslim country compatible with liberal democracy?” then “Your samples aren’t even close to representative” is a solid critique.

      But if what they’re asking is “Is any kind of Muslim country compatible with liberal democracy?”, then they should deliberately pick a wide variety of samples that capture many different flavors of Islam, especially ones that aren’t representative of a “typical” Muslim country.

  10. johan_larson says:

    I think this essay, like the first one, would have benefited from a short abstract or summary-of-the-summary. The summary section in this one is 1200-some words, an essay in itself.

  11. ARabbiAndAFrog says:

    Anyone can be anything; the question is what incentives they are given to reshape their society, especially when they are on a foreign soil.

    If they are paid welfare, their crimes are excused and covered up and criticism of them is silenced, they would have no reason to change because they won and hosts lost and pay them tribute.

  12. poignardazur says:

    In 1956, Tunisia declared independence, adopting a constitution akin to France’s highly centralized presidential system.

    Um, that link is to a New York Times article written in 1864, that is, 90 years before Tunisia’s independence. The French government when this article was written was the Second Empire (one of many short-lived governments that followed the French Revolution); the French Government in 1956 was the Fourth Republic. I’m not saying France isn’t centralized (it has always been, since before the French revolution), but that’s just a bad example.

    Seeing that kind of thing makes me suspect an article has links in it only because they make it look professional/reliable.

    • thirqual says:

      Yeah, that jumped into my face too. 1864 was during the Second Empire, when one of Napoleon’s nephews was elected president, coup’ed his way to emperor and started by muzzling liberal opinions (it got better during the 1860s, marginally).

      After the defeat of the Second Empire and until 1958 (so after Tunisia become independent, but Tunisia’s constitution was only ratified in 1959), France’s governement were the Third and the Fourth Republic, which were parliamentary systems with weak executive branches.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      We did ourselves read every constitution of all these countries.

  13. vnosikov says:

    “Only the Emirs may submit amendments to the constitution, which require two thirds (30 out of 40, 20 of whom are chosen by the emirates) support in the Union National Council.”

    30 out of 40 is three fourths, not two thirds

  14. cold_potato says:

    With such an impressively thorough discussion, I’m disappointed that you simply repeat the canard about the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran being ousted in a Western-backed coup. While *technically* correct, this omits some important caveats.

    Mosaddegh’s accession to the Prime Ministership was indeed approved 79-12 by a vote of the parliament, who were in turn elected by the people, so it is correct to say that he was democratically elected. However, his predecessor Razmara had been assassinated two months earlier by a gunman linked to Mosaddegh’s party, the National Front. The parliament’s vote may have been influenced by this: if they opposed this party’s chosen candidate, might they be next? (The assassin was later pardoned, after Mosaddegh came into power.)

    Next, the election through which the National Front obtained full control of the parliament. It was expected that they would lose – but it was contrived that the first districts to have their votes counted were those in which their supporters were most numerous. When enough such districts had been announced, and before the remaining votes could be counted, Mosaddegh called a halt to the election, leaving him with a parliament which was incomplete, but under his control. Further elections were postponed indefinitely.

    The tame parliament then granted Mosaddegh “emergency” powers to legislate without their oversight, first for 6 months, then for an additional 12. Finally, a referendum was held to dissolve the parliament and grant Mosadeggh full power indefinitely. It was successful, with 99.94% of the vote being in favour – which may have been due to the separate (!) polling stations for “yes” and “no” voters, and the possibility of violent reprisals against those who used the latter.

    It goes without saying that this period was marked by street violence and protests, with supporters of Mosaddegh – including the fundamentalist Fada’iyan-e Islam, to whom Mosaddegh was not entirely sympathetic – clashing with the military and supporters of the Shah.

    So, while Mosaddegh was technically elected through a democratic process, it is also true to say that he gained power through intimidation and violence, and by the time of the Western-backed coup he was in full control of an autocratic government with no elections likely for the indefinite future. His rise provides a cautionary example of how a young democracy with weak institutions can be subverted. (At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, the first comparison that springs to mind is Hitler gaining control over the Weimar Republic.)

