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Why have many Muslim states struggled to achieve democracy?

Question submitted by Farah, from University of Karachi, May 23, 2013

Answered by: Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies


If "democracy" is achieved when governments rule by consent through free and fair elections, then some of the world's largest Muslim nations are democratic: Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Turkey. In the Arab world, experiments to achieve democratic governance are underway in Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia, and are beginning in earnest in Egypt. Arguably, Pakistan has just witnessed its first democratic transition of power.

If these nations have struggled to achieve democracy, and others continue to do so, it is not because they are "Muslim states"—this assumes that Islam is the problem. Turkey and the countries listed above defy that flawed assumption. The struggle for democracy in Arab and African Muslim countries is better explained by highlighting the same challenges that besiege other (non-Muslim) countries in the "Global South"—economic mismanagement, bloated public sectors, poor infrastructures, educational underachievement, a lack of civil society dynamism, nepotism, tribalism, and sectarianism.

That said, even in Muslim-majority countries that embrace consensual government there are not the same freedoms of the press, speech, and ethnic and sexual minority rights as seen in the West. If the barometer for democracy is France or Britain, then Muslim countries are not on that trajectory. Why should they be? Theirs is a different culture rooted in scripture, unlike that of secular Europe. The freedom to blaspheme or "insult the prophets and God" is not acceptable to most Muslims or even Christians living in Palestine, Pakistan, Egypt, or Lebanon. This tension between Western and other approaches to democracy will remain a cause for ongoing struggle.