Regime Change, Freedom, Democracy, and Islam

In our IS210 class, we’ve been assessing nondemocratic regimes. I had my students read an article by M. Steven Fish, published in World Politics in 2002, titled “Islam and Authoritarianism.” In it, the author notes the striking empirical finding that a majority of Arab Muslim countries had nondemocratic regimes, even after controlling for potentially confounding factors such as oil wealth, level of political violence, poverty, etc. Fish asks what it is about Islam that is linked to authoritarianism. Or, to put it another way, he searches for the causal mechanism lining Islam and regime type. He tentatively finds it in the status of women in contemporary Muslim societies.


Nothing could be less heartening to democratic idealists than the notion that a particular religion is inimical to democracy. Religious traditions are usually constants within societies; they are variables only
across societies. Societies usually are “stuck” with their religious traditions and the social and psychological orientations they encode and reproduce. Yet religious practices and the salience of particular beliefs can change. Even if Muslim countries are more male dominated in some respects than non-Muslim countries, there is no logical reason why such a state of affairs must be immutable. Rigid segregation according to sex and male domination does not have a firm scriptural basis. The Koran provides no justification whatsoever for practices such as female genital mutilation and it condemns all infanticide as a heinous sin, even if it is motivated by a fear of want (17:31; 81:1–14). Much of the Koran’s instruction on marriage, divorce, and other aspects of relations between the sexes (for example, 2:222–41; 4:3; 4:128; 33:1–5; 58:1–4) is more liberal than the sharia (religious law) as practiced in some modern-day Muslim societies. It is therefore as dubious to try to locate the sources of social practice and order in scripture in Islamic settings as it is to try to locate them there in Christian and Jewish settings, because as with all holy injunction based on sacred text, interpretive traditions are powerful and ultimately determine practice. The status of women in Muslim societies is thus both paradoxical and mutable.

At the present time, however, the evidence shows that Muslim countries are markedly more authoritarian than non-Muslim societies, even when one controls for other potentially influential factors; and the station of women, more than other factors that predominate in Western thinking about religious systems and politics, links Islam and the democratic deficit.

What do the recent upheavals in the Muslim-majority states of north Africa and the Middle East portend not only for democracy but for the status of women in these societies. CBC Radio’s “the Current” program set out to try to answer that question in a show dedicated to “women and political upheaval.” Here’s a description of the women interviewed on that evening’s show:

We started this segment with a clip from Mona Seif. She was heavily involved in the protests that brought down former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And in the days leading up to his resignation, she told us she really believed the revolt would lead to a significant improvement in the lives of Egyptian women.

But since then, there have been reports that the situation for Egyptian women has regressed to the way it used to be. So we checked in again with Mona Seif. She’s still in Tahrir Square. But she’s feeling a little less optimistic.

Women have often played leading roles in pushing for change in the Arab and Muslim worlds. But when the dust settles, the gains they think they have made are often elusive. For their thoughts on why that is and whether things may be different this time … we were joined by three women who have spent decades trying to improve the position of women in their societies.

Before the Iranian revolution, Mahnaz Afkhami was Iran’s Minister for Women’s Affairs. She’s now the Founder and President of the Women’s Learning Partnership. She was in Washington, D.C.

Asma Khader is a former Jordanian minister of culture. She’s now the Secretary General of the Jordanian National Commission for Women. She was in Amman, Jordan.

And Leila Ahmed is an Egyptian-born professor at Harvard University’s Divinity School. Her research focuses on women in Islam. And her book, The Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence From the Middle East to America will be published next month. She was in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Catholicism and the Social Dimension of Sin

Father James Martin takes the London Times to task for their framing of the story of the Catholic Church’s developing views on the nature of sin. (Click here for my blog post on the Times story.)

Father Martin writes in the America Magazine–the national Catholic weekly–that the Times’ story has confused the issue “unnecessarily.” He writes:

pd_hell_070706_ms.jpgMy guess is that some in the media bobbled this story for two reasons, neither of them malicious. First, a general unfamiliarity with the contemporary Catholic tradition of social sin, even though under Pope John Paul II something like “anti-Semitism” was often referred to in those terms. And, second, the fact that a headline that reads “Seven New Deadly Sins” is undeniably sexier than a headline saying, “Vatican Official Deepens Church’s Reflection on Longstanding Tradition of Social Sin.”

The Vatican’s intent seemed to be less about adding to the traditional “deadly” sins (lust, anger, sloth, pride, avarice, gluttony, envy) than reminding the world that sin has a social dimension, and that participation in institutions that themselves sin is an important point upon which believers needed to reflect.

In other words, if you work for a company that pollutes the environment, you have something more important to consider for Lent than whether or not to give up chocolate.

Comparative Political Party and Electoral Systems

In a few weeks, we will conduct an in-class exercise that simulates a German national election.  This will give you a good idea of the specifics of the German political party and electoral systems, which you will then be able to compare to other systems around the world.  The German system is fairly complicated in that each citizen casts two votes, one for a member running in a single-member district, while the other is cast for a party via a proportional system.

Elections are, of course, the conditio sine qua non–and the minimal institutional requirement–of democratic political systems.   A great web site dedicated to keeping track of elections around the world is They do not as of yet have the results from the most recent national elections in Spain, (they will shortly) but they do have election results for countries around the world going back decades for some countries.  You should check them out.

The Christian Science Monitor  on the incumbent Spanish government’s re-election this past week:

oresults_p1.jpgAided by a near-record turnout, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the Socialist Party won the Spanish national elections – suggesting further changes toward diversity in a young democracy whose older generations cut their teeth on the Franco dictatorship and the moral authority of the Roman Catholic church.