    There are further caveats I might add: in particular, the rule of the Shah that replaced Mosaddegh after the coup was no more democratic, and its secret police, the SAVAK, committed various atrocities (at turns both aided and opposed by their Western backers). But most accounts seem to emphasise these points while omitting the failings of Mosaddegh, implicitly pushing a false narrative that a democratic Iranian government was turned to despotism by Western intervention. I suspect this may reflect the political leanings of academic historians.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      A democratic Iranian government was turned to despotism by Western intervention.

      • Are you disputing the factual claims in Cold_Potato’s account or are you arguing they are consistent with the claim that Mossadegh’s was a democratic government?

    • Aevylmar says:

      That’s fascinating and I want to hear more. What are your sources? Where are you getting this from? What are the counterarguments? I want to hear more, on both sides, preferably in the form of extremely long posts citing historians and/or Wikipedia.

      (Well, I can hope. 😛 )

      • cold_potato says:

        The history I described is all on Wikipedia, in a few well-referenced articles: Mohammad Mosaddegh, Haj Ali Razmara, Iranian parliamentary dissolution referendum, 1953, etc. Unfortunately, most of the citations are to history books which I don’t have on hand. I did manage to access this paper (paywalled) to verify the assassination of Razmara and the pardoning of the assassin under Mosaddegh’s government.

        The strongest counterargument, if the aim is to assign blame to the West, is the one I already mentioned: that the Shah’s regime was pretty nasty, and no more democratic than Mosaddegh’s. There are other details that also don’t align with the narrative I’ve presented: in particular, there were British-funded lobbying efforts against Mosaddegh well before he seized emergency powers, and Khalil Tahmassebi, the assassin pardoned by Mosaddegh’s government, was re-arrested and executed a few years later. (I don’t know what motivated this.)

    • Will James says:

      Thoroughly interested in the deeper nuance of this point in Iran’s history. Did not have enough time or space to explore in such high resolution.

      • cold_potato says:

        I understand completely that this level of detail would be excessive for the purposes of your report. But still: you dedicated an entire paragraph to discussing the Western-backed coup against Mosaddegh, while writing not a single word about Mosaddegh’s accession to autocracy. This gives the misleading impression that it was the West, rather than Mosaddegh, that was responsible for the demise of Iranian democracy.

  15. regularjoeski says:

    Needed peer review before publication. Multiple issues that need to be addressed. 1) How were these countries picked? Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Bangladesh, Malaysia all have greater populations as Islamic countries. Turkey, Algeria, Egypt. Pakistan, and Morocco all have recent histories involving the question of can Islam be involved with “MODERN” country. Malaysia has an active discussion about that going on. 2) Using constitutions is problematic at best. Peoples Democratic Republics were none of the above yet the constitutions looked good “on paper”. 3) An alternative method would be to study the history of Turkey. Ataturk founded modern Turkey on the theory that Islam was not compatible. Contrast with the current Government “democracy is like a streetcar, you get off when you arrive at your destination”. 4) Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen all have greater populations than countries picked. Why were they omitted. 5) There are multiple methods of plotting freedom/liberalism which have been published. Why were they not used or plotted? IE where do Islamic countries rank compared to other religions?

    • Machine Interface says:

      “Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Bangladesh, Malaysia all have greater populations as Islamic countries.”

      Well, except for Indonesia.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Without detracting from the effort that went into this post (thanks, guys!), I agree that Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt would have been valuable to include.

  16. DragonMilk says:

    I have an issue with the countries chosen – they fit the preset criteria, but what would seem more relevant is taking the top countries by muslim population in general. Otherwise you’ve found instances where Islam has found balance rather than considering the countries where the majority of muslims live, top twelve being:

    Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh (these three can be grouped together if you wish), Nigeria, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq.

    I used 12 instead of 10 since it’s arguable that Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh can be considered historically one entity.

    • matthewravery says:

      I think going for ethnic, geographic, and historical variety (which is what they’ve achieved regardless of what they meant to do) rather than just a population rank is preferable for their project based on their stated goals.

  17. PedroS says:

    While this entry presents an interesting comparison of political systems, the authors have not shown any support for their country choices as “representative” (whether demographically, ethnically or culturally) of the diversity of Islamic countries.
    A few details rubbed me the wrong way:
    A) the description of the religious extremists in Tunisia as “religious right” seems to me to be a projection of American socio-political labels onto a different society where the reader does not know where the right/left divide lies
    B) although female candidates have been systematically prevented from running in Iran, women are allowed to vote there, and therefore there IS female participation in politics. Their role in the worforce is indeed small, but the presence of 50% female students in the total university population also argues against the authors’ stated opinion that “The consequence of [Iranian constitution] is that women are relegated to child bearing and home-managing responsibilities only.” Authors should have compared changes in labor force participation, education levels, etc. from the pre- to the- post-revolution eras to those of other similarly situated countries to support their assertions

  18. Deej says:

    I think you need to look at the differences between Islam and other religions.

