Why Islamic Nations Tend to Repel Democracy in Favour of Authoritarianism

Many in the West tend to criticize Islam as the major roadblock to the development of stable democracies in the Middle East and Central Asia. Though modern history may appear to confirm such criticisms, the prevalence of authoritarianism in the Muslim World is not a result of the democratic shortcomings of Islam. Surely the West is not solely to blame, but the West must take responsibility for the continuation of these regimes by allowing them to become rentier states.

Throughout history, many throughout Europe and North America have been quick to criticize Islam and her followers. Many scholars, however, have begun to suggest that the plight of Muslims in the Middle East stems from the inability of predominantly Islamic nations to produce enduring, healthy democracies. Even those established democracies in the Middle East, such as Egypt, are currently experiencing a slide towards a return to autocracy (“If any form of ‘freedom’ has been expanded in Egypt, meanwhile, it has been the freedom of the presidency from the informal constraints that earlier limited its authority”). Though it is clear that most Middle Eastern nations are authoritarian, it is important to note that Islam is not necessarily the root cause. In this paper I will argue that the overwhelming authoritarian presence in the Middle East stems from many factors, especially the influence of extremist Islam, the history of outside influence in the region, and the support many in the West give to autocrats in exchange for oil.

It is vital to the understanding of Middle Eastern authoritarianism to understand that Islam is not the barrier to democracy that many in the West give it credit for, but on the contrary, “God has left people to manage their own affairs so that they will choose a leader who will serve their interests,” as stated by the first of the rashidun Abu Bakr as-Siddiq. Many have even argued that Islam is even more open to the ideals of democracy than Christianity. Islam is no more prone to the establishment of autocracy than Christianity or most any other religion. The entire Western World was ruled by an authoritarian regime at one time or another, typically with the support of the Roman Catholic Church. For the most part, the entire continent of Europe was ruled by dictators or monarchs until the mid-20th century. For example, much of the world did not believe that Germany would ever be able to maintain a democracy following the two World Wars. Furthermore, it most be noted that Islam is not the sole determiner in the continuation of an authoritarian regime. Latin America, which is largely Catholic, is typically dominated by authoritarian or pseudo-authoritarian governments. Therefore it is necessary to view Islam as a possible factor, though it is vital to explore other possibilities before reaching such a conclusion.

Many in the West have merely been exposed to Islam through western media, which focuses on the extremists in the region. Though the typical Islam extremist represents only a miniscule minority, it is important to recognize their influence in the realm of Middle Eastern politics. The Islamic Extremist is able to justify his actions in several cherry-picked Koranic verses typically taken out of context. As extremists are more inclined towards violence than moderates or those who would demand democratic representation, authoritarianism has managed to gain powerful support. Therefore, the creation of a democracy would involve a certain degree of grassroots ideological change to effectively take hold. Many argue that the creation of a middle class through economic development would quell the weight held by extremists in the Middle East. This theory ignores the fact that “Islamists [succeed] in the elections within middle-class professional syndicates,” and that “the growth of strong middle classes in several Arab countries has not made regimes any more willing to devolve power democratically.” In fact, extremist groups often hold wide support throughout the common people. In Lebanon, for example, Hezbollah, which is recognized as a terrorist organization in the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and others, enjoys a great deal of support as a national defense and charity organization. Additionally, there is a growing trend in the Middle East to view the West as the enemy, in a sense. Benjamin R. Barber labels this struggle of us versus them a struggle between the “McWorld” and “Jihad.” The increasingly secular West is seen as an intruder in the Middle East, largely as a result of its modern history. This typically solidifies the West’s role as “the enemy” with Muslim extremists “protecting” the Muslim world.

