The Arab world’s so-called “democracy deficit” is not tied to the Islamic religion but rather to the Arab world’s history and the institutions introduced following conquest by Arab armies over 1000 years ago, according to a new paper presented today at the Spring 2012 Conference on the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity BPEA.
In “Democratic Change in the Arab World, Past and Present,” Harvard Assistant Professor Eric Chaney, who is an economist, examines the “cultural hypothesis” – that the Muslim religion is the source of the autocracy — by testing how religious Islamic countries are. In addition to polling data, he uses alcohol consumption as a proxy for piety given that Islam prohibits it, and suggests that people in Muslim countries are not abnormally more religious on average than those in other areas of the world or those of different faiths. He also reviews the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a reason for anti-democratic governments in the Arab world, finding that it is not “a systemic obstacle to democratic change across the region.”
The author also looks at the balance of political power versus civil society institutions by comparing government share of GDP, facilitation of access to credit, and the number of trade unions. He shows that countries conquered by Arab armies have government GDP shares that are 7 percentage points higher than in areas that were not conquered by Arab armies; that legal systems in countries that were conquered by Arab armies are less hospitable to the expansion of credit than legal systems in other regions; and that areas conquered by Arab armies have fewer trade unions. “These results do not seem to be driven either by the region’s democratic deficit or by membership in the Arab League. They are, however, consistent with the prediction that civil societies are abnormally weak in Arab-conquest areas,” he writes.”The Arab League’s democratic deficit on the eve of the Arab Spring has deep historical roots,” Chaney writes. “These results cast doubt on claims that Muslim theology, Arab culture, the Arab-Israeli conflict or oil wealth are systematic obstacles to democratic change. Instead, the available evidence suggests that the region’s democratic deficit is a product of the long-run influence of control structures developed under Islamic empires in the pre-modern era.”
Chaney then turns to the Arab Spring and whether it will lead to sustained democratic change. He 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.” Given the large increases in education in the Arab world over the past 60 years, “the prospects for democracy in the region are brighter today than at any time in its history,” he writes, but warns that overwhelming popular support for Islamists may undermine democratic efforts by concentrating political power in the hands of these groups, as has happened before.
“Indeed, the recent past shows that Islamists are just as likely to establish autocratic rule as other groups in the absence of checks on their power. Thus, unless other interest groups – such as labor unions or commercial interests – check their power, Islamists may replace secular rulers and usher in a new wave of autocracy in some Arab countries,” he concludes.