  19. Quixote says:

    Because this is based on an analysis of sample countries, the sample selection is doing a lot of the work towards the conclusions / results. Consequently, I wanted to hear more about the sample selection process and see a bit more rigor around it. Maybe a Wikipedia link to the population of Muslims in each country and some text around what coverage is achieved by various choices. I also think that countries where Muslims are not a supermajority should have been covered as much of the practical controversies occur in those contexts. For both those reasons, I was disappointed to not see India considered.

  20. sourcreamus says:

    Lots of interesting information but it seems to elide the actual question. Are there characteristics of Islam that make it incompatible with liberal democracy and what might those be?

  21. J Mann says:

    Thanks – that’s an interesting way to approach the question, and I commend you both for your creativity.

    As a suggestion, I would really have liked a conclusion section where you laid out how you see the information you gathered as supporting one premise or the other.

  22. matthewravery says:

    Interesting approach. The history sections were the most interesting to me. I especially liked that you managed to get quite a varied sample.

    I think it would be useful to look at a cross-section of “Christian” (or whatever religion you like) nations using a similar approach. While comparing success-at-democracy between Islamic nations and Christian nations wasn’t the text of your collaboration, it seems like it was at least the subtext. And it’s definitely the subtext of most discussions of this type in popular media if it isn’t the actual text.

  23. JASSCC says:

    “Islamic country – for us any country with a Muslim population of 70% or higher. We use the phrase Islamic country even when the country in question is officially nonsectarian. ”

    By an analogous standard one would have to call the United States a “Christian country”. Yet just this designation is often hotly rejected and rebutted by many in the United States (among whom I number myself), pointing, in my view correctly, to the American tradition and Constitutional principle of separation of church and state as yielding a nation that in no way depends on, descends from, enshrines, establishes, favors, supports, endorses, or acts in the name of Christianity. With this firmly in mind, and considering that for all I know other officially nonsectarian countries may intend a similar wall of separation between religion and state, before reading any further I would like to understand the reasoning behind the magic 70% threshold, and for characterizing a nation as Islamic despite its official nonsectarian character.

    • David Shaffer says:

      Rejecting the idea of the US as a Christian nation is usually a way of saying that American Christianity isn’t official, and shouldn’t drive policy. It isn’t a denial that the US has a very large Christian population.

      • JASSCC says:

        My whole point is that though the US has a large Christian majority (in fact over 70%, the threshold percentage of muslims this article uses to call a country an “Islamic country”), it is not a Christian country, because Christianity is not only not official, but also, equally to all other religions is walled off from controlling or directing the state or from receiving favor from the state.
        By analogy, where a 70% muslim country to erect a similar wall of separation between mosque and state, then I think calling it an “Islamic country” would be similarly inappropriate to calling the United States a Christian country. It would be a non-sectarian country with a substantial muslim majority.
        It may be the case, and for all I know it is the case, that no officially non-sectarian country with a muslim majority creates such a wall of separation. But I would have appreciated a few words of explanation as to whether that is the case.

      • SamChevre says:

        I’d say more precisely, rejecting the idea of the US as a Christian nation is a way for the elite to justify ignoring laws were passed via the normal political process, but constrain elites and are supported by Christians.

        • Plenty of countries have official separation of church and state, but the notion that because the government is secular this means the country is therefore secular is only found in some of them. The government is not the nation, it would be absurd to claim that if Germany and Japan switched constitutions then the Germans would become Japanese and visa versa.

          • JASSCC says:

            The reason your counterexample appears to work is that there are three separate entities but you are discussing them as if there were two. There is the nation, its government, and its people. The three nations mentioned in this sub-thread — Germany, Japan and the United States — are indeed more than their governments. But it is also true that the basic laws of a nation, notably its constitution and common law through which it is interpreted, are also something other than the government. And when those laws enshrine a non-sectarian status for the rule of law and practice of government, I think it is fair to say that something more than the government of the nation is non-sectarian. When those laws have widespread democratic support, I would go so far as to say the nation is non-sectarian.

