Arab, Not Muslim, Exceptionalism
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Arab, Not Muslim, Exceptionalism
Abstract

The non-Arab Muslim world has exhibited a much higher degree of electoral competition than the Arab Muslim world, both over time and in the contemporary period. 396 million Muslims, about half of the world’s Muslim population who live in Non-Arab League Muslim majority states, live in states with competitive elections. By contrast, none of the 270 million Muslims in Arab League member states live under electorally competitive regimes. Arab League member states have increasingly become a distinctive political community within the Muslim world, while non-Arab Muslim majority states are a far more diverse group. As such they are more open to a range of political communities, and consequently to international election observers and other initiatives promoting democracy.

When the editors of this journal approached us about publishing a debate featuring responses to our July 2003 essay on observable differences in political performance across Arab-majority as opposed to non-Arab-majority Muslim societies, we were delighted. Our hope was that scholars with specialized knowledge regarding such countries would seize an opportunity to refine or even refute our findings. Were our findings to survive essentially intact, we hoped the exercise would clear the way for efforts to explain them. To date, however, these hopes remain unfulfilled. The two responses at hand either fail to address our findings or misrepresent them.

The central findings in our article concerned differences in electoral competitiveness that appear when one divides the world's 47 "Muslim-majority" countries (meaning those where the population is identified as at least 50.1 percent Muslim) into those which have Arab majorities and those which do not. The strong and surprising correlation we found is that the non-Arab Muslim world has for the last thirty years been much more electorally competitive than the Arab Muslim world.

What does Burhan Ghalioun say about these findings? He does not claim that any Arab country is electorally competitive (implicitly confirming the Arab part of our findings), and he is virtually silent about non-Arab Muslim-majority countries. Thus the opportunity for any comparative explanation is lost.

Ghalioun laments the absence of "alternation in power" in the Arab world, yet he never explicitly endorses free and fair elections as one step toward remedying this situation. He even asserts that "'quantitative [End Page 140] analyses' founded on hard-to-evaluate concepts such as 'competitive elections' do not seem pertinent." There are, of course, borderline cases with respect to contested elections, but if there are no elections at all, or single-candidate "plebiscites," or elections only for toothless legislative bodies, are these really so hard to evaluate? In fact, our analysis of current Arab incumbents was a qualitative, not a quantitative one.

Ghalioun invokes the "populist or nationalist regimes that inaugurated the postindependence era. Despite their authoritarian character," he argues, "these populist regimes achieved grand transformations upon the path of democratization and modernization." Some blows against foreign occupation, yes. Some modernization, yes. But these Arab one-party regimes often reversed earlier advances toward liberal political practices.1 Most pertinently, they never committed themselves to a necessary (though as all democrats know, not sufficient) condition for democracy—contested elections for the highest offices of state power.

Sanford Lakoff does address our argument, yet also misrepresents us in several matters and never confronts our central point. The first misrepresentation is Lakoff's mistaken conflation of "electoral competitiveness"—the actual subject of our analysis—with democracy as such. We explained that while "electoral competitiveness is always a necessary condition for democracy," it is "in and of itself . . . never equivalent to democracy." Such competitiveness is present if: 1) the government springs from reasonably fair elections; and 2) the elected government—and not some other power center—is able to fill the most important political offices.

Another misrepresentation of our argument involves Lakoff's conflation of historical and current data. We analyzed data relevant to electoral competitiveness that was both historical (1973-2002) and current (as of March 2003, when our essay was going to press). Our thirty-year assessment found that statistically, "A non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost twenty times more...