A significant portion of the history of the Middle East has included a substantial degree of influence from European Powers. Though many nations have had significant sway, Great Britain, France, and Russia have played the most prominent roles in laying the groundwork for the modern Middle East. Following World War I and the ratification of the Sykes-Picot Agreement at Sanremo, Italy in 1920, the League of Nations created four mandates out of the former Ottoman Empire.: the French received the Mandates of Lebanon and Syria and the British received the Mandates of Mesopotamia and Palestine. The Europeans established puppet governments which were not well received by the general public. For instance, in 1951 the Iranians elected Mohammed Mossadegh, leader of the zealous National Front and later Prime Minister, who forced the British out of the country. Also in 1953 the Egyptian Monarchy was overthrown in a coup d’état, and in 1958 King Faisal II of Iraq and his entire family were slaughtered. The continued presence of Europeans, as well as such events as the creation of Israel in 1948 and the Suez Crisis in 1956 (in which Israel, France, and Great Britain attacked Egypt) furthered the cause of expelling the Europeans from the region. Typically, these overthrows were by equally authoritarian regimes, which were typically more popular at the time. “Many of the states of the Middle East gained their independence from colonial rule after World War II and quickly adopted a then-popular model for consolidating power – the one-party populist state…[providing] a means of controlling national wealth and channeling it toward the basic needs of the people.” The United States was not held with high regard amongst Muslims due to her support of the creation of the State of Israel. The United States had enjoyed a certain degree of credibility following the decision not to support the British and French during the Suez Crisis; however, her involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 created a feeling of hostility amongst Iranians. The U.S.’s role in globalization and continued support for Israel has established her place firmly in what has come to be known as the “McWorld.”

Since the discovery of oil in the Middle East, Westerners have been trying to gain as much control as possible. Even the United States, with vast oil fields throughout Texas, California, and Alaska, has had a crucial interest in Middle Eastern oil. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, made a deal with Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud in 1945 that they would have a stable source of oil, and in return the United States would sell technology and weapons for a certain assurance of political stability. It claim is often claimed that democracy and oil do not mix, despite the wealth that comes with the exportation of oil. Many of the nations involved in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Nations (OPEC) generate huge incomes, while maintaining a poverty-stricken populace. There are typically three effects presented as evidence of the failure of democracy in oil-exporting nations (not to mention several in Africa and South America). The “Rentier Effect” suggests that governments which obtain a majority of funds from exports are therefore not required to extract such funds from the population. Democracy typically results in the demand of the populace for better representation in the government, because without such opposition the taxes would not be used for their benefit. The “Repression Effect” suggests that much of the funds collected from exported resources go to the military to promote enforcement and prohibit opposition, as exemplified in Iran. The “Modernization Effect,” as a social rather than political effect, suggests that modernization is a vital catalyst in democratization and, because of the previously stated circumstances, it is unable to take place. These effects provide a detailed observation and explanation of the direct correlation between oil-exporting nations and their inability to produce stable democracies.

Islamic extremism has played a significant role in keeping the more moderate, democratically-inclined middle classes from demanding democratization. In addition, Westerners’ attempts at controlling the region, for whatever reasons (be they oil, humanitarian intervention, regime change, democratization, etc.) have greatly stalled the possibility of replacing an existing authoritarian regime with a stable democracy. Finally, the effects of the relationship between oil and international trade and politics have further hindered the creation of democracy.

Democracy would be welcomed in Islamic nations were it not for these constraints, as “there is nothing unique or intrinsic about Arab and Islamic culture that inhibits democratic governance.” Unfortunately many in the West focus on Islam’s prevalence in the Middle East and ignore their own negative effects forestalling any hope of democratization in the region, and until this mindset can be broken, the Middle East will be confined to its current state of economic dependence and authoritarian presence.


Brownlee, Jason. “The Decline of Pluralism in Mubarak’s Egypt.” Islam and Democracy in the Middle East. Edited: Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, Daniel Brumberg. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2003.

El-Fadl, Khaled Abou. Islam and the Challenge of Democracy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2004.

Langohr, Vickie. “An Exit from Arab Autocracy.” Islam and Democracy in the Middle East. Edited: Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, Daniel Brumberg. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2003.

Barber, Benjamin R. “Jihad v. McWorld.” The Atlantic Online. March 1992. www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/199203/barber

Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East: Third Edition. Westview Press, Boulder, 2004.

Quandt, William B. “Islam is not the Problem.” Islam and the Challenge of Democracy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2004.

I recently graduated from San Diego State University with a double major in Linguistics and Political Science and a minor in German. In Fall 2007 I will begin master's studies in International Relations at LSU. Other fields which I have studied include Creative Writing and Economics. Though school has not allowed me the time to do as much writing as I would have liked, I do find time to write short stories and poems. When I'm not eating, drinking, or hanging out with friends, I play the guitar, drums, and tin whistle, often to my chinchilla's chagrin.

Copyright © 2007 Garrett Heckman