        • JASSCC says:

          You can certainly claim that, but if you mean that, as it seems to me you are implying, it is the main or only significance of calling the United States not a Christian nation, then I think you are unsuccessfully resisting the clear meaning and significance of that separation throughout American history. And I can just as well say that those who take your point of view are, in my opinion (since you started this phase of bandying opinions on statements, without supporting them), that bolstering the idea of America as a Christian nation is a way for people who want to smuggle in at least symbolic official religion to claim an unconstitutional exception.

    • cold_potato says:

      If they were only to include countries that are explicitly theocratic, they would conclude that Islam is not compatible with secular democracy, because they had excluded any secular countries.

      I’m fine with them using “Islamic country” to include countries with a Muslim majority but a secular government, given that they’ve made their definition very clear.

      • JASSCC says:

        The choice is not a dichotomous choice between theocracy and official secularism or non-sectarian status. For example, Denmark has an official church, the Church of Denmark. I think few people would seriously call Denmark a theocracy. But a particular brand of Christianity is the state religion.

        My point was that if we are going to designate a country an Islamic country despite the country’s own self-designation as non-sectarian (a designation analogous to one which in the United States is strenuously rejected by people who understand the Constitutional principles correctly, in my view) I would appreciate some explanation why a 70% population threshold overrides the officially non-sectarian nature of the state in making that determination. Now it may be that the non-sectarian nature of the state is not total, or includes some official favoritism of Islam, or some other good explanation why the designation works. But it still needs some explaining, I think.

        • poignardazur says:

          I think it makes sense.

          If I asked “is Christianity compatible with e.g. LGBT rights?”, it would make sense to look at the US as a semi-representative example, even if the US is officially non-sectarian.

          • JASSCC says:

            I don’t see why. The US is not a Christian country, and is not run by the canons of Christianity, either writ large, or in any particularly popular sect or denomination. You would have to tease out the extent to which religious Christian belief motivates some subset of voters either to reject or (in the admittedly rarer case) advocate for LBGT rights, and attempt to quantify that as a distinct factor. Just taking it as read that the US situation represents a “Christian” perspective seems to me incorrect.

  24. David Shaffer says:

    You’re missing a control. Without looking at Non-Islamic vs. Islamic countries, it’s impossible to tell what effect Islam has, other than that it didn’t make Tunisia completely impossible.

  25. Opening the door to a justice system with 6 different legal codes would not, we reckon, foster stability.

    Traditional Islamic societies managed it for quite a long time—four Sunni Madhabs, Christian, Jewish, possibly Shia.

    Your approach is based on looking at societies not doctrine, but it’s worth noting that there may be ways of fitting democracy into Muslim doctrine. In theory the Caliph is chosen by the Muslims, possibly by unanimous assent. In practice that rapidly became a system where each caliph chose his successor, usually from his sons, with the selection sometimes revised after his death via political intrigue or civil war. But I can imagine a Muslim reformer arguing that, given the existence of modern technology, choice by the Muslims could actually mean majority vote of the Muslim population.

    There is a story about al Mamun being challenged by a Sufi as to by what right he was caliph. He replied that he didn’t have a proper right to be caliph but someone had to do the job and as soon as someone else had the unanimous support of the Muslims al Mamun would be happy to resign in his favor.

    • SamChevre says:

      Traditional Islamic societies managed it for quite a long time

      As did the Austro-Hungarian empire, which had separate family law for Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, and (I think) Protestants. There’s a reason that my great-grandfather’s birth certificate has a double-headed eagle, a Star of David, and a note that it was “recorded at the Synagogue in Vienna” (even though he was born somewhere in Hungary.

  26. jstr says:


  27. RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

    What if Islam is a set of coherent ideas and principles, and those principles bear on the proposition at issue in significant ways, and it turns out that nominally Muslim nations tend to be more or less liberal the more or less they depart from the core tenets of Islam? I don’t think this is just a true Scotsman situation, since the ideas and tenets of the faith as it is currently understood and practiced are reasonably determinable from official sources within the major strands of Islam, and there may in fact be substantial overlap in them among the major sects of the religion. To my mind, this is another reason why a survey of selected nominally Muslim nations may not be fully adequate as an approach here. But I stand in awe of the hard work and thoroughness of the authors of this (and the prior one). Really impressive stuff.