The Socialist victory suggests Mr. Zapatero’s party has broken out of the longtime secondary status it has labored under, despite winning the last election in 2004.

Now, say analysts, the Socialists’ more liberal appeal to young people, women, and immigrants – along with its contemporary style of campaigning – must be taken seriously by the conservative Popular Party (PP), which ran on an older message of Spanish traditionalism and antipathy toward the feisty Basque and Catalonia regions.

Do the cited paragraphs remind you of any other electorate?

The Fluid Religious Marketplace in the United States

The New York Times reports on a new poll released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which shows a relatively high level of fluidity in the religious identities of residents here in the United States. Analysts and scholars of the role of religion in public life have long understood the US exceptionalism with respect to the important role and place of religion in public life. This has occurred despite (although some would argue because of) the official church-state separation in US society. Most other states with developed economies are much more secular than is the United States, even though some of these states (such as Great Britain and Germany) do not have state/church separation.

The main take-home message of this new Pew Poll, I think, is the fluidity of religious identity here in the United States, where religion is more individualized and personalized and really becomes a type of individual identity. (Remember in Chapter 3 of O’Neil where we differentiated between individual and group identity and discussed whether religious identity could be both.) Conversely, in countries like France, Great Britain, Germany, etc., religion is much more a social–i.e., group–(rather than a religious) identity and is, therefore, much more immutable. Here is an excerpt from the article, with a graphic:

us_religious_makeup.jpgWASHINGTON — More than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion, according to a survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, titled “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” depicts a highly fluid and diverse national religious life. If shifts among Protestant denominations are included, then it appears that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations.

For at least a generation, scholars have noted that more Americans are moving among faiths, as denominational loyalty erodes. But the survey, based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 Americans, offers one of the clearest views yet of that trend, scholars said. The United States Census does not track religious affiliation.

It shows, for example, that every religion is losing and gaining members, but that the Roman Catholic Church “has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.” The survey also indicates that the group that had the greatest net gain was the unaffiliated. Sixteen percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth-largest “religious group.”

That 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliation is astounding. What are the implcations of this? I can think of two immediately…

You can find the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life here. Here is a link to a video interview with Pew Forum Director Luis Lugo who talks about the next step in data analysis. Lugo characterizes the United States as having a dynamic “religious marketplace.” Here is a link to an interview with Neela Bannerjee, the New York Times journalist, who wrote the article.

Kosovo’s bid for Independence

From the BBC, we learn that the Albanian majority in Serbia’s southern region of Kosovo is expected to vote for independence from Serbia within days. The province has been controlled by the international community since the end of the NATO-led war against Slobodan Milošević ‘s regime in 1999. In PLSC250 yesterday, we discussed the Kurdish campaign for self-determination and noted some of the arguments for and against. The most comepelling argument for secession/independence is a deontological argument based on the inherent right of groups to decide for themselves their system of government. The most obvious argument against is a utilitarian one, voiced here by Serbia’s Foreign Minister, Vuk Jeremić :

[Independence for Kosovo] would lead to an uncontrolled cascade of secession

Here’s more from the article:

kosovo.jpgSerbia’s foreign minister has urged the United Nations Security Council to oppose the province of Kosovo’s expected declaration of independence.

Vuk Jeremic said Serbia would not use force to stop the secession but warned that allowing it would give a green light to other separatist movements.

The ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo is expected to announce its breakaway from Serbia within days.

Russia has warned that recognition of Kosovo would be illegal and immoral.

Speaking after the closed session, Serbia’s foreign minister said that is was not too late for diplomats to prevent Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

Kenya, ethnic diversity, and fractionalization scores

Had you taken my Introduction to Comparative Politics class in the fall of 2007, you would have been faced with writing a paper in response to this:

There is much debate regarding the determinants of, and obstacles to, democratization. Are states that rely on natural resources for a large share of their GDP less likely to become and remain democratic? Does ethnic diversity present an obstacle to the democratization and democratic consolidation of a regime? Your term paper will answer one of these two questions either in the affirmative or the negative.

In addition to making the theoretical argument, students were asked to use Iraq and one other state to illustrate and support their argument(s). A few students chose to write on Kenya. I hope they go back and read their papers in light of the current situation in that multi-ethnic state.

Is Kenya ethnically diverse? How can we measure ethnic (or religious, or linguistic) diversity? There is a formula called the fractionalization index, which essentially gives us an idea of how diverse a state is. You can find a table–in Appendix A (which I have excerpted here) of over 100 states around the world with their corresponding fractionalization scores (in three categories), in this National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper by Alesina et al. here The higher the value the higher the level of diversity. Notice the relatively low diversity of states like Poland and Norway and the high amount of diversity of almost all African states. Which is the best way to measure “diversity”? Ethnically? Linguistically? By religion?

Date (Ethnicity Data)

Islam, Religious Attitudes, and Democracy

There is a lot of ink being spilled on the question of the compatibility of Islam with democracy. Here is a link to a paper by Mark Tessler, published in the journal, Comparative Politics, in 2002.

“Islam and Democracy in the Middle East: The Impact of Religious Orientations on Attitudes Toward Democracy in Four Arab Countries,” Comparative Politics, Vol. 34 (April 2002): 337-354.

If you are on campus, here is a direct link to a pdf version of the article.

From the Abstract:

Continue reading “Islam, Religious Attitudes, and Democracy”