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A Critique of Eric Chaney’s Paper: “Democratic Change in the Arab World, Past and Present”

April 2012




At the Spring 2012 Conference on the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA), Harvard University’s Eric Chaney’s paper concludes that the determinants of the Arab world’s “democratic deficit” in 2010 are to be found not in Islamic laws and culture, but rather in the type of governance institutions that were introduced and evolved by Arab generals and governors in the lands they conquered following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. Professor Chaney subscribes to the view that “control structures developed under Islamic empires in the pre-modern era” are behind the “legacy of weak civil societies”. Professor Chaney hypothesizes that the “democratic deficit” that exists today in exception-to-the-rule countries; like Azerbaijan, Chad, Iran (though Arab armies conquered Iran around 650), Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan is due to “control structures that developed following the Arab conquests”.


To put the relative population sizes of the different Islamic blocks in perspective, Arab Muslims represent 25% of world’s Muslims with 90% being Sunnis. The exception-to-the-rule countries represent 10% of world’s Muslims with two thirds being Shi’ites. Finally, the non-Arab Muslims with democratic structures represent two thirds of world’s Muslims with a Sunni majority.


While Professor Chaney’s observation is valid that Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims differ in their commitment to democratic principles and institutions and that “control structures” are to blame for Arab “democratic deficit” he does not elucidate why those “control structures” have evolved in Arab lands in the first place and why they continue to exist in the modern age.


I argue that at the core of Arabs’ “control structures” is Sunni law and culture. Likewise, at the core of “control structures” in the exception-to-the-rule countries is Shi’ite Islam. On the other hand, in non-Arab-conquered Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey free democratic elections, let alone women presidents and prime ministers are products of grafting Islam on existing cultures, customs, and habits, which has had the effect of diluting the way of life and values of the desert peoples. The cultural traits in humid, rainy, and green environs differ from those in arid and desert lands.


In the harsh environment of the Arabian Desert, disobedience and strife wastes scarce water and meagre staples. The Prophet, a product of desert living, enshrined obedience to authority into the Islamic Creed. In 4:59, the Quran orders: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” Similar wording occurs twenty times in the Quran. The effect of 4:59 transcends all layers of hierarchical authority—the male over the female, the father over the children and wife (or wives), the teacher over the student, the employer over the employee, the ruler over the ruled, and so forth.
Traditions attributed to the Prophet amplify 4:59. Answering how a Muslim should react to a ruler who does not follow the true guidance, the Prophet is reported to have said, according to Sahih Muslim: “He who obeys me obeys God; he who disobeys me, disobeys God. He who obeys the ruler, obeys me; he who disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.” Such wording or its equivalent occurs two dozen times in Sahih Muslim. As to emphasize the point, Abi Dawood and Ibn Maja quoted in their Sunni canonical Hadith collections the Prophet as imploring Muslims to hear and obey their ruler, even if he were an Ethiopian slave. Sahih Al-Bukhari quotes similar sayings. 


Arabs’ embrace of Islam is tight. Islam is an Arabic religion and Arabs are the guardians of Islam’s purity. The Quran describes the Arab peoples as the “best nation evolved to mankind” (3:110). The Prophet Muhammad along with his companions were Arab, the language of the Quran is Arabic, and Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are in Arab lands. Orthodox Arabs consider the Islam of non-Arab Muslims as impure.


In the hands of Arab rulers and the palace ulama (Muslim clerics), blind obedience to authority has become the hallmark of Islam’s political theory. In mosques, religion textbooks, and government-controlled mass media blind obedience to king or president (wali al-amr) is transformed into a form of piety. In the authoritarian Arab police state, 4:59 has become a psychological weapon against dissent. Whether in al-Saud's Wahhabi kingdom or in Asad's so-called "secular" republic the palace ulama invoke the same Quranic verses and Hadith injunctions to perform the same function; namely, prolong the dictatorships of their benefactors.


Behind Arab autocratic kingdoms and republics lurks religious dogma. Autocracy is the antithesis of plurality, democratic law making, respect of the rule of law, human rights, and competitive creative economies.


The Arab Spring

How likely is it that the Arab Spring might usher democratic rule to Arab countries? Professor Chaney notes that "the numerous structural changes over the past 50 years may have helped to lessen the weight of history, rendering many Arab states fertile ground for sustained democratic change today."


My own answer, however, draws again on the influence of Islam on the Arab way of life. Aside from minor reforms, the short answer to the question is unlikely. To rise against poverty, corruption, and injustice is one thing; to democratize is a different matter. Democracy is equality for all citizens—equality of women with Muslim men and equality of Christian citizens and other minorities with Muslims. The Islamic Shari’a discriminates against women and non-Muslims. Shari'a law is the source, or a main source of legislation, in all Arab countries. Also, it is the personal status law in all Arab countries, except Tunisia. Democracy and discrimination are contradiction in terms.

Although the influence of verse 4:59 on the majority of the masses is strong, injustice, poverty, and corruption cannot be tolerated forever. There comes a breaking point that makes calls for rebellion against tyranny and the promise of justice and prosperity alluring. This breaking point was reached on December 17, 2010 when a 26-year-old vegetable street vendor, Muhammad Bouazizi, ignited the Tunisian uprising that removed the Tunisian president from power and inspired similar uprisings that have removed from office the rulers of Egypt and Libya and Yemen and engulfed the despot of Syria in a bloody confrontation with his people for the past 13 months.


There is a religious basis to rebel against tyranny. Charismatic political leaders interpret Sunna traditions as to sanction rebellion against an Islamic ruler if he becomes impious or unjust. The canonical Hadith collections of Abi Dawood, Muslim, and al-Nasai attribute to the Prophet the saying: “Whoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart”.

To create a vibrant civil society in the Arab world, Islam should be separated from the Arab state. Unless the historicity of the Quran and the Hadith are allowed to be examined, freely, rationally, and philosophically and without the fear of persecution under blasphemy laws and ulama intimidation, genuine Arab religious and democratic reforms will simply remain a mirage.

Nonetheless, there is a glimpse of hope in the Arab Spring. Now that the dictators are gone from a few Arab capitals and leaders of moderate Islamic political parties took over city hall the next confrontation is expected to be between the new religiously moderate rulers and the Islamist salafis. The Islamist salafis will attack the policies and laws of the new rulers as insufficiently Islamic, even heretical (kuffar) deserving death. The new rulers will defend their policies and laws as perfectly Islamic, supported by legitimating reasoning drawn from the Quran and the Sunna. Moderates and the Islamists will confront each other over the soul of Islam—over whether Islam is going to be the intolerant violent religion of the Bin Laden Wahhabi type; or, the enlightened moderate and modern Islam of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkish type.