    • It occurs to me that there is one sense in which a seriously Muslim country cannot be democratic—the doctrine of separation of law and state. Judges are supposed to make their rulings based not on laws promulgated by the ruler but on laws deduced by scholars from religious sources—Koran and Hadith.

      But one could argue that, by that standard, the U.S. isn’t democratic either. None of us voted for the Constitution, changing it requires a substantial supermajority, but it is an important part of the law. It’s true that the judges who interpret it are appointed via a democratic process–but the judges that enforced Islamic law were appointed by the state too.

      • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

        I think “democracy” is used in two different meanings here. If we mean by “democracy” the system in which every question is decided by a majority vote (with some variations, like which majority is required for which decision, how we count votes, etc.) then United States is not a democracy, but I am not sure democracy in this case is a worthy thing to have. Such system would allow most horrific abuse as long as there’s more people who are for it than against. I don’t think that’s how we define our morals – whatever the most people wants is true and good. But in this meaning Islamic state can be democratic – as long as the majority agrees that Sharia is the best law ever.

        If we define it in a more nuanced way – as a society having certain freedoms and guarantees we value (I am too lazy to enumerate them here but I think most people would be able to name a few), among them having a vote in making decisions, directly or through representatives – then the US comes out as democratic, but about Islamic state the jury is still out. Generally, the Islam is whatever people who practice Islam think it is. And I see no reason why people who practice Islam couldn’t also adopt values that are part of the modern democracy. Of course, their Islam would be different from the Islam according to ISIS members – but Christianity of a modern American is probably different from one which Richard the Lionheart or Hernando Cortés practiced. Still, we can call both Christians – and the same should be true for Islam. How and when and whether it would happen, I think, is the question that practitioners of Islam can only answer themselves, and it’s not possible to answer it for them.

    • One can interpret the question in two different ways. One is to ask if liberal democracy is compatible with Islam in its “true” form. I’m hardly an expert on this subject, but arguments for the compatibility of Islam and liberal democracy which I have seen were not impressive, reminding me of those who claim the Bible predicted this or that event by twisting the words until they form the desired meaning. Another question is whether a society of Muslims can be a liberal democracy. I would say the answer is quite certainly. People have a boundless ability to ignore their professed principles when it becomes convenient to do so, as many Western Christians, Jews, and secular virtue-signalers demonstrate.

  28. Mark V Anderson says:

    In the section on Indonesia, you stated that there were six recognized religions but only listed 5. What is the other one?

  29. hnau says:

    Props to the collaborators for producing this! It looks like a ton of work and you didn’t shy away from it. Unfortunately I won’t be voting for it in the competition. My reasons:

    1. The entry never succeeds in framing the question in a useful or meaningful way. It’s not clear why we should care that an “Islamic” country is or isn’t “liberal” / “democratic”. Nor is it clear what the collaborators expected to establish by compiling political overviews of six arbitrary Islamic countries. It’s hard to see how any of this entry would help people investigate a claim like “Islam is inimical to liberal democracy”.

    2. I could forgive #1 if the content itself was unusually high-quality. Unfortunately it isn’t. The entries for each country are less polished and less well cited than the corresponding Wikipedia articles, without any noticeable gain in balance or insight to make up for that. I was particularly annoyed by the persistent misuse of ten-dollar words, e.g. imposition for imputation and illusive for elusive.

  30. spencer says:

    A ½ chance of being democratic times a ⅓ chance of protecting human rights gives Muslim majority countries a ⅙ chance of being liberal democracies.
    Given that a country is democratic, there is a ~40% chance it has basic human rights protected. Given that a country has human rights protected there is a 50% chance that it democratic.

    I’m trying to figure out how these are determined. From the chart, I guess the 3 democratic countries are Tunisia, Indonesia, and Lebanon. Which two protect human rights? Should “~40%” be 33%, indicating that one country was both democratic and protected human rights?

    Including such statistics is useless due to the low sample size and the lack of independence between variables.

  31. patrickas says:

    I feel the democratic component table is wildly inaccurate at least regarding Lebanon where I live.

    Freedom of assembly should be checked. It is guaranteed in the constitution and protests against the government often happen.

