Is there a link between Islam and Authoritarianism?

Raza Habib Raja

Why there is apparently a link between Islam and authoritarianism? A substantial amount of literature has tried to study the empirical relationship which apparently exists between Islam and authoritarianism. In fact predominance of authoritarian regimes in Middle East and North African (MENA) countries was attributed directly to Islam by some scholars. Kramer (1996) in his famous essay “Islam vs Democracy” remarked, “ In an era of democratization, these lands of Islam remain an anomaly — a zone of resistance to the ideals that have toppled authoritarian regimes of the Left and the Right”. Kramer was of the opinion that Islam is fundamentally contradictory to democratic values and although some of the “reformist” scholars have been trying to find evidence that within Islam there is a room to encompass modern day democratic ideals, but this is basically an exercise in futility.
With respect to popular sovereignty, he remarked,

“The shari’a, as a perfect law, cannot be abrogated or altered, and certainly not by the shifting moods of an electorate. Accordingly, every major fundamentalist thinker had repudiated popular sovereignty as rebellion against God, the sole legislator. In the changed circumstances of the 1990s, some activists do allow that an election can serve a useful one-time purpose, as a collective referendum of allegiance to Islam, and as an act of submission to a regime of divine justice. But once such a regime gains power, its true measure is not how effectively it implements the will of the people but how efficiently it applies Islamic law”.

Kramer also made an interesting assertion that free plebiscite is something which the fundamentalists would opt but only for one time use. In his opinion, elections were just a means to gain power and once in power the Islamists would do away with elections.

His opinion was largely shared by Elie Kedourie (1994) who thought that Arabs, and Muslims more generally, have nothing in their own political traditions that is compatible with Western notions of democracy or, more accurately, constitutional representative government . He was of the opinion that West could not hope to see emergence of democracy in the Arab world and the only thing which the Arabs had actually borrowed from the West was administrative centralization which actually made these autocratic regimes even more repressive.

However, the Arab Spring has resulted in a push for democracy at least in some countries. So what does this actually show with respect to so called linkage between Islam and authoritarianism?
Most of these regimes, though apparently similar, in terms of semblance of authority, were actually also diverse in terms of the actual form of the “model” they adopted. For example, Egypt was an autocratic regime with a civilian autocrat (though with very close links to armed forces) at the helm whereas Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are monarchies. Libya was a strange tribal cum military model. Yes, all of these regimes had invested a lot in coercive apparatus and were apparently heavily reliant on military for their survival.

However, we cannot simply claim that these regimes were actually an outcome of predominance of Islam. In fact none of the toppled regimes were theocratic. Libya and Egypt, the two major countries which have seen regime change, were actually quasi secular states. These regimes were outcomes of the events which had engulfed the region in 1950s and 1960s. These utilized Islamic identity as a rallying point but did not try to adopt conservative Islam as state ideology at least in the same vein a theocratic state would have. More than Islam, these tried to whip up Arab nationalism. In Egypt’s case, in fact the political opposition consisted of conservative Islamic parties like Muslim Brotherhood.

Even Tunisia from where the protests initiated had remained largely secular during Ben Ali’s rule. In fact it was considered one of the favorite tourist’s destinations also. Here also the opposition consisted of Islamist parties.

Syria once again can be called a secular state which for the past five decades has been ruled by secular Ba’ath party. In Syria’s case also, the opposition in the past has largely been Islamist which was ruthlessly curbed during several crackdowns including Hama massacre in which around 10,000 people were killed.

At least in these countries, ironically the authoritarian regimes were quasi secular whereas the opposition pushing for democracy ( or at least for free and fair elections) consisted of Islamists. This fact alone does put a question mark over this assertion that authoritarianism in this region was a direct consequence of predominance of Islam.

Logically speaking if Islam is indeed a causal factor underpinning authoritarianism then regimes should have been theocratic and opposition liberal/secularist. In fact in the case of the above three countries the push for democracy was often conducted by political outfits (often banned) which were Islamist in nature.

In my opinion, whether Islam can be used by the autocrat as a means to sustain authority will depend a lot on the sectarian composition of his ruling clique versus the sectarian composition of majority of population. This is often an overlooked point. In countries like Syria, the dominant majority is Sunni whereas Asad’s ruling clique chiefly composed of Alawite tribe is Shiite. This dichotomy between sects of the ruling junta and the majority population does curtail the ability of the ruler to use Islam as an explicit basis of his authority.

