restricted access The Reality of Muslim Exceptionalism
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The Reality of Muslim Exceptionalism

Alfred Stepan’s contention that the “democracy gap” in the Arab world is due not to religion but to other influences is provocative but not persuasive. Almost all Muslim-majority states score low on surveys of freedom. Several of the more populous states listed as Muslim-majority states of a democratic tendency are dubious candidates for that rubric. Both mainstream and radical Islamic clerics contend that the faith is incompatible with democracy. Various pressures may lead to change, as happened in Christian Europe, but one way or another Islamic beliefs will need to be reconciled with democracy, in Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries.

Alfred Stepan (with Graeme B. Robertson) poses a provocative thesis in arguing that the "democracy gap" in the Arab world results from conditions peculiar to Arab countries rather than from the influence of Islamic religious beliefs.1 Unfortunately, the evidence that he offers is too weak to support this thesis, and the conclusions that he draws rest on assumptions open to serious criticism.

In the first place, the suggestion that the Arab states form a subset of majority-Muslim societies that politically, and not only culturally, can readily be distinguished from a non-Arab subset is questionable. Relying on the Freedom House and Polity IV surveys, Stepan cites (in Table 1 of his July 2003 essay) eight to eleven non-Arab Muslim-majority countries that have exhibited at least three consecutive years of moderately high political rights since 1972. If allowing "moderately high political rights" over short periods is the qualifying condition, then Arab-majority states such as Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and Yemen have about as good a claim to be included. Before a "reverse wave" set in, a number of Arab-majority countries experienced a degree of liberalization and some competitive elections, as Stepan acknowledges. Indeed, "across the Arab world" during the 1980s and early 1990s, "limited experiments in top-down political liberalization proliferated."2 Yet by the criteria that Stepan applies—namely, Robert A. Dahl's seven "institutional guarantees" ensuring political rights—almost all Muslim-majority countries, whether predominantly Arab or not, have comparably low overall Freedom House scores. In reviewing these scores recently, Freedom House president Adrian Karatnycky remarked that, among these states, only Mali and Senegal are in the Free category and that over the past thirty years, when there was an overall growth in the [End Page 133] number of countries ranked as Free, the predominantly Muslim states showed a "diametrically opposite trend."3 As Bernard Lewis has lately observed, although many Muslim countries have experimented with democratic institutions, "the record, with the exception of Turkey, is one of almost unrelieved failure."4

Karatnycky has noted that "all Islamic-majority electoral democracies are found on the geographic and cultural edges of the Islamic world."5 Until the breakup of Yugoslavia, Muslims in the Balkans enjoyed a "truly ancient tradition of interfaith coexistence and inter-religious pluralism" with their Christian and Jewish neighbors.6 This is quite different from the intolerant triumphalism rampant in the Islamic heartland where, as in Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims are not allowed to practice their faiths, and, in many Muslim-dominated countries and provinces, the shari'a (Islamic legal code) has been made the basis of civil law binding upon Muslims and non-Muslims alike. More recently, an extremist, politicized version of Islam emanating from India and Pakistan (and with funding from Wahabi-dominated Saudi Arabia) has begun spreading fundamentalism among Asian Muslims.

Four of the more populous "Muslim-majority" countries listed by Stepan (in Table 1)—Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, and Turkey—are especially doubtful candidates for designation as "Muslim-majority states" of a democratic tendency. Nigeria, as Stepan admits, is at best a borderline Muslim-majority state, since its population is split about equally between Muslims and non-Muslims. Observers, moreover, divide over the question of whether Nigerian elections are truly competitive.7 The northern Nigerian states in which Muslims predominate are anything but bastions of political and civil liberty. Stepan lists Sudan as "non-Arab Muslim," yet 39 percent of its population is Arab, and this population, allied to other northern Muslims, has supported a...