    Female Participation should not be checked. I am assuming this category means “Female Participation in political life”. The last elections lead to a parliament composed of less than 5% women. Half of which ran and won because of a powerful brother/husband that people cannot vote for ( murdered, not allowed to run…). The current government has one woman out of thirty ministers.

    Low corruption should not be checked. Lebanon consistently ranks in the bottom half often bottom third on corruption indexes. I don’t think I have seen any index where Lebanon ranks better than Indonesia which did not get a check in that category.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      Regarding Lebanon, Freedom of Assembly was a little confusing. Lebanon seems to be a mixed bag concerning which protests are allowed and which are not. You are right we probably should have checked that box with an asterisk.

      Female participation means that women vote and run for office. Last election over 50 women ran for office. What you say though about their coming from powerful male dominated families is also true. However, female participation in voting, campaigning, and running for office is legal and frequent. That is not to say Lebanese society is not patriarchal as you suggest. The sectarian system of family law keeps society painfully patriarchal, right? So I feel your frustration there.

      Concerning corruption, do you have any evidence of that? The U.S. State Department does not consider corruption of the judiciary and police force a problem. I have not seen any evidence that it is. However, in Indonesia police officers, magistrates, and judges take bribes and kickbacks so frequently that businesses have difficulty predicting operating costs.

      Thoughts or corrections?

      • patrickas says:

        Regarding women participation:
        According https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/sg.gen.parl.zs Lebanon is absolutely at the bottom of the compared countries
        For 2017, Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments
        Tunisia 31% , Kazakhstan 27% , Emirates 23%, Indonesia 20%, Iran 6%, Lebanon 3% ( Which became about 5% in 2018 elections )
        Not sure about women running and not getting elected, but nothing indicates it would change the ranking of Lebanon.

        Regarding corruption, here are the references I could quickly find online:
        According to https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2017 which measures corruption *perception*
        Lebanon scores 28 (higher is better) and ranks 143/180
        Kazakhstan scores a bit better 31 and ranks 122/180
        Indonesia scores a bit better 37 and ranks 96/180

        According to https://worldjusticeproject.org/our-work/wjp-rule-law-index/wjp-rule-law-index-2017%E2%80%932018 which measures many factors including corruption
        Lebanon overall score 0.47 (higher is better) , rank 87/113
        Kazakhstan overall score 0.51, rank 64/113
        Indonesia overall score 0.52 , rank 63/113

        Regarding freedom of assembly, it is hard to find data on the protests that do not take place, and I am struggling to remember specific instances (because such things would definitely be talked about a lot on social media).
        I know in general to demonstrate you are required to notify the government but not required to obtain any permit, so Lebanon is better than the UAE and Kazakhstan in that regard.
        The most recent examples being daily violent confrontation with the police during and after which people kept being allowed to protest ( 2015-2016 trash crisis protests )
        Noting that those protests were not backed by any party in power so they were just relying on the constitutional right to protest.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          Good information. I tend to distrust a lot of these indexes (indices) since some of them have wonky methodologies. I would have to take a closer look. For example methodology for perceived corruption is different from measuring how much businesses expect to pay out to government officials. I remember seeing that Indonesians see police corruption as widespread problem, but at the same time think their local police department is not very corrupt. #NIMBY.
          Sam[z]dat had a good piece about problems and incoherence of “Democracy Index.”

          Concerning protests, I had in mind this year’s gay pride event, which was cancelled.

          • patrickas says:

            You are totally right about the cancelled main gay pride event, I had forgotten about that.
            I suppose the state regarding that is that same as Tunisia, smaller gay pride events happen instead of big marches, and better than the UAE where I don’t think they even consider doing a gay pride parades.

            I guess no matter how you cut it, it is not an easy job fitting a multi faceted issue into a yes/no table.

  32. caryatis says:

    >Tunisia will experience regime change before 2023: 45%
    Tunisia will experience regime change after 2023: 30%

    This is an error along the lines of the “feminist bank teller” study. From the present to 2023 is ~5 years. “After 2023” is millions of years, so it can’t possibly be true that the likelihood of regime change in the next 5 years is greater than that of all of world history after 2023.

  33. joshuabecker says:

    I’m concerned about the implications of this argument structure in the event that we fail to find an example of a liberal democratic Islamic country. Obviously if we find one, it is proof to the positive—that Islam and lib dem can coincide. But if we don’t find one, it’s not proof to the negative.