Islam after all is not a monolithic faith and sectarian divide runs deep. If the ruling junta belongs to a minority sect then perhaps adopting a secular mode of governance is a more pragmatic option. Whipping up religion may actually accentuate the sectarian divide and also undermine the stability of the regime. In Iraq (though unaffected by Arab spring), the earlier Saddam regime had consisted of Sunnis whereas the majority of the population was Shiites. Saddam also did not use Islam as the major instrument to sustain his rule though he did try to whip up the common anti-Israel sentiments.

This at least casts doubt that democracy does not have any appeal for Muslims. Eventually democracy’s appeal is less to with religion but more to do with desire for inclusiveness by the excluded majority. If majority is hardline Muslim and the regime is secular autocracy, then the former will push for the democracy. If the excluded majority is composed of one sect then it will push for democracy. As put eloquently by Acemoglu and Robinson in their book “Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy” :

“We argue that democracy, which is generally a situation of political equality, looks after the interests of the majority more than non-democracy, which is generally dominated by elite and is more likely to look after its interests. Stated simply and extremely, non-democracy is generally a regime for the elite and the privileged; comparatively, democracy is a regime more beneficial to the majority of the populace, resulting in policies relatively more favorable to the majority”.

Yes, instead of democracy, a better claim (though that too could be debatable) can be made of Islam’s (or more appropriately Islamists) incompatibility with what could be loosely termed as “liberal democracy” which is underpinned by rights for minorities, women and other civil liberties. It has been feared that the Islamist surge, particularly since it comes on the heels of electoral victories, would lead to illiberal and religiously conservative practices.

Most Islamists would rather prefer a majoritarian rule based democracy ( where they have that kind of majority) rather than liberal democracy where simple majority is counterchecked by some sort of constitutional provisions protecting individual against majority or would even prefer to use the election as one time exercise to impose Sharia (Kramer 1996).

However, it remains to be seen as to what will exactly happen in the medium to long run. To a large extent what is happening right now was “feared” for a long time and there were predictions that if these regimes would fall the Islamists would be clear beneficiaries. In fact, the world had a glimpse of that in 1992 when Algeria’s military-backed government canceled elections in 1992 to prevent an Islamist victory. Fareed Zakria, in his famous book “Future of Freedom” had exactly predicted the same thing that the fall of autocratic regimes, the Islamists would gain.

While the events of Arab spring have cast a doubt over the linkage of authoritarianism and Islam, these have nevertheless reiterated the enormous importance of Political Islam particularly in countries which have witnessed a change of regimes. Islam is on the surge as both in Tunisia and Egypt Islamic parties have won the elections. Some of the commentators have already started to use the term “ Arab or Islamist winter” to describe what is happening.

In Egypt, after taking hold of power, the Muslim Brotherhood President, Morsi has quickly consolidated his position using Islam as the main justification. He has held a vote on a new constitution which is in essence based on Sharia and has called for a referendum in order to give it legitimacy. His most controversial step has been the decree which he issued absolving himself of any judicial oversight. Although the controversial order was later rescinded but the referendum went ahead ratifying the constitution and aggravating fears that Egypt is on its way towards a religious theocratic state though with outward democratic semblance.

In the rest of the affected countries, such as Syria which right now is engulfed in civil war, once again the fear is that with the advent of democracy (in case rebels overthrow the regime and elections are held) the future will be dominated by Islam.

As already mentioned that role of Islam is further compounded by sectarian divide between Shiites and Sunnis in countries like Bahrain and to some extent even Syria. Here religion becomes important in a different way as sectarian cleavages based on religion become the rallying point. Thus the Shiite majority rebelled against the Sunni minority monarchy of Bahrain as the former was the excluded group. Islam’s role becomes important but assumes a kind of ethnic identity as one variant is pitted against other.

Thus we can see that Arab spring has put the theory about relationship of autocratic like authoritarianism with Islam in doubt as the opposition has come from Islamists. However at the same time, fresh questions have arisen whether the victory of Islamists through ballot box in countries like Egypt and Tunisia will actually bode well for development of what can be termed as liberal democracy.
It has nevertheless been confirmed that Islam is a potent political motivator and under certain conditions can be successfully used to achieve political objectives.


Kramer, Martin “Islam vs. Democracy” 1995
Elie Kedourie, Democracy And Arab Political Culture, 1994
Zakira, Fareed, “Future of Freedom”, 2005
Robinson, James A.; Daron Acemoglu (2005). Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

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