    I find myself wondering how, not so long ago, one might have settled the argument about whether Christianity and liberal democracy were compatible. I must confess, at that point it begins to seem to me like a pointless argument—it can only be settled one way (positively) and in that event, there is no point in arguing because the proof is in the pudding.

  34. yossarian says:

    One thing that I don’t understand about people is treating the religion as something special. Like, for an example – I recently migrated to Germany. Among the questions I was asked there was this one – “Why do you want to move to Germany in particular?”. Well, what do you think would happen if I were to answer: “Well, of course, to walk the land the great Führer walked, to purge the Untermensch from the world, to help people of Deutschland create the great Fourth Reich across the whole Europe”? I don’t know what kind of effect that sort of statement would produce, but probably nothing good for me, and definitely a big stamp saying “REFUSED” on my visa application. So why is it ok to discriminate on basis of one’s political views and not ok to discriminate on basis on one’s religious views? Both are in the person’s head, both can be changed (unlike, for example, a person’s skin color, though Michael Jackson is an exception), both can heavily influence a person’s behavior. And if you read the Sharia laws – well, this stuff ranges all the way from “discrimination by religion, race, nation” straight to “crimes against humanity”. So, what’s the problem, if you don’t make a holy cow out of religious belief?

    • And if you read the Sharia laws – well, this stuff ranges all the way from “discrimination by religion, race, nation”

      Islamic law certainly discriminates by religion, but what in it discriminates by race or nation?

      • yossarian says:

        As far as I remember, not in the Sharia law by itself, but in its derivatives, there was definitely something about Jews.

        p.s. And I noticed that you didn’t say “crimes against humanity?” Why the bicyclists?

        • Jews are a religion, not a race—one of the four Peoples of the Book. I have no idea what you mean by “its derivatives.”

          I didn’t know what you were referring to as “crimes against humanity” so limited myself to asking about the two claims you made that, so far as I know, are false. Do you have support for them?

    • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

      If you read Jewish laws, especially ones concerning Amalek, or others like capital punishment for working on Shabbath – you can find many very unpleasant things, especially by naive reading not informed by surrounding commentary and practice. However, if you look at actual practice of this law, you’ll find something rather different, you’ll discover no serious rabbinical authority advocating for genocide and capital punishment being rare even in ancient times, and nobody would advocate it now. So, the fact that something is written in some book does not mean the practitioners actually do it like that. You have to look at actual practice and actual beliefs of the person. But then the question of religion becomes moot – if somebody is supporting violence and genocide, who cares if they do it for religious or political or racial reasons or just because they are evil maniacs? And if somebody has views full compatible with ones of a person living in a modern society – who cares what some book says?

  35. A3rav says:

    This entry does not in any serious way address the questions it opens with. If you want to determine “to what extent does liberalism and democracy obtain in Islamic countries”, you really should look at all of them – and relevant (if undoubtedly biased) data is readily available, for instance Freedom House. As for “whether Islam consistently poses political opposition to liberalism and democracy”, that’s two questions conflated into one to each other’s detriment (let’s not even get into the problems with defining “consistently” and with reifying “Islam” as an agent). This conflation is probably part of the reason why the authors of this entry seem unconscious of the most striking recurrent dynamic in the post-WWII Islamic world (obvious from a closer look even at Tunisia, the UAE, or Iran, to say nothing of Egypt, Algeria, or Turkey): the way liberalism keeps posing political opposition to democracy, and vice versa.

    I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to go through the specifics of such a long post, but one that leaps out as wrong in a particularly problematic way:

    * “prohibiting membership in the tribe other than through birth”: Arab tribes traditionally have some well-known ways to become a member despite birth, the mawla system being the best known. For the specific case of the UAE, I’ll quote the first reputable source that Google brought up, Lienhardt’s Shaikhdoms of Eastern Arabia:

    …it is also well-known to everyone that not every man who is a member of a tribe and has his loyalty in it can, in fact, be descended from the tribal ancestor. All tribes have within them groups of people who are known to have joined them at some time in the known past and now act as one with them in tribal loyalty.

  36. Lawrence D'Anna says:

    “the brute fact of nearly 250 years of unbloody power transfers”

    uhhh, I think y’all forgot about 1860.